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The Memory of Death


We Should Remember Death

The Christian soul that lives with a profound hope of life beyond the grave and the sweet anticipation of the most desirable Paradise, attempts to maintain a vivid memory of death. The Wisdom of Sirach says: "In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin" (7,36). The Christian knows that he will live after death and, therefore, should constantly be aware of his present mortality, keeping before him his exodus from the present world, the Second Coming, the future judgment and his entry into endless eternity. For this reason St. Gregory the Theologian often repeats the saying of Plato which suggests that the present life ought to be "a meditation upon death." He advised his friend Philagrios to live "instead of the present the future and to make this life a meditation and practice of death." [1] To the priest Photios he wrote: "Our cares and our attention are concentrated on one thing only our departure from this world. And for this departure we prepare ourselves and gather our baggage as prudent travelers would do." [2] Also, St. Athanasios advises in his treatise On Virginity: "Recall your exodus every hour; keep death before your eyes on a daily basis. Remember before whom you must appear." [3] St. John of Sinai advises: "Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you." [4]

Someone perhaps could object: Is it not a morbid condition to be remembering constantly our exodus from this life? Would not this memory stifle our activities? Would not such a stance despise the present life which is a gift of God? Certainly, people who are far from Christ and who do not believe in life beyond the grave are usually panic-stricken by the memory of death. This is the reason that all of them avoid speaking about death. Even the word "death" itself is sufficient to upset them. Because of this they give themselves over to entertainments, dances and banquets with the slogan: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (Is. 22,13). With all these they attempt to forget that there is death! Even "those great words that are heard often about the prolongation of life, about the imminent overcoming of death; the desperate attempts of many persons for some security indicate without doubt their agonizing attempt to escape from the very experience of insecurity." Because sin has become over-abundant "contemporary man is haunted by an unconscious absence of security and he stubbornly refuses to open a dialogue with death." For this reason "when strong thoughts or external events bring upon his cheeks the breath of death," modern man is shaken to his very foundations. [5]

But for the man of God, who sees and examines everything under the prism of eternity, the memory of death is an essential presupposition for genuine spiritual life. It is the constant kindling for the battle against sin. This memory of death helps him to hate sin, to evaluate correctly and positively the things of the present; to evaluate appropriately the value of the "future age," which he desires with all the power of his soul. St. Maximos the Confessor teaches that the memory of death, when accompanied by the memory of God, is very helpful to the believer in his life in Christ: "Nothing is more fearful than the thought of death, and nothing is more marvelous than the memory of God." For, as he says, the memory of death "produces in the soul salutary sorrow," while the memory of God produces in the soul "joy and gladness." This is why the Prophet said, "I remembered God and was pleased" (Ps. 76,4:LXX), while the wise man of the Old Testament was advised, "Remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin" (Wis. Sir. 7,36). For it is impossible to keep oneself unwounded by sin if one does not experience the salutary "sourness" of the memory of death .[6]

But, why should we seek the words of holy men when the Lord himself repeatedly recommends the memory of death? It is worthy of note that the tone of His voice on this truth was one of command: "Watch, therefore, and pray, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Mt. 24,42;26,41). A hieromartyr of our Church comments on these words of the Savior: "Through these words the God-Man was giving a warning to us all about the remembrance of death, so that we should be prepared to offer a defence, grounded in works and attentiveness, that will be acceptable to God." [7]

It is a fact that at times exaggerations have been noted on this matter. Some have emphasized beyond measure the memory of death and overlooked the holy purpose and the particular value of the present life, which is indeed a great gift of God. This, however, does not minimize at all the salutary value of this truth—a truth which does not concern only, as some think, those who live as monks but every Christian. And this because the words of the Lord are addressed to all of His disciples, of all ages and of all social classes. For the memory of death has great awakening power. "The spiritual powers are naturally aroused before the horrible image of death; they are agitated and ready to be organized into a strong defense against the first cause of death—sin(...). The anticipation of a sudden end at the height of one's activity purifies that activity of its negative elements." [8] For this reason St. Ephrem the Syrian advises that we await and prepare daily for our exodus, "for at the hour when we are not awaiting it, the fearful command will come and God help the unprepared." The message of the saint becomes more dynamic when he writes: "The harvest has arrived; this age has come to its end; angels are holding the scythe and awaiting for the Lord's signal. Let us be fearful, dear friends, for it is the eleventh hour(...) Let us be vigilant and keep awake as sleepless." On another occasion he has taught: "Behold, the days, the years and the months are passing as dreams and as an afternoon shadow, and the fearful and great parousia of Christ is coming quickly." [9] He who listens to the advice of the Lord to be awake and vigilant and to keep the memory of death, is saved from eternal death and does not fear at all the death of the body.

Endnotes

1. GREGORY THE THEOLOGIAN, Letter 31, To Philagrios, PG 37, 68C.

2. GREGORY THE THEOLOGIAN, Letter 168, To Photios, PG 37, 277C.

3. ATHANASIOS THE GREAT, On Virginity 23, BEPES 33, 72(36-38).

4. JOHN OF SINAI, Klimax (The Ladder), Homily 15, On Chastity and Prudence 51, ed. "Astir," Athens 1970, p. 91.

5. IOAN. KORNARAKE, Paterika Biomata tes Endekates horas (Patristic Experiences of the Eleventh Hour), Thessaloniki, 1971, p. 34,35.

6. MAXIMOS THE CONFESSOR, Other Chapters, PG 90,1428.

7. PETER OF DAMASKOS, THE MARTYR, A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, The Guarding of the Intellect, The Philokalia.... transl. from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (Faber & Faber, London-Boston), Vol. 3, p. 105.

8. JOHN KORNARAKIS, op. cit., p. 34,36.

9. EPHREM THE SYRIAN, Asketika (Ascetic Writings), hypo M.A. Sakkorraphou, 1864, ekd. Bas. Regopoulou, Thessaloniki, pp. 179;192;47.

You Shall Never Sin

More specifically the memory of death is beneficial in a variety of ways, because it restrains and prevents us from sin. After all the most important reason that Adam disregarded the commandment of God, which said that "in the day that you eat" of the forbidden fruit "you shall die" (cf. Gen. 2,17), was his indifference to the commandment. Or more correctly, it was because he did not seek to preserve a vivid remembrance of the threat of death in his soul. This is also seen in the deceptive attempt of the devil to neutralize every thought of Adam and Eve about this threat and to disorientate their minds from the very event of death. This is why the devil said to Eve: "You will not die!" (Gen. 3,4). In the way he neutralized every resistance and opened the way to disobedience and to sin.

The God-inspired book of Genesis presents us with another example which confirms the importance of the memory of death in our lives. God, as we know, often spoke with Abraham. But, when the Patriarch bought and prepared his tomb in Hebron (Gen. 23), God no longer spoke with him. Why? Because, as the God-bearing Fathers reflect, the same influence which is experienced by a prudent man when God speaks to him, is also experienced by the memory of death! He who meditates upon death distances himself from every sin and despises all evil works. This is why the great St. Theodosios, the Cenobiarch, after having prepared his grave, would go often to see it and to shed warm tears at every visit.

The great Father of the Church, St. Basil, in writing to a widow of his time, advised her that the person who always keeps in mind the day and the hour of the universal judgment (and consequently of death) as well as the account which one must give before the dreadful tribunal of the Judge, "will either avoid sin altogether, or may sin in entirely very few circumstances." The memory of death and the vivid anticipation of the threatening judgment do not allow any time for any sin whatsoever. [1] The great ascetic saint of the desert Ammonas, disciple and successor to St. Antony, teaches us that "he who anticipates that death is near will not sin much." [2] Certainly, the saint had heard from St. Antony the Great the advice: "Quickly bring death before your eyes, and you will never have a desire for any evil or wordly object." [3] So the memory of death is indeed a strong deterrent and check to the tendency we have toward sin.

Another saint of our Church, St. John of Sinai (or Klimakos), the mystic of the memory of death, analyzes in 26 synoptic chapters this great and important problem with definitions and striking examples. In fact, he relates an event which is in every way credible, since St. John was himself an eye witness.

He relates the example of the monk Hesychios of Mount Horeb, who always lived rather carelessly, without being concerned at all for his soul. He became very ill and for an hour it seemed that he had died. But he recovered and immediately asked all of us to leave, says St. John. Then Hesychios sealed shut the door of his cell and remained there within for twelve years without speaking to anyone. During all this time he lived there as a recluse and tasted nothing but bread and water. He only sat in amazement and silence, remembering the fearful and extraordinary things he saw in his ecstasy. He remained so very immersed in thought that he never again changed his expression. He was always as if in a daze and would shed fervent, silent and ceaseless tears. When the time of his death approached, St. John continues, we broke the wall that had sealed the door of his cell, entered and besought him earnestly to tell us a beneficial word for our soul and our consolation. But he told us only this: "Forgive me; no one who has the memory of death can ever sin." That is to say, my brothers, forgive me. He who is always thinking of death and studies it; he who considers the apology that he must make at the fearful tribunal of Christ the Lord will never be able to commit sin! We, continues St. John, were amazed as we looked upon the monk Hesychios, who was so negligent before to be so changed suddenly with this blessed change and transfiguration! [4] The memory of death can indeed put sin to death and, in the soul that is vigilant and alert, it can make it altogether inoperative.

The other great saint and founder of the communal monastic life, St. Pahomios, wrote in his Catechesis.

"Brothers, let us struggle with all of our heart to keep in our mind at all times both death and the fearful hell. Through the memory of death the mind keeps a vigil, it comes to an awareness, and egotistical thoughts and pride flee, cultivating in the soul a humble spirit without vain glory. When man remembers the time of death and the tribunal of the impartial Judge, he is protected from a multitude of sins and becomes (indeed a true temple of God), in which case, (what satanic machination can deceive us?" [5]

St. Isaiah the anchorite, a contemporary of St. Makarios the Great, advises: "He who ponders each day and says to himself that he has just today to remain in the world, will never sin against God." [6] Abba Evagrios, who was ordained as deacon by St. Gregory of Nyssa and served as archdeacon to St. Gregory the Theologian, teaches us: "Do not forget your exodus, and there will be no transgression in your soul." [7] The memory of death, says St. Isaac the Syrian, is an excellent bond for the members of the body; it prevents them from sin.

And he would advise with his ascetical wisdom:

"When you approach your bed to sleep, say to it: ‘Bed, perhaps this night you may become a grave for me, and I do not know if instead of the temporary sleep that eternal sleep comes to me this night’. Therefore, as long as you have free legs run after the good work before they are tied by that bond that is impossible to be untied. As long as you have fingers, cross yourself in prayer before death comes. As long as you have eyes fill them with tears before they are covered by dust( ... ). Remember, O man, your departure from here and always say: ‘Behold, the appointed angel has arrived at the door and will follow after me. Why do I tarry? There is an eternal journey that has no return’."

The same Father writes elsewhere:

"The first thought which, out of divine philanthropy, rules over the heart of man and leads the soul to life is the memory of death( ... ). If man does not wipe out this thought and does not choke it in the cares and entanglement of worldly things and vanities, but rather increases it in quietude with constant study, then this thought will lead him to the profound vision which no one can express. The thought of death is hated very much by satan and he attempts with all of his strength to uproot it from man. And if it were possible, he would give to man all the kingdoms of the earth if only to remove with the cares of life such a thought about death from the mind of man( ... ). The deceptive satan knows that if the remembrance of death remains constantly in man, his thought no longer remains attached to the deceptions of the present life, nor can the craftiness, the machination and the deceptions of satan approach man." [8]

St. John Chrysostom himself did not overlook the value of this salutary truth. He says:

"Death both as a present and anticipated reality helps us very much. To look upon death or to anticipate it and to remember it convinces us to be humble and modest. It also helps us to live with prudence and to be kept from sin and, generally speaking, to be spared from every evil." [9] On another occasion he comments on the word of the Lord: "He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10,38), and then observes with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit: "the Lord was saying this, not in order for us to carry on our shoulders a wooden cross, but in order to have death always before our eyes, precisely as St. Paul did—(I die every day!) (I Cor. 15,31),—who scorned death and who disdained and overlooked the present life." [10]

Endnotes

1. BASIL THE GREAT, Letter 174, To a Widow, PG 32,652A.

2. AMMONAS, On the Joy of the Soul When One Begins to Work for God, BEPES 40, 70 (12-13).

3. ANTONY THE GREAT, On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts, 91, The Philokalia.... transl. from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (Faber & Faber, London-Boston), Vol. 1, p. 343.

4. JOHN OF SINAI, Klimax (The Ladder), Homily 6, On the Memory of Death 20, ed. "Astir," Athens 1970, p. 61.

5. PACHOMIOS THE GREAT, A Very Useful Catechesis, BEPES 40, 207(30-39) - 208(1-25).

6. ABBA ISAIAH, In the EUERGETINOS (Evergetinos), ekd. Bikt. Matthaiou, Athens 1957, Vol. 1, p. 58.

7. In the GERONTIKON (Gerontikon), Vol. 1, p. 59.

8. ISAAC THE SYRIAN, Hapanta ta Asketika (The Ascetical Writings), Homily 34, On Repentance, and Homily 39, On the Angelic Movement, Athens, pp. 150;151;167;168.

9. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Romans, Homily 10,3 PG 60,478.

10. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On the Statues, Homily 5,4 49,75.

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