The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way are among my current readings. It's the autobiography of a nineteenth century Russian peasant who wandered across the continent repeating the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."
He seems to be a righteous man—and while he considered himself a sinner, he also had begun to think of himself as fairly righteous. So, both he and I were astonished when a priest near Kiev woodshedded him. The Pilgrim had handed the priest a long list of his sins, and the priest replied, "You enumerated all the trivialities but ignored the most important thing; you did not reveal your serious sins. You did not acknowledge and did not write down that—
You don't love God.
You hate your neighbor.
You do not believe in the word of God.
You are full of pride and ambition.
"The entire abyss of evil and of our spiritual corruption lies in these four sins. They are the roots from which spring the shoots of all our other failings."
The Pilgrim was astonished to hear this and protested, and the priest replied, "To help you understand what I said, I will give you a list which I also use when I make my confession." Here is an abbreviated version of the priest's list: "The Confession of an Interior Man, Leading to Humility."
1. I do not love God.
For if I loved Him, then I would be constantly thinking of Him with heartfelt satisfaction. Every thought of God would fill me with joy and delight. On the contrary, I think more and with greater eagerness about worldly things, while thoughts of God present difficulty and aridity. If I loved Him, then my prayerful communion with Him would nourish, delight, and lead me to uninterrupted union with Him. But on the contrary, not only do I not find my delight in prayer, but I find it difficult to pray. I struggle unwillingly. I am weakened by slothfulness and am must willing to do anything insignificant only to shorten or end my prayer. In useless occupations I pay no attention to time, but when I am thinking about God, every hour seems like a year.
I greatly enjoy conversations about vain subjects which degrade the spirit, but in conversations about God I am dry, bored, and lazy. And if unwillingly I am drawn into a conversation about spiritual matters, I quickly change the subject to something which flatters my passions. I have avid curiosity about secular news and political events. I seek satisfaction for my love of knowledge in worldly studies, in science, art, and methods of acquiring possessions. But the study of the law of the LORD, knowledge of God and religion does not impress me, does not nourish my soul.
The love of God can be recognized by keeping His commandments. "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word," says the Lord Jesus Christ in John 14:23. I should conclude that I do not love God if I do not keep His commandments—and do not attempt to do so.
2. I do not love my neighbor.
According to the Gospel, I should be ready to lay down my life for the good of my neighbor. But I will not even sacrifice my peace and happiness for his good. If I loved my neighbor as myself, as the Gospel commands, then his misfortune would grieve me and his prosperity would bring me great joy. On the contrary, I listen with curiosity to accounts of my neighbor's misfortune and I am not grieved, but indifferent to them. What is more, I seem to find satisfaction in them. I do not sympathize with the failings of my brother, but I judge them and publicize them. My neighbor's welfare, honor, and happiness do not delight me as my own. I am either completely indifferent to them, or I am jealous or envious.
3. I do not have faith in spiritual realities.
I believe neither in immortality nor in the Gospel. If I were firmly convinced and believed without a doubt in eternal life and in retribution for our earthly actions, then I would be constantly thinking about this. The very thought of eternal life would inspire me with wonder and awe. I would live my life as an alien who is getting ready to enter his native land. On the contrary, I don't even think of eternity, and I consider the end of this life as the limit of my existence. I nurture a secret thought within and wonder, "Who knows what will happen after death?"
If I accepted the Holy Gospel with faith into my heart as the word of God, then I would be constantly occupied with it. I would study it, would delight in it, and with deep reverence would immerse myself in it. Wisdom, mercy, and love hidden within it would lead me to ecstasy. Day and night I would delight in the lessons contained in the law of God. They would daily be my spiritual bread, and I would earnestly strive to fulfill them. Nothing on earth would be strong enough to keep me from this.
On the contrary, even if I sometimes read or listen to the word of God, it is either out of necessity or curiosity. I do not delve deeply into it, but feely dryness or indifference to it. I receive no greater benefit from it than I do from secular reading. Further, I am eager to give it up promptly and go to worldly reading, in which I have greater interest and from which I get more satisfaction.
4. I am full of pride and self-love.
All my actions confirm this. When I see something good in myself, then I wish to display it or brag about it to others. Or interiorly, I am full of self-love even when outwardly I feign humility. I ascribe everything to my own ability, and I consider myself more perfect than others—or at least, not worse.
If I notice a vice in myself, then I try to excuse it or justify it. I pretend to be innocent or I claim that I couldn't help it. I am impatient with those who do not show me respect, and I consider them incapable of judging character. I am vain about my talents, and I cannot accept any failure in my actions. I grumble, and I am glad to see the misfortune of my enemies.
My intention in doing anything good is either praise, self-interest, or earthly comfort. In a word, I continuously make an idol out of myself, to whom I give unceasing service as I seek sensual delights and try to nourish my carnal desires.
Studying the guide to confession leads me to conclude that I am proud, adulterous, without faith. I do not love God, and I hate my neighbor. What state could be more sinful? The state of the spirits in darkness is better than my condition. Though they do not love God and hate men and are nourished by pride, at least they believe and tremble. But I? Can there be a worse fate than I am faced with? What is more strictly forbidden than the careless, slothful life which I recognize in myself?
This Orthodox priest really told it like it is, but we don't have to end in despair. We have the firm promise of I John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just. He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."