From The Blog

Mission Monthly – April 2005

“I do not think that the end of this present life is rightly called death. More accurately, it is deliverance from death, separation from corruption, liberation from slavery, cessation from turbulence, destruction of wars, dispelling of darkness, rest from suffering, calming of turmoil, escape from passions and, to sum it up, the termination of all evils. The saints who have achieved these things through voluntary mortification live as strangers and pilgrims in this life (Heb 11:13), fighting bravely against the world and the body and the assaults stemming from them.”

St. Maximos the Confessor

I remember once at St. Vladimir’s Seminary when Fr. Thomas Hopko spoke on the subject of death and dying. He made a statement which at the time sounded to me, at least initially, ridiculous and irreverent (as if I had any qualification to make such a judgment). I do not remember the exact quote but I remember the gist of it. He said, “Death is God’s mercy to us.” Needless to say, this one took time to digest. While I believe I am now grasping the meaning of this “mercy” I always appreciate reminders such as this as I personally wrestle with what it means to be a “stranger and pilgrim” in this life; a life that is filled with trial, tribulation and sin, yes, but also a life that is beautiful, fulfilling and bonded.

The relevance of this “meditation” stems from our present Lenten journey and the kind of thoughts that arise within me or from the questions of others about fasting, the mega-services of this season, Confession, etc… Why do all these things? I wish there were a simple answer, at least one that would address the correct answer while taking into consideration the variety of backgrounds, experience and previous instruction of those who ask. Even those of us who have been raised in the Orthodox faith often question the extremes of Orthodox spiritual discipline. It is no wonder that those outside of Orthodoxy may also have the same or even more difficult questionings.

One example of this came from a discussion I had some time ago with a Protestant pastor who simply could not ever see “denying” himself anything (as in the Orthodox fast) because that would be like denying the goodness of God’s gifts. It is a difficult discussion when the people involved come from completely different models of faith and instruction. From what I understand this man’s background would also never see death or anything related to it (suffering, etc.) as God’s mercy and ultimately for our salvation. This puts into question any kind of common understanding of what it means to “take up one’s cross.” Just think of what some might think about the idea of “voluntary mortification”?

Recently I was in a conversation that provoked me (in a good way) to think about my own attachments to the things of this life. I do love my life but I have to wonder how I would react to having even one blessing or comfort taken from me. What if something happened to my Vanessa or my Anthony, my health or my home, or if I was faced with the ultimate conflict of needing to face my own death in fatal illness? Am I truly ready to let anything or everything go? Consider the great prophet Job, as we heard in the Canon of St. Andrew; after God allowed the Devil to take away virtually every blessing of his faithful and holy life (children, home, health) Job sat on his dunghill of suffering and considered it a throne!

As we continue our journey to Holy Pascha let us continue to prepare as for death, that we might rise with Christ! What ever time I may have wasted, may God forgive me and help me to do better from this moment on. Spiritual warfare in the arena of this life—bravely taking on all matters of death, corruption, slavery, turbulence, war, darkness, suffering, turmoil, the passions and all evil—is required of each one of us. As Orthodox Christians we especially should understand, admire and emulate the characteristics of the truly brave, those who have gone before us and those today who understand and fight the world and the body and their assaults mounted against us. The practice of self-denial and discipline of this holy season is precisely the practice of this spiritual bravery in resisting our deep appetites and attachments for this world. Our life is Pascha! It is Resurrection! The end of life in this body is not the end of life; it is God’s mercy to us lest we should live dominated by evil forever. Sometimes it is hard to see this, especially on a beautiful early spring day like today; but let us keep our focus today and every day. The beauty and goodness of this world and all of God’s gifts are only veiled reflections of true life; which is God’s mercy and desire to set man free from the slavery of sin and death. Each of us in our own way understands the spiritual slavery and physical oppression of the body and the world. It would benefit us greatly to seek even greater understanding from the lives of our holy martyrs and great ascetics; those who bravely fought against this tyranny. Their victory, Christ’s victory, truly is our victory, and we seek it through our voluntary efforts to join them in this fight. With each new day, whether in the season of Lent or outside of it, let us seek to be brave in Christ and strangers and pilgrims in this life.