Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:22-23
As we are about to come to the conclusion of our unit on our participation in the life of the church, we have been discussing the word “intimacy”. We’ve talked about how intimacy with God is only possible when we are willing to be vulnerable. And we’ve talked about looking for transformation and thus finding intimacy with God. Today we are going to discuss another subject that relates to intimacy, which is repentance and confession.
When I was a child, I never remember hearing about confession in Sunday school. The first mention of confession was when we were at summer camp and I was probably about 11 or 12. We were told we had to go confess our sins to the priest and I remember we all were asking other people to hold our money because we thought God would punish us for the money in our pockets. Though I have no memory of what I said to the priest or what he may have said to me, years later, I am actually great friends with this priest, Fr. Demetri Kangelaris, who serves the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Winston-Salem, NC.
After that experience at camp, I never remember hearing about confession again, until I was 19 years old and in a bad spot in my life. Father James Adams (of blessed memory) was my priest and he heard my first confession as an adult. And that conversation was one of the most memorable conversations of my life. I remember he gave me a book to read, and told me to “stop being a victim and start being a survivor.”
It would be a few years before I would go to confession again. I started going to confession twice a year when I was at Holy Cross Seminary. I was originally “assigned” a spiritual father to whom to confess. But I didn’t really click with that person, so I went out and found someone that I felt I related to well, Fr. Chris Foustoukos. Father Chris did a great job in guiding me through the Seminary and in my first two years of ministry. He wrote the “Symartyria” that is required for ordination, the letter written by a spiritual father regarding the appropriateness of a candidate for ordination.
When I moved to the South in 2000, I couldn’t see Fr. Chris as readily as before. He gave me his blessing to seek out a new spiritual father. And in 2002, I found the priest that currently serves that role, Fr. Aris Metrakos, who has served that role now for me for nearly two decades. I remember the first time I went to confession to him. It was at summer camp in 2002. I hadn’t been to confession in two years. I felt like I needed to get some stuff off of my soul. It was late at night. All the priests at summer camp had been listening to confessions well after midnight. We were all exhausted. I was feeling torn. I was inspired that I had heard confessions from dozens of young people, had placed my Epitrahelion (stole) over their heads and offered the prayer of absolution. I felt a need to go to confession and wanted the prayer of absolution read over me. I felt sad at the prospect of going home from camp without having had this done.
I asked Fr. Aris if he would hear my confession. He offered to do it the next morning, as it was very late. We had the Divine Liturgy the next morning, and I was going to be the celebrant. I insisted we do it that night, before I “lost my nerve.” By now it was nearly 2:00 a.m. and Father was so gracious to walk back down to the chapel and to hear my confession. It was an “intimate” moment between me and God and between me and my now Spiritual Father, who has also become a dear friend. I can’t describe for you how I felt when we were done and he placed his Epitrahelion over my head and prayed the prayer of absolution. Tears ran down my face as I was overcome with emotion, both from my own failings and God’s mercies on them. When Father was done praying, I stayed on my knees for a long time, as I was continuing to cry. When I finally got up and looked around, I couldn’t see Fr. Aris. Eventually I saw him sitting back in a dark corner of the chapel praying. When I went to get his blessing, he told me that since I had spent an hour confessing my sins to him, he was going to pray for me for an hour. As I walked back to my cabin, I looked up at the stars in heaven and I said to God, “I don’t want to die any time soon, but I am going to die soon, please take me now, as I feel closer to You than I have ever felt.” When I went to the Divine Liturgy only a few hours later, I felt a joy and a worthiness that I don’t usually feel, as I usually feel a tinge of guilt. That is what this sacrament does for people. It makes the feel whole again. It makes them feel joy again. It makes them feel “worthy” (we are never truly worthy) to come to the Divine Liturgy and to partake of the Eucharist.
Indeed the senses of authenticity, honesty, vulnerability and intimacy are magnified in the sacrament of confession. But then again, joy and peace are magnified as well. Going to confession is one of the most intimate things a person can do from a spiritual sense. What can be more intimate than laying down all of your sins and failings at the feet of God and in the presence of one if His priests? What can be more intimate, other than receiving Holy Communion, than kneeling down and having the grace of the Holy Spirit wash over you, cleansing you of your sins? I wasn’t a firm believer of this in my childhood because we didn’t know and we weren’t taught. I have become a firm believer that confession needs to be on the menu for every Orthodox Christian, at least once a year. At least once a year we need to enter this vulnerable and intimate space with God.
Of course, it is not just the confession of sins that makes this sacrament so special. It is coming to God in true repentance. It is telling the Lord that we are going to do better, that we are going to try harder. It is trusting our spiritual walk to a priest and asking hi for help in growing towards Christ. And it is receiving from the Lord, through the hand of the priest, absolution, or a total wiping out of our sins, so that our souls are as pure as they were the day we were baptized. Our life in the church needs to include worship, stewardship, intimacy and also confession. Imagine how strong the community would be if everyone knew that everyone else was going to confession. This would not only create widespread spiritual intimacy with God and with the parish priest, it would create spiritual intimacy among the people, if all are sharing in the vulnerability of going.
Confession provides us a safe space to talk about shortcomings. It is safe to admit them to God and to open us to God and ask Him for help and healing. Sadly, there are many people in our world who don’t have safe spaces in which to take struggles and talk about them. Confession is a safe space to bring your struggles and work on repentance.
As for what the priest thinks of those who go to confession, those who show vulnerability in sharing their shortcomings, speaking for myself, I think more, not less, of those who come. In fact, the people with whom I share this intimate space become some of my closest friends. They are spiritual children. And I love them the way a father loves his children.
(You can go to confession to any Orthodox priest who has been made a confessor by His bishop. You can also go to any bishop. The ideal is to go to the same person your whole life. However, in an age where people move a lot, it might not be possible to have the same Spiritual Father for your whole life. You don’t necessarily have to go to your parish priest for confession, though I recommend you try him at least once.)
O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy anger, nor chasten me in Thy wrath! For Thy arrows have sunk into me, and Thy hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. Lord, all my longing is known to Thee, my sighing is not hidden form Thee. My heart throbs, my strength fails me; and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off. Those who seek my life lay their snares, those who seek my heart speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all the day long. But I am like a deaf man, I do not hear, like a dumb man who does not open his mouth. Yea, I am like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are not rebukes. But for Thee, O Lord, do I wait; it is Thou, O Lord my God, who wilt answer. For I pray “Only let them not rejoice over me who boast against me when my foot slips!” For I am ready to fall and my pain is ever with me. I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin. Those who are my foes without cause are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. Those who render me evil for good are my adversaries because I follow after good. Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation! Psalm 38
Being vulnerable and intimate with God in the sacrament of confession will lead you to a greater sense of oneness with God and an amazing joy when you receive His grace during the Prayer of Absolution. If you haven’t gone for confession in a while, consider making an appointment today!
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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