Share   Print
Related Content

Christians Philosophize Creatively About Death


"Be Calm, Look and See"

Every Christian, by the grace of the truths revealed to us by Christ, can face death without fear. Moreover, he has the possibility to philosophize soundly and creatively about the mystery of death.

Let us not forget that the hour of our death, that second birth—a birth toward the true and permanent life—is an hour that is unique, profound and mysterious. At this hour, the light of eternity begins to illumine our temporal life, which is waning and which eventually will be extinguished. As our age advances, as the time of our life races forward and the hour of death approaches, when our earthly life ends only to meet endless eternity, the questions about the meaning of life are evoked with greater Intensity.

At the time of our first birth, when we come from nonexistence into existence, when we enter the life of earth, we do not have the possibility to ask where we are going, since we come as infants. But, during our second birth into the new life, that is, at the time of our death, whether we want to or not, certain questions arise before us: What ultimately is the meaning of all that labor, agony and misery that pressure us during the entire course of our life? Why do we fear death even though we know that as soon as we are born we move with certainty towards it? Could it be that we did not have sufficient time to understand this truth and, thus, to overcome anxiety over death? Would it not have been of benefit for even one person to have returned from beyond the grave and to tell us what the souls experience there "face to face" with God?

Once again, the Christian appears privileged in these and other similar questions, since faith and hope remove the veil of mystery. Thus, St. Chrysostom says: "Let us gather around those who are on their way to the other life. Sit and do not disturb the dead who are before you( ... ) calm yourselves, look and see the great mystery. . . ." In this silence ask yourselves: "What is this great mystery that concerns me? He who was dear to me yesterday is now before me as a horror; what was yesterday a part of me is now seen as a stranger; the one I embraced a while before, I now do not even care to touch. I weep over him as my own, but avoid the decay as not my own." [1]

In another occasion, the same Father gives this counsel: "When you see someone leaving for the other life, be not disconcerted but come and concentrate within yourself, examine your conscience, consider that not long after this the end awaits you, too." It is in this that we differ from the unbelievers, observes the holy Father. It is that we Christians have "different judgments about things." I see things quite differently from the unbeliever. It is precisely the same in the case of death. The unbeliever looks upon the dead and considers him dead. I look upon the dead and I see sleep and not death. All of us see with the same eyes whatever happens in the present life, but we do not see with the same mind and the same thought. [2]

The emotion that the soul experiences before death is so strong and profound that even those who have heard or studied many informative teachings without benefit, are greatly benefitted when they find themselves before a dead person. "Having enjoyed many teachings but having received no benefit in this manner, they are forced to philosophize all at once over the issues of the present life when they come to themselves and "in the misfortunes of others" foresee "their own changes." [3]

By means of all these, a Christian acquires not only a true and healthy attitude, but also a courageous one. His hopes for the future life are encouraged. In this way he does not consider even death itself to be death. When the Christian faces one who has died, he is not in danger of what happens to many. And this because he can consider "the crowns, the prizes, the secret blessings, which ‘eye has not seen, and ear has not heard’; he can imagine that life in the company of angels." [4]

Consequently, the faithful person faces death in a healthy attitude. He knows very well that "a self-indulgent heart becomes a prison and chain for the soul when it leaves this life; Whereas an assiduous heart is an open door." [5] Moreover, the believer does not stand before the mystery of death in fear and trembling. Because he takes a positive and creative stance before death, he can overcome the natural anxiety which death creates. The Church of Christ helps its members to see the present and the future under the light of the Gospel; the meaning of death in biological life, and the meaning of the new eternal and unwaning life in death. Also, the believer understands more fully and profoundly the hour which is so different from all the other hours of our life. He comprehends better that help at the time of death can only come from God. For He alone, our Creator, knows the depths of the human soul that migrates for eternity, and only God can satisfy and fill the soul with the certain promise of a new life.

Endnotes

1. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Patience, and On Not Weeping Bitterly Over the Dead PG 60,727.

2. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On the Rich Man and Lazarus, Homily 5,2 PG 48,1020-1021.

3. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Psalm 110,1 PG 55,280-281.

4. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Psalm 48,5 PG 55,230.

5. MARK THE ASCETIC, On the Spiritual Law: 200 Texts, 20. The Philokalia..., transl. from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (Faber & Faber, London-Boston), Vol. I, p. 111.

"Where Is Man With His Many Fantasies?"

The Christian, who reflects on the mystery of death, also understands more profoundly the value of earthly life. He is assured that the present life, if lived properly, guides one "to enjoy eternal life." [1] Also, he is taught that the Lord came to earth not "to kill us and take us out of this present life," but to leave us in the world and to prepare us to become worthy of the heavenly life. If the earthly life were something evil, then we should be rewarding the killers of men, since by killing us they do us a favor in delivering us from evil. "What do you say, O miserable man," exclaims St. John Chrysostom, "is the present life evil during which we came to know God, to philosophize over the future, and to become angels out of men, keeping company with the heavenly powers?" [2]

Also, whoever reflects deeply into the mystery of death becomes better aware of the weakness of human nature. He sees the one who has died and whose body is beginning to decompose and is instructed by what he beholds. [3] Thus, he remembers a truth which he readily forgets, and this is why he so easily boasts! This is the truth which the Psalmist of the Old Testament expresses with his God-inspired word: "Surely man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nought are they in turmoil" (Ps. 39,6). Truly, man goes about this visible world and moves like a shadowy image which after a while disappears. Unfortunately, however, man is not made prudent by the vanity and the shortness of life; troubled and overcome by useless agonizing concerns, he labors and is wearied in vain! St. John Chrysostom writes:

"Man is troubled and in the end is lost; he is troubled and before he is established he is brought down. He burns like fire and as a reed is made into ash. Like a storm he is puffed up and like dust he is settled to the ground. Like a flame he rises and like smoke he is dissolved. Like a flower he is beautified and as grass he is tried out( ... ). The troubles are his and the joys go to others( ... ). The care is his, but the happiness goes to another. The sorrows are his, but the pleasures are for others( ... ). O what a great tragedy is our unworthiness! O what a great triumph is human meanness!" [4]

After all, when we see the remains of the dead, we understand what man is. According to St. John Chrysostom, man is:

"The temporary loan of life, the obligation which he must pay to death without delay; the creature well constructed for evil( ... ) ready for greed, insatiable in greediness( ... ), the prideful audacity( ... ),, the impudent clay( ... ), the dust that has a high opinion of itself the lamp that is easily swayed by every blow He who today is threatening, tomorrow is dying; he who is today in wealth, tomorrow is in the earth; he who is today wearing a crown) is tomorrow in the grave." [5]

This is why St. John sounds the golden clarion:

"Kings look with attention and a philosophic disposition upon the body of the dead Look, and be no longer proud. Leaders, observe and imagine no more in haughtiness. The secular leader is usually presented with power because of his authority. And yet he, too, fears the cup of death. He agonizes over death just like everyone else. Behold, he has become altogether miserable; the one who was just before a fearful man is now a dead man. Behold, he is being led as a condemned man. Who? He who was yesterday feared by the condemned, behold, is now troubled and shaken; all his wisdom and power is defeated and he has become altogether stupefied." This is why the holy Father invites every man: "Look carefully upon the dead; see lying there those who were kings; see in their relics those who were nobles; see the fearsome sight of the relics and say: Who is the king and who is the noble? Who is the soldier and who is the general? Who is the rich man and who is the poor man? Who is the young man and who is the old man?" [6]

St. John of Damascus also, that most musical organ of the Paraclete, chants in his deeply theological hymns from the Funeral Service, evoking strong feelings of compunction and spiritual concentration: "Vain are all human things that have no existence after death. Wealth remains not, glory does not go with us. For, when death comes all these things vanish away." And in another hymn of the same Service he asks: "Where is the quest of the world? Where is the fantasy of transient things? Where is the gold and the silver? Where are the many domestics and the household bustle? Everything is dust, everything is ashes, everything shadow... !" [7] These hymns cultivate a healthy emotional condition in the Christian soul. For, while the soul is filled with pessimism over the unstable things of this present life, at the same time it is also filled and satisfied with the optimistic conviction for the repose of the deceased. These profoundly Christian hymns from the pen of the holy Father of Damascus stir the inner depths of the soul and with their sublime meanings they create an emotion between disillusionment and consolation, that is, an emotion that is strongly creative.

Closely connected with these hymns, the image of the deceased and the expression and the stance of the people surrounding or following the funeral, create an effective manual for the believing soul. In this connection, St. John Chrysostom has said:

"When you see a funeral procession, orphaned children following, a widowed wife wailing, servants mourning, friends downcast and grieved, recall the briefness, the worthlessness and the nothingness of present things. Think that they differ not at all from shadows and dreams. Ponder over these things and do not marvel at the flower of the human appearance. Be not impressed by the outstretched neck, nor by the impressive garments, the horse and all those who follow; rather consider where all this is going to end." [8] The beauty we admire is so temporal, and after death it disappears, leaving not even a trace, for those of us who are preoccupied with the vanity of the present world! The holy Father would say: "I recall to mind the image of the dead who in just a short while was standing before me. But now I do not see anywhere that image. Where is the beauty of the face? Behold, it is blackened. It is darkened; it has lost its freshness and vibrant life; it is distorted. Where are the eyes that would send out signals and have a lovely shape? Behold, they are dissolved. Where is the comeliness of the hair? Behold, it has fallen. Where is the outstretched neck? Behold, it is broken. Where is the fleeting tongue? Behold, it is silent( ... ). Where are the myrrhs and perfumes? Behold, they have become a stench. Where is the gladness of youth? Behold, it is gone. In one word, where is man with his many fantasies? Behold, the) dust has again turned to dust." [9]

The more one philosophizes in a Christian way over death, the more does one benefit and experience emotions of sweet hope and fervent faith in the goodness and steadfast love of God for man.

Endnotes

1. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Genesis, Homily 34,5 PG 53,319.

2. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Galatians 1,4 PG 61,618-620.

3. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Death PG 63,803.

4. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On "In Vain Is Everyman Troubled" 1 PG 55,559;560.

5. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, ibid., PG 55,559.

6. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Patience, and On Not Weeping Bitterly Over the Dead PG 60,727.

7. The Great Euchologion, ed. "Astir," Athens, Funeral Service for the Laity, p. 413.

8. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Death PG 63, 809-810.

9. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Patience, and On Not Weeping Bitterly Over the Dead PG 60, 728.

"Observe and Sigh"

When a believer reflects in a Christian manner about death, he is not in danger of being captivated or impressed and misled by what happens in the world. For, as he deepens his understanding of this mystery, the more he sees that the things of this world are "all earth, all ashes and dust." He also understands who among the people are actually wealthy and who are poor. Whatever we see daily around us easily deceives and misleads us and because of this we formulate false opinions, which lead us to wrong judgments and conclusions.

St. Gregory the Theologian, in the funeral oration for his brother Caesarios, gives us precisely the rule by which we are to measure human affairs and events of the present life. He said:

"Such is our life, brothers; it is temporal. Such is the game of earth. Though we did not exist, we were born! And when we enter the realm of life, we begin our journey toward death! We are a dream that passes away and does not stay. It is the flight of a bird that passes by and goes away. It is a ship that cuts the sea, without leaving behind finally any sign. We are dust, a vapor, a morning dew." To show that he does not exaggerate things at all, he refers to the words of David: "As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field .. " (Ps. 103,15). "He has broken my strength in mid-course; he has shortened my days. (O my God), I say, (take me not hence in the midst of my days) ... " (Ps. 102,23-24). "Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreaths, and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight. Surely every man stands as a mere breath! Surely man goes about as a shadow!" (Ps. 39,5-6). He remembers also the words of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity( ... ) all is vanity and a striving after wind!" (Eccl. 1,2;14). [1]

The blessed Chrysostom develops the same important truth, that if we are deceived by the vanity of earthly things, we will surely be led to false evaluations and wrong conclusions. In order to help us, he ponders deeply, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, into the familiar parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16,19-31) and observes the following:

Until the day of death of both those persons, the rich man appeared happy and poor Lazarus unhappy. But death came and wiped away everything that the rich man had. With death the conditions of the rich man and Lazarus were altered and everyone knew at last who was the rich man and who was the poor man. Now they were informed that Lazarus was the wealthiest of all, while the rich man was the poorest of all. As we know, notes the holy Father, when the theatrical performance has ended, the actors remove their mask and present themselves as they really are. The same thing happens when death comes and the "play" of this present life ends. Then, after we all set aside the masks of wealth and of poverty, we are presented as we really are. Being judged on the basis of our deeds, it appears who is truly wealthy and who is poor; who are honorable and who are without glory. [2]

One sees a secular ruler or any powerful person of earth who is ready to depart from the present life. That critical moment for his life and death, which follows, removes his mask and presents him as he actually is. While before he behaved with pride and arrogance; while before he moved readily and with much fantasy toward every direction; while before he entertained himself and passed his days with great ease and little concern, now, one asks, what happened to the body that enjoyed so many pleasures? It does not take much effort to ascertain what happened, says St. John Chrysostom. Look with attention upon the corpse, "see the dust, the ash, the worms and the filthy and repulsive place. Observe with attention and sigh bitterly." [3]

But this godly philosophy, this emotional shaking of the soul, must not be a superficial and temporary emotion of sorrow or mere tears. It should lead to a courageous and permanent decision. When you, my brother, realize that after a short while the same end awaits you, attempt to have sacred emotions of contrition and compunction in the mystical depths of your soul. And seek to have these holy and salutary emotions lead you to repentance; to become a permanent way of life, and to be realized in concrete works that are pleasing to God: "Become more prudent and accept fear from the death of another; cut off every indolence. Even, bring to mind whatever you have done; correct the sins and make an excellent and timely repentance." [4]

If the death of our fellow human being does not stand sufficient to make us prudent, said St. John Chrysostom, then what other stronger force can correct us? If one does not become prudent and humbled before the sight of death, when will he ever be shamed and fearful of God because of his sins? Behold, therefore, this significant school. We see and through this experience we learn. [5] A very evocative hymn for the Saturday before Meatfare Sunday speaks very beautifully to everyone: "Since we are earthen-like clay vessels, why do we love vanity and why are we so inseparably attached to the earth? And since we are one with Christ, as trees planted and nourished with Him, why don't we run to Him? Since we have altogether and totally denied the corruptible and ephemeral life, why don't we run toward this incorruptible and eternal life? This life is Christ, the light and the redemption of our souls." [6]

Because the dramatic events that unfold before us as we gaze upon our brother, who is experiencing the last moments of his life, do not leave any soul unmoved, the divine Chrysostom, as a profound psychologist, enlightened teacher and wise pedagogue, says:

"Our dying brother is trembling and you are playing?(...) He is trembling and you are not preparing yourself with prayer, with repentance, with holiness of life and good works for your exodus? He is startled and fearful and thoroughly troubled as he sees all that he has never seen before, and hears what he has never heard before. That is why he perspires as those who are harvesting, and joins with all of us and kisses everyone, until his tongue ceases to speak. He calls to us: Farewell, farewell, brothers, Pray for me. For I am journeying on a road that I have never traveled. I am going to the world of the souls from which no one has returned I am going to fearful places where no one will be accompanying me. I am going to a fearful judgment where I do not know what will become of me. I will meet strange things of which no one has ever spoken. Behold, I seek help and there is no one to help. [7] And the golden tongue exclaims: Come to your senses, O man. Open the eyes of your soul. Awake from the lethargy of sin and deny the vain vanities of this present world." When the Christian reflects over death in a godly manner he indeed receives many benefits.

Endnotes

1. GREGORY THE THEOLOGIAN, Homily 7, Funeral Oration On Caesarios, 19 PG 35,777C-780B.

2. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On the Rich Man and Lazarus, Homily 2,3 PG 48, 985-986.

3. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Death PG 63,810.

4. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On the Rich Man and Lazarus, Homily 5,2 PG 48,1020.

5. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Patience, and On Not Weeping Bitterly Over the Dead PG 60, 723.

6. TRIODION Katanyktikon (The Lenten Triodion), Saturday before Meatfare, at Matins, the Praises, Sticheron 2.

From The Mystery of Death, by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, trans. Fr. Peter A. Chamberas (Athens: The Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians, 1997), pp. 259-269.