During Great Lent (a time when most faithful go to Confession), it is common for priests to receive questions about the purpose of this Holy Mystery.
Most often, faithful people sincerely want to know how the experience of Confession, and the pastoral guidance it offers, can be applied in daily life.
Our human tendency to go to extremes leaves us at one of two ends of the spectrum in the way we receive Holy Confession. In some cases, spiritual advice is received like a legal pronouncement, which place a straightjacket on any faithful person who takes it seriously. On the other extreme, spiritual advice might be received as a kind of "suggestion" - certainly not something sent from God, and without any meaningful weight for daily life.
Both extremes are wrong. The purpose of the canon law of the Church is to provide signposts to assist each of us on the road to saving our souls. Nothing could have a higher purpose. Spiritual advice, derived from Canons and Church Councils, is not about making us "good" using a set of rules: it is about helping us become holy, based on the collective experience of holy people.
Where canons and spiritual advice are received and accepted as the pastoral guidelines which in fact they are, they serve their purpose with compassion and flexibility. This is the Orthodox Christian understanding.
This therapeutic function of spiritual counsel, Confession, and Church canons is summed up well in the following short interview with Elder Paisios the Athonite:
Questioner: Elder, does the precise observance of the commandments help us feel God near us?
Elder Paisios: Which commandments? Those of the Mosaic Law?
Questioner: No, those of the Gospel.
Elder Paisios: The observance of the commandments does help, but it must be a correct and proper observance, for it is actually possible to observe the commandments wrongly. Spiritual life requires divine righteousness, not a dry observance of the law.
We see the discernment with which the Holy Fathers guided people even in the application of the Sacred Canons! Saint Basil the Great, the strictest Father of the Church who has written the most demanding canons, refers to a canon that applies to a particular sin, but then he himself adds, Do not examine the time but the manner of repentance. In other words, if two people commit the same sin, the Spiritual Father may impose on one man the penance not to receive Holy Communion for two years, while on the other he may impose only two months.
There can be that much of a difference!
Questioner: Does penance help one to cast out a passion?
Elder Paisios: One must understand that penance is meant to help someone. Otherwise, what can one say?
If you attempt to correct someone by physical punishment, you will accomplish nothing.
If you try to correct someone by force, Christ will turn to you on Judgment Day and say, "Were you a Diocletian?" To the punished one He will say, "What you achieved, you did so because you were forced to." We don't strangle someone in order to ensure Paradise for him; we try to help him seek some fruitful ascetic discipline for himself. He must come to the point of being joyful because he is living, and joyful because he is dying. Penances are left up to the discernment of the Spiritual Father.
The Spiritual Father must be uncompromisingly strict with him who sins callously. The one who is overcome by sin but who repents, becomes humble, and modestly asks for forgiveness, will be helped with discernment by his Spiritual Father to approach God again. This is what many of the Saints did.
Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian as a Spiritual Father did not usually give the people penances. He tried to bring them to an awareness so that they themselves, out of philotimo (heartfelt love), would choose to do some ascetic discipline or act of charity or other goodness. Whenever he observed a little child who was possessed or paralyzed and understood that the parents were the cause for the child's suffering, he would first heal the child and then impose a discipline on the parents to make them careful in the future.
Some people say, "Oh, this particular Spiritual Father is very patristic. He is very strict! He is smart, has a good memory, and knows the Pedalion (The Rudder - the book of Orthodox Canon Law - Ed.) by heart."
A Spiritual Father who applies precisely the rules contained in the Pedalion, however, may harm the Church. Does it do any good when the Spiritual Father takes the Pedalion and begins: "What sin have you committed? This one. What is written here about it? This many years abstention from Holy Communion for you! And what have you done? This. What is written here? This rule applies here!"
Questioner: So, Geronda, one must take into account dozens of things.
Elder Paisios: Yes, especially in today's society, one cannot just go and apply the entire canonical tradition of the Church with blind, indiscreet austerity; he should cultivate a sense of philotimo in people.
In order to be able to help other souls, the Spiritual Father must first do considerable work on himself; otherwise, he will go around breaking heads.
The Pedalion is called the Rudder because it guides man toward salvation, sometimes in one way and other times in another way, as the captain of the ship turns the rudder to the left or to the right in order to bring the ship to shore. If he were to navigate the ship in a straight line without turning when needed, he would bring it upon the rocks, sink it and everyone on board would drown.
If the Spiritual Father uses the Canons of the Church as if they were...loose military cannons - and not with discernment, in accordance with each person's needs and the repentance demonstrated - then instead of healing souls, he'll be committing a crime.