Friday, March 25, 2022

Death and Afterlife 12: What Happens at the Time of Death?

What is it like to die? This is when the soul which is created integral with the body separates. The nature of this separation is a common question because it is not something we have experienced. As we try to answer this we must remember that this topic is surrounded by mystery. What we do know is mostly from accounts of Church Fathers and other holy people who have experienced it and those who have died and then returned to life.

After death experiences that have been recorded by academics are mostly due to medical techniques for resuscitating the “clinically dead”. We must take great care in interpreting them. They can be misleading. Fortunately, Orthodox doctrine on this topic is quite clear even though it is not widely taught. It is found in Holy Scripture, in writings of the Holy Fathers, in the lives of the Saints as well in stories of personal Orthodox experiences.

There are numerous reports of visions of another world from patients thought to be dying, but later return to life. Some describe beautiful pictures of mountains, meadows and gardens. Others hear other-worldly music. Many describe a tunnel of light. The experiences are varied. Be careful. These images are worldly, not spiritual. The imagery is tied to this world. The modern day experiences have a theme of comfort or peace rather than the unforgettable reality of awe and fear of God. They are in error because they do not include a struggle as the soul separates from the body. 

The correct view of the entry into the spiritual realm is found in the doctrine of Christian struggle. This view can be seen in Orthodox Funeral Hymns:

"Such agony afflicts a soul when it is separated from its body. Alas! How it weeps then, but there is no one to have mercy on it. It turns its eyes towards the Angels and prays to no avail. It reaches for other people, but there is no one who can help.”

"Frightening indeed, and quite so, is the mystery known as death, how a soul then is forcibly separated from its frame, parting from its body;  severed is that union, which is most natural and innate, by Your divine will, O Lover of mankind."

As the soul tries to separate we never lose consciousness. Our thinking is clear and seems to accelerate. We become aware of the two aspects of our being which are now being separated. We can no longer touch or feel or be heard. We still can see our physical being, but now we also see our spiritual being as ourselves, unmistakable alike in all aspects, but not its physicality. It seems like we are now two persons. There is a pull upward and another downward toward the earth. This is the cause of the struggle we experience. But there is no pain.

We are still completely alive and totally conscious. To those observing death it seems like death is an end where all consciousness is lost. But, death is not an end, but is a new beginning. We are still alive with full consciousness. Our character is intact. 

The entrance into this mystical realm begins with a struggle. The soul that was created integral with the body must now separate. Once this separation is complete, the struggle subsides and we are led to our proper status, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ where we will be united with new spiritual bodies and face the Final Judgment.

Where and how will we led? Will there next be an ordeal that we must face? 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Death and Afterlife 11 - The martyrs

How about the death of the martyrs we celebrate each day? They show us the kind of faith that destroys the fear of death. They were able to view death as better than living. You may think that this depreciates life. But this is not so. They viewed life as a gift from God and are thankful for this gift. They knew that life is only a pre-stage for a greater sacred life. Believers like the Martyrs know that only if one lives in Christ will he be able to enter the kingdom of God. They know God and experience His love.

Saint Paul writes: 

“We groan from the depths of our hearts anticipating the deliverance of our body from corruption, condemning not the present condition, but rather desiring and expecting what is greater. (ROM 8:23)”

The early Christian tombs call the departed as blessed, not beloved. This indicates that the one who has passed on is fortunate and joyous. By living a holy life they now live with the Holy Trinity.

Saint Basil answers the question how they were able to stand so firm in their faith when undergoing such horrific and gruesome torture. He wrote the following on reflecting on the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste who cried out with thanksgiving in their torture. 

“We thank the Lord, because together with this garment we are also discarding sin. Since we put it on because of the serpent, let us remove it for the sake of a Christ. Let us not keep the garments for the sake of Paradise, which men lost because of sin. Our Lord too was naked... winter is severe, but Paradise is sweet; there is much pain in freezing, but there is sweetness in repose. Let us forbear for a little while and the bosom of the Patriarch will embrace us. We will exchange one night for an entire age. Let the leg be burned  by freezing so that it may dance eternally with the angels in the kingdom of heaven. Let the arm be cut off by freezing so that it may be able to be raised boldly toward the Master. Since as mortals we must die in any case, let us die now with a martyrs death so we may live eternally.

Because the Marty’s demonstrated such great faith their relics to this day are venerated and remain active with the Holy Spirit.

By now you are probably asking the question, What is it like to Die?

Friday, March 18, 2022

Death and Afterlife 10: How to console others

How are we to console others when they are faced with the loss of a loved one? 

Proverbs tells us to offer wine to those in bitter distress. We are to visit them and console them. 

Saint Paul says, be sympathetic “weeping with those who weep.” 

Saint Basil puts it this way: 

Visit those who mourn and help them with consoling words, but be not overcome with grief, nor imitate the lamentations and wails of  those who do not mourn in a manner pleasing to God.

Remember that Christ Himself wept at the death of His beloved friend Lazarus 

On approaching the tomb to resurrect him, Jesus was “deeply moved” and exerted inner effort to control his emotions (cf. Jn 11:35,38)

The death of a spouse is most difficult for the one remaining. It creates a deep psychic wound. The one who survives is filled with worry. They worry about how they will be able to live without their parter who loved them. How will they cope without someone to share while dealing with the day to day problems. They wonder if they will be overcome with loneliness. This separation of man and wife is very difficult to bear. They must now live following their own way. The consolation they have is the many blessings they have received in marriage, in the love of their partner, the children they conceived and raised, and all the joys of a life together. Share the ones you know with them.

The loss of a child is also most difficult to bear. Especially an infant. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:

if none of the events of the world occurs without God, without divine assistance, and everything is dependent upon divine will which is wise and providential, then certainly there is a reason which bears the characteristics of the wisdom of God and His praiseworthy concern.

Saint Basil comforts by saying that the all wise God knows exactly how to work things out to the advantage to each person and why the span of life is unequal. He says that you did not lose a child, you returned it to God. He or she was not covered by earth but was received by heaven.

Saint Athanasios writes:

Sacred Scripture teaches us, we understand that infants of the faithful do not die because of sins, but often for the prudence of the parents. By this means God works two good things: the infants that leave here in purity will receive salvation there in eternity. Perhaps God called them early to be near Him by intention to avoid living a very sinful life. On the other hand, their departure can bring about more prudence in the parents.

Saint John Chrysostom says: 

Behold you live 50 or100 years, you become wealthy, acquire children, give dowries, have sons and daughters marry, and you rule over nations and peoples. After all this comes death, and after death comes judgement which has no end or repentance... This is why we rather consider blessed those who die as infants... for these infants it is the beginning of salvation. For what things will the infants give account if they have no experience of sin... o blessed infants, your dormition is blessed! O death of the incorrupt, you are the beginning of an endless joy!

Saint Photios comments holding before him deceased daughter of Tarsius: 

Father, why do you mourn as if I have gone to a place of evils. In fact I am in a Paradise. The sight I behold is sweet and sweetest when I enjoy it. The experiences I have here surpass every belief. In this Paradise there is no evil and no deceptive serpent, the devil, to temp us with false whispers. Here we are all wise following divine and heavenly wisdom. Our entire life is a continuous holiday and feast. You too, father, will one day come here with my beloved mother.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Dearth and Afterlife 9: Can Come at Any Time

Death is something we should never deny or allow to leave our awareness. It can come at any time. We do not control when it will come. 

“In all you do remember the end of your life and you will never sin. Wisdom of Sirach 7:36

Saint John Chrysostom says:

“Death as a present and anticipated reality helps us very much. To look upon death or to anticipate it and to remember it convinces us to be humble and modest. It also helps us to live with prudence and to be kept from sin and, generally speaking to be spared from every evil.”

Be ever ready for death. Develop a faith that is unshakable so that death is seen as a necessary step in our spiritual growth. We need to sped our time on earth preparing for this eventuality.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Death and Afterlife 8: How do we overcome the fear of Death?

Most of us have a deep seated fear of death. How do we over come it? It is essential for us to seek ways to deepen our faith. We need to develop a faith based certainty that there is a desirable life after death. We must learn without question that death is the path to having an eternal life in God’s kingdom filled with His love.

We must realize that death is a transition, not an end, that it’s a transition to a new creation where there is no longer any suffering or pain. It is this firm belief and acceptance that Christ in His Resurrection has shown us the true path to Paradise and life in His heavenly kingdom.

This development of a deeper faith will come when ones lives a way of life taught by Christ’s true Church. This is where we are taught the necessary disciplines followed by Christians from the earliest days. This includes, in addition to the healing Sacraments, our prayers, our regular worship, our following the discipline of fasting to overcome our passions, our ongoing study of Holy Scripture and the reading of the writings of the Church Fathers.

We also need to recognize that there is a difference between fear and sorrow. It is normal to have sorrow over the loss of a loved on. This does not necessarily indicate a fear of death. Even Christ cried on hearing about the death of Lazarus. The Church does not forbid tears. We should have sorrow and grieve just like we would if we were bidding goodby to a loved one embarking on a long and extended journey. Our sorrow should not be extreme though. It should be modest with propriety, calm and controlled.

What attitude is acceptable to God? Extreme wailing is unacceptable and possibly even an insult to God. We must show that we do accept, whatever the circumstances of the death, that all is part of God’s plan for that person. We have to be accept the will of God. Excessive grief is an indication of a lack of faith and trust in a loving and merciful God. We need to think of a loved one's death as the acceptance of an invitation to be with God and that the angels have come to lead them to heaven. It helps for us to think of it as a sleep, a transition, and the beginning of a beautiful journey.

Saint John Chrysostom writes: 

“If one must mourn for the death of men, that should be the devil! Let him weep and wail, for we are now freed from his traps and are going toward the greater, the permanent blessings. Fear, terror, weeping, mourning, wailing, and agonizing cries are worthy of his evil and not of you, who are the rational creature of God, You who are destined to be crowned and to rest in eternal blessedness.”

He advises in this way: 

Let us gather around those who on the way to the other life. Sit and do not disturb the dead who are before you...calm yourselves and look and see the great mystery.

In silence ask yourselves:What is this great mystery that concerns me? He who was dear to me yesterday is now before me as a horror; what was yesterday a part of me is now seen as a stranger; the one I embraced a while before, I now do not even care to touch. I weep over him as my own, but avoid the decay as not my own.

When you see someone leaving for the other life, be not disconcerted but come and concentrate within yourself, examine your conscience, consider that not long after this the end awaits you too.

The Church in its love and wisdom helps it’s members see both the present and the future in light of the Gospel. I helps us to understand the meaning of biological life and the meaning of an eternal life gained through death.

Our death is something we should always keep alive in our thoughts. This will help keep us focused on the purpose of our biological life.