Preparation for the Sacrament of Confession

Sermon by Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov).

Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov)

Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees).

Beloved brethren! We have reached the haven of the holy fast. Let us now set aside special time for an especially attentive, detailed review of ourselves. The gates of repentance have now opened wider to us.

Dwellers of the holy monastery! Christ’s closest disciples! True children of the Church, who do ever abide at her spiritual breast! It would be more appropriate to those of our calling not to require a special time set aside for being attentive to ourselves, for cleansing away our sinful stains by confession and repentance; it would be fitting for us if our entire lives would consist of unceasing attention and unceasing repentance—if only our lives would correspond to our name as monks. The example of purity to which we should aspire is perfect. That example is our Lord Jesus Christ. But as He which hath called you is holy, says the Apostle, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy (1 Pet. 1:15–16). In accordance with the infinite perfection of this example of purity, the field of repentance and purification is infinite. Even if one were to pass through this field with all possible zeal and diligence, he could still not attain to perfect purity, even if his life of constant repentance were to go on for a thousand years; even then he would not reach complete purification. The greatest of monks were acutely aware at the time of their death that not only had they not fully repented, but that they had not even begun to repent.[1] But because of our ever growing and multiplying infirmities, on the day our soul departs from this earthly life will be very far from that sanctity with which our holy fathers, those chosen vessels of God and desert dwellers, departed from their bodies. They are now dwellers of heaven, because they diligently abided in repentance during their sojourn through the desert of earthly life.

So! Those who live their lives with absolute attentiveness, constantly watching out for their souls, noticing all the multifarious movements of sin, continually treating themselves against this poison with repentance—still do not attain the fullness of spiritual perfection. What then is there to say for those who live carelessly, constantly distracted, never thinking, or thinking very rarely, as if in passing, about what most of all needs to be thought about—their salvation?

I will say of them what has already been said of them; I will pronounce the sentence that was already pronounced. I will say it with bitterness of heart, but without mistake, because I am merely repeating the Apostle’s words, the words of God. The widow that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth (1 Tim. 5:5-6). Do not think that these words are directed only at widows according to the flesh! No, they apply even more succinctly to me and you, who have renounced the world to serve Christ. A monk is a widow indeed, for whom the world should be dead. Have you called yourself dead to the world and this vain age in order to come alive for God and blessed eternity? Carefully search the Scriptures, carefully search yourself, check the state of your soul against the state prescribed for it in the Scriptures, and tell me: are you really dead to the world? In any case, have you begun your mortification? Have you felt your enlivenment in God? Have your thoughts and desires gone to live in the future age? It is a very rare person who can answer these questions affirmatively. Most likely each of us must recognize the justness of that terrible sentence passed on us. This sentence is harsh to the ears and hearts of fleshly lovers of this world, but it is better to hear it now, while our earthly sojourn is still ongoing, than after our time of repentance and correction has ended. If my words have produced fear and distress in you, then blessed is that fear, and that sadness is longed-for! For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of (2 Cor. 7:10). Working in us for a time, it will direct us to flee from the sorrow and languishing, terrible by their eternity and by the horrible torment they produce—torments that cannot be expressed in words, unfathomable by our mind and perception.

Let each one of us investigate himself, test in himself the words that I am going to pronounce unto the salvation of your and my souls!

Paradise was appointed for us; heaven, eternal blessedness are waiting for us if we will live here piously, fulfilling our vows given at Baptism, repeated at our tonsure into monasticism, and supplemented by the vows of non-possession and chastity. But we do not pay any attention to the blessedness prepared, just as a sleeping man is numb to those surrounding him and waiting for him to awaken to the pleasantness and delights of this life. We never think about the ineffable future blessings; our thoughts are always on the earth, in earthly pleasures, earthly cares. Are we not dead in soul, although we are imagined to be alive by the carnal-minded, who see only with fleshly eyes?[2]

Hell is appointed for us—eternal flames, the undying worm for continual eating away and tearing at us, if we live our earthly life in sins and sinful pleasures. But we seek out these pleasures, we run after them; in them are our desires and thoughts. We live as if there were no hell, as if we were immortal and destined to live eternally on earth, as if we had already attained infinite blessedness. In vain does the threat of God’s Word thunder, in vain does it warn us of the terrible, unending torments! We see the death of our brothers, we participate in their burials, but this makes no impression on us at all, as if death were the lot of others, not of us. We are like the dead; we have neither remembrance nor presentiment of death, no remembrance or presentiment of the future. We are precisely, dead. Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead (Rev. 3:1), is a testimony of the true Word of God against every fleshly person.

For us the Son of God came down to earth and trampled our death by His death; He has become for us life and the way to that life. He requires of us that we crucify our flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal. 5:24). He requires it not because He Himself needs it but because we need it—only in a body deadened to sin can manifestations of grace-filled life unfold.[3] But we only hear the sound of the words, while the soul does not comprehend the words themselves—it is as if they are being pronounced in a foreign, unknown language. This is not surprising; this is the direct result of our spiritual state. He who is dead in body is not capable of any physical feeling. Let them glorify him, and give him unbounded wealth, or strip him naked and cover him with humiliation—he is insensible to everything. So also he who is dead in soul cannot understand spiritual words; he cannot feel spiritual blessings, have the all-important remembrance of death and eternal torments, or the due acknowledgment of the vanity of this world and age. It is such a clear and tangible knowledge, but he is poisoned and deadened by sin, and this makes him alien to God and blessedness and marks him as a victim for hell. The life of the body comes from the presence in it of the Holy Spirit.

Can I worthily praise the unfathomable mercy of the all-good God, His ineffable love for mankind? Shall I, along with the Prophet, call forth the hosts of angels, all tribes of man, and even more, all animals wild and tame, birds of the air, reptiles of the ground, fishes of all the great expanses of the sea, and all inanimate creation to join in these laudations? Even all creation united as one mouth, one voice of praise, could not worthily hymn the adored mercy of God that surpasses all words and comprehension. Come, brethren, let us worship and fall down at the feet of this mercy. Even until now it has borne long with our iniquities, it still waits for our conversion, still stretches forth its arms to embrace us, calling those who are wandering in desert places and the impassable thickets of sin. It receives the repentant sinners, making them sons and daughters of God. Now, hearing its voice calling you to repentance, harden not your hearts (Heb. 3:15); Who hath ears to hear, let him hear (Mat. 13:9); do not remain deaf. Awake thou that sleepest the deep sleep of carelessness and total neglect of your salvation! Arise from the dead (Eph. 5:14), you who are dead by your insensibility and hardness, by a life given over wholly as a sacrifice to the flesh, sin, and corruption! May I see in you the stirrings of life awakened from sleep by the word that heralds repentance! May I hear your voice, the voice of your sighing, your lamentation, your repentance, so that I might be assured that a sign, a remnant of life is yet within you! Seeing that you have spent all the days of your life fruitlessly, the Lord has again given you a day for labor-free salvation; a day in which by sincere confession before your spiritual father you may cast from your shoulders the entire yoke of your sins.

[1] St. Sisoes the Great. Alphabetical Patericon and Menaon, June 6.
[2] The Ladder, Step 18: On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body.
[3] St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 2.