Protopriest Oleg Stenyaev. “An exam without the right to re-sit it: how can we pass the toll houses”.
There are people who, when making their confession, show false shame in front of a priest and conceal their sins. Such people are in a serious danger of being stuck at the second tollhouse. This kind of shame at making confession is related to the fact that when a person begins to communicate closely with a priest, he or she thinks that if they reveal all their sins, the priest will change his attitude to a negative one. In fact, it’s the devil who whispers such thoughts into one’s ears. The opposite is true: a priest, if he feels that the confession is not sincere, may become cold towards this person. When a priest sees that the person trusts him completely, he gets compassion for such a person.
The First Epistle of John states, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 John, 1:9-10). I mean, if we are not hiding anything in confession, we will be forgiven. If we say that we have not sinned, then ‘we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’. If we go to confession and we are doing it in front of a priest, being selfish, concealing our sins or looking for some kind of excuse, there is a danger that we may be stuck at the second tollhouse.
Orthodox people usually have two extremes when making the confession. One is the following:
The priest asks, ‘What are your sins?’
And a person says, ‘I have no sins!’
I sometimes say to this, ‘If you have no sins, you should go to a synagogue or a mosque. There are people who believe they can build a relationship with God through their own efforts. We all are the sinners who need a Mediator. This Mediator is Jesus Christ. Everything that happens in the church is for sinners only. By confession, sins are absolved; the responsibility for sins is relieved, as for the acts performed. By the Holy Communion the inclination to sin is burnt down. We perform the Unction with Oil, as “God's grace is invoked on the sick, to heal him of spiritual and bodily infirmities” and even those infirmities that a person can overlook in his or her life (forgotten sins): “and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:15). Our priests are ordained, as “the divine grace always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking”. Our church is like an intensive care unit. And if you have no sins, this place isn’t for you.’
The other extreme is this: a person at the confession says, ‘Father, I have sinned in everything!’
My late confessor Father Dmitry Dudko taught me what to do in such cases.
I ask, ‘Who did you stab, then? The man is embarrassed and says, ‘I didn’t stab anyone!’
‘What did you do, then?
And the conversation begins, the Confession begins.
The devil makes people think that you have to hide your problems from a shepherd. A shepherd must know his sheep’s problems, otherwise how can he help them? And those people who lie, especially at the Confession, can get stuck at the second tollhouse.
As a shepherd who has served long enough, I can say that nothing can surprise a priest at confession. I’ve been in the priesthood for over twenty-five years, and I can assure you that a priest during a confession can’t be surprised by anything. Everything you say is said by the same people who stand beside you. In his time, the righteous father John of Kronstadt obtained a permission for the collective confession from the Synod because there were many people who wanted to make their confession by him. It went like that: in St Andrew Cathedral in Kronstadt lights were turned off, only two lamps were lit: in front of the icon of Jesus Christ on iconostasis and in front of the icon of the Mother of God on iconostasis. Confession began. One man, who was at that confession, described how people around him started screaming. A woman started screaming that she had killed her unborn baby, a man screaming that he had incest, someone else screaming different things. The first thought of a soul that found itself in such conditions would be, ‘There is hell around me!’ However, when this man looked inside himself, he saw the same sins, and he started screaming them out. He started screaming, too. So know, you all, that false shame at confession can really prevent people from going through the second tollhouse.