I wait on a side pew with several others. Vespers and vigil have ended and most of us are sitting in silence. In the far left corner of the sanctuary our priest sits with someone. We sit and wait, none of us impatient.
Like a waiting room in a doctor’s office, each of us come with our own particular needs, pains, sorrows.
My mind travels back to Chicago and my pregnancy with my firstborn. I didn’t yet know that it would be a baby girl and that we would name her Annie. I sit in the small waiting room of a midwifery practice. The room is full, all of us at various stages of pregnancy, some of us accompanied by husbands, mothers, or others. We sit and wait, none of us impatient. Because each of us know that when our turn comes the midwife we are waiting for will have eyes and ears only for us. We will be her focus, our problems and pregnancies the only thing that matters right then. The midwife will examine each one of us with care, checking the heart beat of the baby, measuring our expanding bellies to make sure our babies are growing properly. At times she will ask a question, at times she will give advice or a warning. We are all grateful for this midwife. She is amazing and gifted. We wouldn’t think of going through an important time like pregnancy without her.
When we leave we are encouraged and comforted, moving forward and resolving to have as healthy a pregnancy as possible. And each of us will return, not at the same time intervals — some will come in a week, some in two weeks, some in a month. But we will all return.
Somehow this waiting in the church feels similar to the waiting for the midwife. We are waiting for confession. None of us impatient because we know when it’s our turn we will have the undivided attention of a priest who is called to walk with us through this spiritual journey. He will listen to us, ask an occasional question, at times give advice or a warning. Like a waiting room in the midwife practice, each of us come with our own particular confessions, needs, pains, sorrows.
Confession in the Orthodox Church is not about confessing so a priest will forgive you. The belief is that no one can forgive but God. The priest serves as witness to the confession. So we confess our sins to God with the priest present. He in turn gives advice, counsel, or encouragement. We live in a society where self-help, advice columns, and ‘bettering oneself’ are daily topics of writers, pop psychologists and motivational speakers. There is a constant stream of information for those who are on the journey of self discovery, of self betterment. I find it ironic that despite this, people think it odd and archaic that a priest be involved in the process of confession. The message is clear as is the irony of that message – it’s okay to go to everybody else for advice or help, but a priest? Why would you need to go to a priest?
In honesty, I too pushed back at this idea for a long time – these things are no big deal, I thought, and as long as I’m being honest with God then that’s all that matters. But the accountability is compelling and there is comfort and growth in learning how to confess honestly before someone I trust. I know I am a novice at this practice of confession. I had my first confession just days before baptism and that was a life confession. Think about that for a minute — I’m 54. That’s a lot of life. That’s a whole lot of bad, an abundance of wrong, a life-time of needing to say I’m sorry or I forgive. But in a way that one time life confession feels easier than the regular act of going before God and confessing that I still struggle with the same things – envy, pride, discontent over, and over, and over again. So I still don’t know what to do and when, instead I am learning as I go. But one thing I am clear on is that I need help. one thing I am convinced of is that I need the cross.
The sanctuary is gradually emptying out. Only a few of us remain. Daylight has gone, replaced by the soft glow of lights and candles in the church. It’s my turn – the wait has ended and I go, nervous but at peace that just as I couldn’t go through my pregnancies without a midwife to walk beside me, I can’t go through my spiritual journey without the same.
To Confess your sins to God is not to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the Golden Gate bridge. ~ Frederick Buechner