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A Few Words Concerning Orthodox "Death Literature"

by Protopresbyter David Cownie, with Patrick Barnes

"...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." (Phil 2:12)

When Presbytera and I first became Orthodox and began reading the stories from the Evergetinos and other accounts of the Desert Fathers, we were almost overwhelmed by the seeming severity of God’s judgment in many of these stories. People appeared capable of losing their souls as the result of simple mistakes or a mere moment of carelessness. We did not yet understand the true nature of spiritual life or the profound nature of Orthodox spirituality. Our lives reflected the "feel-good" nature of American society. Everything is supposed to be easy, convenient, and comfortable. To the extent that we still have this notion fixed in our attitude, we merely reflect the shallow way most Americans approach spiritual life.

The Evergetinos is a beginner’s handbook on the spiritual life, the spiritual primer which lays the basic foundations for all meaningful spiritual struggle. The monastic life is modeled after the life of the Angels and monks are supposed to set the example of good spiritual life for lay people. This life is often compared to the image of climbing a mountain. When we start our spiritual lives at the base of the mountain, the going is easy and relatively flat. When we stumble and fall here, we simply get up and go on. Nothing is lost. As we progress, the slope becomes steeper and when we slip we might even slide a step or two back and have to regain lost ground. Very few people progress beyond this level. Those few who continue find the climb steep and treacherous. As you scale the face of a cliff, one slip might cost you a couple hundred feet. The way back is painful and extremely difficult. This kind of struggle purifies the human being and makes him acutely aware of how much his very existence depends on the Grace of God. His sinfulness and weakness is readily apparent.

Because the vast majority of us tend to mill around the base of the mountain, we often forget our sinful nature. This can especially be true if we fast, pray, confess our sins, commune properly, dress modestly, bless our food, etc. These external things can sometimes lead us to pride in simply following rules instead of seeking God and developing an interior life. This "confusing the means for the end" is what St. Seraphim was speaking about when he said,

Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said, "Keep your mind in Hell and despair not." One of the ways to do this is to read stories from the writings and lives of Saints which reflect upon death and even record a person's experience with it. As I said, when we first started reading this sort of spiritual literature, we were struck, even frightened, by the tremendous austerity of it all. In my pastoral work I occasionally run across people who have had similar thoughts. These are often sincere, committed Orthodox Christians. Like most today, they tell me that their spiritual life can be aptly characterized by the phrase "stumbling about the base." They are painfully aware how often they fail to make any spiritual progress, being continually beset by habitual sins and inclined toward pampering their flesh. Thus, they become worried after reading this literature that perhaps there is no hope for them.

What I tell them is that of chief importance is their attitude and the fact that they are trying to struggle. As long as they are making a concerted effort to repent, acknowledging all along that they are the greatest of sinners, they have sure ground for hoping that God will continually receive their repentance and grant them to dwell with the Saints in the next life. I tell them to never forget the humble prayer of the publican, "Have mercy on me, a sinner."

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (St. Luke 18:9-14)

Thus, when they do good, they should always remember Jesus’ admonition to His disciples,

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (St. Luke 17:10)

These are the only images which can save us. Those Saints who glowed in their caves after fifty years of strict spiritual struggle understood themselves to be the most sinful people on the face of the earth. Those who lost their souls in these stories were not tripped up by God. They did not accidentally fall into the pit. They usually forgot in some profound way the fact that they were really publicans in the eyes of God and that He expects us to remain humble.

I also remind them that the remembrance of their own death is supposed to evoke fear and to unsettle them. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom...." (Proverbs 1:7) and "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell" (St. Matthew 10:28). The ones I worry about the most are those who think that by merely adhering to the externals they are accomplishing something important in the eyes of God. Delusion can thus set in, as well as the attitude of the Pharisee: "I thank Thee, O God, that I am not like other men." Even more worrisome are those who rationalize sin today because they can "always repent tomorrow."

Contrary to what our narcissistic culture of self-esteem wants us to think, death and judgment are tremendously health-promoting themes when reflected upon in an Orthodox manner. This explains why such writings are so prominent in Orthodox tradition. At the same time, I should emphasize that one needs a "balanced diet" of spiritual writings in order to feed one's soul. A person who is striving to lead a God-pleasing life must never forget the infinite mercy and love for God, who commanded his disciples to forgive "seventy times seven." We are to "despair not." It is noteworthy that stories emphasizing this are what lead off the series in the Evergetinos. The more "uncomfortable" works come later. Thus, after telling them to consider our Lord's parable of the publican and Pharisee, I suggest they re-read the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A part of it follows. Note the son's humility and the Father's compassion and willingness to forgive:

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. (St. Luke 15:18-24)

Having said all of this, there will still be some who will attempt to twist my words and claim that something I have said shows that obedience to Holy Tradition is not necessary. I would suggest that they think carefully before jumping to such a conclusion. The reason the Church has developed Tradition is for the same reason that we have guard rails on the highway at curves. If you humbly follow the Traditions of the Church, they will keep you in the center of the road to Salvation. Without these guard rails, I know for a fact that I, personally, would wander off the road and into the woods in no time and be devoured by the enemy. But following these Traditions or rules alone will not save me. God will not save me simply because I choose to follow a set of rules. Nor can Orthodox Christians simply mouth John 3:16 and get "saved." Instead, we are called to repeat the Jesus Prayer "without ceasing" until our death. Those who lose their souls do so because they forget to say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." And this forgetfulness is not of an accidental kind. Those people make choices in their lives which preclude their saying this prayer. For some reason they choose not to say this prayer, and lose their souls in the process. God does not care for Pharisees who save themselves.

St. John of the Ladder devoted an entire chapter to the concept of the Rememberance of Death. Here are a few examples of how the Desert Fathers approached this subject:

2. The remembrance of death is a daily death; and the remembrance of our departure is an hourly sighing or groaning.

4. As of all foods, bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works. the remembrance of death amongst those in the midst of society gives birth to distress and meditation, and even more, to despondency. But amongst those who are free from noise, it produces the putting aside of cares and constant prayer and guarding of the mind. But these same virtues both produce the remembrance of death, and are also produced by it.

10. Never, when mourning for your sins, accept that cur which suggests to you that God is tenderhearted (this thought is useful only when you see yourself being dragged down to deep despair). For the aim of the enemy is to thrust from you your mourning and fearless fear.

11. Anyone who wishes to retain within him continually the remembrance of death and God’s judgment, and at the same time yields to material cares and distractions, is like a man who is swimming and wants to clap his hands.

20. Let us rest assured that the remembrance of death, like all other blessings, is a gift of God; since how is it that often, when we are at the very tombs, we are left tearless and hard; and frequently when we have no such sight, we are full of compunction? This is the sixth step. He who has mounted it will never sin again. Remember thy last, and thou shalt never sin unto eternity. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Mass., 1979, pp. 66-70.)

Until we live a Traditional life of prayer and fasting for a number of years, these words will seem strange and harsh. But with the passage of time, they become less and less so. Those who pursue the Traditional life in a humble way will eventually come to understand these concepts more profoundly. In the meantime, we must seek to have the humility and patience to allow the process to work on us.