Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Death, post 3

One of my children entering into the baptismal waters.
Okay I've opted not to talk about baptism.   The purpose of this blog is not to be about "apologetics", and since there are many varying beliefs about baptism within the spectrum of Christianity I really don't feel like getting into it at this point. However, I will say this...the traditional belief held by Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics is that baptism is not a mere symbol.  It is holy.  It is sober.  It is *grace-filled.  It is entrance into the Church and her life. A person is born again through baptism, becomes dead to the humanity we have inherited in being descendants of Adam and ultimately raised up into the life of divinity in the new Adam, Jesus Christ.  The journey after baptism is narrow and difficult, because the old Adam (with his passions) doesn't give up so easily.  The propensity to break the commandments is still there. However the Church is a place of healing and love, and through her sacraments like confession and partaking of communion, we are aided in our journey to become more and more like Christ.  The Orthodox Church has been preaching this since 33 AD and if you read the lives of the saints from the 1st to the 21st century they all witness to this truth.  It works.  Men and women become more like Christ.  The wonders performed by Christ in the Gospel are also manifested in these people, and then some.  However, it really isn't about the wonders and miracles, it's about the humility and complete love that these people have acquired.  Boundless love.  Love without limits.  Love to the point of complete self-sacrifice, love to the point of death.  That is REAL Christian love. That is the love of Christ.  And it all begins in baptism.

Well for someone who wasn't going to talk about baptism, it looks like I did.  Next post will be about these people, the saints who were all martyrs of one sort or another. (And by martyrs I don't mean people that strap a bomb to their chest and jump onto a bus.  The word martyr has been usurped and perverted.) No, these men and women were dead to the pleasures and deceits of this world and lived their lives with the end in mind, that is, physical death followed by eternal life.  

See you soon!

*a note on grace. Grace, when used in the Orthodox Church, does not mean "good favor". It specifically refers to the actual divine energy of God.  It is an infusion of God's energy through the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity.  Here's an official definition of grace from the book  The Incarnate God, Volume I:

Grace: it is love, the gift of God, which bestows his divinity on us through his energies, in order to make us partakers of divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  The Fathers of the Church insist on the fact that God bestows his grace, but it is up to man to receive it and make it operative. (page 181) 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Death, post 2

I've been torn as to where to head with death.  Death is so complex and it could be looked at from a number of ways..our death in baptism, the accomplishment of Christ's death, death to the worldly things, the remembrance of death.  Then there are things to say about life after death, judgment at death, grieving at the death of others, praying for the dead.  See?  There's lots and lots of ways to go.

So what to do?  Well wouldn't you know it, the man I am about to quote died 8 years ago today.  The irony was too great to ignore.  The following article was written by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (here's a very short bio about him from a prior blog post) entitled "Death: Our Way of Life".

Death is the touchstone of our attitude to life.  People who are afraid of death are afraid of life.  It is impossible not to be afraid of life with all its complexity and dangers if one is afraid of death.  This means that to solve the problem of death is not a luxury.  If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful and timid manner.  It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fullness of our ability.  Too often we wait until the end of our life to face death, whereas we would have lived quite differently if only we had faced death at the outset.

According to St. John Climacus, one of the essential steps in the transformation of our fallen nature and the acquisition of the virtues is "meleti thanatou", or the remembrance of death.... In fact, Step 6 of his Ladder of Divine Ascent is dedicated to this very practice.  On October 3rd the Church guides us to read this specific chapter from beginning to end, because at the end is the tale of the Blessed Hesychius the Horebite whom we celebrate today.  St. John thought his tale to be the perfect seal on this beneficial chapter dedicated to the remembrance of death, and below I offer the ending portion of this chapter to see why:

"Some inquire and wonder: 'Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?' - not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation.  For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance.  From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.

And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite.  He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul.  Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired.  And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately.  And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water.  And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears.  But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone is all we heard from him: 'Forgive me!  No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin.'  We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation.  We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics, but did not find them.  So by Hesychius' true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence."
This article was taken from Issue #23 of the zine publication/website Death to the World.    Just a word of warning if you are not familiar with this publication,  it is a little dark at times, but it definitely serves a certain demographic of Orthodox young adults.  I have read a large variety of Orthodox Christian literature, so I know where this fits in and I understand the perspective from which it comes.  However, I could see a person really freaking out if this was their only exposure to Orthodox Christianity.   All in all I really like the publication, but maybe your typical baba (an endearing name for a Slavic grandmother) would take a different route in which she presented her grandchildren the Faith. 

Next up (probably) is baptism and it's meaning in regards to death.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Death, post 1

My great-grandparents at rest at St. Tikhon's Monastery. 
Okay, I made it to August.  I'm not sick or anything, but you just never know.

So why did I pick death?  A few reasons really.
  1. Everybody dies.  I read the obits every day and that is the conclusion to which I have arrived.  Old people, young people, people that had been sick, people that had, until their sudden demise, been healthy, wealthy people with large families and homeless people who had not a single person to claim them (only their names were known and no other information).   As they say, the only two unavoidable things in life are "death and taxes", and death is certainly more interesting to talk about than taxes.
  2. Over the past 9 months I have known several people (including a child) that have died, so I have had it in my thoughts on a consistent basis.  
  3. Christianity, at least traditional Christianity, is all about death.  It is about Christ's death on the cross, and His resurrection.  All of this is proclaimed every Sunday in traditional Christian churches and most especially celebrated on Easter.   Without His death and resurrection, Jesus is just another man with high moral standards.  So to truly call ourselves Christians, then our lives must also be about death.   Baptism, the very first sacrament in a person's life, is the experience where one dies to the old world and rises out of the waters into the new life in Christ. "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have put on Christ" to quote St. Paul [Galatians 3:27 ]  However this death doesn't end in baptism. To quote St. Paul again [1 Corinthians 15:31] "...I die daily".  It's the daily renunciation of the crap and falsity that the world has to offer.  Death every day.  When this death is properly lived, it is real life, real living, no fear of physical death.  Read the lives of the saints, they testify to this truth.  Whether it is a saint martyred in the 1st century or 21st century, it is all the same beautiful story that this life of death worked to their salvation. (read the above page about salvation in case this is confusing to you).    
  4. Being that Orthodox Christianity has been around for 2000 years, and death is the crux of the faith, there certainly isn't a lack of things written about it. 
And so, we begin. Now don't be superstitious and not read this month's posts because if you read about death it must mean that you'll be hit by a bus tomorrow.  There is NO ROOM for superstition in reality. And, if superstition were for real, then I should be dead by now because the neighborhood black cat has darted in front of my car at least 2 dozen times in the past six years. Actually the dopey cat is the one who should be dead having engaged in such a dangerous activity.

God-willing, I'll see you soon with Post 2.