I always experience a certain sense of awe whenever someone approaches for the sacrament of confession, time seems suspended for those precious minutes. The person comes, they fumble through their mental list of sins, stumble over their anxieties, trip over their words, but if they approach with humility and prayer this moment can be prophetic: we are not alone, God is there! I remember when I had been ordained only a few weeks, hearing my first confession: all life faded into the background; I was with this person, hearing them speak before God (and they confessed everything!) What can prepare a man for such an event?
St. John of the Ladder (c. 579-649), at the outset of his instructions, “To the Shepherd,” indicates that a “genuine teacher is he who has received from God the tablet of spiritual knowledge [. . .] by the in-working of illumination, and who has no need of other books” (The Ladder, HTM, 249). In this age-old tradition the modern elder, Sophrony (1896—1993) advised his disciple, Archimandrite Zacharias, at the beginning of his priestly ministry,
“Don’t trust what you have heard from others, or any wonderful teachings you have heard or read and which impressed you. But when you are with the people, bring your mind to your heart and pray secretly that God give you a word at that particular moment. If you do so, if you make prayer precede the word you would utter, God will always have a share in it” (Remember Thy First Love, 403).
Arch. Zacharias in his talks frequently mentions that “there are no recipes” for hearing and responding to confessions, but rather we are thrown into an ocean and must either swim or sink. Sinking often we feel; “death at work in us, but life in them” (II Cor. 4:12), and so we continue into the abyss; for to remain in the shallows, relying upon what we have read and been taught, is to reduce the Sacrament of Confession to a “half-blind worldly activity” (Enlargement of the Heart, 227). The person coming to confession and confessing everything is not in need of human empathy and advice, they need to encounter God, to ask for His forgiveness and to hear His life-giving Word. In other words, it is essential that confession be a theological event.
Doubtless, my meaning is not immediately apparent as my reader is likely to conjure an image of a theological event as the convocation of scholars at an ivy-walled seminary. Could the source of our confusion be the manner in which we frame our concept of theology? Much gratitude must be extended to the ressourcement revival of the 20th-century and its Orthodox equivalent, the Neo-Patristic synthesis, in offering an existential perception of theology as theoria (divine vision, experience) as witnessed in the writings of the Eastern Church Fathers. We can all doubtless repeat Evagius’ famed maxim, “the true theologian is the one who prays” (Chapters on Prayer, No. 60). However, observation of the academic work of those who are considered to be the greatest modern representatives of the Neo Patristic school has led me to believe that a deeper penetration of the mind of the Fathers as it relates to our understanding of theology is still necessary.
Professor Christopher Veniamin, in his unmistakable London accent, once said to me upon listening to the conclusion of the thesis which I wrote under his direction, “You have obviously read much of Elder Sophrony, but I don’t think you have understood him.” This essay is an attempt to recalibrate my own estimation of Elder Sophrony’s vision of theology as event and, by extension, to suggest a more authentic approach to acquiring the “mind of the Fathers.” The study will take the form of three sections: the first will explore the Elder’s writings regarding theology, dogma, and divine revelation, the second will explore the idea of dogmatic development and its methodology among modern scholarship, while the third will return to the subject of confession as theological event.