ST. JOHN MAXIMOVICH OF SAN FRANCISCO
St. John Maximovich was born June 4, 1896, in the village of Antamovka Russia. He finished his studies in the Military Academy of Poltava and then he continued his studies in law at the University of Harakov. In 1922 St. John and his family migrated to Belgrade, Serbia because of the communist takeover of Russia. In 1924 he was ordained a reader of the Church in the Russian Orthodox Church of Belgrade. At the beginning of 1926 he was tonsured a monk and given the name John by the same Metropolitan who had ordained him a reader of the Church. He was later ordained a deacon. On November 21, 1926 he was ordained a priest. He then became a professor of religious studies at a Serbian National High School. From 1929 to 1934 he was an instructor in the Theological School of St. John the Theologian in Bitol, Serbia.
On May 28, 1934 he was elected the Bishop of Shanghai, China. He then later was elected Archbishop of China. In 1951 St. John was elected as the Archbishop of Paris, France and Brussels, Belgium. In 1966 he was elected as the Archbishop of San Francisco, California. He gave up his blessed soul on June 2, 1966 in Seattle, Washington. He was a wonder worker in China before he was assigned to San Francisco. In 1988 his relics were exhumed and found to be incorrupt and very fragrant. Today his incorrupt body lies in state in the Russian Orthodox Church that he built in San Francisco.
In the following commentary the Saint relates to us the condition of the soul immediately after the death of the body. He says: “For two days the soul is free to roam around wherever it so desires and visits places that were very fond to it during its earthly life. But on the third day it is moved to other spheres of spiritual life. At this point the Archbishop simply reiterates the teaching of the Church which has been taught since the fourth century when St. Macarius of Alexandria received a revelation from an Angel of God about life after death. The Angel told St. Macarius what takes place on the third day after death when the Church chants a memorial service for the deceased person. He was told by the Angel: “When the Divine Liturgy is offered in memoriam for the deceased person on the third day after death the soul is comforted by its Guardian Angel. It is comforted by the Guardian Angel because it feels great distress after being separated from its body. As we said before, during the first two days the soul is free to roam the world wherever it so desires accompanied by its Guardian Angel. In reference to this, since the soul loves its body, it sometimes hovers around it like a bird looking for its nest. But a soul that has lived a virtuous life goes directly to the places in the world where it performed good deeds. On the third day after death, He who was risen from the dead invites the soul of the Christian to follow His resurrection in order to rise up to the heavens where he will worship the God of all humanity.
‘In the Orthodox Christian funeral service, St. John of Damascus writes about events in the condition of the soul which has left the body but lingers about the earthly plane. In this situation the soul is unable to speak to its loved ones although it is able to see them: We hear the following in the Orthodox Funeral Service: “Alas! What agony for the soul when it is parted from the body! What tears it sheds, and there is no one to take pity. Turning to the Angels, it pleads in vain; stretching out its hands to men, it finds none to help. So, my beloved brethren, reflect on the brevity of life, and let us ask Christ, rest for the departed and for our souls His great mercy.”
‘In a letter written to the brother of a deceased woman, St Theophanous, the Cloisted one, writes: “Your sister has not died. The body of a human being dies, but the personality of that person continues to live. It simply is transferred to another dimension of existence. She is not the one who is placed in the grave. She is now found in another place where she is just as alive as she was here on earth. During the first days of her departure she lingers around you. The only difference is that she cannot talk to you and you cannot see her. But she is really here near you. You should keep this in mind when you think of her. We who are left behind grieve for the departed, but for them the situation is much easier for them. They are much happier in their new surroundings. Those who have had near death experiences verify to us that our bodies are very cramped spaces in which we dwell. And your sister must now feel the same way. She is much better there where she is while we, the relatives, feel great grief as if something terrible has happened. She must be certainly watching and is surprised by the way we feel.”
‘We must be aware that the description of what happens to us the first two days right after our death is what happens to most people. But it does not apply in every instance. In most cases the examples that we read in Orthodox writings do not agree with the general rule of what happens to us right after death. For example, the Saints, who do not have any desire for worldly pleasures and anxiously anticipate their deaths live every day anticipating their departure for the other world. They are not attracted to any place in the world where they performed good deeds. They immediately depart for the heavenly realm. There are others who depart for the heavens even before the two days are up and only God’s divine providence knows why this happens. On the other hand, based on contemporary near death experiences, that are not complete experiences and are categorized as follows: A near death experience refers only to the beginning stages of the souls out of body experience. These are experiences that are tied to one’s earthly connection. But none of these people remain dead for a long enough time in order for them to encounter Angels who will accompany them in their journey to eternity.
‘Some critics of the Orthodox teaching about life after death consider such exclusions to the common experience as an objection to Orthodox teaching. These critics, on the other hand, are basing themselves only on the written interpretation. The description of the first two days, as well as the following days, does not in any way constitute a dogma of the Church. It is simply a model that describes the most usual chronological order of experiences of the soul after death. In most cases, in Orthodox writings and references to contemporary experiences, verify that the soul stays close to the earth plane for a short while. We know this is so because in some cases the dead appear fleetingly to the living during the first or second day after death. Sometimes people see their loved ones in dreams. After the third day and often before that, this period ends.
ENCOUNTERING THE TOLLHOUSES AFTER DEATH
(This is a note from the translator about this theology in reference to the soul after physical death. It is very controversial and there are Orthodox theologians who refute this teaching outright. Just read the following translation of what the Saint has to say about this teaching of the Church and make up your own mind) “After the third day, the soul encounters legions of evil spirits that hinder its journey to heaven. They accuse the soul of various sins it committed in life. According to different divine revelations there are twenty of these tollhouses that hinder the soul’s journey to heaven. At each tollhouse the soul is interrogated by the demons for the sins it committed on earth. (We must remember that at these tollhouses our Guardian Angel acts as our advocate reminding the demons of our good deeds in life). After passing through the first tollhouse it encounters the second and so forth until if passes through all twenty. It is only when it has successfully passed through all the tollhouses that it is allowed to proceed to heaven and not be hindered in its journey. The experience of how terrible these tollhouses and demons can be are verified by the Mother of Jesus herself. When she had been informed by the Archangel Gabriel that she would die, she beseeched her Son to protect her soul from the demons in its journey to heaven. In response to her prayer, Jesus Himself appeared to her and took up her soul to heaven. The third day is truly a fearful experience and that is why it is in need of our prayers for its salvation.
‘Soon after death the soul truly lives in crisis for this phase is called Partial Judgment. It is the final summary of the unseen warfare in which the soul has been battling the fallen spirits during its earthly life. It is also a judgment for the soul in which it was unsuccessful in its battle with the fallen spirits. Continuing his letter to the brother of a dead sister, St. Theophanous, the Cloistered one writes: “A short while after death, the soul begins a struggle to successfully pass through the tollhouses. In this struggle, your sister needs help. You must turn all your attention and your love toward her in order to help her. I believe that the greatest help that you can give her is to allow the preparation for the funeral service to other people. You should go off by yourself in order to pray deeply for your sister’s soul. You must pray to help her endure the new situation she is in and to help her with other unforeseen problems she may encounter in her journey. You should continue unceasing prayer to God for six weeks and more. When Saint Theodora died, she depended on the prayers of her loved ones and on the prayers of her spiritual father. The same thing will happen with the prayers that you offer. Do not fail to do whatever I have told you. This is an expression of true love.”
‘The Orthodox Christian teaching about the condition of the soul after death is often compared with the Latin teaching of spiritual indulgences of the Saints. These critics judge the Orthodox teaching by interpreting the letter of the law. That which is taught about the tollhouses is nothing more than the prayers of the Church for the repose of the dead. And these prayers are specifically those of a holy man and spiritual father. It is simplistic for us to say that all these descriptions have a metaphysical meaning. The Orthodox Church considers the teaching about the tollhouses so important that it incorporates them in many prayer services. Some of these are referred to in the chapter on tollhouses. Specifically, the Church considered it imperative for this teaching to escort every child of hers who dies.
‘In every service concerning the departure of the soul, a prayer is read by the priest for the deceased. This prayer says: “As I leave the earth, make me worthy to pass through unimpeded by the ruler of this world, the persecutor and tormentor, the one who unjustly judges me on my fearful journey.”
“Oh All-Holy Theotokos, you who gave birth to the All-Powerful Lord, distance me from the ruler of the fearful tollhouses, the ruler of this world when the time of death comes so that I may glorify you eternally.” It is in this way that the words of the Church prepare the dead Orthodox Christian for the trials that he/she will encounter later.
THE FORTY DAYS
“After having successfully navigated the tollhouses and prostrating deeply before the throne of God, the soul for a period of thirty seven days visits the heavenly places and the abyss of hell. At this point it does not know where its final resting place will be. It is only after the forty days that it is assigned to the place where it will remain until the resurrection of the dead. Truly it is not strange that the soul, having passed through the tollhouses, ceases forever from having any contact with earthly things and is now ushered into the true world of life. He will remain in this place eternally. According to the revelation of the Angel to St. Macarius of Alexandria, the special memorial service for departed souls on the ninth day is said because on that day the soul sees the frightful scenes of hell. The soul sees all these things before the fortieth day. It is in this place where he will remain until the resurrection of the dead. We should emphasis again that the number of days refers to a general rule of what happens after death. This does not mean that all the souls experience the same number of days as others. We know very well that Saint Theodora completed her journey around hell on the fortieth day after her death according to the earthly concept of time.
THE CONDITION OF THE SOUL UNTIL THE FINAL JUDGEMENT
“Some souls find themselves after the forty day period in a condition of pre-experiencing the eternal and blessedness of heaven. Yet there are other souls that find themselves in a state of pre-experiencing the horror of hell that they will live after the Final Judgment. Until the Final Judgment there is the possibility for the condition of these souls to change. This is especially true through the celebration of the Bloodless Sacrifice (Divine Liturgy) in memory of these souls.
The benefit of corporate as well as private prayer for the souls of loved ones who are in hell have been written about in many biographies of Saints and ascetics. They are also referred to in the writings of the Church Fathers. In the life of the third century Martyr Perpetoua, for example, we read about the condition of the soul of her brother Democrates. Her brother is found near a cistern filled with water. The cistern was so tall that Democrates could not reach the top because of the filthy and fiery conditions that surrounded it. But because of the fervent prayers of the Martyr Perpetoua that lasted for a whole day and night, Democrates was able to reach the cistern and saw that he was now in a place filled with light. In seeing this, Perpetoua understood that her brother had been freed from the dread of hell.
“In the life of an ascetic who died during the 20th century, a similar incident is referred to. It concerns the life of Saint Athanasia (Anastasia Logkatseva), the spiritual child of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. As we read about her life: Anastasia had a brother who was named Paul. Paul had gotten drunk and hanged himself. When this happened Anastasia decided to pray a lot for the soul of her brother. After her brother’s death, Anastasia went to a Monastery to find out what exactly she should do in order to improve the condition of her brother’s soul. She felt this because of the disgraceful and godless way in which her brother had ended his life. She went to meet nun Pelagia Ivanovna to seek her advice. Nun Pelagia told her to isolate herself in a cell for forty days with prayer and fasting for the sake of her brother. She was also requested to say fifty times a day: “Holy Mother of God grant rest to your servant (Paul).” When she had completed the forty days of prayer and fasting, Anastasia had a vision. In this vision she found herself before a huge abyss. In the depths of the abyss she saw a rock formation that was covered with blood. On the top of the rock two men were standing that had chains wrapped around their necks. One of these men was her brother. Anastasia told this vision to nun Pelagia and Pelagia told her to continue her prayers and fasting. Another forty days of fasting and prayer had passed and Anastasia saw the same vision again. It was the same abyss and the rock upon which two men were standing with chains around their necks. But this time her brother was standing upright. He was walking on the rock falling down and getting up again. The chains were still wrapped around his neck.
“The nun Pelagia Ivanovna to whom Anastasia went again to visit told her to repeat her forty day ascetic effort a third time. When Anastasia had completed the third forty day period of fasting and prayer, she again had the same vision. It was the same abyss and the same rock. But now there was only one person on the rock who was unknown to her. Her brother had been completely freed from the chains. He was nowhere to be seen. Then she heard the unknown person say: “You are very fortunate. You have powerful intercessors on the earth.” Anastasia told nun Pelagia Ivanovna the third vision that she had and Pelagia said to her: “Your brother has been saved from his torments. But he has not yet entered the blessedness of Heaven.
“There are many similar incidences that are mentioned in the lives of Orthodox Saints and ascetics. In the possibility of someone trying to interpret these visions literally, it should be observed, that surely the images that appear in these visions, which are usually dreams, do not necessarily envision the way souls live after death. It is more about images which transmit the spiritual truth about the improvement of souls in the other world because of the prayers of those of us who remain in the world.”
Translated from the Greek by:
+Fr. Constantine J. Simones, Waterford, CT, USA, August 6, 2016, firstname.lastname@example.org