Know Thyself: The Healing Sacrament of Confession
“You have a job to do, soul, and a great one, if you like: examine yourself, what it is you are and how you act, where you come from, and where you are going to end, and whether to live in this very life you are living, or something else besides. You have a job to do, soul: by these things cleanse yourself.” ~ St. Gregory the Theologian
“Know Thyself” was carved at the entrance of the temple of Delphi. It became a mantra among the Greek philosophers; a pillar of philosophy and spirituality. This same emphasis on self-knowledge was later taken up by the Church Fathers, but in a new light, in the healing grace of Holy Confession. In this vein, St. Gregory wrote his poem to the soul, urging the soul to know itself. Who are you? What are the patterns in your thoughts, behaviors, and lifestyle? What inside you needs to be given over to God, healed, and renewed?
Christ told Peter: “Launch out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Lk. 5:4). Our Lord is speaking directly to us. “Launch out into the deep.” But where is this deep? Ἐπανάγαγε εἰς τὸ βάθος. Launch out into the βάθος (in Greek). St. Paul speaks of the “βάθος of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” — the bottomless, unfathomable depth of God’s beauty. Yet, being made in God’s image, our souls also share a depth like God’s.
The scriptures talk about the great “βάθος of the heart of man” (Jd. 8:14). Psalm 139, in particular, is about our struggle to let God into the βάθος to search us out and transform us.
“LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways…”
God knows the βάθος in your heart, your hidden thoughts, all your complicated motivations, the inner secrets in your heart. He knows you, and he loves you. Yet, it is not enough for God to know yourself. You must know yourself. Psalm 139 continues:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:1-3, 23, 24).
This is a two way road.
We have to invite God within us. The prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart,” is an invitation to a kind of relationship with God, of searching, self-revealing, and sharing. We are asking God to shine a light into our soul, to unearth every impurity that hides in a little nook or crany, and refine us.
“Launch out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Lk. 5:4).
Launch out into the deep water of your soul. Cast down your nets for a catch. Examine yourself. Start digging so that everything buried inside you can be given over.
How do we accomplish this? This is why Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrament of Confession. This powerful tool of holiness is the center of the entire Christian life. All genuine spirituality begins with confessing one’s words, deeds, and thoughts. Metropolitan Joseph teaches:
“Confession is not an option which we can choose or not choose to do. It is absolutely necessary for our spiritual healing and well-being, and those who think they can go without Confession for long periods of time are setting a trap.”
Confession is not an option for being truly human. It means we are free enough to stop hiding, to face ourselves, and then face God. St. Theophan the Recluse explains:
“Undoubtedly you will be forgiven, but first you must confess your transgressions without concealment. Know that only an open wound can be treated, only exposed dirt can be cleansed, only those bonds that are shown can be untied. Beware, lest you leave unhealed, uncleansed, and enslaved.”
God’s forgiveness is powerful. It extends to all of us, covers ever sin, and heals every wound. However, his forgiveness can only reach what we open up to him. God will not walk through a door that is not opened to him. He is a gentleman.
The word for confession, in Greek, is ἐξομολόγησις. When the Book of James tells us to confess our sins, he uses this word, ἐξομολόγησις (James 5), which as has two words in it: (1) ἐξο: to draw out or reel in (like a fishing rod), and (2) λόγος: one’s inner being or voice. The Sacrament of Confession is the part of our Christian life where we are doing just that, reeling in, digging, unearthing our inner self and bathing it in God’s healing grace.
This is our Christian work. Fr. Gregory Bruner, in Rossford, OH, says it in a very practical way.
“When we refuse to regularly partake of the sacrament of Confession, we run the risk of disconnecting our inner spiritual life from our public behavior. We end up compartmentalizing our lives living in two separate worlds. We adopt a form of “church behavior” that has little impact on our daily lives…Confession offers the opportunity to break through the wall of pretentious Church behavior and bring us back to the reality of what it means to be “baptized into Christ.”
In other words, we cannot know ourselves without frequent confession. We run the risk of living pretend lives. The more we are in the habit of confessing, the more aware we become of the authentic self.
The more real we are, the more we can begin to repent.
“Launch out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter responds. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (Lk. 5:5).
The fishermen had worked all day long and had got nothing. They were exhausted, with little to show. Is not this how it goes, when we labor on our own? It was not until working together with Christ that the disciples caught fish. So it is in our own lives when we finally open our souls to God. When we dare to stand before God, face to face, in open confession, then the healing begins. Through this beautiful sacrament, Holy Confession, Christ has given us the opportunity to become alive and whole.
“You have a job to do, soul, and a great one, if you like: examine yourself, what it is you are and how you act, where you come from, and where you are going to end, and whether to live in this very life you are living, or something else besides. You have a job to do, soul: by these things cleanse yourself.”