Coming Closer to Christ: Confession and forgiveness
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Church Times Bookshop £9.90
COMING CLOSER is a collection of five talks and eight sermons given by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom between 1968 and 2001, followed by his answers to questions posed by some of his parishioners and followers. It is full of practical advice and profound wisdom — helpful for Christians of any denomination, not only for the Orthodox — on the nature of sin, on the human need for forgiveness, and on how to approach self-examination and confession.
He uses vivid metaphors, sometimes arising from his training as a doctor, to explain the link between forgiveness and healing, and compares self-examination to the work of an archaeologist, suggesting that it is better to deal with matters on the surface first before trying to dig deeper.
The purpose of confession, he emphasises, is always to bring a person closer to Christ; thus it should never be superficial, but “truly yours”, never a list of sins, which, very often, he found penitents did not even understand. His words are both practical, stressing the need for small steps that gradually build up “spiritual muscles”, and realistic about the long process involved sometimes in forgiving and healing past memories.
It is refreshing to learn that self-examination should start with the positive, with looking for God’s image rather than for what is ugly in oneself, and, to illustrate this point, Metropolitan Anthony’s humour breaks through as he recounts the story of a parishioner from the distant past who, in her efforts to find scraps of his letters out of curiosity, fell head first into his dustbin:
Above her there was the blue sky, there was the fresh air, there was the greenery of spring, there were the birds — and she was totally immersed rooting in the delicious scents of the dustbin.
Faced with the rigidity of much Russian Orthodox religious practice in Russia today, a Russian Orthodox Christian will find Metropolitan Anthony liberating, as he emphasises the spirit rather than the letter of the law. He does not consider that it is necessary for a person to make an individual confession to a priest every time before receiving communion, as confession, in his view, is not simply a “stepping-stone”, but a separate sacrament. And, on the question of fasting, he takes the path of good sense: as a doctor, he deemed it wiser to break his fast rather than endanger the health of his patients.
All through this collection, although in places repetitious, the sound of Metropolitan Anthony’s voice comes through and inspires: brief but unforgettable is his description of his own conversion, surrounded as he then was by the misery of émigré life after the Russian Revolution:
I remember what happened when I suddenly felt that God exists. . . I came into the street, looked around at people and thought: “God loves every one of these people. I will love them even at the cost of my life, because I want to be with God and not without him.”
Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.