Prayers for the Reposed Non-Orthodox

My father, who was not Orthodox, reposed last week. I recently read an article by David Ritchie in Orthodox Life that says in essence that only Orthodox can be saved. What, then, is the use of private prayers for non-Orthodox who have reposed? A Priest explained to me that God gives the command, but that He also does what He pleases and that no one but God knows who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. I would appreciate your comments on this. (P.V., IA)

While the excellent article in Orthodox Life on the caution with which one must approach contemporary near-death experiences is accurate and timely, the summation of Orthodox teaching on the salvation of souls contained in it needs clarification: "...Souls not saved by the Orthodox Christian Faith, repentance, Holy Baptism, a life in the Church, and good works will be condemned, together with the devil and his angels, to the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14) and to everlasting separation from God" (David Ritchie, "The ‘Near-Death’ Experience," Orthodox Life, Vol. XLV, No. 4, pp. 16-31).

We habitually face the "temptation," as in the discussion of prayer for the non-Orthodox and the final disposition of the souls of those outside the Orthodox Church, to enter into the realm of a problematic alien to the liturgical and experiential dimensions of the Orthodox Hesychastic tradition.

This temptation is twofold. First, it poses pre-packaged questions from the realm of intellectual scholasticism and, in turn, offers pre-packaged answers to these questions of a purely academic nature—answers which give quick solutions of the kind sold in the "supermarkets" of Western religious institutionalism and their "sectarian" annexes. Second, it affords an image of God as a dread and impartial Judge, Who, after a terrifying trial, saves whomever He wishes and damns whomever He wills, and this on the basis of a contrived list of virtues and sins, an index of moral obligations.

When—having succumbed to the twofold thrust of this temptation—we are drawn into a discussion of prayer for non-Orthodox Christians, both the living and the dead, and a debate over the possibility of their salvation, our pre-packaged answers are ready. But one who loves in Christ does not yield to this temptation; he abides in the bright realm of Grace and freedom, far from the tendency to ideologize theology. For such a man, it is inconceivable that he should not pray spontaneously and sincerely for the whole of creation, for men, birds, animals, reptiles, the enemies of Truth, and even for the demons.

Love in Christ is lived experientially, as a charismatic state. In this state, the Divine Comforter gives to man a "compassionate heart," with the immediate result that he is now dominated by a boundless love "for all of created nature." This charismatic love in Christ is most certainly not a sentimental love, that is, love within the limits of createdness; rather, it is the uncreated energy of God, which enters into our heart, making it merciful, "in the likeness of God." Insofar as our Lord is all-merciful, so our hearts become all-merciful, by the action of Grace, and we assuredly face no "dilemmas" with regard to those for whom we should pray.

Prayer is not only the expression of certain requests to our Lord, but is primarily the "energy" of the Comforter in our hearts, a total embracing of the whole of creation in the bosom of a heart which has been blessed and which has been granted mercy, by the Holy Spirit, to be "merciful."

How is it possible, in this charismatic and deifying state, for "compassion" and "just judgment" to co-exist in the heart? How is it possible for us to pose questions and offer answers about who will be saved and who will be damned, about who is worthy of our prayer and who is not? Just as our all-merciful Lord Himself does not hesitate to pour out His Grace—and this lovingly—even on the evil spirits and on those who reject Him, so also he who loves in Christ pours out his prayer lovingly, unconstrainedly, and naturally on all men, being unable to "restrain" the "abundance" of life, giving what he has been given.

And if the demons and unrepentant men should feel this love of God as a tormenting "fire," our Lord is not to blame for this; for He Who is Love and only Love is not able to "deny" Himself!

Two small references to the writings of Abba Isaac the Syrian may help us to gain a more profound understanding of the question at hand. We commend them to our reader:

From the Saint’s eighty-first Discourse:

‘And what is a merciful heart?’ And he said: ‘the burning of the heart for all creation, for men, birds, animals, and demons, and for every creature. From the memory and contemplation of them, his eyes pour forth tears. Out of the great and intense mercy that grips his heart, and from great fortitude, his heart is humbled, and he cannot bear to hear or to see any kind of harm or the least distress come over creation. And for this reason, he offers tearful prayer at every hour, even for irrational creatures, for the enemies of the Truth, and for those who injure him, that they might be kept safe and receive mercy, and likewise for the genus of reptiles, out of the great mercy that is aroused in his heart boundlessly, in the likeness of God.’

And from his fifty-eighth Discourse:

Mercy and just judgment existing in a single soul is like a man worshipping God and idols in the same house. Mercy is opposed to just judgment. Just judgment is the equality of the balanced scale. For it gives to each as is meet, and does not incline to one side or show partiality in recompense. But mercy is pity aroused by Grace and inclines a man compassionately to all; and just as it does not requite the man who deserves harsh treatment, it fills him to overflowing, the man who deserves what is good. And if mercy is on the side of righteousness, then just judgment inclines towards evil; and just as grass and fire cannot abide in the same house, so neither do just judgment and mercy abide in the same soul. Just as a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a large quantity of gold, so God’s necessary justice cannot, in like manner, counterbalance His mercy.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, No. 1, pp. 38-40.

+ + +

It is already possible here, however, to give a preliminary evaluation of the "heaven" experience so commonly reported today: most, perhaps indeed all, of these experiences have little in common with the Christian vision of heaven. These visions are not spiritual but worldly. They are so quick, so easily attained, so common, so earthly in their imagery, that there can be no serious comparison of them with the true Christian visions of heaven in the past…. Even the most "spiritual" thing about some of them—the feeling of the "presence" of Christ—persuades one more of the spiritual immaturity of those who experience it than of anything else. Rather than producing the profound awe, fear of God, and repentance which the authentic experience of God’s presence has evoked in Christian saints (of which St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus may be taken as a model—Acts 9:3-9), the present-day experiences produce something much more akin to the "comfort" and "peace" of the modern spiritistic and pentecostal movements....

In conclusion, Bishop Ignatius teaches: "The only correct entrance into the world of spirits is the doctrine and practice of Christian struggle. The only correct entrance into the sensuous perception of spirits is Christian advancement and perfection" (p. 53).

"When the time comes which is assigned by the one God and is known to Him alone, we will unfailingly enter the world of spirits ourselves. This time is not far from each of us! May the all-good God grant us to spend earthly life in such a way that during it we might break off communion with fallen spirits, and might enter into communion with holy spirits so that, on this foundation, having put off the body, we might be numbered with the holy spirits and not the fallen spirits!" (p. 67).

This teaching of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, written over a hundred years ago, could well have been written today, so accurately does it describe the spiritual temptations of our own times, when the "doors of perception" (to use the phrase popularized by one experimenter in this realm, Aldous Huxley) have been opened to men to a degree undreamed of in Bishop Ignatius’ day.

These words scarcely need any commentary. The perceptive reader may already have begun to apply them to the "after-death" experiences we have been describing in these pages and thereby have begun to realize the frightful danger for the human soul which these experiences represent. One who is aware of this Orthodox teaching cannot but look in amazement and horror at the ease with which contemporary "Christians" trust the visions and apparitions which are now becoming so common. The reason for this credulity is clear: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, cut off for centuries now from the Orthodox doctrine and practice of spiritual life, have lost all capability for clear discernment in the realm of spirits. The absolutely essential Christian quality of distrust of one’s "good" ideas and feelings has become totally foreign to them. As a result, "spiritual" experiences and apparitions of spirits have become perhaps more common today than at any other time in the Christian era, and a gullible mankind is prepared to accept a theory of a "new age" of spiritual wonders, or a "new outpouring of the Holy Spirit," in order to explain this fact. So spiritually impoverished has mankind become, imagining itself to be "Christian" even while preparing for the age of demonic "miracles" that is a sign of the last times (Apocalypse 16:14).

Orthodox Christians themselves, it should be added, while theoretically being in possession of the true Christian teaching, are seldom aware of it, and often are as easily deceived as the non-Orthodox. It is time for this teaching to be recovered by those whose birthright it is!

Those who are now describing their "after-death" experiences reveal themselves to be as trusting of their experiences as any who have been led astray in the past; in all the contemporary literature on this subject, there are extremely few cases where a person seriously stops to question whether at least part of the experience might be from the devil. The Orthodox reader, of course, will ask this question and try to understand these experiences in the light of the spiritual teaching of the Orthodox Fathers and Saints.

Fr. Seraphim Rose in The Soul After Death (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), p. 50, 62-63.