The fifth degree of humility is, humbly to confess to the abbot every unlawful thought as it arises in the heart, and the hidden sins we have committed. The Scripture advises this, saying: “Reveal your way to God and hope in him”: and again: “Confess to God because he is good: for his mercy endureth for over.” And in the prophet: “I have made known my sin to thee, and have not covered my iniquities. I have said, I will declare to God my own iniquities against myself: and thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart.”
While none of us in the world have an abbot, many of us have a priest or other spiritual elder or a counselor. While I would greatly caution my readers not to make confessions to an inexperienced and untrained confessor, there is much good—and humility—that can come from regularly confessing “every unlawful thought” to a wise person who can be trusted.
I never thought beforehand that the sacrament of confession would be one of my top selling-points for the Orthodox Church, but that changed after I was chrismated. The Church offers free spiritual counseling from someone who has been trained to actually know what he is talking about and who could lose his job if he ever failed to keep what he heard secret.
This tradition goes way back in the Church, all the way to the fathers of the Egyptian desert, if not before. In Ireland and other Celtic lands a confessor was referred to as an anamchara, a soul-friend. In Russian and Slavic lands such a person is known as a staretz. Historically, they can be either men or women, though only priests can administer the sacrament of confession.
In any case, traditionally they are not always clergy, though they are always well-tested spiritual guides. For St. Benedict, this was the sort of person the abbot of any monastery following his rule ought to be.
Without being a monk, who would be able to practice such confession daily, I am not able to get into such depth as “every unlawful thought.” However, I am still able to say, “This is what I am struggling with …” and receive insightful and sensitive guidance.
From a purely practical, psychological point of view, this is an extremely healthy thing. It prevents a person from feeling trapped in their passionate ways. Confession is a destroyer of spiritual fatalism.
On the other hand, knowing that I ought to go to confession regularly helps me notice better when I do sin: E.g. Oh boy, now I have to tell Fr. Nick that I did that. And it helps me think twice (sometimes) before doing something I regret: E.g. do I really want to tell Fr. Nick that I did that?
In helping bring our sin to light, confession is a powerful means of building humility. It is difficult to be humble when unaware of what a jerk one can be sometimes. And taking time to slow down and reflect on one’s thoughts affords an opportunity to critically examine one’s deeper motivations and desires, which often are not as noble as we might like them to be.
But this is part of the logic of humility: we must bring ourselves down in order to be raised up. The sheep that was slaughtered, which as I wrote previously is what sheep were for, was also the one without blemish. Those were the ones that God accepted.
There is another image that fits this context as well:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside his garments, took a towel and girded himself. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. Then he came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.”
Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean.”
This episode at the Last Supper is a traditional image of confession. Christians are washed entirely through their communion with Christ through baptism. They are then like Simon Peter, they need only to take the time to periodically clean their feet from the dirt they have picked up on the road. And, again, it is Christ who, like a humble servant, does the washing.
There is no tension for St. Benedict between confessing to the abbot and confessing to God. In confession one opens their mind to Christ in the person of the confessor. While God already knows our hearts, the important part about the act is that we let go of these things—this is how he washes our spiritual feet.
And in this way, too, confession is humbling, that God would wrap a towel around his waist to wash the dirty feet of the people he has made. In humbling himself, he puts before us a sharp contrast between Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, and us, who again and again discover new blemishes upon our souls. Here again we find the fear of God in the contrast, but the love of God in the action of Jesus. “For,” writes St. John, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).
This is the fifth step. Confession always seems so fearful beforehand, but so freeing afterward. In humbly allowing others to bear our burdens with us, we discover that, truly, “the burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).