Confession is a sacramental rite which is, to my admittedly somewhat incomplete knowledge, waning amongst the Roman Catholic communities (especially in the US) and very rare to non-existent in the Protestant communities. For myself, as a somewhat recent convert to Orthodoxy (a community which has not left confession behind), I have had had just a little exposure to confession. I have found the experience, actually, surprisingly salutary. Father Andrew, the priest of my parish, shared some interesting thoughts on confession which I would like to attempt to share.
A common notion about confession is that is a juridical one. In the juridical view, we confess to Christ with the priest as our advocate and adviser of the sins of which we are aware. After (and perhaps by) our confession and repentance we are then forgiven those sins. The juridical formula is clear. We admit our guilt and sin, we repent and are perhaps assigned penance, and are forgiven and our slate wiped clean.
This is not the Orthodox understanding of confession. When I am in a relationship with someone I love, sharing of our thoughts, our desires and so on is part of growing close to that person. Of those thoughts and desires and actions regarding the beloved which were contrary to that relationship which are accompanied by repentance and sorrow are especially important toward growing ever closer. Confession to the beloved of those actions and thoughts are especially painful and difficult. Often the difficulties, especially with a loving and forgiving lover, lie not with the other but with the facing of those part of one’s self. But the experience is enormously helpful in growing ever closer to your beloved. Confession then is exactly this sort of sharing. It is sacramental because it involves our relationship with God. Its purpose is to help us in our striving toward Theosis, toward communion with the Creator. It can be hard, in fact should be difficult. Because, honesty about our failings hurts. Facing our sinful nature and in particular our memories of our past sins is needful for this is one of the large obstacles holding us back from growing closer to God. Confession of these sins helps us move beyond these memories and helps us to confront those parts of ourselves.
The weakness of the juridical view of confession is that it is less effective in aiding us in repentance and to move to a place in our relationship with God in which we are less likely to commit those same sins yet again. A communal sacramental view of confession is stronger. It places the motivation in a different place as well. It is not a penal/juridical action. It is an action which is intended, like so very many other parts of this season of Great Lent, to bring us closer to God. That is a motivation which seems at the very least, much more positive in outlook and ultimately if stronger a better one to help us tame our passions and to stoke the fire of the Spirit of God within us.