The Greek word for confession, exomologesis, means ‘saying out in words ‘. It can mean praise and thanksgiving to God or confession of our sins; in each case it means acknowledgement of truth.
A priest said that he would prefer a shy and confused mumbling than a fluent reading from a printed list of sins. Lists can help, but rather as a guide to self-examination. In other words, sincerity is what counts. This is not meant legalistically : ” if you are sincere then God will forgive you”. It is rather that the more sincere and deep my repentance, the deeper the healing grace of Christ can reach me. Christ said that He came precisely for the sick, and not for the righteous.
We cannot tell anyone else what to say , we can only suggest, ” tell everything you are ashamed of “, ” listen to your conscience”. Your understanding of sin and sensitivity to it will grow. Before confession we have to pray to see our sins. , to judge ourselves rather than others. And then we go and very simply say, ” I have done/said/thought…..”, taking responsibility for it. Sometimes we only manage to confess in vague terms about our general state; this acknowlegdement of our condition , our lack of love for God and other people , is useful even if we are not attentive or discerning enough to be specific about our passions.
We don’t have to blame others when we confess. We mention someone else only when that is necessary so as to explain our own sin or ask advice. There is an account of a holy Russian Staretz to whom a lady ( called , say, Maria )came for confession. She complained about her husband-lets call him Peter: ” I get impatient, after all, who wouldn’t? Peter does this, and that , and the other….”. When the time came for absolution the Staretz was reading the prayer and said, ” May God forgive His servant Peter”. The woman interrupted, reminding the priest that her name was Maria. The Staretz said , ” But it is Peter’s sins I heard confessed”.
Nothing anyone can say will shock the spiritual father and that everything you will say , or even the fact that you came, is a secret between you and him and God. You should keep secret his advice, or any penance he may impose ( such as a certain delay before a blessing to take Communion, or a rule of prayer or fasting) . Those things are utterly personal and temptations arise when people start comparing what spiritual fathers say or do.
Fr. Alexander Elchaninov wrote: ” Confession is not just a talk about your faults and doubts, it is not a way of telling your spiritual father all about yourself, and least of all is it a ‘pious practice’. Confession is an act of fervent, heartfelt repentance, a thirst for purification. It springs from an awareness of what is holy; it means dying to sin and coming alive again to sanctity. Christ commanded us to forgive, however many times we are sinned against; He therefore also forgives like that. It is for us , as often as we may fall, not to remain down, but to arise ” as Anthony M. Coniaris said in his book A Way of Life ” A Christian is not one who does not fall, he is one who rises after each fall” and go to our “father” and say ” Father I have sinned against heaven and before Thee” .