The Most Confessed Sin
A brother at Scetis
committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he
refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him. "Come,
everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug,
filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him
and said to him, "What is this, Father?" The old man said to them, "My sins run
out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors
of another." When they heard that they
said no more to the brother but forgave him. (From The Sayings of the
During the season of Lent we are called upon to repent of
our sins and reveal them to our spiritual Father in the Mystery of Holy
Confession. It is most unfortunate that
the Sacrament of Holy Confession, and with it Holy Communion, have come to be
seen as a "duty," rather than the pillar and groundwork of the spiritual life.
This formalism continues to rob many people of the
experience of God because they come to Confession unprepared, taking only a few
brief moments to examine their conscience with the help of a sin checklist in
their prayer book.
With such a brief and shallow preparation, many people come
to Confession not knowing what to say - and so, rendering an account of their
sins for the previous six months or longer, their spiritual father hears that
most confessed sins: "I ate meat on a Friday," and its brother, "I took the
Name of the Lord in vain."
One would expect that with such depth of sins being
confessed that our churches would be models of sanctity, attracting new members
through the holiness of the average churchgoer. But the sad truth is that these
two sins are the most confessed because most of us don't understand what
confession is, let alone what sin is. Having gone through the checklist we
exonerate ourselves from all but these two sins.
The real problem is that many of us never experience spiritual
growth. We revert back during Confession to that eight year old child who had
the Confession Prayers drilled into him or her - often in Slavonic - which
people automatically recite without knowing the meaning of a single word!
In the world of the eight year old, murder and adultery,
hatred and jealously, lying and lewdness are normally far removed from the
experience of day to day life. It is sad
and difficult to realize that as we grew physically and emotionally, our
spiritual growth was often stunted. The truth is that we have no idea of how to
approach Holy Confession as adults. We are often oblivious to what sin is and
what we must look for in ourselves to confess.
The famed Orthodox spiritual writer, St. Isaac of Nineveh, some fourteen
hundred years ago said: "The person who
can see his own sin is greater than someone who can raise the dead." More common, however, is the attitude pointed out
in the example of Abba Moses in the above story: our own sins run out behind us
unseen but we are always ready to judge the sins of others. The Lord Jesus
tells us, "Hypocrite, first take the beam
out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly how to remove the splinter
from your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:5).
There are several methods that we can use to correct this
spiritual blindness that is within us. The first is to realize that Confession
must be an ongoing process that takes place everyday! The Orthodox prayer book
contains a "Confession of Sins" to be prayed at morning or evening prayers. At
the end of the day we need to examine our lives and ask the Lord and ourselves
where we fell short, what we could have done better and the state of our
relationship with those around us. This small act is the foundation and the
beginning of a true spiritual life.
In our prayers we must ask the Lord to both reveal our sins
to us and grant us the desire to confess them. We pray in the Lenten Prayer of
St. Ephraim the Syrian: "Grant me to see
my own sins and not to judge those of my neighbor."
It was out of the conviction of his own sinfulness that St.
John Chrysostom wrote in his prayer before Holy Communion: "I believe that You are the Christ, the Son
of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the
first." St. John wrote this prayer as a personal
devotion, which the Church loved and came to use.
As the Saints grew nearer and nearer to God, they became
more and more aware of their own sins. It is like a person in a dark room who cannot
tell if his clothes are clean or dirty, but the more he or she comes into the
presence of the light, the more he or she can see the dirt. We are now in the
dark room and need to seek the light to see our own sins.
As we approach Confession, we need to look for the correct
standard to judge ourselves by. We often look at the people around us and
believe that we are no better or worse than they are. Hence, we find little
fault with ourselves. We need to find a higher standard by which to judge
One place where we can find a better standard is in the
pages of the Gospel. We can become aware of our sinfulness by asking ourselves,
when we hear the Gospel reading in Church or when we read at home, exactly
where we would fit in.
In Chapter Eight of the Gospel of St. John there is an
interesting story of a woman caught in adultery:
Then the scribes and
Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her
in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in
the very act. Now Moses, in the law,
commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" This they said, testing Him, that they might
have something of which to
accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not
hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them,
"He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." And again He stooped down and wrote on the
ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by
one, beginning with the oldest even
to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the
midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up
and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers
of yours? Has no one condemned you?" She
said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and
sin no more" (St. John
As we read this story, the question we must be asking
ourselves is: "Where do I fit in here?"
Would I have been the woman caught in adultery? That is, are my sins
blatant and obvious to those around me but, somehow, I am able to rationalize
away my bad behavior. Would I have been
one of those who brought the woman to Jesus demanding that justice be done?
That is, must I always have my own way and seek vengeance or get even with
those who may have done me wrong? Would I be one of the older men, quick to
realize my sin and walk away in shame, or one of the younger for whom it took a
while longer? Some of the Church Fathers in commenting on this passage said
that Jesus was writing on the ground the sins of those who were accusing the
adulterous woman. Would I have been with the Lord, ready to forgive a penitent
sinner, knowing that I myself am guilty of many sins? Or am I so blinded by my
pride that I would have stayed and started throwing stones?
Tke as another example the familiar parable of the Prodigal
Son. How many of us identify with the older son who did not run away and kept
to his Father's house. Do we feel his resentment at the younger son? The truth
is that most of us are not in the position of the older son, but have become
ourselves prodigals - squandering our spiritual inheritance through a lack of
prayer, not going to Church, refusing the invitation of the Lord. In looking at this parable, it is the
prodigal that the Church calls upon us to identify with and not the righteous
pride of the elder son.
When hearing the Gospel, place yourself in the story - ask
yourself honestly where you would be and you may catch a glimpse of your sinful
If we daily examine ourselves through prayer; if we find
ourselves in the Gospel story; if we make life itself a preparation for
Confession, we will find this Sacrament is much more than an obligation - it is
the foundation of our spiritual life and brings us closer to the experience of
the Kingdom of Heaven. We will also discover much more to confess
than the last hamburger we ate on a Friday.
-Fr. Lawrence Barriger