Thursday, September 15, 2011

Death, post 5, Death and Mercy

This is the last post on death for the time being.  I have not been exhaustive on the topic by any stretch of the imagination.  As I mentioned in the first few posts there are many different facets to the topic, and I ended up approaching death by explaining what it means as an Orthodox Christian to be "dead to the world" and to live one's life with the end in mind, and the remembrance of death is the vital means to this end.  I gave both the ordinary example of my simple grandfather who lived as a layman (a carpenter by trade) and the extraordinary example of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

Some people may make the argument that living your life with the end in mind is depressing and robs you of everyday joy.  An atheist that does not believe in an afterlife or a Christian that believes that they are already "saved" and hence somehow will avoid judgment may say this I suppose.  But to those of us that believe that our actions (or inactions) actually have eternal consequences, remembering that our lives can end at any given moment (google September 11, 2001 for details) should keep us in check.  Living a self-examined life and continually confessing and changing those areas that fall short of what God asks from us is really the only way to prepare ourselves for the inevitable judgment.  However, the more and more we tie ourselves up with unnecessary cares of this world, the more and more impossible this becomes.  Being dead to the world doesn't mean ignoring all other people and focusing on yourself.  It is forgetting about your own needs, and focusing on the needs of other people.  And what do people need?  The obvious answer is, they need our love, and they need it unconditionally, regardless of whether they believe in our religious or political ideas.  And, I think, that the most important aspect of this love, is mercy and not judgment. 

Fr. Gabriel Cooke of blessed memory once relayed the following story to us one Sunday.  I think this really underscores the Orthodox Christian world view.

Fr. Gabriel had been invited to a pan-Christian event of the greater Phoenix metro area.  Leaders of various Christian denominations gathered together for a general discussion of ideas and the topic of what was to be hoped for at the Last Judgment came up.  One pastor stood up and proclaimed "Justice!  I want justice to be done!"  This announcement brought up great applause and agreement.  After a minute or two, things settled down and Fr. Gabriel stood up and replied "Justice?  Really?  My hope is in mercy.  I will need mercy from God, because it will be in His mercy that I will be saved."  No grand applause for this comment.
Realizing that we are all in need of mercy levels the playing field.  It deflates the ego and self-righteousness dissipates.  However if we occupy ourselves with judging others, with obtaining more and more stuff, or with zombifying our souls with entertainment, there is no time in our self-absorbed lives to give thought to another person. It's a very hard thing and life long struggle to be sure, but this being "dead to the world" is the only way.

Here's a quote from St. Innocent of Alaska, another Orthodox saint of North America.  I highly recommend his biography, St. Innocent, Apostle to America, it reads like a page turning adventure novel. The courage, the determination and above all, the love St. Innocent had for God and His children is almost beyond belief.  Anyhow, St. Innocent said the following: 

To deny oneself means to give up one's bad habits; to root out of the heart all that ties us to the world; not to cherish bad thoughts and desires; to suppress every evil thought; to avoid occasions of sin; not to desire or to do anything out of self-love, but to do everything out of love for God. To deny oneself, according to St. Paul means "to be dead to sin. . . but alive to God."
or from Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 25:31-46:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (emphasis mine)

41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’

44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

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