Tuesday 4 July 2017

Guidance for Confession

From Hieroschemamonk Ambrose's Book,"On the Grace-filled Activity of the Prayer of Jesus"

With God's help, I came to Kiev. My first and most important desire was to prepare, confess and commune of the Holy Mysteries of Christ in that grace-filled place, and so I settled as near as possible to the God-pleasers [i.e. the saints whose sacred relics repose in the Caves Monastery - transl.], the better to be able to go to God's house. A good, elderly Cossack took me into his hut, and as he lived alone, it was peaceful and quiet for me there. Throughout the week during which I was preparing for confession, I often thought how best to confess. I began to remember things from my youth and to examine all my sins in detail, so as not to forget anything. I started to write everything that I remembered down even the most trifling things, and I wrote out a huge list.

I heard that seven versts [a verst is about two-thirds of a mile - ed.] from Kiev in the Kitaev Hermitage there was a spiritual father who lived an ascetic life and was very wise and prudent. Whoever visited him for his soul's profit, came away with a feeling of tenderness, restored by his spiritual instruction, and with a feeling of lightness in his heart. This delighted me and without delay I went to see him. Having asked his advice and talked with him, I gave him my list to look through. When he had read it, he told me:

"You, beloved friend, have written down much that is useless. Now, listen: 1) you must not say in confession those sins which you have formerly confessed and which have been absolved and which you have not repeated, for to do otherwise would be to be untrusting of the efficacy of the mystery of confession; 2) you must not mention other people who were involved in the circumstances of your sins, but must only judge yourself; 3) the Holy Fathers forbid us to tell our sins in every detail, but to identify them in general terms, lest by our particular fastidiousness we cause a temptation for ourselves and for the spiritual father; 4) you came to repent, but haven't repented of that which you did not think to repent of, that is how coldly and carelessly you are offering your repentance; 5) you have catalogued all the slight things, but have lost sight of the most important thing, you have not revealed the most grievous sins; you have not even recognized them or written down that you do not love God, that you hate your neighbour; that you do not believe the word of God and that you are overflowing with pride and self-esteem. In these four sins there is mixed all the abyss of evil and all our spiritual depravity. They are the main roots, from which spring all branches of our falls into sin."

Hearing this, I was amazed, and I began to speak: "Be merciful, venerable father, but how can I not love God, our Creator and Protector? How not believe in the word of God itself? - in it everything is true and holy. And I wish well to each of my neighbours; yes, and why would I hate them? In no way can I be proud; except for my innumerable sins, I have nothing at all to boast of. And in my state of poverty and illness, in what way can I enjoy sensual pleasures and lasciviousness? Of course, if I had been educated and rich, then without a doubt, I would have been guilty of the things you have said."

The elder replied: "It is a pity, beloved, that you have understood so little of what I have explained to you. So as to make you understand more quickly, I will give you the crib-sheet that I always use myself when I confess. Read it through and you will see clearly all that I have just told you, set out precisely." The spiritual father handed me his list, and I began to read it.


Having attentively turned my gaze upon myself, and observing my inner disposition, I am convinced by the experience that I do not love God, that I have no love for my neighbour, that I do not believe anything religious and that I am full of pride and sensual love. I have actually found all this in myself through this detailed examination of my feelings and actions, thus:

1) I do not love God.

For if I loved God, then I would unceasingly think about Him with heartfelt satisfaction; every thought of God would then bring me a delightful sweetness. On the contrary, I much more often and much more readily entertain worldly thoughts, and reflections on God seem to me heavy and dry. If I loved God, then conversation with Him in prayer would nourish me; it would delight me and draw me to uninterrupted communion with Him; but, on the contrary, not only am I not delighted by prayer, but even when occupied by it I feel it to be a labour, I have to fight against reluctance, I become enfeebled by laziness, and am always ready to turn my attention to something else of little importance, just so that I can shorten my prayers or even give them up.

When I am engaged in empty occupations time flies by for me unnoticed; but when occupying myself with God, when placing myself in His presence, every hour seems to me like a whole year. But if someone loves another, then he thinks of him throughout the whole day, he represents him to himself, he is concerned about him, and in whatever he may be occupied the beloved friend does not leave his thoughts; but for the course of a whole day, I hardly set aside even one hour, that I might immerse myself deeply in thoughts of God and that might ignite the love of Him within me, but the twenty-three hours I readily offer as a willing sacrifice to the idols which are my passions.

When conversing about worldly, vain things, and about subjects which are demeaning for the soul, I am full of spirits and I feel satisfaction, but when conversation turns to the things of God I dry up, becoming bored and indolent. If, moreover, I am involuntarily drawn into a conversation with others about sacred things, I try to turn the conversation quickly to something which will flatter my passions. I am insatiably curious about the news, about events in the world, about political developments; I greedily feed my obsession for knowing about the worldly sciences and about the arts, and that for acquisitions, but the study of God's Law [catechism], of the knowledge of God, and of religion, make no impression upon me at all; it does not feed my soul, and I study it not as the only indispensable study for the Christian but as a side-issue and accessory subject, to which I have to apply myself if perhaps I have some spare time or am at leisure.

To put it succinctly, if love for God is manifest in the fulfilment of His commandments - and the Lord Jesus Christ says, "If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments," - and I not only do not keep them but even do not try much to do so, then according to the plain truth itself it follows that I do not love God. Saint Basil the Great confirms this, saying: :"If anyone does not keep His commandments, it is proof that he does not love God and His Christ"

2) I do not love my neighbour.

Because I not only do not lay down my soul (as the Gospel says) for the good of my neighbour, but I do not even sacrifice my honour, my benefit or my peace for the good of my neighbour. If I loved him, according to the Evangelical precept, as myself, them his misfortune would affect me as well, and his good fortune would bring me delight. But, on the contrary, I listen with great curiosity to unhappy news about my neighbour, and I am not distressed by it, but I remain indifferent to it, or, what is even more criminal, I find a certain satisfaction in this. And I do not cover the evil actions of my brother in love, but I noise them abroad, adding judgment thereto. His good standing, honour and happiness do not delight me, as should be the case, and what is even worse, they do not evoke in me a feeling of joy, but they very subtly arouse in me as kind of envy or of disdain.

3) I do not believe in anything religious.

Neither immortality, nor the Gospel. If I were firmly convinced and undoubtingly believed that beyond the grave there was life eternal with requital for deeds committed on earth, then I would reflect on this constantly; the very thought of immortality would horrify me and I would spend my life like a traveller preparing to return to his homeland. On the contrary, I do not even think about eternity, and I consider the end of this present life as but the limit of my existence. The secret thought nestles in me: who knows what will be after death?

If I say that I believe in immortality, then I say this only according to the intellect, but my heart is a long way from being firmly convinced of this, as my deeds make manifest and as does my continual concern for the good arrangement of the things of this perceptible life. If the Holy Gospel, being the word of God, were received in faith by my heart, I would be continually studying it, I would learn it, I would be satisfied by it and I would look upon it with the deepest reverence. Wisdom, goodness and love, which are hidden therein, would lead me to delight; I would be sustained by instruction in God's Law day and night, I would be nourished thereby, as it were by daily bread, and I would be heartfeltly drawn to fulfil its precepts. Nothing earthly would be strong enough to draw me away from it. But, on the contrary, when occasionally I read or hear the word of God, whether it be of necessity or through a desire to learn, even then I do not pay it the greatest attention, I feel dryness, inattentiveness and, as if it were just routine reading, I leave it without any particular benefit, and I readily rush on to turn to reading worldly things in which I find more satisfaction, and more new subjects to engross me.

4) I am full of pride and sensual self-love.

All my actions make clear that, seeing good in myself, I desire to make a show of it, either by getting praise from others thereby or by an inner love of self; and even though I manifest an apparent humility, yet I attribute everything to my own powers, and I consider myself superior to others, or, at the very least, in no way worse than they. If I notice some defect in myself, I try to excuse it, to cover it, as if it were some personal necessity or were harmless; being irritated by those who are disrespectful towards me, I consider them people unworthy of consideration; I am vainglorious of my talents; I consider my failures in undertakings as affronts; I gossip about and rejoice at the misfortunes of my enemies; and if I do attempt something good, then I have some purpose or praise, or some spiritual self-interests or worldly comfort in view. In a word, I constantly make an idol of myself, to which I offer unremitting service, always seeking sensual gratification and food for the satisfaction of my passions and vices.

From all that I have enumerated, I see that I am proud, adulterous, faithless, one who does not love God and hates his neighbour. What situation could be more sinful? The state of the spirits of darkness is better than my situation; although they do not love God and hate man, although they live by and are nourished by pride, yet at the very least they believe and, because of that belief, they tremble. But what of me? Surely it can only be a calamitous fate that awaits me? And how much severer and more punishing will be the sentence of the judgment in view of the inattentiveness and foolhardiness of life, which I have recognized in myself!

Having read the confession that the spiritual father had given me, I was horrified and thought to myself, "My God, how dreadfully sin has eaten into me, and until now I had not even noticed!" And so the desire to be cleansed of it forced me to ask guidance from this great spiritual father, in what way, as he had recognized the causes of all the evils, I could find the means of correction. This is how he began to explain:

"Do you not see, beloved brother, that the cause of not loving God is not believing, the cause of not believing is lack of conviction, and the cause of lack of conviction is failure to seek out the radiant truths of knowledge, negligence regarding the illumination of the soul. In a word, one can say: if you don't believe, it is impossible to love; if you are not convinced, it is impossible to believe. And in order to be convinced, it is imperative to gain a full and thorough understanding of the subject in hand; and it follows that it is absolutely necessary by means of reflection, of study of the word of God and of experimental observation, to inspire in the soul a thirst and a longing, or to explain it another way, a 'wonder' which will produce an unquenchable desire to comprehend things, and more deeply to penetrate matters in their essence."

"One spiritual writer formulated it thus: 'Love,' said he, 'usually develops from understanding, and the greater the depth and breadth of the understanding, so much the greater will be the love, and so much more opportunely will the soul be softened and conformed to the Divine love, while diligently looking towards the most praeter-perfect and most exquisite being of God and His unexcelled love for man’.”

"Well, now you see that the cause of the sins which you read out is slothfulness of mind with regard to spiritual matters, which quenches the very feeling of their usefulness. If you wish to know the way of escaping from this evil, then in every possible way strive for spiritual illumination, achieve it with diligent study of the word of God, with study of the Holy Fathers, with reflection, with spiritual counsel, and by conversing with those who are wise in Christ."

Translated from a photo-lithograph of the Los Angeles Vicariate of the Russian Church Abroad.

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