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Preface to The Soul After Death

by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose of Platina

THE AIM of the present book is two-fold: first, to give an explanation, in terms of the Orthodox Christian doctrine of life after death, of the present-day "after-death" experiences that have caused such interest in some religious and scientific circles; and second, to present the basic sources and texts which contain the Orthodox teaching on life after death. If the Orthodox teaching is so little understood today, it is largely because these texts have been so neglected and have become so "unfashionable" in our "enlightened" times; and our attempt has been to make these texts more understandable and accessible to present-day readers. Needless to say, they constitute a reading material infinitely more profound and more profitable than the popular "after-death" books of our day, which, even when they are not merely sensational, simply cannot go much below the spectacular surface of today's experiences for want of a coherent and true teaching on the whole subject of life after death.

The Orthodox teaching presented in this book will doubtless be criticized by some as being too "simple" or even "naive" for a 20th-century man to believe. It should therefore be emphasized that this teaching is not that of a few isolated or untypical teachers in the Orthodox Church, but is the teaching which the Orthodox Church of Christ has handed down from her very beginning, which is expressed in countless Patristic writings and Lives of Saints and in the Divine services of the Orthodox Church, and which has been taught uninterruptedly in the Church even down to our own day. The "simplicity" of this teaching is the simplicity of truth itself, which—whether it is expressed in this or in other teachings of the Church—comes as a refreshing fountain of clarity in the midst of the dark confusion caused in modern minds by the various errors and empty speculations of recent centuries. Each chapter of this book attempts to point to the Patristic and hagiographical sources which contain this teaching.

The chief inspiration for the writing of this book has been a 19th-century Russian Orthodox Father, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, who was perhaps the first great Orthodox theologian to face squarely the very problem which has become so acute in our own days: how to preserve the authentic Christian tradition and teaching in a world that has become entirely foreign to Orthodoxy and strives either to overthrow and dismiss it or else "reinterpret" it so that it can be made compatible with a worldly way of life and thinking. Acutely aware of the Roman Catholic and other Western influences which were striving to "modernize" Orthodoxy even in his days, Bishop Ignatius prepared for the defense of Orthodoxy both by delving deeply into the authentic Orthodox sources (whose teaching he absorbed in some of the best Orthodox monastic centers of his time) and by familiarizing himself also with the scientific and literary culture of his century (he attended an engineering school, not a theological seminary). Armed thus with a knowledge both of Orthodox theology and of secular knowledge, he devoted his life to the defense of authentic Orthodoxy and to an exposure of the modern deviation from it. It is no exaggeration to say that no other Orthodox country in the 19th century possessed such a defender of Orthodoxy against the temptations and errors of modern times; his only rival, perhaps, was his fellow-countryman, Bishop Theophan the Recluse, who did much the same thing on a less "sophisticated" level.

One volume of Bishop Ignatius' Collected Works (Volume III) was devoted specifically to the question of the Churchs teaching on life after death, which he defended against the Roman Catholic and other modern distortions of it. It is chiefly from this volume that we have borrowed our own discussion in the present book on subjects like toll-houses and the apparitions of spirits-teachings which, for some reason, the "modern" mind finds it impossible to accept in a simple way, but insists on "reinterpreting" them or rejecting them altogether. Bishop Theophan also, of course, taught the same teaching, and we have also made use of his words; and in our own century another great Russian Orthodox theologian, Archbishop John Maximovitch of blessed memory, repeated this teaching so dearly and simply that we have used his words to form most of the conclusion of the present book. That the Orthodox doctrine on life after death has been taught so explicitly and dearly by great Orthodox teachers in modern times, right down to our own day, is an immense help to us who are striving today to preserve the true Orthodoxy of the past, not merely in its correctly transmitted words, but even more in the authentically Orthodox interpretation of these words.

In this book, in addition to the Orthodox sources and interpretations mentioned above, we have made considerable use of today's non-Orthodox "after-death" literature, as well as of some occult texts on this subject. In this we have followed Bishop Ignatius' example in presenting a false teaching as fully and fairly as needed to expose its falsity so that Orthodox Christians will not be tempted by it; and we have also found, like him, that non-Orthodox texts, when it is a matter of actual experiences that are being described (and not mere opinions and interpretations), often provide striking confirmations of Orthodox truths. Our chief aim in this book has been to present as detailed a contrast as necessary to point out the full difference that exists between the Orthodox teaching and the experience of Orthodox saints on the one hand, and the occult teaching and modern experiences on the other. If we had merely presented the Orthodox teaching without this contrast, it would have been convincing to few save the already-convinced; but now, perhaps, some even of those who have been involved in the modern experiences will be awakened to the vast difference between their experience and genuine spiritual experience.

However, the very fact that a good part of this book discusses experiences, both Christian and non-Christian, also means that not everything here is a simple presentation of the Church's teaching on life after death, but also contains the author's interpretations of these various experiences. Concerning these interpretations, of course, there is room for a legitimate difference of opinion among Orthodox Christians. We have tried as far as possible to present these interpretations in a provisional way, without trying to "define" such matters of experience in the same way that the Church's general teaching on life after death can be defined. Specifically, regarding occult "out-of-body" experiences and the "astral plane," we have simply presented these as they have been described by participants in them, and compared them to similar manifestations in Orthodox literature, without trying to define the precise nature of such experiences; but we have accepted them as real experiences wherein actual demonic forces are contacted, and not as mere hallucinations. Let the reader judge for himself how adequate this approach has been.

It should be obvious that this book has by no means exhausted the Orthodox teaching on life after death; it is only an introduction to it. In reality, however, there is no "complete teaching" on this subject, and there are no Orthodox "experts" on it. We who live on earth can hardly even begin to understand the reality of the spiritual world until we ourselves come to dwell in it. This is a process that begins now, in this life, but ends only in eternity, when we will behold "face to face" what we now see only "through a glass, darkly" (I Cor. 13:12). But the Orthodox sources to which we have pointed in this book give us a basic outline of this teaching, and this is sufficient to inspire us, not to acquire a precise knowledge of something which is, after all, beyond us, but to begin to struggle to attain the Heavenly Kingdom which is the goal of our Christian life, and to avoid the demonic pitfalls which are spread everywhere in the way of Christian strugglers by the enemy of our salvation. The other world is realer and closer than we usually think; and the path to it is right here in front of us, in the life of spiritual discipline and prayer which the Church has handed down to us as the way to salvation. This book is dedicated and addressed to those who wish to lead such a life.

From the second edition, published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995.