Healing through the Sacramental Life of the Church: Confession and Spiritual Direction
Sermon preached by Arlene Marge on Sunday, March 25, 2012
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Do you look forward to going to confession? Personally, not always. Confession is one of the Holy Sacraments that the Church offers us as a spiritual help, and yet sometimes it is difficult to go. When we go to confession, it is because we know that we have sinned and done something wrong, and sometimes we’d rather not focus on our mistakes for fear of what we might find. With our sins, we have separated ourselves from God, and it takes a lot of effort and spiritual reflection to figure out how we’ve ended up there. The Orthodox Church offers us the Lenten season filled with lessons and readings that help us to repent, heal, and spiritually renew ourselves.
We need to go to confession on a regular basis as part of our preparation to receive communion every Sunday. My first spiritual father suggested that we take confession once a month, but I’ve also heard the rule of thumb that you should go at least once during each of the major fast periods during the year: Lent, Sts. Peter and Paul, Dormition and Advent. When I first converted to Orthodoxy, I asked my spiritual father how to prepare for confession. He suggested that I start by reading through the Ten Commandments and then go through some of the aids in the little red Antiochian prayer book. I find the list of “The Seven Grievous Sins” particularly helpful: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. I am personally familiar with every sin on that list, and I might add my personal combination of these, impatience. As we prepare for confession, we need to take quiet time to reflect on what’s happened and turn inwardly. We also prepare ourselves to take confession with prayer, fasting and daily scripture reading. Each of these practices is encouraged during Lent.
Repentance and confession are common themes during Lent. At this point in the Fast, we have heard many lessons that speak of turning away from one’s sins and redirecting oneself to God. These lessons also teach us about God’s magnificent love for us even when we have sinned and how he forgives us, unconditionally, and receives us back into His fold. One of my very favorite stories during the Lenten Triodion is the story of the Prodigal son. The son is greedy and asks for his inheritance before it is due, and he wastes it by living a wretched, sinful life until he is completely destitute and hungry. My favorite part of the story is when he repents, and returns to his father as a humble servant. That is the part of the story that reminds me most of how we should approach our own confession. We need to humble ourselves and admit what we’ve done wrong as we approach God. What is so amazing is what happens next in the story – the father forgives his son, welcomes him home with love and receives him back into the family, royally. That’s how we end up after our confession; we are received in love back into the Holy Fold of the Orthodox Church.
Confession and spiritual direction go hand in hand. It is challenging to shed our old sinful nature and put on a new one. We develop patterns of behavior and we do the same things wrong over and over again, or at least I do. During confession we look backwards and figure out what we’ve done wrong. We need to state what the problem was before we can fix it and move forward and grow closer to God. Our spiritual direction is forward-looking and it’s where we are headed after we have turned away from our sins.
During Lent, we are given a lot of spiritual direction. During the first service of Lent, Forgiveness Vespers, we initiate the practice of reciting St. Ephram’s prayer. In it, we ask that God take away from us the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk (a subset of the list of grievous sins), and then in the next line of the prayer we ask God to help us replace those behaviors with heavenly virtues: the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Other virtues include liberality, mildness, temperance, happiness and diligence. These are virtues that we try to live as we aim to grow closer to God’s Likeness. The Church also gives us direction on acts of mercy that we should engage in: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, ransom captives, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and bury the dead. On Judgment Sunday we heard this list spoken in the Gospel by the Heavenly King to the righteous in Heaven, “Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt 25:35-40). These are pretty clear guidelines on how we should spend our time here on earth if our goal is to grow closer to God.
Today the Church offers us two amazing spiritual guides for our Lenten journey and for our spiritual direction. Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent we remember St. John of the Ladder, and today, March 25th, we also celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.
St. John of the Ladder is famous for his work focusing on spiritual direction called, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” He was a hermit and his book contains thirty homilies on virtue. Each homily deals with one virtue, starting with those that deal with holy and righteous activity here on earth and leading to those that guide us to Heaven. I must admit that I find the image of the icon depicting the Ladder of Divine Ascent somewhat disconcerting. There are monks and ascetics climbing the spiritual rungs heavenward, and some of them are falling off the ladder. The higher they are, the further they fall. I know that we can always be ensnared by the devil, no matter how much progress we have made on our Spiritual Path, and that we must continue to protect ourselves with the armor of the Church, Prayer and Fasting.
Our spiritual aim is to become one with God in our hearts and to no longer separate ourselves from Him. This is when we truly commune with God. There is no better role model than the Holy Mother herself. Every year during Lent, we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation which we are celebrating today. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she has found favor with God and that she will conceive a Son by the Holy Spirit and He will be the Son of the Highest. This is an unbelievable pronouncement. How would any one of us handle that sort of surprising news? It is completely unexpected, and she is taken unawares. How would we answer the angel? But Mary is the most blessed person who has ever lived. She has complete willingness to receive God’s grace and accept His will and she becomes one with Him. Mary opens her heart and her body to the will of God and answers the angel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.