Freedom & Obedience in the Sacrament of Confession

Part IV: Freedom & Obedience in the Vision of Saint Sophrony

OUR CONVERSATION up to this point has largely remained objective and abstract. We have explored Saint Sophrony’s insistence upon freedom as the foundation for authentic personhood and the various threats that an anthropology based upon algorithms presents. A discussion of the tension between personal freedom and collective good has revealed a solution in the upturned pyramid of Christ-like love. However, Saint Sophrony saw little benefit in such intellectual exercises unless they were incarnated in life. Truth is never objective but always subjective, that is, truth is always personal.1 Thus, there remains little benefit to our discussion unless the question of freedom and obedience is asked within the context of subjective, personal relationships. This essay will address the relationship between a spiritual father and a spiritual child within the sacrament of confession. In our final essay we will investigate the relationship between bishop and priest, regarding which Saint Sophrony observed a degree of degradation and “despotism” in his experience.

In the activity of the Church—in her sacraments and communal life2—the trinity of self, Love, and other is made concrete. In the partaking of Holy Communion, the communicant is not only united to Christ himself but also to his Body—the Church—which is not an objective other but subjective persons that make up both the local, concrete community and every other: all Christians both living and even those departed. The sacrament of confession presents—perhaps even more than the Eucharist, if such a comparison is permitted—a concrete, “incarnational” laboratory in which to explore the tension between freedom and obedience. It is a topic to which Saint Sophrony frequently returns and his words provide a unique perspective on a sacrament that is very often misunderstood.

In entering the “laboratory” of confession, it is necessary to identify the precise element to which we wish to devote our study. The sacrament of confession proper is a compound of the verbal acknowledgement of sins3 and the forgiveness and absolution of these sins. A third, more elusive and less mechanical element is the transfer of spiritual guidance that occurs within the context of confession in a personal, ongoing relationship between a spiritual father and his spiritual child. It is this element that receives almost exclusive attention in monastic literature generally and by Saint Sophrony specifically. Without discounting the efficacy of confessing one’s sins and receiving absolution, Saint Sophrony sees confession primarily as an event in which the will of God is revealed through the act of spiritual direction.

The additional facet of spiritual direction casts the sacrament of confession in a light in which it is rarely seen, especially in the life of a modern parish where confession is often approached as a mechanical, judicial transaction comprised of an acknowledgement of past sins in exchange for a badge of good standing and permission to approach the Eucharist. Even when spiritual direction is offered and received it is often valued only as the opinion of a professional, like that of a psychotherapist. Saint Sophrony, with exasperation relates, “People, educated people, cling to a different starting point—their own understanding. Every word the priest utters is simply that of another human being. Blindly to comply with the spiritual father’s injunctions would appear absurd to them.”4 And thus, what is meant to be a theological event, a revelation of God’s will, becomes a “half-blind, worldly activity.”5

Saint Sophrony envisions confession quite opposite from an “ordinary exchange of opinions.”6 By contrast, he provides the example of his elder, Silouan:

When he turned to his spiritual father he would pray that the Lord through his servant might have mercy on him, reveal to him [God’s] will and the way to salvation. And knowing that the first thought that comes to the soul after prayer is a sign from on high, he would seize on his confessor’s first words, his first intimation, and go no further.7

It is therefore precisely not human opinion that is sought or transmitted in confession. Such would be a corruption of its purpose.8 Saint Sophrony understandably calls the vocation of the spiritual father an “awesome work,”9 and warns: “If people come to the priest in the hope of clearly learning God’s will, and instead of that, the priest offers advice of his own . . . he thereby puts the penitents on the wrong track and does harm.”10 But, as the book of Hebrews attests, “no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God.”11 With this confidence, the spiritual father takes up the “awesome work.” Saint Sophrony relates personally:

I myself prayed the Lord long and painfully not to let me blunder: to keep me in the ways of His real will, to inspire me with the right words for my brethren. And in the course of confession I would try to keep my mind alert in my heart, in order to detect God’s thinking, and often even the words in which to convey it.12

If the work of the spiritual father is a “dread and fascinating one,” then that of the penitent-spiritual child is likewise. He approaches confession to hear with audacious boldness the will of God. Thus, both rest under a tremendous obligation and at the same time are vested with immense power. One is tasked with revealing the will of God, the other to obey without question. How is the balance of freedom and obedience maintained in this relationship?

It is tantamount that the spiritual father avoid encroaching upon the freedom of his spiritual child. He wields a tremendous power and even though his intention is to use this power to bring salvation to his spiritual child, the moment that he exerts control the window to God’s will is shattered. The spiritual father can easily become attached to a spiritual child, naively thinking that “love” motivates them to force a change in their behavior or thinking, when in reality this attachment is diametrically opposed to his office. Instead, the confessor must love with a love that is completely devoid of a wish to control. Saint Sophrony writes, “The staretz does not try to destroy the novice’s will and does not subjugate it to his own arbitrary will, but assumes the heavy burden of responsibility, and thereby becomes a collaborator with God in the divine act of the creation of man.”13 If God himself does not coerce or inflict his will upon his creature, then neither must his servant.

Saint Silouan once asked his Igumen, Missail: “How can a monk find out the divine will?”14 To which he replied, “He must accept my first word as the will of God . . . but if he resists me, then I, as a mere mortal, will back down.”15 Saint Sophrony recalled that this same Igumen, although of a strong-minded disposition, would reply, when anyone objected to his instructions, “Well, all right, do as you like.”16 In other words, although convinced that God’s will was being revealed, he would not demand obedience, even while knowing that such disobedience spelled tragedy. Saint Sophrony similarly relates that when people would approach him for confession on the psychological plane, expecting only the opinion of a man, he would not solicit God for his will but would instead offer guidance likewise on the psychological level, thus “becoming all things to all men.”17 He relates, “I would allow them the right, as it were, sinlessly to refuse my advice.”18 He would allow them the freedom to say no.

Even in more ideal cases in which complete obedience is offered in confession, it is not the purpose of spiritual direction to transfer freedom of choice from the penitent to the director. Instead, Saint Sophrony states, its purpose is “to teach him the true Christian life and true Christian liberty.” 18 Indeed, a spiritual child that abandons responsibility or a spiritual father that accepts this abnegation participates in a subtle vanity: the mistaken notion that by forsaking choice and thereby responsibility one cannot be blamed for one’s errors. Such a person lacks the honesty to humbly state: I have done wrong, I and no one else is to blame.

Obedience to a spiritual father, especially when framed as the will of God, obviously presents an opportunity for abuse. Even when cautioned to preserve the freedom of the spiritual children, it is certainly possible that a spiritual father might present his own will as the will of God. Indeed, examples in which a spiritual father forms a “personality cult” and metes out obediences without discernment is not unknown. It is therefore the grave responsibility of a spiritual child to seek out a good spiritual father, giving no heed to those those deluded “elders.” The first indication of a deluded spiritual father is the wish to control. A spiritual father who does not respect the freedom of those who come to him can neither discern the will of God and will be damned himself. Dionysios Farasiotis in his autobiography, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, observes that it was the freedom and respect with which Elder Paisios approached him that distinguished him from the Hindu gurus, whom he felt compelled and manipulated their disciples most horribly.19

The value of obedience, thus qualified, as the voluntary submission to spiritual guidance must nevertheless not be underestimated. It cannot be repeated enough that the spiritual child approaches confession seeking not the opinion of man but the revelation of God. The simple act of humbling oneself in confession, regardless of the worthiness of the priest, carries with it divine energy. An episode in the life of Saint Silouan illustrates this point. It so happened that he and another monk went to visit a renowned spiritual father in a neighboring monastery. Along the way, the other monk asked Silouan what spiritual question he would ask the father. To which, Saint Silouan replied, “I am subduing my will to yours, and that is of greater benefit to me than any advice from the staretz.”20 Thus, the responsibility for allowing confession to be a theological event lies as much with the penitent as it does the spiritual father. Saint Silouan, as Saint Sophrony remarks, had no specially selected staretz but instead turned to whomever he approached with prayer, humbling himself and begging God to reveal his will through his servant, the priest-confessor.21

Priests do not need to clairvoyant wonder-working elders for confession to be the revelation of the will of God. Neither do spiritual children need to be anxious to seek out such an elder. Respect for the freedom of the other is all that it necessary. Where there is humble acknowledgment of the mutual responsibility of father and child, freedom and obedience are held in equilibrium. Much the same could be said in regard to the relationship of husband and wife, of parent and child, and that bishop and priest, to which we shall turn in our next essay.

Endnotes

1 See Saint Silouan the Athonite, 111–12.
2 See Acts 2:44. It is beneficial to bear in mind that the early Church anticipated the Marxist moralism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Monasticism, at least in its cenobitic form, maintains a communal structure of ownership. It is possible to view the struggle between the non-possessors and possessors which occurred in 16th century Russia in terms of socialism and private ownership. Nonetheless, a balance has been preserved in which communal ownership is prohibited from overriding personal freedom. Saint Peter, later in the book of Acts, reminds Ananias “While [your property] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4).
3  The acknowledgement of sin in the primitive Church was initially something performed publicly, as evidenced by Saint James’s admonition: “Confess your faults one to another” (James 5:16). The record of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, St. John Cassian’s Conferences, and The Ladder of Divine Ascent attests to the continuation of this practice, at least within a monastic context. See Alexis Torrance, Repentance in Late Antiquity (Oxford UP, 2013).
On Prayer, 90.
5 Arch. Zacharias The Enlargement of the Heart, 227.
6 St. Silouan, 86.
7 Ibid.,84.
8 See St. John, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, “To the Shepherd:” “A genuine teacher is he who has received from God the tablet of spiritual knowledge, inscribed by His divine finger, that is, by the in-working of illumination, and who has no need of other books.” For a further exploration of this theme see: Confession as a Theological Event ( https://ascenttomountsinai.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/confession-as-a-theological-event/ ).
9 On Prayer, 89.
10 Ibid.

11 Heb. 5:4.
12 On Prayer, 89–90.
13 Truth and Life, 89. Staretz: Russian for a father confessor revered for his divinely-inspired guidance.
14 Saint Silouan, 80. Note: Igumen [Greek: ἡγούμενος] is a title for the administrative head of a monastery, similar to that of Abbot, meaning “the leader.”

15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., 81.

17 I Cor. 9:22.
18 On Prayer, 90.
19 Truth and Life, 85.

19 See Dionysios Farasiotis, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 2011) 56, 284–85 [“Hinduism’s relentless insistence on properly performed techniques with automatic results degrades man by depriving him of his most precious quality: the self-governing free will. Orthodox Christian Faith, on the contrary, recognizes and honors the gift of human freedom as a divine trait. . . . This is why Christ calls out, If any man wills to come after Me, let him freely deny himself—that is, without being deceived, without being psychologically compelled, and without being forced.] Saint Paisios was canonized in 2020.
20 St Silouan, 59.
21 Ibid,. 84.

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