Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Happens to the Soul after Death?

            I suppose that among us mere mortals the only person who could give first hand testimony to the question, “What happens to the soul after death?” was Lazarus, and he left no extant literary remains.  At best we have an old story which relates that after Christ raised him after he was dead for four days he never smiled, since he could not forget the suffering of the souls in Hades, the land of the dead.  If the story is true, it bodes ill for those who died untouched by the grace of Christ.
            But though the Church does not have an authoritative “tell all” memoir from one who had died and had been brought back to life again, it does have a long and sizable tradition from which to draw.  Just how long and sizable this tradition is may seen from the book Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition, written by Jean-Claude Larchet, and available through the Orthodox Research Institute.  The book’s value lies in the comprehensive survey it undertakes, as it quotes from a wide selection of the Fathers.   Anyone can write a book on the fate of the soul after death, if one views the matter selectively, picking and choosing among patristic texts to support one’s pre-determined view, and many have written such books.  Sometimes the writing and the debate between the writers can grow a bit nasty, as with the famous debate between Seraphim Rose and Lev Puhalo.  (The debate has also grown a bit one-sided, since Fr. Seraphim died in 1982 and can no longer answer his detractors.)  The present volume by Larchet is written in a more scholarly and measured tone, and rather than arguing a case it simply presents the vast amount of patristic material available and lets it speak for itself.  When one reads the many patristic citations, it quickly becomes clear that Fr. Seraphim was the horse to bet on.
The book structures the patristic material according to the progressive journey of the soul after death.  Thus it has chapters on what happens to the soul at the moment of death, and from the first day to the third day after death, and from the third day to the ninth, and from the ninth day to the fortieth, and after the fortieth day to the time of the last judgment.  This is a convenient way of grouping the material, and especially since it builds on the Church’s long-standing practice of commemorating the departed on the first, third, ninth, and fortieth days after death.  But it imposes on the material more systematization and temporality than the material actually allows, even though it compensates for this somewhat by acknowledging the symbolic nature of some of the descriptions of what happens after death and the altered nature of time after we have left this earth.  Grouping experiences into what happens, for example, from the third to the ninth day is a handy device for organizing disparate material, but one must sit lightly on it as a temporal programme.
At the moment of death and as one begins to step through the dark door from this visible world to the invisible one, it seems that one confronts in one’s final moments the realities which hitherto were invisible to the naked eye.  One sees the demons, accusing, lying, and grasping.  One sees one’s guardian angel, and possibly the saints who may come to welcome the departing Christian soul as it steps from this world into the next.  This terrifying ordeal of facing the demons is the subject of much patristic material, and many of the church’s prayers for the dying also deal with this.  In the thought of the New Testament, the abode of demons is not in hell below, but in the air above.  Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), the one whose “spiritual armies of wickedness” occupy “the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12). This is why, according to St. Athanasius, Christ died lifted up on the cross, dying above the ground, in the open air.  “The air is the sphere of the devil…the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a way for us up to heaven” (On the Incarnation, ch. 25).  To get to God in heaven, one has to run the gauntlet of these demonic armies, fighting one’s way through.  The monastic stories of the deaths of some of the desert Fathers relate their final struggle with these demonic foes.  The Church’s liturgical tradition builds on this, speaking of the demons as trying to seize the soul as it dies.  For example Ps. 22:12-13 refers to “Many bulls surrounding me; they open wide their mouths at me like a ravening and roaring lion”, and the Canon for the Departure of the Soul speaks of the demons as “noetic roaring lions” which “seek to carry me away and bitterly torment me” (Ode 3).  If one is a true believer, the angels defend the departing soul, and carry it through the accusations of the demons to safety and blessedness.  The souls untouched by grace or which have not finished their course in piety and faith are not able to find their way to safety, but are dragged down to Hades to await their final judgment.
It is in this final progress to God that we find the Church’s teaching on the aerial toll-houses.  The image of toll-houses was a poignant one for the ancients, for every traveller experienced the tax and custom officials who waited by the roadside to collect their due.  One dreaded these encounters with the toll-house officials.  They had a reputation for rudeness, corruption, and extortion, which made them an obvious choice for homilists when they talked about the demons which barred the way of would-be travellers on the road to heaven.  As these customs officials grilled the travellers about what they were carrying, so the demons will grill and accuse us of our sins when we begin our road to paradise.  This tradition is consistent throughout the Fathers, and can be found as early as Origen (who died 254 A.D.):  “When we depart from the world, some beings will be seated at the boundary of this world, as if they were exercising the office of tax collectors, very carefully searching to find something in us that is theirs [i.e. sins]” Homilies on Luke, 23).  We will not be able to avoid this searching accusation and inspection of our life.  The accusations of the demons will reveal to us just what sort of people we were.
This is valuable, however terrifying the ordeal may prove.  For here in this life we do not really know what sort of people we are.  We do not hear our voices as they really sound, nor see our actions as they appear to others.  We hope that the bad things we hear about ourselves are not true, and that we are simply being misunderstood.  But on that day, confronted by demons and accompanied by angels, we will hear the truth and will see ourselves as we actually were.  It will have a purifying effect upon us, for we can only receive God’s grace and healing if we acknowledge where we are wounded and what parts of our life need healing.  Painful though it may be, we need to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about ourselves.  This self-knowledge, coming to us after death and embodied in the metaphor of toll-houses, is essential to our final blessedness and joy.
After death, all souls must meet Christ, as part of their discovery of the way things really are.  In this life they might have regarded Jesus as simply a great man, or a wonderful teacher of the Golden Rule.  Possibly, like the Muslims, they regarded Him as a mere prophet.  Possibly, like the Pharisees, they regarded him as a false prophet and a deceiver.  However they may have regarded Jesus in this life, then all will discover who He is really is:  the divine Son of God, slain for salvation of men, and sitting at the right hand of God as their only hope.  Whether this acknowledgment of Christ’s power brings tears of joy after a life of faith, or tears of grief after a life of unbelief, all must bow down before His throne as see Him as He really is.
Then comes the waiting for the Last Day, when all will be raised from the dead and stand before Christ in their bodies to receive judgment, and truth, and recompense.  Some will wait in the land of the dead (Hebrew Sheol; Greek Hades, or “hell”), filled with dread.  Some will wait there, in a state of suspense.  Some will wait with the saints in the heavenly paradise, drenched in joy and anticipation of an even greater happiness.  But during this time of waiting all can be helped by the prayers of the Church.   These prayers are very general, for they are offered for all men, both for those dying in fervent piety, and also for those whose faith was more tepid and nominal, and even for those about whose inner lives we know nothing.  In examining the prayers of the Church for the departed and her teaching about their state after death, this needs to be kept in mind.   The Fathers do not present us with a tidy system, but with a living Lord, and with pressing present obligations.  We do not know all would like to know, but we know all we need to know to do what God requires of us.  And surely it is best not to know everything?  We are too easily distracted from our duties as it is; how much more would we be distracted if we knew all that was to come?
We will all enter that undiscovered country soon enough.  Meanwhile, the Church gives us all that we need to prepare for that final journey.   We know that after we die, we shall see the demons and the angels as they are, and be faced with our lives and our sins as they really were.  We know that we shall see Christ on His throne.  Now is the time to prepare for those shattering revelations, and that shattering Presence.  Eternity begins today.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Poem from Rockaway

Every summer Matushka and I go to join other writers for Orthodox Writers Week at Rockaway Beach.  We spend the days writing, and then sharing with each other in the evenings what we have written during the day.  I spend much of the day reading Bible commentaries and writing notes in the margins of my Bible, which of course means I have little to share each evening.  By way of compensation, I usually produce a poem to share with the group.  This year's poem is appended below. I hope you like it.

Rockaway Baby

Rock-a-bye baby in the tree-top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
and down will come baby, cradle and all.

Rock away, baby, whether in tree-top or by sea-side,
rock away in your cradle and dream
and read and write and in your gentle rhythms dance
with elegant long limbs; taste poetry like salt stinging your tongue;
sing and make words float in the air around you like blown soap-bubbles,
glistening until they burst and fall and soak your face with its laughter.
Rock away and dream, never thinking for a moment of breaking boughs.
Dance and sing and write your lines in beach-sand, never thinking
of the coming tide, the water,
the water,
the softly-rising water, inexorably growing
like a baby in a womb, water to wash away all beach-words, water
to carry off all whirling dancers and poets and singers to the sea,
the cold, wide sea.
Why whisper winged words for the wind to carry them all away?
Why trace lines in the sand to be washed clean into oblivion?
The One who rocks the cradle bids us write, and dream, and dance,
and leave to Him the rising tide.
His breath nudges the cradle to make it swing; He will catch us when it falls.
He likes it when we dream, and the words we write by the sea-side.
He reads them all.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Of Angels and Demons

          We Orthodox confess that we are amphibians—that is, that we are part animal, part angelic, that we simultaneously inhabit both the visible and the invisible world, the realms of both men and spirits.  We have prayers in our daily prayer rule to our guardian angel, and we ask for help against the attacks of demonic spirits.  For most of us, this bi-partite existence remains mostly theoretical, in that while we acknowledge the reality of the invisible and spiritual world of angels and demons, we have little personal experience of it.  But once in a while, we learn of people whose experience of this world is more direct.
            I have learned of such a person.  A pious person in my parish is in touch with an old friend of his in Russia, and this latter has experienced many things from the invisible world of the spirit that we all acknowledge, experiencing both the attacks of demons and the help of the angels.  He was a brave and confident person, athletic, skilled in martial arts.  He came from a hard and difficult life, a sinful life of violence.  In this violent world he went deeply into the evil darkness that always lies open to the sons of men.  At length he began to seek God.  His seeking did not go unchallenged by the dark forces which once dominated his life, and so he has experienced things which most of us have not.  His friend, my parishioner, knows him well as a man of integrity and sanity, as someone who is neither crazy nor duplicitous, and he has shared his story with me.  In what follows I offer several examples from his long testimony to show that the unseen realm that we Orthodox confess in our Creeds is truly a contemporary reality.
            When this man first began to seek a life of righteousness in the Church, he experienced demonic attacks which frightened him.  Being sensible, he went to a monastery and sought the prayers and counsel of the monastic Fathers there.  One night, as he returned from the monastery, he parked his car and began walking to his home, and the demons began to attack him.  He was filled with fear as began seeing dark silhouettes appearing in the trees about him, and was consumed with an inner horror.  He continued walking, and saying the prayer, “Rejoice Virgin Theotokos”.  Nonetheless, a fear and panic grew within him which soon became unbearable.  Though the street was empty, he heard a loud metallic roar, as if from an unearthly lion, and he thought his heart would stop.  He then felt the angelic presence with him, as if an angel stood behind him, covering him beneath its wings.  He felt the angel said to him, “It is useless to run; they are bodiless.”  He continued to rest in the love and peace that seemed to flow from his protector, until the horror coming from the shadows receded.  A minute after this, he felt the angelic presence also depart.
            On other occasions, he would see the angels.  He reported that their faces are full of innocence, like the faces of young children, free of all taint of sin and guilt.  They seem to glow, like beings transparent to the light of the Kingdom, exuding a kind of warmth and kindness and love and peace, and they resembled young men.  (I note that this is consistent with the descriptions of angels in the New Testament:  compare St. Mark’s description of the angel appearing to the myrrh-bearing women after Christ’s Resurrection as “a young man” in Mark 16:5.)
            My parishioner’s friend in Russia shared many other experiences, relating things which he had seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears.  I offer this small taste of his testimony because it confirms for me the reality that we confess without seeing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears.  I believe in the reality of the unseen world, not because of stories like this, but because of the witness of the Scriptures and the Fathers.  But it is good nonetheless to receive the witness of others of our generation who have experienced the same sort of realities.  I will think of my parishioner’s friend whenever I say the Creed:  “I believe in one God, maker of heaven of earth and all of things, both visible and invisible.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Orthodox Worship and the Old Testament Cultus

Recently I read in a blog a spirited defence of Orthodox worship, which the author promoted as more Biblical than the worship of contemporary praise services such as those offered at the famous Willow Creek church (pictured above).  I appreciated his zeal for the home team, as well as the fact that he did not denounce “contemporary worship” (an odd phrase; isn’t all worship today contemporary by definition?) as if it was heretically damnable or unclean.  But in the course of his long defense of Orthodox worship he tried to justify our praxis by drawing direct lines from the worship pattern of the Old Testament to that of the contemporary Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  He said, for example, that “worship in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the Old Testament Temple.  Typically, an Orthodox church has three main areas: the narthex (entry hall), the nave (the central part), and the altar area.  This is similar to the Old Testament Tabernacle which consisted of the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place”.  He also said, that the “vestments worn by Orthodox priests are patterned after the Old Testament”.  The result of all this was that “ Orthodox Christian worship is based upon a radical continuity.  As the Jewish Messiah Jesus Christ took the Jewish forms of worship and filled them with new content and meanings.  Orthodox worship took the Jewish synagogue and Temple worship and made them Christocentric.”
            Reading this, I could not suppress a grimace, for these claims are historically untrue.  As a matter of fact, the architectural lay-out of a modern Orthodox church is not based on the Jewish shrine, even if both structures do have a three-fold lay-out.  In the Mosaic shrine, the Outer Court was the place where worshipper and priest met and offered the sacrifice, and the Holy Place was where the priest went to burn incense privately twice a day, in the evening and the morning.  No one went into the Most Holy Place except the high priest, and even he only went there once a year on the Day of Atonement.  If the Orthodox worship were really based on the Old Testament model of Moses’ shrine, most of the worship would take place in the narthex, with the clergy nipping in to the nave once in a while (for Vespers and Matins?), and the bishop would enter the altar only once a year (for the beginning of Lent?)  Any reading of church history will reveal that the Christian church buildings were not based on the Jewish Temple or on any temple or religious building in the ancient world, but on the secular meeting hall, the basilica, so-named because it was the public court building of the basileus or king, and the first secular basilicas had no religious function at all.  A temple was a building meant to house a deity; its worshippers, Jewish or pagan, met and worshipped under the open sky.  A basilica was meant to house people, and to keep the weather off their heads.  The Christians could have structured their meeting places after a religious temple, but they chose not to.  Their buildings were clearly secular in design and lay-out.
            It was the same with the vestments of the clergy.  Historians tell us that the clergy officiated in their normal street clothes even in the fourth century and later, though of course all the Christians would wear their best street clothes when they came to public worship.  What we today regard as special “church vestments” were simply the normal secular attire for the gentleman of the day.  Pagan priests wore special clothes when they officiated at their public sacrifices, as did Jewish priests, but the Christian clergy did not.  As time went on, fashions changed, but the church (ever conservative) clung to the style of clothes their clergy had always worn.  They fancied those clothes up a bit, making them more gorgeous and with more brocade (as it were), but the clothes were never regarded in the early years as special religious garments, much less as having any connection with the priestly vestments of the Old Testament.  As with architecture, so with clothing—the Church remained resolutely non-religious in its approach.  It is natural for Orthodox Christians, especially if they come from Protestant traditions determined to find a Bible-verse for everything, to look for patterns of Orthodox worship in the Bible.  But historical facts are stubborn things, even when they prove inconvenient to one’s argument.  And the fact is that historical Christian worship owes precious little to Old Testament patterns.
            What does this all mean?  What connection then do we have with the Old Testament?  And why did the Church decide to follow a secular approach to buildings and clerical clothing rather than a religious one?  (Please note that I am not suggesting that we today should worship in secular halls or that clergy should cease wearing special clerical vestments when they serve Liturgy.)
            The Church does have a connection with the Old Testament, but it is mediated through Christ.  That is, our direct connection is not with the Old Testament tabernacle, shrine, sacrifices, and priests, but with Jesus.  All the Old Testament realities find their fulfillment in Him.  He is the new tabernacle, the new Temple, the new dwelling place of God.  His execution on the Cross is the new sacrifice.  The priesthood of the Old Testament find its fulfillment not in the Christian clergy, but in Christ’s high-priesthood in heaven.  A priest by definition is one who offers a sacrifice (i.e. presides over an actual death, usually the death of an animal), and so technically there is only one priest in the Church, and that is Jesus, who offered His actual death to God on the cross.  The term “priest” is applied to the Christian liturgist (originally the bishop, and only later applied to the presbyters) by a kind of poetic metaphor, since the clergyman does not actually immolate an animal.  Rather, the bishop was the one who presided at the church’s worship, making anamnesis of Christ’s one and only sacrifice, and so sacrificial language came to be applied to this liturgical memorial.  But all the Old Testament liturgical practices pointed not directly to Christian worship, but to Christ. 
            Thus Orthodox Christian worship is based upon a radical discontinuity with the Old Testament.  It did not take the Jewish Temple worship and make it Christocentric.  It did not take the Temple worship at all.  It took Christ.  Christ fulfilled these old realities and transcended them, and Christian worship is heir to this fulfillment and transcendence.   Jewish worship, like pagan worship, was essentially religious.  That is, it consisted of what Paul called stoichea, the building blocks and elemental concepts found in all religions—things like the distinction between clean and unclean, holy day and secular day, consecrated ground and secular space, priest and layman (see Galatians 4:9-10, Colossians 2:20-22).  All these principles, all religion, were both fulfilled in Christ and transcended.  As Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said, Christ is therefore the end of religion, and such religious concepts bind us no longer.  We now belong no longer to the world with its stoichea, but to the Kingdom of God.  That is why the church chose the secular basilica as the model for its buildings, and why its clergy chose to dress in normal, non-religious attire.  Christians no longer need religion.  We have something far better:  we have Christ, and in Him, we have all the realities of Israel’s sacred history.  That not only beats the Jewish temple and its priesthood.  It also beats the passing fads of places like Willow Creek.