Metropolitan Anthony (Krapovitsky). "Confession".
8. Fear of Admitting a Sin.
Several spiritual fathers in monasteries have disclosed to me that God has helped them obtain from penitents the admission of sins which they could not bring themselves to confess at previous confessions over the course of ten or twenty years. This had tormented them for their whole lives and they already considered themselves doomed for eternity, knowing that the Church says, “If thou hidest anything from me, thou hast a greater sin; take heed therefore, lest, having come to a physician, thou depart unhealed.” These sins may be very shameful and impure, unnatural sins against the seventh commandment, such as incest, bestiality or corruption of children; all these happen extremely often, and sometimes with people who are respected by those around them. On the other hand, they may be criminal offences: murder, infanticide, theft, robbery, attempted poisoning, malicious slander out of jealousy or envy, inspiring hatred against one’s neighbor, incitement of others against the Church and faith, and so on. If the priest directly poses a question about such a sin, the penitent will probably not deny it, but he cannot bring himself to tell of his offence voluntarily.
However, it is impossible to question each person about such abominable sins. After finishing the usual questions, you should ask in a quiet, gentle voice, “Perhaps there is some sin which you are ashamed to confess? Perhaps there is something which you could not resolve to say about your sins at earlier confessions, or forgot, and then remembered and did not dare to tell the priest?” It is extremely possible that the parishioner will answer affirmatively, but will still hesitate to say what exactly it was.
Sometimes at this moment, people (especially women) start to weep and tremble, they become covered in sweat, but cannot resolve to speak. Then show even greater sympathy and affection and say, “Put aside your shame so that you will not be ashamed at the Dread judgement before everyone. Here, apart from me and the angels, nobody will know anything, and you will not shock your brother the priest by your sin; in a single day we have heard such things that nothing can astonish us any more.” If the person confessing still cannot bring himself to say directly what it was, then say to him, “Well, perhaps it will be easier for you to confess if I ask you questions according to the commandments: does your sin concern the seventh commandment against pleasures of the flesh? Or stealing or doing evil to people? Or blaspheming?,” and so on. When you are given an answer about the type of sin, then ask what sin it was exactly and enumerate the possibilities. Simple people sometimes cannot even give a name to their sin; then ask descriptively. When the penitent, realizing that you are not fiercely trying to condemn him, but are a friend, suffering with him, finally tells about his offense, do not be horrified or angry, for he has already reproached himself enough. Only lament, asking why he had not spoken of this before, why he had hidden it at his previous confessions: indeed, he could have died without admitting it and his soul have perished forever. Those who lie at confession usually end their earthly life by suicide. Let the sinner consider God’s mercy towards him, in that He did not deprive him of the possibility of confessing his sin.
Then tell him what penance, and how long an exclusion from the Holy Mysteries is prescribed for this by the canons. But if you see that he is deeply penitent and if the sin was committed long ago, then consider whether you should not let him receive Communion the next day, and demand that he make good the consequences of his sin, either immediately or over the course of time. If he took something unlawfully, he should return it, if he has dishonoured someone, he should make amends, or ask forgiveness; if he has begotten illegitimate children, he should support them, and so on. Then, if he is deeply moved and clearly wishes to free his conscience from the sin, give him a penance.
But first ask him if he prays at all or comes to church. If he does neither one nor the other, then of course there will be no sense laying fasts upon him, but give him as a penance a vow to say three or four prayers in the morning and evening and constantly to remember about his fall with repentance before God. If he is a religious person, then give him a rule of prayer or send him on a pilgrimage to a distant monastery, but first find out the circumstances of his life and do not announce the penance like a prophet, but apply healing with intelligence.
We will probably return to penances, but now it is appropriate to mention that despondency1 and despair in penitents should be feared no less than stony insensibility.
These feelings oppress them after sins that cannot be put right, such as infanticide or abortion, causing someone irremediable harm or misfortune, and sometimes people succumb to despondency simply by reason of their own afflictions — the death of children, seen as a punishment from God for former sins, or other perplexing events.
Healing spiritual children of these demonic temptations — despondency and despair — is achieved not so much through explaining the truths of God (such as recalling the saving of the Wise Robber on the cross, Zaccheus, the harlot and so on), as by showing brotherly sympathy and compassion. “If I am sorry for you, then will not your Heavenly Father have pity on you? Know, brother, that despondency is from the devil; that is why we pray during Lent with prostrations to the ground that God will not let us descend to despondency. Bear in mind that despondency and despair always have the poison of pride or self-love hidden them, the seed of a certain grumbling and reproach of Providence, which has let one fall into misfortune or sin. Drive away from yourself such embittered feelings against God or people and admit that you are yourself entirely to blame for having given yourself up to the evil suggestions of the devil or of evil people, and have let yourself slip — that it is not God Who has offended you, but you yourself have offended God, sinned against Him and many times turned away from His all-powerful right hand. Then the heavy stone of embitterment will fall from your heart, and with it despondency will also fall away, and you will raise up prayers of repentance to the Lord with compunction and contrition, and after that joyful thanksgiving.”