Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Some Thoughts on Spiritual Direction & Holy Confession

One of the regular commentators on this blog, Sr. Macrina, in response to my earlier posts on confession asks a number of very interesting questions about the relationship between spiritual direction and Holy Confession:

If you have time, could you say something about the relationship (both in Orthodoxy generally and in how you see it) between spiritual fatherhood / motherhood / direction that is not necessarily an ordained role, and confession.
Related to this, do you have any comments on the differences between spiritual fatherhood in an Orthodox (and also earlier western) context and contemporary western approaches to spiritual direction?
In this blog post, I would like to respond to the first of Sister's to questions, the relationship between spiritual fatherhood and confession. Later, I would like to respond more specifically to the question of spiritual fatherhood and spiritual motherhood in relation to confession. This second question, as well as the whole notion of lay spiritual directors, I think raises a number of very interesting pastoral issues especially as they pertain to the unique vocation of men and women in Christ. A comparison between spiritual fatherhood in an Orthodox context and contemporary western approaches to spiritual direction, will have to wait for another time.

First let me try and clarify the human foundations of confession as a moment of spiritual direction. In this I will focus primarily on what seems to me to be the importance of priest and penitent having some degree shared life that transcends a mere mutual affirmation of the tradition of the Church. Subsequent to this analysis, I want to look at spiritual direction as a lay ministry within the church. But first let's look at confession.

What I often hear from Orthodox laypeople when we talk about confession is that sometimes they'll be told by the priest in confession that confession is not spiritual direction. The sacrament of confession there told is the time when you repent of your sins. If you want spiritual direction, if they want to know who to live their life in Christ, they're told to come back at another time.

Given the many demands that are often made of the parish priest this is not wholly an unreasonable response. Having in the week before Christmas, just to take one example from my own experience, I heard some 20 confessions, I can certainly sympathize with a priest not having the energy, much less time, that spiritual direction requires.

That said however I think it would be good for us to try to understand historically the relationship between what we now call spiritual direction and the sacrament of confession. Since this is a blog post I'm going to need to ask the readers indulgence as I make some rather broad exegetical and historical leaps. Insofar as I'm able to do so I tried to keep my posts under a 1,000mwords. While it helpful discipline for me as a writer, it does not leave me a great deal of time to indulge in exegetical and historical analysis.

Historically, the sacrament confession as we have it today developed out of the monastic practice of the novice on a daily basis revealing his thoughts to his abbot or spiritual elder. As more and more it became the custom of the church to ordained monastics to the episcopate, this monastic practice of confession of thoughts was integrated into the pastoral life of the Church. In other words, personal spiritual direction grounded in a trusting relationship between a spiritual father and his spiritual child, is the context out of which the contemporary practice of confession develops.

One of the things that strikes me as interesting about the relationship between spiritual father and spiritual child in a monastic setting is that the participants shared a common life. By this I mean they shared a regular life of not only of communal prayer and fasting, but manual labor a common table and dependence on one and other for their daily lives. Their relationship in other words was not purely formal but rather we might say domestic. This life of everyday intimacy demanded from the participants a fairly high degree of trust. Yes certainly the novice was dependent upon the elder for spiritual guidance and instruction and so had to trust him.

But the elder was also in a way dependent upon the novice. What I mean by this is nothing particularly extraordinary, nothing that anyone in a family doesn't know already. Food must be prepared, chores must be done, and then there are all the hundreds of ordinary activity that makes up a common life, all of this is a tangible expression of how elder and novice depend one on the other.. And so again, their life was a shared life.

Remember, the model for Orthodox monasticism (and the Catholic monasticism as well for that matter) is the family. Much as in a family, so to in a monastery, a new child changes everything.

Thinking about this relationship of mutual dependence let us turn our attention now to the sacrament of confession.

We tend to think of the sacrament of confession is being more or less unidirectional with regard to self revelation. The penitent comes to the priest and tells the priests his sins and the priest, for his part, is assumed to not be self revelatory.

But is this really the case?

As I said in an earlier post with regard to what it means to hear confessions, the confessor's interaction with the penitent comes out of his own spiritual experience. St. Nicodemus is really very clear about this in his manual of confession. To recap what I said in an earlier post, the saint argues that the confessor cannot heal a sin that he himself has not been healed. Or, to use a more popular American expression, you can't give what you don't got.

This means that as the penitent is revealing himself to the confessor, the confessor is revealing himself to the penitent. Granted the self revelation of the confessor is not the primary point of confession but the fact remains that this is not primary does not mean that the self revelation is absent. And now back briefly to the situation in the monastery.

A common life, a shared life, is only possible with mutual respect and trust. It is out of this shared life of mutual respect and trust that the sacrament of confession grows. And it is the absence of this shared life of mutual respect and trust grounded in holy tradition and a personal encounter, that undermines confession as an event of spiritual direction or formation.

I will in my next post, speak more about the relationship of mutual trust and respect between priest and penitent.

In Christ,

+ Father Gregory

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