Orthodox America


  To Die That We Might Live


What storms, what disturbances, what sins, what tears there are in every dwelling, every town and every market place! And what good is there in the world ? It ts full of deception, fear and sickness. Our birth is strange, our death is frightful, and what is after death is inscrutable. -- St. Joseph of Volotsk

 

    The whirlwind of life, like falling leaves, spins around the people of this age in a frenzied dance. Vanity--this is the most accurate definition of all that occupies our minds and hearts; it is what moves us to sorrow and to rejoice. So pass the years and decades of our life. Sooner or later, however, there comes for each person the hour of awakening, the hour of realization that he is mortal. And this seemingly obvious truth strikes us in the depths of our souls, like a terrifying revelation.

       This awakening comes in different ways, but most frequently it finds us when we are ill. Lying in bed, we suddenly realize that we are not eternal, that we are, in fact, going to die, possibly very soon. Then the sickness leaves us and again we become absorbed by new concerns, and we forget about death. But sickness and adversities are those messengers sent to us by the Lord, who call to our hearts: "People, come to your senses! Do not imagine that you are immortal gods. Take a good, hard look at yourselves, and you will see that death and decay reign over your bodies. See, your hair is getting gray, your skin is withering, and all this is irreversible. Think well. Are you prepared for death? What awaits you there in eternity, after the last clump of earth is thrown into your grave and a new life begins for you?"

       Only a few blessed souls, even before the coming of an illness or other dread messenger of death, come to realize, with God's help, all the vanity of this earthly life. Multitudes of holy fathers and mothers who in every age filled the deserts and monasteries, were motivated precisely by this soul saving awareness. And we too are capable of the same realization. We have but to listen carefully to the voice of our conscience, when we are alone with ourselves, when we have no reason to be hypocritical or double-faced. Here before us lies the path of the God-pleasers, who came to realize that however beautiful, however marvelous this temporal world is, there will come a time when it will no longer exist. The beauties of nature, which today delight our eyes, will disappear; the mountains, the flowers, the sun, the stars--all will disappear. The beauty of youth will wither, the canvasses of the old masters will fade, the books of renowned authors will decay. All will pass away. God will remain, but will we be with Him? According to our deeds, according to our sins we must conclude that it is not our lot to enjoy His eternal presence. But He alone is truly Existing, Who always Is. And if our lot is not with Him, then what good to us is eternity? for it will be for us an eternity without God.

       Unbelievers are often panic-stricken at the thought of leaving this temporal life. They want to live forever, although they know that they are destined to die. These foolish people do not understand that their awful tragedy lies precisely in the fact that after death their souls (and, at the General Resurrection, their bodies also) will receive that eternal existence without God, towards which they have been striving. And can one compare even the most dreadful torments and illnesses of this present life with those hellish torments that sinners will experience for all eternity? True Christians, by contrast, do not fear the death of their mortal bodies. In the Symbol of Faith they confess, "I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come." For them, the death of the flesh is a passage to that place "where there is neither sickness nor sorrow, nor sighing but life everlasting." The only thing they fear is that they have not prepared themselves for eternal life by sincere repentance and good deeds.

      Let us ask ourselves: We who call ourselves Christians today, what do we hope for? Do we keep in mind "the life of the age to come," at least when we recite the Creed? Or are we captivated by the sparkle and the tawdry brilliance of satan's carnival whirling around us with its mad fascination? That fallen angel has forever been trying to divert people from the soul-saving inclination to prepare for the coming passage into eternal life. 

The thought of  death is like a cold shower that quenches the coals of the passions. - Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic

       It is instructive in this regard to recall the story of Saint Ioasaph of India. His father, the prince Abenner, desiring to guard his son from any exposure to Christianity, had a palace specially constructed for him, where he was constantly entertained by courtiers; he was deliberately kept from hearing anything about illness, old age or death. No sick or elderly people were allowed to visit him. When, however, he chanced to see two sick people and one old man, he came to understand the transitoriness of this temporal life, and he fell into despair. He was delivered from this state when the Lord sent to him His servant, the monk Barlaam, who revealed to Ioasaph the truth of Christianity. (Saints Barlaam, Ioasaph and Abenner are commemorated on 19 November.) 

     Nowadays, the devil is setting new snares. We are surrounded by a sea of diversions, by unheard-of discoveries in science and technology, by ultra modern medicine, and all this is designed to divert us from "the one thing needful." And we, unfortunate and deceived little people, puffing ourselves up as though we were gods, try to catch eternity in our toy nets. We try to stay the passage of time, dinging onto it with cameras and video cameras, and then we look greedily at these shiny little squares of paper, which have captured irretrievably lost moments of life. Meanwhile, our God Jesus Christ stands invisibly over this frenzied world of ours, and waits: When will we repent, when will we come to our senses? He is merciful and longsuffering, "suffering for us, even unto death," and today He again suffers, gazing into the soul of each of us. Have we no shame before His all-pure gaze?

      We who call ourselves Christian have reason to be ashamed. A spiritual self-examination inevitably reveals that even if we maintain an outward semblance of piety, inwardly we are, alas, far from Christ. Where, for example, is the joy of the anticipation of meeting the Lord and His saints beyond the grave, a joy which was common to all the early Christians? Nowadays this joy is known only to a few chosen righteous ones; to the majority it is unknown. We must admit that many of us, contemporary Christians, fear death and cling to this temporal life almost like the unbelievers. The holy fathers say that to be a Christian means to be daily crucified with Christ, to mortify our fallen nature. Daily! But we do not want to die with Christ even once in our life. Self-conceit, intellectual pride, vainglory--these are the "blind guides" of our souls. They whisper to each of us, "You are such a good Christian, se decent; you are doing such important work. You can't possibly die now." And we believe this lie, forgetting about death. And if tonight any one of us should be unexpectedly hauled off to our deaths by execution (as this often happened in the years of persecution in Russia), many would doubtless murmur to themselves: "Why me? I am still young, I can still serve the Church." The primordial fear of death, which possesses our whole being, would not allow us to recall that martyrdom and confession is the highest and most noble form of service to God and the Church. We have only to realize this or, better yet, to believe in this, and the murmuring will cease, and a divine consolation will settle in our souls, a joy shared by the inhabitants of the world above.

      Let us bring to mind the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, especially the young and brutally murdered crown-prince and grand duchesses. Life held out to them such wonderful promises. And what did they get? Golgotha and the cross of martyrdom. And with what humility and meekness they drank this bitter cup. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was Himself crucified when He was only thirty-three years old. What a striking contrast His path in life makes with the lot of so many false-prophets of Eastern religions. There we see venerable gurus surrounded by crowds of disciples, or, in extreme cases, a "prophet" who, at the end of his life, simply flies into the sky on a horse. In Christianity, the God-man Jesus spent three years tirelessly preaching the word of Truth, and in the end was abandoned by almost all His disciples and was crucified on the Cross. Truly, this was a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (I Cor. 1:23). But let us--who are called by the Saviour to renounce the pharisaism of the Jews and the paganism of the Greeks--shake off from out souls hardness and despondency, and follow after Christ and the saints, so that we too might confess, not only with our lips but with our hearts, the Christian faith that makes no sense to the people "of this world"; I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen." 

A Valaam monk, 1996 (Translated from the Russian)


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society