I had to confess my entire life. And change it.
Before I was baptized, I had to give a confession of my entire life. With pen and paper, I spent an evening examining my life up against the seven deadly sins (i.e., gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride envy, and wrath). I wrote each transgression down, trying to bring everything to light. “Don’t hold anything back,” a monk in Northern California had told me. “The more you give up, the greater the peace will be.”
I gave my life confession in preparation for my baptism to my spiritual father. Afterwards, he told me that, given the role drinking played in many of the sins I had committed, that I would have a permanent two-drink limit on my alcohol intake. If I couldn’t keep this rule, I would have to abstain for the rest of my life.
The words of my confessor crashed on me like a bucket of ice water. I had gone on my path to the Eastern Orthodox Church knowing I’d have to repent of my ways, but I didn’t know I’d have to change this much. So what if I liked to get good and drunk on the weekend? I had the same “work hard, play hard” mentality I had in college. What were two or three (or four, five, six) drinks after a week of working? Sure, I had “a few” slip-ups where I drank enough to be ill and not function properly the next day. In the past, my binges had affected relationships and I’d even injured myself on at least a few occasions, but I didn’t have a drinking problem. After all, I was young — or so I saw it.
After a few weeks of trying to abide by the two-drink limit I came crawling back to confess to my spiritual father that I had been unable to keep the rule given to me. Having a rule clearly laid out for me that I could not keep was a huge dose of reality. I saw for the first time after seven years of over-drinking that the only way for me to repent sincerely was to abstain from drinking entirely.
I do not think I would have ever fully realized the effect that alcohol was having on my life and taken action if not for the sacrament of confession. Individually, humans are quite deluded. I know I am. Incapable of accurately knowing the past or the future and limited to a particular place, they cannot by themselves connect the dots in their lives. As long as I remain isolated and alone I have no guarantees to the accuracy of my analysis. When I confess my sins to God in front of a witness, I have the advantage of someone more spiritually mature than myself taking a second glance and making connections that I missed. It allows me to clearly articulate and see my failings. A long as my sins remain in my heart and mind they remain an amorphous phantom that is prone to distortions, justifications, and exaggerations.
Additionally, saying sins aloud removes any feelings of shame. Self-examination and advice from a confessor is part of the sacrament so that we may repent sincerely and cease to persist in particular sins. However, we go to confession not for self-knowledge but to be forgiven. This absolution and freedom I received is the real gift of confession; a witness confirms that our repentance is sufficient to wash our sins away. Over the years I had done things that were a source of shame. I was convinced that if I ever said them out loud to another person I’d be immediately rejected. These memories were a continual sense of torment. Saying them all aloud for the first time was certainly an intense experience, but having another person hear them and not immediately recoil in horror was a relief (though I must say after my first confession I was a bit hung up on the two drink limit to fully appreciate it). After my confession, my spiritual father took the paper I had written my confession on and tore it into many pieces. Then he threw it into his fireplace to be burned. It drove home that what I had done, once confessed, was gone and that I was free.
In Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann once remarked that confession and repentance are often viewed merely as a juridical transaction, an event where we fess up and rebalance the scales. Instead, repentance must be a realization of the profound alienation of man from God as long as he persists in his own self-sufficiency. He writes:
“It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home.”
Throughout my drinking, I felt that profound alienation that Fr. Schmemann speaks of. When I hit bottom and realized I could no longer drink, I saw the path home. If it weren’t confession I would not have been brought to that point.
However, it is a journey that is by no means over. While I have abstained from alcohol, there are still plenty of other temptations and occasional missteps. I still sin, but I do not despair. I still fear rejection and judgment leading up to confession, but my sense of relief after each one continues to grow each time. The shame I feel at my failings is washed away with the hope that comes with repentance. The words of the monk were true; I’ve found at least a little peace.
Nathaniel Torrey is the editor of the Work channel at Humane Pursuits. He has been trying to live up to his namesake his entire life, but has only started in earnest since May 2013. He is a graduate from St. John’s College and works at the Institute on Religion & Democracy.