Return From Exile


Kontakion of the Prodigal Son, Tone 3

I have recklessly forgotten Thy glory, O Father; and among sinners I have scattered the riches which Thou gavest me. Therefore I cry to Thee like the Prodigal: “I have sinned before Thee, O compassionate Father; receive me, a penitent, and make me as one of Thy hired servants.”

Luke 15:11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

From the Explanation of the Gospel of St. Luke by Blessed Theophylact, 

Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria

11-16. And He said, A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of the property that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there squandered his property with prodigal living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he longed to fill his belly with the pods that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. This parable is like those which precede it. For it also presents a man, Who is in fact God, the Lover of man. The two sons represent the two kinds of men, righteous and sinners. The younger son said, Give me the portion of the property that falleth to me. Of old, from the beginning, righteousness belonged to human nature, which is why the older son (born at the beginning) does not become estranged from the father. But sin is an evil thing which was born later. This is why it is the younger son who alienates himself from the father, for the latter-born son grew up together with sin which had insinuated itself into man at a later time. The sinner is also called the younger son because the sinner is an innovator, a revolutionary, and a rebel, who defies his Father’s will.

Father, give me the portion of the property (ousia) that falleth to me. The essential property of man is his rational mind, his logos, always accompanied by his free will (autexousia), for all that is rational is inherently self-governing. The Lord gives us logos for us to use, according to our free will, as our own essential property. He gives to all alike, so that all alike are rational, and all alike are self-governing.3 But some of us use this generous gift rationally, in accordance with logos, while others of us squander the divine gift. Moreover, everything which the Lord has given us might be called our property, that is, the sky, the earth, the whole creation, the law and the prophets. But the later sinful generation, the younger son, saw the sky and made it a god, and saw the earth and worshipped it, and did not want to walk in the way of God’s law, and did evil to the prophets. On the other hand, the elder son, the righteous, used all these things for the glory of God. Therefore, having given all an equal share of logos and self-determination, God permits us to make our way according to our own will and compels no one to serve Him who is unwilling. If He had wanted to compel us, He would not have created us with logos and a free will. But the younger son completely spent this inheritance. Why? Because he had gone into a far country. When a man rebels against God and places himself far away from the fear of God, then he squanders all the divine gifts. But when we are near to God, we do not do such deeds that merit our destruction. As it is written, I beheld the Lord ever before me, for He is at my right hand, that I might not be shaken (Ps. 15:8). But when we are far from God and become rebellious, we both do, and suffer, the worst things, as it is written, Behold, they that remove themselves from Thee shall perish (Ps. 72:25).

The younger son indeed squandered and scattered his property. For every virtue is a simple and single entity, while its opposing vice is a many-branched complexity, creating numerous deceptions and errors. For example, the definition of bravery is simple, that is, when, how, and against whom, one ought to make use of one’s capacity to be stirred to action. But the vice of not being brave takes two forms, cowardice and recklessness. Do you see how logos can be scattered in every direction and the unity of virtue destroyed? When this essential property has been spent, and a man no longer walks in accordance with logos, by which I mean the natural law, nor proceeds according to the written law, nor listens to the prophets, then there arises a mighty famine—not a famine of bread, but a famine of hearing the word (logos) of the Lord (Amos 8:11). And he begins to be in want, because by not fearing the Lord he has departed far from Him. But there is no want to them that fear the Lord (Ps. 33:9). How is there no want to them that fear Him? Because blessed is the man that feareth the Lord; in His commandments shall he greatly delight. Therefore glory and riches shall be in his house, and far from being himself in want, he hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor (see Ps. 111). Therefore the man who makes a journey far from God, not keeping God’s dread face ever before his eyes, indeed is in want, having no divine logos at work in him.

And he went, that is, he proceeded and advanced in wickedness, and joined himself to a citizen of that country. He who is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with Him. But he who is joined to a harlot, that is, to the nature of the demons, becomes one body with her (I Cor. 6:16) and he makes himself all flesh, having no room in himself for the Spirit, as it was for those men at the time of the flood (Gen. 6:4). The citizens of that country far from God are none other than the demons. The man who joins himself to these citizens, having advanced and become powerful in wickedness, feeds the swine, that is, he teaches others evil and filthy deeds. For all those who take pleasure in the muck of shameful deeds and carnal passions are like swine. Pigs are never able to look upward because of the peculiar shape of their eyes. This is why, when a farmer grabs hold of a pig, he is not able to make it stop squealing until he turns it upside down on its back. This quiets the pig, as if, by looking upward, the pig can see things it had never seen before, and it is startled into silence. Such are they whose eyes are ever turned to filthy things, who never look upward. Therefore, a man who exceeds many others in wickedness can be said to feed swine. Such are the keepers of brothels, the captains of brigands, and the chief among publicans. All these may be said to feed swine. This wretched man desires to satisfy his sin and no one can give him this satisfaction. For he who is habitual in sinful passions receives no satisfaction from them. The pleasure does not endure, but is there one moment and gone the next, and the wretched man is again left empty. Sin is likened to the pods which the swine eat, because, like them, sin is sweet in taste yet rough and harsh in texture, giving momentary pleasure but causing ceaseless torments. Therefore, there is no man to provide satisfaction for him who takes pleasure in these wicked passions. Who can both satisfy him and quiet him? Cannot God? But God is not present, for the man who eats these things has traveled a far distance from God. Can the demons? They cannot, for they strive to accomplish just the opposite, namely, that wickedness never end or be satisfied.

17-21. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no longer worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no longer worthy to be called thy son. The man who until now had been prodigal came to himself. This is because he was “outside himself” and had taken leave of his true self so long as he committed foul deeds. Rightly is it said that he wasted and spent his essential property. This is why he was outside himself. For he who is not governed by logos, but lives irrationally without logos, and teaches others to do the same, is outside of himself and has abandoned his reason, which is his very essence. But when a man regains his logos (analogizetai) so as to see who he is and into what a state of wretchedness he has fallen, then he becomes himself again, and using his reason, he comes to repent and returns from his wanderings outside reason. He says hired servants, signifying the catechumens, who have not yet become sons because they have not yet been illumined by Holy Baptism. Indeed the catechumens have an abundance of the rational bread, the sustenance of the Word (Logos), because they hear each day the readings of Scripture.

Listen, so that you may learn the difference between a hired servant and a son. There are three ranks of those who are being saved. The first kind are like slaves who do what is good because they fear the judgment. This is what David means when he says, Nail down my flesh with the fear of Thee, for of Thy judgments am I afraid (Ps. 118:120). The second kind, who are like hired servants, are those who are eager to serve God because of their desire for the reward of good things, as David again says, I have inclined my heart to perform Thy statutes for ever for a recompense (Ps. 118:112). But if they are of the third kind, that is, if they are sons, they keep His commandments out of love for God. This is what David means when he says, 0 how I have loved Thy law, 0 Lord! The whole day long it is my meditation (Ps. 118:97); and again, with no mention of fear, I lifted up my hands to Thy commandments which I have loved (Ps. 118:48), and again, Wonderful are Thy testimonies, and because they are wonderful, therefore hath my soul searched them out (Ps. 118:129). One must understand the hired servants to refer not only to the catechumens, but also to all those in the Church who obey God out of some lesser motive than love. Therefore when a man is among the ranks of those who are sons, and then is disowned because of his sin, and sees others enjoying the divine gifts, and communing of the Divine Mysteries and of the Divine Bread, such a man ought indeed to apply to himself these piteous words, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise, arise, that is, from my fall into sin, and go to my Father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before Thee. When I abandoned heavenly things, I sinned against heaven, preferring shameful pleasure to heavenly things, and choosing the land of hunger instead of my true fatherland, heaven. Just as we have a saying that the man who prefers lead to gold sins against the gold, so too the man who prefers earthly things to heaven, sins against heaven. Indeed he has gone astray from the road that leads to heaven. Understand that when he sinned, he behaved as if he were not acting in the sight of God, that is, in the presence of God; but once he confesses his sin, then he realizes that he has sinned in the sight of God.

And he arose, and came to his father, for we must not only desire the things that are dear to God but must get up and do them as well. You see the warm repentance—behold now the compassion of the father. He did not wait for his son to come to him, but he went and met him on the way and embraced him. God is called Father on account of His goodness and kindness, even though by nature He is God Who encompasses all things so that He could have restricted a man within His embrace, no matter which way the man might try to turn. As the prophet says, The glory of God shall compass thee (Is. 58:8). Before, when the son distanced himself, it was fitting that God, as Father, release him from His embrace. But when the son drew near through prayer and repentance, it was fitting that God again enclose him within His embrace. Therefore the Father falls on the neck of the one who before had rebelled and who now shows that he has become obedient. And the Father kisses him, as a sign of reconciliation, and by this kiss He first makes holy the defiled one’s mouth, which is as it were the doorway to the whole man, and through this doorway He sends sanctification into the innermost being.


22-24. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the first robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the grain-fed bullock, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. The servants you may understand to mean the angels, the ministering spirits who are sent to serve those who are counted worthy of salvation. For the angels clothe the man who has turned from wickedness with the first robe, that is, with the original garment which we wore before we sinned, the garment of incorruption; or, it means that garment which is honored above all others, the robe of Baptism. For the baptismal robe is the first to be placed around me, and from it I receive a covering of my former shame and indecency. Therefore you may understand the servants to mean the angels who carry out all those things that are done on our behalf, and by means of which we are sanctified. You may also understand the servants to mean the priests. For they clothe the repentant sinner with Baptism and the word of teaching, placing around him the first robe, which is Christ Himself (for all we that have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Gal. 3:18). And they put a ring on his hand, which ring is the seal of Christ given at Chrismation so that we might execute good deeds in His name. The hand is a symbol of action, and the ring is a symbol of a seal. Therefore he who has been baptized, and, in general, everyone who has turned from wickedness, ought to have on his hand, that is, on his entire faculty of action, the seal and the mark of Christ, which is placed on him to show that he has been made new in the image of his Creator. You may also understand the ring to signify the earnest of the Spirit (II Cor. 1:21-22). By that I mean that God will give us perfect and complete good things when it is time for them; but for now He gives us gifts as earnest, that is, as tokens of assurance of those good things to come. For example, to some He gives the power to work miracles, to others the gift of teaching, and to others still other gifts; having received these gifts, we have more confident hope in the perfect and complete good things to come. 

And shoes are put on his feet to protect him from scorpions, that is, from the seemingly small and hidden sins described by David (Ps. 18:12), which are in fact deadly. And these shoes also protect him from serpents, that is, from those sins which can be seen by all. And, in another sense, shoes are given to him who has been counted worthy of the first robe: God makes such a man ready to preach the Gospel and to bring benefit to others. This is Christianity—to benefit one’s neighbor. We are not ignorant of what is meant by the grain-fed bullock (ton moschon ton siteuton) which is slain and eaten. It is none other than the very Son of God, Who as a Man took flesh which is irrational and animal by nature, although He filled it with His own glory. Thus Christ is symbolized by the bullock, the Youngling which has never been put under the yoke of the law of sin; and He is grain-fed in the sense that Christ was set apart and prepared for this mystery from before the foundation of the world. And though it may seem somewhat difficult to take in, nevertheless it shall be said: the Bread which we break in the Eucharist appears to our eyes to be made of wheat (sitos) and thus may be called of wheat (siteutos); but in reality it is Flesh, and thus may be called the Bullock. For Christ Himself is both Bullock and Wheat. Therefore every one who is baptized and becomes a son of God, or rather, is restored to the status of son, and in general, every one who is cleansed from sin, communes of this Bullock of Wheat. Then he becomes the cause of gladness to the Father, and also to His servants, namely, the angels and the priests, because he who was dead is alive again, and he who was lost is found. For whoever is dead from the abundance of his wickedness is without hope; but whoever is able, with his changeable human nature, to change from wickedness to virtue, is said to be merely lost. To be lost is less severe than to be dead.


25-32. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the grain-fed bullock, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gayest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the grain-fed bullock. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. Here is the celebrated question—how is it that the son who lived a God-pleasing life in all other respects, and who faithfully served his father, could display such envy? The question will be answered if one considers the reason why this parable was told. This parable and the ones preceding it were told because the Pharisees, who considered themselves pure and righteous, were grumbling at the Lord because He received harlots and publicans. The Pharisees murmured indignantly, believing themselves to be more righteous than the publicans, which is why the Lord presented this parable. Consider that the figure of the son who is seen to grumble is understood to refer to all those who are scandalized at the sudden good fortune and deliverance of sinners. Such men grumble, not because of envy, but because neither they nor we can understand the outpouring of God’s compassion for man. Does not David bring forward the figure of a man scandalized at the peace of sinners (Ps. 72:3)? And Jeremiah likewise, when he says, Why is it that the way of ungodly men prosper? Thou hast planted them, and they have taken root (Jer. 12:1-2). Such thoughts reflect man’s weak and poor understanding, which easily ignites with annoyance and questions the good fortune of the wicked, which seems undeserved.

In this parable, therefore, the Lord is saying to the Pharisees words like these: “Let us suppose that you are as righteous as that elder son and well-pleasing to the Father; I entreat you who are righteous and pure not to grumble, as this elder son did, against the gladness which we are showing over the salvation of the sinner, who is also a son.” Do you see that this parable is not about envy? Instead, by means of this parable, the Lord is instructing the minds of the Pharisees, so that they will not be vexed that the Lord receives sinners, even though they themselves are righteous and have fulfilled every commandment of God. It is no wonder that we too become vexed at those who appear undeserving. God’s compassion is so great, and He gives to us so abundantly of His own good things, that we may even grumble at His generosity. That criticism follows generosity is a fact to which we refer in everyday speech. If we do good to someone who fails to thank us, we often say to him, “Everyone says I am a fool for having been so good to you.” We use this expression, even if no one has actually criticized us, because extreme generosity is so often followed by criticism that to suggest the latter is to prove the former. But let us turn to the particulars of the parable, in brief.

The elder son was in the field, that is, in this world, working his own land, meaning his flesh, so that he might have his fill of bread, sowing with tears so that he might reap with rejoicing. When he learned what was being done, he did not want to enter into the common joy. But the compassionate father goes out and begs him to come in, and explains to him the reason for the joy, that a man who was dead has come back to life. Because as a man he did not understand, and because he was scandalized, the elder son accused the father of not giving him even a young goat, while for the prodigal son he slaughtered the fatted calf. What does the kid, the young goat, signify? You may learn here. Every young goat is considered to be of the portion of sinners who are placed on the left side. The righteous son is saying, then, “I have passed my life in toil and labor, I have been persecuted, suffered hardships, been oppressed by sinners, and on my behalf you have never slaughtered and killed a kid, that is, a sinner who afflicts me, so that I might have some small measure of rest.” For example, King Ahab was just such a goat to the Prophet Elijah. Ahab persecuted Elijah, but the Lord did not quickly give this goat over to the slaughter so that Elijah could have some small rest, and take his ease with his friends, the prophets. Therefore Elijah complained to God, Lord, they have digged down Thine altars, and have slain Thy prophets (III Kings 19:10) And Saul was a goat to David, as were also all those who slandered David. But the Lord allowed them to tempt him, and did not slay them to give David some rest. Therefore David said, How long shall sinners, 0 Lord, how long shall sinners boast (Ps. 93:3)? The elder son in the parable is saying these things: “You did not count me worthy of any consolation in all my toils; you never handed over to me for slaughter any of these who were afflicting me. But now you save the prodigal son who never had to toil.”

This is the entire purpose of the parable—to correct the Pharisees who were grumbling that He had accepted sinners. The parable also instructs us that no matter how righteous we may be, we ought not to rebuff sinners, nor to grumble when God accepts them. The younger son, therefore, represents the harlots and the publicans; the elder son represents those Pharisees and scribes who consider themselves righteous. It is as if God were saying, “Let us suppose that you are indeed righteous and have not transgressed any commandments; if some others have turned away from wickedness, why do you not accept them as your brothers and fellow laborers?” I am not unaware that some have interpreted the elder son to signify the angels, and the younger son, the latter-born nature of men which rebelled against the commandment it was given and went astray. Still others have said that the two sons represent the Israelites and the Gentiles who later believed. But the simple truth is this: the person of the elder son signifies the righteous, and the person of the younger son signifies sinners who have repented and returned. The entirety of the parable is given for the sake of the Pharisees, to teach them not to be vexed that sinners are received, even if they themselves are righteous. Let no one be vexed at the judgments of God—let him be patient with those apparent sinners who prosper, and are saved. How do you know whether a man whom you think is a sinner has not repented, and on this account has been accepted? Or that he has secret virtues on account of which God looks favorably upon him?


Face to Face

Nothing about the human body is as intimate as the face. We generally think of other aspects of our bodies when we say “intimate,” but it is our face that reveals the most about us. It is the face we seek to watch in order to see what others are thinking, or even who they are. The importance of the face is emphasized repeatedly in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, it is the common expression for how we rightly meet one another – and rarely – God Himself – “face to face.”

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the language of the face to describe our transformation into the image of Christ.


The holy icons are doubtless the most abundant expression of the “theology of the face,” and perhaps among the most profound contributions of Orthodoxy to the world and the proclamation of what it truly means to be human. Every saint, from the least to the greatest, shares the same attribute as Christ in their icons. We see all of them, face to face. In the icons, no person is ever depicted in profile – with two exceptions – Judas Iscariot and the demons. For it is in the vision of the face that we encounter someone as person. It is our sin that turns us away from the face of another – our effort to make ourselves somehow other than or less than personal. It is a manifestation of our turning away from God.

In human behavior, the emotion most associated with hiding the face is shame. The feeling of shame brings an immediate and deep instinct to hide or cover the face. Even infants, confronted by embarrassment or mild shame, will cover their faces with their hands or quickly tuck their face into the chest of the one holding them. It is part of the unbearable quality of shame.

Hiding is the instinctive response of Adam and Eve. “We were naked and we hid…” is their explanation. Readers have always assumed that it is the nakedness of their intimate parts that drive the first couple to hide. I think it more likely that it was their faces they most wanted to cover.

In an extended use of the story of Moses’ encounter with God after which he veiled his face, St. Paul presents the gospel of Christ as a transforming, face-to-face relationship with Christ.

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–unlike Moses,who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Co 3:12-6 NKJ)

The veil of Moses is an image of the blindness of the heart and spiritual bondage. Turning to Christ removes this blindness and hardness of heart. With unveiled faces we behold the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and are transformed into the very same image which is Christ.

In Russian, the word lik (лик) can mean face and person. Sergius Bulgakov plays with various forms of the word in his book Icons and the Name of God. It is an essential Orthodox insight. The Greek word for person (πρόσωπον) also carries this double meaning. The unveiled or unhidden face is a face without shame – or a face that no longer hides from its shame. This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our transformation in Christ. The self in whom shame has been healed is the self that is able to live as person.

We are restored to our essential and authentic humanity – our personhood. We behold Christ face to face, as a person would who looks into a mirror. And, as St. John says, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jo 3:2 NKJ).

The sacrament of penance boldly walks directly into the world of shame. Archimandrite Zacharias says:

… if we know to whom we present ourselves, we shall have the courage to take some shame upon ourselves. I remember that when I became a spiritual father at the monastery, Fr. Sophrony said to me, “Encourage the young people that come to you to confess just those things about which they are ashamed, because that shame will be converted into spiritual energy that can overcome the passions and sin.” In confession, the energy of shame becomes energy against the passions. As for a definition of shame, I would say it is the lack of courage to see ourselves as God sees us. (from The Enlargement of the Heart).

This is not an invitation to toxic shame – nor an invitation to take on yet more shame – it is a description of the healing from shame that is given in Christ. That healing is “the courage to see ourselves as God sees us.” It is the courage to answer like the prophet Samuel, “Here I am!” when God calls. God called to Adam who spoke from his shameful and faceless hiding.

Some of the mystical sermons of the fathers speak of Christ seeking Adam out a second time – but this time, in Hades, when Christ descended to the dead. There, Adam, hid no longer, turned to face the risen Lord. And so the traditional icon of the resurrection shows Christ taking Adam and Eve out of the smashed gates of Hades.

The gates of Hades are written in our faces – as are the gates of paradise. It is the mystery of our true self – the one that is being re-created in the image of Christ – precisely as we behold Him face to face and discover that no shame need remain. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Sweet liberty!


Confessing to Grow Closer to God


“Confessing to Grow Closer to God” Fr. Seraphim reflects on his experiences confessing, the role of a spiritual father, and he gives three recommendations to help get the most out of each confession. Podcast here

“Continuing in Confessional Growth”Fr. Seraphim continues his discussion from last week on how to get more out of each confession, by recommending three more exercises to help grow closer to both the spiritual father and Christ. Podcast here

“Confessing to Grow Closer to God”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
While I have done my best to record these podcasts in silence and moments of the day, or rather moments of the night, when there is silence, enough silence for me to focus on the things I want to talk to you about and also enough silence for you to be able to hear me, I do live in England, so it is almost always impossible to hide from rain. We’ll just have to live with that.I have mentioned in some of the previous podcasts that the monastery has started writing and publishing a series of booklets on various subjects. We have one booklet published on the topic of prayer, and it will be followed by a second one on the subject. There is one which we have published on the island of Iona, including a small guide, a sort of spiritual guide, to St. Columba’s isle. And I’m now working on a booklet on confession and the role of the father-confessor in monastery life.I have decided to write this particular booklet because the questions surrounding a monastic father-confessor and the way one relates to a spiritual father are very frequent. Everywhere I go and meet people to talk to them about the monastery, this is one of the central questions I get asked. So as I am preparing this booklet, I would like to discuss with you some of the topics and some of the ideas I am considering to include into the final form of the booklet. If you feel that there are other aspects you would like covered, if you feel I have not properly addressed or have not addressed at large some of the aspects I am discussing, please feel free to send me an email, and I shall do my best to either reply to you personally or in future podcasts.What I would like to tell you today is just a tiny bit of my own experience with confession. I remember when I started confessing that I was quite puzzled about the whole ritual. I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to talk about. I didn’t quite understand to whom I was confessing—if it was the priest, if it was Christ, if I was actually simply there to acknowledge things in front of my own conscience. Then I went through a series of more or less difficult experiences with my father-confessor. I had to change my spiritual father when I went to the monastery, and that was a nightmare. Other times I felt that my spiritual father did not have enough time or he didn’t pay enough attention to what I was saying. There were instances when he felt rushed or even almost annoyed and upset for the things I was telling him.But through it all, I kept going. I kept confessing. And as a general attitude, I often thought that the more difficult it feels, the more distant my father-confessor seems, the more useless, pointless the whole experience may feel—the more it is worth doing it, almost like hitting a wild animal when you are attacked. You’re not supposed to simply lie down and be eaten alive because you are attacked. If you are under attack, you fight back. So the more difficult confession felt to me, the more determined, almost stubborn I was to make it work.

Once you have decided, once you have chosen your father-confessor, your spiritual father, my advice is to trust him more than you trust yourself, at least for the first years. When I say “the first years,” I do not mean one or two years; I mean the first ten years at least. Trust him more than you trust yourself. After these ten, fifteen years, there may be the case that you should start placing your trust more in Christ than in yourself. With that general rule, you should be right.

Now let us turn back to confession. Confession can simply be a listing of your sins or your weaknesses, but it can be a lot more. It is entirely up to you to make it more, to make it better. Confession can indeed simply be an encounter between you and your spiritual father during which you tell him of your weaknesses and your sins and the ways in which you have failed God and yourself and your neighbors, but it can be much more if you put a bit of work into it. I am going to list a few exercises for you to consider trying out during your confession. These are things I have discovered simply through experience, and I have learned that, as a general rule, anything can be useful, anything can be turned into a useful experience from which you can learn something. I will give you only one example of what I mean by this, and then we’ll turn to the exercises.

The best thing to do when you prepare for confession, the best practical thing you can do, is to allow your father-confessor time. Never go for confession at the end of Lent or at the end of the fasting period before Christmas or Dormition. Never go and confess at the end of a long queue of 20 or 30 people. If your father-confessor has the time to hear you, if you allow him the time to hear you, he will be paying much more attention to you than if he feels pressed to hear 20 more confessions after you or if he feels exhausted for having heard 50 confessions prior to yours.

And that does happen. I remember in the monastery in Moldavia that we would be for hours, every day, especially during long periods of fasting, hearing the confession of people coming from the villages and the towns nearby. After five or six hours of hearing confessions, all you wanted to do is hide somewhere, find some sort of hole and crawl into it and never come out again, because the confessor is also a human being, and you take all that negativity, all those negative experiences, all the pain, all the failure, all the things that weigh so heavily on the shoulders of all those people whose confessions you’re hearing—it all ends up weighing down on your own shoulder. If you plan your time, if you plan your confession properly, you will be the one who benefits from it.

Now, this is the general rule. That being said, I have once noticed that if I went to my father-confessor when he was absolutely exhausted, the experience of confession felt entirely different. Yes, he as a human being was clearly not paying as much attention as he could have. He simply wasn’t able to any more. He wasn’t there any more. His attention wasn’t there any more. He was simply exhausted. But somehow, from that hollow being, from that exhausted person, came the most extraordinary advice I could possibly hope for, and these were not things my father-confessor would have normally said. After 15 years of confessing to the same person, you end up eventually knowing more or less what to expect. But I have noticed that if I want to hear not my father-confessor’s voice but somehow the voice of his conscience or his heart—I wouldn’t say God’s voice through him, but that is what I’m thinking—if I wanted a clearer view of that, then I should approach him when he, as a human being, is exhausted, when he has reached his limits.

All I wanted to say by giving you this example is that if you want to hear God, if you want to grow, anything can be turned into a positive, useful tool. If you allow the time for your father-confessor to hear your confession properly, you will definitely benefit from it, because your father-confessor understand the context, and he has the ability to think through all possible implications, and he will give you the best possible advice. So take that and use it for your salvation and rejoice in this gift.

On the other hand, though, if you ended up confessing at the end of a long period of fasting or when your father-confessor is simply tired or just not there, for any reason, known or unknown to you, then even that can be turned into a positive experience. The golden rule is that if you tell Christ in your heart, “I want to hear you. Please speak to me,” Christ will speak to you, regardless whether your father-confessor is tired or not, whether he is paying attention or not, whether he’s wholly entirely there or not. The sacrament—you must remember this—the sacrament is between you and Christ. The confessor, the spiritual father, is merely a tool. If there are problems in confession, they are never because of the spiritual father; they are always because something is not working between you and Christ, something is not working, something is not right in the way you have approached confession.

That being said, I just want to list a few exercises for you, and feel free to pick and choose which of these you think may benefit your confession. But I do encourage you to try them at least once. The first and most useful one is to try to reduce your confession as much as possible. Try to keep it under three minutes, for example. The way to do that is to look for the source of evil. I mean, do not make philosophy. Do not be expanding your confession. Do not give any sort of context. Be as simple and plain as you possibly can. Just list the things you need to confess: “I lied.” Full stop. “I am lazy and waste time.” Full stop. “I am proud and yet envious.” Full stop. And so on.

When you cut away the context, there is no way for you to use that context to justify your sinfulness. If you keep it very simple and try to go back to the source of evilness, things become very clear to you. It is the first step you must take. You must understand that there is evilness in you, or that you are fighting evilness. This is not about you selling an image to your father-confessor. This is not about you playing a game or putting on a show: the pious Christian show or the rebel Christian show or whatever else attracts you. This is simply about you being as naked as possible before Christ. Try to limit your confession under three minutes. Try to list, for instance, all your sins on a piece of paper before you go to confession, and then group them into categories, and try to see what is the source of each category. What is that initial mistake, that initial thing that generates all the visible outcomes, so to say? You may have yelled at your brother and your sister, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that reaction? You may have wasted time, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that behavior? And so on and so forth.

Really, this simply helps you to understand the depths of our sinfulness and not focus merely on the surface of it. If you simply list the mistakes you’ve made, you are really just focusing on the visible side of your sinfulness, but the depth of it, the heaviness of it lies hidden.

A second thing I try to do from time to time—and again, these are things I do on purpose—is to confess one thing that is extremely disturbing to me, even if it’s not necessarily heavy or as heavy as other things, but it is the sort of thing that, in my mind, will make my father-confessor think less of me, something that I feel horribly guilty for or disgusted. To do that is an exercise of humility, of forced humility. It is a way to empty yourself as much as you can before your spiritual father. It is a way to be as naked, spiritually naked, as you can before him and Christ.

I remember that the first time I’ve done this was after reading the Life of one of those Russian fools-for-Christ. You know who they are. They purposely commit some sort of horrible, disgusting thing in front of people, just so they feel lower and more humble than everyone else. It is useful to do that in front of your father-confessor because it is fighting your pride, and this is one of the best ways of fighting your pride. When you feel pride in your heart, always commit something stupid, on purpose, and do it in front of the people whose opinion counts most for you.

I know of monks in my monastery in Moldavia who would fast according to the strictest of rules, but then when they had guests coming over, they would always behave as if they had entirely forgotten that it was a fasting day. And this is not something that was invented by the Russian fools-for-Christ. You find this type of behavior even in the lives and the stories of the Desert Fathers, the Fathers from Egypt, the first generations of monks. There are these stories of some of the Desert Fathers going and wandering through the desert to collect leftovers or empty bowls which they would then carry to their cells and spread all around, and they did that so that the people who came to visit them would think, “Oh, what a gluttonous monk! He is good for nothing! We should move forward, as nothing good… there’s no good advice we can get from him.”

You can do the same thing in confession, and the experience of grace which you shall receive will be more than you can imagine. In a way, this will help you face your own emptiness, your own nothingness. It is a way to crush these idols we all construct of ourselves. It is also a way to test the love of your father-confessor, because the one thing that you must look for in your father-confessor is his love for you. I remember once that my father-confessor told me, “You do realize that I shall have to stand before Christ on the Judgment Day and protect you against all those who accuse you of your sins?” And that was the day I understood that that man loved me more than anyone has ever loved me. Love is what makes a priest into a spiritual father, not the ability to apply rules, not the ability to build for himself the image of an elder, not his intellectual wisdom, but simply his love.

I think I shall stop now. I’ve listed really three things you could try out. Try to confess when your father-confessor has the time, and then try to confess when he is absolutely exhausted, but in both cases keep in mind that the conversation happens between you and Christ, and he is merely a tool, a channel. Secondly, try to reduce your confession to the absolute minimum, because that will help you see the source of your failures; that will help you move from focusing on the tip of the iceberg to the real depths of it. Once you understand, once you face the roots of your sinfulness, your healing can properly begin. And thirdly, try to systematically, almost like a ritual, crush this idol we all build of our own person, and the best way to do that is to confess something that feels horribly intimate, almost disgusting, to your father-confessor.

There are some other things, some other exercises we could talk about, and perhaps I shall mention them in a second podcast on this subject. Remember to pray for me. Remember to pray for the Monastery of the Celtic Saints in Scotland. And remember to support us if you can. May God bless you and this whole world, now and forever. Amen.”