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Παρασκευή, 3 Φεβρουαρίου 2017

DEATH IS INEVITABLE—AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO OUR PHYSICAL DEATH







DEATH IS INEVITABLE—AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN
RESPONSE TO OUR PHYSICAL DEATH

Dear People,

            There is a fellow Orthodox Christian priest here in America who posts a daily blog about various aspects of our Orthodox Christian Faith.   What is unusual about this fellow priest is that he is a monk and the Abbot of the All-Merciful Savior Monastery on Vashon Island, in the State of Washington.  On the 23rd of January he posted an article about the inevitability of death for every human being who is born into this world.  The Abbot’s name is Father Tryphon.  I was so taken with his article that I wrote a response to him. 

            In my response I said: “I thank you for your daily postings about our precious Orthodox Christian Faith.  I am a retired Orthodox priest who will be 85 years old on the 30th of January.  Your posting about death and how Americans avoid its reality is right on.  The Church, in its wisdom over the centuries, deals with death properly through its prayers and funeral services that honor our souls and prepare them for their journey to eternity.  Death is an integral part of human life. It is our passage into the loving care of our Creator who has planned all things for the benefit of all His people.  At this age, I thank God that He has given me the extra time to prepare my soul for its passage to eternity.  Monastic life and its approach to death is what all Orthodox Christians should emulate.  Thank you again for this profound posting.  I like to share with my people the following greeting: “Καλό Παράδεισο—May we be granted a Blessed Paradise.”  +Fr. Costas J. Simones

            The following article of Abbot Tryphon is what prompted my response to him.  He wrote the following about death:  “At seventy-five I am no spring chicken, as the saying goes, and I realize I need to be prepared for my own inevitable demise.  The clock is ticking for all of us, but once you have experienced heart trouble, your own eventual end becomes very evident.

            A doctor friend of mine made the observation that the greatest hazard to one’s life is our conception, because it is a death sentence.  From the moment we are born we begin to die.  The best way to approach the inevitability of our own death is to face it head on, yet our culture fears death, avoids the thought of death, and does everything to mask it when it does happen.

            My best friend in college died many years ago, and although he was an Orthodox Christian, his family had him cremated, so there was no final kiss, no burial, and no closure.  Following the funeral in the parish Church, his priest and I joined his family and friends at an art gallery, where his work was often featured.  While mingling with his wife, son and their friends, I happened upon a small box sitting on a pillar meant for a sculpture.  Looking closely I saw some decoupage photos of my friend’s life.  Among them was a photo of the two of us taken back in the 60’s during our college days.  Looking around to make sure no one was looking; I lifted the box in order to take a closer look at the photos.  Instantly, I knew it was my friend’s ashes, given the weight of the box.  Laughing to myself, I knew he’d have been amused at the site of me discovering I was holding his remains in this small box.  

            Since my friend was not responsible for the cremation, an Orthodox Church service was allowed. (This is certainly stretching the rule of our Church since people who are cremated are not allowed an Orthodox Church funeral). His priest and I had a long discussion about the American way of death, how we send our dying family members off to hospitals or hospices, keeping the unpleasantness of death out of sight.  We fear death, so avoid looking at it. Cremation is a convenient way of denying the reality of death because there is no body.  Yet we Orthodox Christians know that a burial service with an open casket and graveside service are a benefit to friends and family alike because the whole process helps with closure.

            I have chosen the site of my own burial on the grounds of the Monastery and hope to have a simple pine box built while I can still look at it.  By setting it up in a corner of my cabin would allow me to use it as a bookcase before my death.  I once heard of a man who used the pre-need coffin as a wine rack.

            Facing my own mortality better prepares me for that moment when I will be standing before God and giving Him an account of my life.  I am not in a hurry mind you.  I am praying God will give me many years in order to repent for my sins.  However, it is good that I think about my own death. For avoidance will not prolong my life, but it can make me put off repentance. 
AT THIS POINT I PRESENT A COMMENTARY ABOUT DEATH
by St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov

            The Saint tells us in his commentary that follows about death: “Remember throughout your lives your departure from Egypt.” (The Saint is referring to our departure from this temporary life in the world).  The Saint tells us: “Death is a great mystery.  It refers to the rebirth of man from this temporary earthly life to eternal life.  In the mystery of death, we humans put off and shed our carnal bodies.  Our souls, the ethereal part of our being enters the other world, the dwelling place where the souls continue to live.  That world is not visible to us through the senses of our bodies.  It is not visible through our fleshly senses.  It should be known that throughout our earthly lives, the organs of our bodies function through our senses.  These senses are not so much a part of our bodies as they are of our souls.

            When the soul leaves the body, it is invisible to us just like all the other aspects of the invisible world.  During the celebration of the burial service for our fellow deceased Christian brothers and sisters, we see only the physical body of the deceased that is without breath or life.  After death this body begins to disintegrate and we rush to bury it in the ground.  We surrender the body to the elements and to its corruption.  We then forget about it.  This is the way many generations of human beings have died and have been forgotten throughout the centuries.

            What happens to our souls when they leave our bodies?  That aspect of our existence in spite of all the knowledge that we possess is unknown to us.  Death is an unknown mystery to us.  Before mankind was enlightened with the Light of Jesus Christ, virtually all human beings expressed all kinds of theories about the immortality of the soul.  The greatest of the wise men in the world of idolatry put forth all kinds of conjectures and hypotheses about immortality.  As long as the heart of fallen humanity dwelt in darkness, it always felt that the soul was immortal.  This is proven to us in the idolatrous religions that promised that there was life beyond the grave.  People were promised a life beyond the grave of joy or unhappiness according to the way they lived their lives on earth.  

            Since we are transient and temporary inhabitants of this world, we should be very cognizant of our spiritual life now and what our understanding is of eternity.  If we spend too much time during our limited time on earth seeking out only the joys of life and avoiding its sorrows, we should be more concerned about eternity.  What happens after death?  Is there a reward for the good and evil things we did in life?  Is it possible that we are rewarded for these acts in the other world?  Are we rewarded since in eternity we see that in this world often evil people enjoy good things while the virtuous people often are persecuted and suffer because of their faith in God?  It is imperative; yes it is imperative, that we discover the mystery of death and the true meaning of life.  It is imperative for us to see with our own eyes the invisible future of mankind.

            The mystery of death is understood through the Word of God and through the moving of the Holy Spirit.  Eternity can be made known to us through our senses and this can happen only when our senses have become purified and sensitive to the Grace of God.  “For the Spirit knows all things and even the most hidden secrets of God”—how much more is this so with humans! “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed, To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4: 18).

            Death is the separation of the soul from the body.  The soul and the body were joined together by the will of God.  They again are separated by the will of God.  This separation of soul and body is a result of mankind’s spiritual fall from the Grace of God.  Because we have fallen spiritually, our bodies are no longer imperishable as when they were first created by God.  The death of mankind, which was at one time immortal, is the result of our disobeying the commandments of God.

            At the death of man, his body is dissolved into the elements from which he was created. When this takes place, man no longer exists as a psychosomatic being.  The soul and the body are now separated.  We should know that the body continues to exist even though it has been dissolved into the elements and is returned to the earth from which it came.  The body continues to exist even after it is completely dissolved into the earth.  It continues to exist like a seed that rots in the ground awaiting its reunion with the soul for then it becomes immune to death. (This translator considers this statement the main reason why the Orthodox Church forbids the cremation of its faithful).

            It is well known that the bodies of the chosen of God do not disintegrate into the elements of the earth.  They remain incorrupt.  These bodies have been infused by the Grace of God.  These incorrupt bodies, instead of the stench of death, their bodies give off a sweet-smelling fragrance.  These incorrupt bodies, instead of being a hazard to human beings are instead healing the sick and giving life to the afflicted.  These bodies are equally dead and alive at the same time.  They are dead according to our human nature but alive in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  These unique bodies of the Saints are the witnesses to what the greatness and holiness was like for the first created human beings.  They are the true witnesses of what the greatness and holiness of what their deliverance will be like in eternity.

            During the time the body sleeps in death what happens to the soul?  The Word of God reveals to us that when our souls are separated from our bodies they go to those areas of good or evil that they have lived in life.  They either live with the Angels of Light or with the darkness of demons.  You must know that Angels and demons were created by God with the same substance.  Their nature is immaterial and bodiless. But they are different in what they do.  Angels remain guileless and good as they were first created.  On the other hand, demons fell from God’s Grace and became completely identified with evil which they have freely chosen.  We find in Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church many references to the condition of the souls after death.

            At the crucifixion of Jesus He promised the repentant crucified thief his direct entry into heaven.  Jesus said to him: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43).  Poor Lazarus, in the Parable of Poor Lazarus and the rich man Lazarus was taken after death by the Angels to dwell with Abraham in Paradise.  On the other hand, the unmerciful rich man, who lived sumptuously every day went to hell when he died.  The souls of the martyrs, when they are separated from their bodies rest in the blessedness of Heaven awaiting the resurrection of their bodies.  This is revealed to us by St. John the Theologian in the Book of Revelation.  The souls of the sinful people are also awaiting the resurrection of the dead but in the hell of Hades.”  

            (The following is taken from another post of Abbot Tryphon about the issue of sorrow that follows the death of a loved one).  As a fellow priest I agree with the Abbot 100% about the issue of death and how we deal with it as Orthodox Christians.   This is what the Abbot tells us about the mystery of death: “As a priest and as a monk of the Orthodox Christian Church, I am comfortable with this mystery of death, as all Christians should be.  Death can be a mystery precisely because the triumph over death is not a mystery.  As the Orthodox Christian theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote: “in essence, Christianity is not concerned with coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it.”  In the light of everlasting life, in the name of Jesus Christ, the dreadful threat and dark mystery that is death is transformed into a happy and victorious event for the believer, and “Death is swallowed up in victory.”     (1 Cor.15:54). 
            So mourning is an ancient ritual, one in which Jesus Himself participated.  For all of us, all people, death is a common element of humanity, the common trait we share, and the common enemy of our loved ones.  And like grief, victory over death binds people together in a larger, more powerful community, the community that is found in the Christian faith.  People accuse Christians of being members of a “death cult,” obsessed with a dying Savior and focused on the afterlife to the exclusion of the present; but they are wrong.  Christianity does not deny life, Christianity affirms life. Christianity affirms life even in death, because for Christians, death does not remove the relationship that exists.  In death, as in life, they are still our brother, our sister, our parent, and our friend. In death, as in life, we love and honor them, and death cannot take them from us.  Death has taken them, but it has also provided us with the opportunity to live with the reality of one day joining them in that wonderful dimension of eternal life.  And a life in Christ is a good life.

            So for us, death of a loved one is the beginning of the true life that also awaits us beyond the grave, if indeed we have begun to live in Christ now.  Christ, “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) transformed death.  Christ assumed human flesh, Christ was crucified, resurrected, ascended into heaven and waits for us there, and Christ ushers us into a new life both now and after our death.  Therefore, even as death exposes our frailty and our grief, death does not reveal our finiteness; instead it reveals our eternity.  To this end, the Christian does not ponder the mystery of death in a way that is paralyzing, negative and apathetic, but in a way that is productive, positive and dynamic. 

            God, to whom you have entrusted your soul, is a good and perfect God.  This God will do what is right with your child, what is just with your brother, and what is honorable with your friend.  There is no saying, no claim, no scripture that will give us peace in our loss right now or even calm our troubled souls; but we can find  comfort and peace in God who is present with us, and in us  and through us,  as we gather in the intimacy of grief, to mourn the death of a loved one.”

Compiled, translated and edited by:
+Fr. Costas J. Simones, January 27, 2017, Waterford, CT, USA, 860-460-9089, 




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