“Confession or revelation of everything to the spiritual father is
the most salutary action in the matter of our spiritual warfare.”
St. Nikodemos the Hagiroite
The Moscow Patriarchate’s Monastic Bulletin has written several times about how Optina Hermitage continues the tradition of book publishing that existed in the monastery before its closure in 1918. Many books are being republished in an updated format, previously published lives of the Optina Elders are being expanded, and new works are coming to light. In March of this year, the Optina Hermitage publishing house published a book about confession, repentance, and the revelation of thoughts. In this interview, Daria Filatova speaks with the author-compiler of the new edition, Hieromonk Dmitry (Volkov), on these essential topics.
—Fr. Dmitry, how did the idea of compiling the new book, Confession and the Revelation of Thoughts in the Spiritual Heritage of the Optina Elders come about?
—The first book was about the Jesus Prayer. So, Confession and the revelation of thoughts are essentially supplements to the work of prayer. This wasn’t adequately conveyed in the first text. And the second reason is the importance of the topic itself: After all, not everyone prays the Jesus Prayer, but everyone without exception goes to Confession. At the same time, even monastics encounter their own difficulties. They often accumulate, and the person doesn’t even realize he has any problems with Confession.
—That is, the book is meant to teach Confession or the revelation of thoughts?
—Of course, the book is of an applied nature. In this edition, we tried to reflect everything the Elders said about Confession and the revelation of thoughts. Our aim is to bring the words of the Elders to the reader, and put them, as they say, on a candlestick (cf. Lk. 8:16).
—Has the tradition of daily revelation of thoughts that existed in Optina Hermitage resumed after the revival of the monastery?
—Of course. Our monastery has a confessor for the brothers, and he has assistants from among the older brethren. Each of them is assigned as the spiritual guide for a certain number of brothers. Therefore, the monks living here have all the necessary conditions for daily Confession and revelation of thoughts. Although, much depends on the personal disposition of the monks.
—Do the brothers confess often?
—Everything is very individualized. We consider that the more often you confess the better, but there’s no formal norm here—it’s different for each person. Some go to Confession once a week, some every day, or every other day. Those who confess more often, as a rule, talk about more minute sins and thoughts: They condemned someone, they murmured, they couldn’t endure reproach.
—In confessing more often, does a monastic become more attentive to the movements of his soul? What did the Optina Elders say about this?
—Confession and the revelation of thoughts are essential for spiritual prosperity. There is no progress without it. On the other hand, there’s a measure for everything. It’s not always useful to detect the subtle movements of the soul. Rather, it’s possible to catch them, but then what to do with them? Much here depends on personal disposition.
Thus, many laymen weren’t blessed by the Holy Fathers to do subtle introspection. After all, the main practice of battling with the thoughts is to cut them off without any kind of examination, and our goal isn’t to learn how to distinguish thoughts more subtly, but that we wouldn’t have them at all. The same applies to the frequency of Confession. We don’t have examples in the Elders where they counseled someone to go to Confession a specific number of times a week. It’s all a matter of free will. A man decides, according to his spiritual strength and the advice of his spiritual father, how often he should go to Confession, and what his confession should be like.
—It’s good to go to Confession with elders… But what should we do now, when, according to common opinion, there aren’t any such God-enlightened elders left?
—Well… much depends on faith. For some, there are such elders now. People go to their spiritual fathers and they receive admonition and instruction from them according to their faith. On the other hand, if you walk through the Optina necropolis, you can find the inscription, “father-confessor,” on several gravestones. That is, there were elders, and there were also officially appointed father-confessors, whom some of the brethren and laymen would go see. It’s the same now. Perhaps we don’t have any clairvoyant elders like in the nineteenth century, but spiritual guidance hasn’t stopped. Moreover, the goal of eldership has always been that the novice would learn to cut off his own will and live according to the will of God. And this can be achieved even with a “lack” of elders.
—Can you tell us, why in the lives of the Elders do they talk more about the revelation of thoughts than Confession?
—We have to understand that the Elders lived in a different time and the attitude towards Confession was different. In our day, the Sacrament of Confession is inextricably connected with the Sacrament of Communion. In this regard, people quite often ask in Confession: “I’m not going to receive Communion. Can I still confess?” What does this speak to? That in the consciousness of the people, the two Sacraments don’t exist in isolation from each other. Today, Confession has lost its independent character to some degree and has become a kind of “ticket” to Communion. But in the time of the Elders, they communed far less often. Accordingly, they confessed less often. Now, regular Confession is increasingly turning into revelation of thoughts. In old Optina, the brethren also practiced revelation of thoughts, but the elder could cover them with his stole and read the prayer of absolution if he considered it necessary. That is, one smoothly flows into the other, although an experienced monk who isn’t ordained can hear the revelation of thoughts, while only a priest can hear confessions.
—If we take a layman who rarely goes to church and rarely confesses, then, of course, he’s going to talk about his sinful deeds, not about his thoughts, simply because his actions, not his thoughts, will be at the forefront of his mind. With the purification of the soul and spiritual maturation, a man moves from confessing grievous sins to confessing his daily thoughts and minor transgressions. What does he confess, for example? Idle talk, he judged someone or got angry, but he didn’t show it—he restrained himself and kept quiet. He understands that this is a sin and he brings it to Confession. In cases like this, Confession essentially turns into the revelation of thoughts.
—You said the Holy Fathers sometimes forbade a detailed self-analysis and digging into our thoughts. That means laymen don’t need to do revelation of thoughts?
—It’s not that they forbade it, but we do find such thoughts in St. Ignatius. The Optina Elders talk about it sometimes, but there’s no prohibition for the laity to practice revelation of thoughts. It’s just that a layman has many different events and experiences in his life: meetings, conversations, news—all this simmers inside, leaving its mark, and if you like, its aftertaste. It’s not always easy to make sense of this whirlwind of impressions, because they’re not only connected with the external side of life, but also affect a man’s plans, his goals, his desires. When examining the thoughts, it can happen that all the impressions that have settled inside will again start to disquiet and fill a man’s consciousness. Remembering some incident, he experiences it a second and third time and gets worked up. Often, he does come out of such self-analysis not purified, but on the contrary, confirmed in his sinful intentions, for example, in his desire for revenge. This is the danger.
The book has a separate chapter about “checking yourself.” This is when a man sits down, let’s say, in the evening and recalls everything that happened throughout the day. This practice is the most effective in a monastery. It was advised by Abba Dorotheos and other holy fathers, but it was advised to monastics. And why specifically to monks? The life of a monk is clearly structured: He gets up, Midnight Office, the service, after the service he goes to his obedience, then to lunch, then to rest, then continues his obedience, then the evening service. Such a routine is very useful for the spiritual life; everything is measured and has its own time. It’s much easier to watch yourself in such conditions than in the hustle and bustle of the world. Thus, we can say: What’s useful and necessary for monks isn’t always applicable to the life of laymen.
—Part of your book is dedicated to the battle with the thoughts. In short, how do we struggle against the thoughts?
—Battling with the thoughts isn’t easy—ideally, they shouldn’t even be accepted. However, the Optina Elders have a lot of advice about this. For example, in order to cut off lustful thoughts, St. Leo counseled to envision the torments of hell and eternal punishment for them, to remember death. One of the most effective weapons against them is the Jesus Prayer and the reading of Holy Scripture. But at the same time, we have to remember that many thoughts are a reflection of our inner aspirations and desires. That’s why they’re not so easy to overcome. To do so, we have to change, transfigure our entire lives. And that’s not a quick process.
—So how should we start the struggle with our thoughts?
—Again, with Confession and the revelation of thoughts. Frequent Confession makes them powerless. As the Holy Fathers say, the enemy doesn’t like it when his intrigues become known, and therefore Confession weakens the mental struggle.
—For monastics, Confession before tonsure is of particular importance. Is there a difference between everyday Confession and Confession before being tonsured?
—I think many have a similar question, because Confession before a tonsure seems to be something extraordinary. But in fact, Confession before a tonsure in no way differs from regular Confession. Before being tonsured, you should recall your sins from your former life, including from your time in the monastery, to conduct, so to speak, an audit of your sinful accumulations.
—But Confession before the tonsure has a sacred meaning for many. Why?
—Well, I don’t understand what the sacredness is here. Perhaps it’s from the prevailing opinion that the tonsure is like a second Baptism, after which all your sins are forgiven, and you’re reborn, as it were. But this opinion isn’t a dogma of the Church. During the tonsure, you take vows that naturally draw a certain line separating life before and after the tonsure. But still, this point shouldn’t be overestimated. The tonsure doesn’t transform you into a monk. That is, it transforms you from the outside, but to become a monk internally requires hard work. As St. Barsanuphius of Optina said, it takes twenty years to become a monk.
—In preparing for this interview, I read the words of St. Ephraim the Syrian, who said: “It’s not the tonsure or attire that makes a monk, but Heavenly desire and the Divine life, because in this is manifest the perfection of life.”
—Exactly. Although this sounds more like a rebuke to us. Previously, monks sat in their cells and they knew nothing besides their cells and church. And now we compile books and give interviews. St. Ephraim would be surprised…
—Thank God, and thank you for the interview!
The tradition of book publishing at Optina Hermitage dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. It began with Elder Macarius and the outstanding Russian philosopher Ivan Kireyevsky, and it’s thanks to them that the educational work of Optina has caught the eye of the whole of educated Russia. Later, Elder Macarius was replaced by Elder Ambrose in the obedience of head of the publishing house. The Optina press existed for nearly seventy years, stopping only in 1918, after the monastery was closed. Together with the revival of the monastic life in the Russian Orthodox Church, the traditions of our monasteries, including book publishing, also began to revive.