Humankind has been dealing with the question of death and afterlife from the very beginning of its existence. The curiosity about life and the inability of mankind to answer the fundamental existential question on after-life force every generation to rethink and re-evaluate the basic foundations of life. The quest to find a satisfactory answer to death and afterlife applies also to our generation, which looks at all possibilities and hypotheses. Questions regarding the Funeral Rite, the meaning of prayers for the deceased, and the Orthodox perspective on life after death need to be answered adequately. These questions are stimulating as they deal with a subject that concerns every walk of life. As these questions present a very difficult theme, the subject has to be discussed in a broader context. A simplified answer would cause unnecessary problems and misinterpretations.
The question of death and afterlife is especially important when it deals with the loss of our loved ones. The longing to be near the deceased can be experienced in so many perspectives and in so many different personal ways. As a point of interest, on average more than 150,000 people die every day on this planet, which is two people per second — and over a million per week. In view of such an overwhelming reality of death in the world, it is not surprising that two in three adults in North America believe in some sort of life after death. Because of the magnitude of death on earth and the variety of personal experiences, we have to be quite careful not to generalize these personal experiences or to answer them using contemporary metaphors (light of the tunnel, feelings of happiness, etc.). We have to be sensitive to the experiences of all people in all aspects of their understanding. As the reality of death has “many faces” of our understanding and explanation, we are being cautioned to approach the subject with empathy and meditation.
Before entering into the subject of life after death, there are two critical observations to be made. The first observation emphasizes the fact that when talking about death and the afterlife, we have to be quite careful with our statements and conclusions. There is humility that comes from the fact that no one has ever come back from the other side of death to share their experience. Although the Bible provides us with examples of resurrections of the dead: the son of the widow in Zarephath of Sidon by the prophet Elijah, three resurrections performed by Jesus Christ…, there are no written descriptions of the experience of the raised ones. In our deliberations and discussions, we can’t go too far and acquire knowledge that we do not have. This is especially important for all those who work in fields of science and academia. The subject of our discussion avoids any conclusive definitive statements or hypotheses. This type of reality requires “new tools” and a new approach that can’t be categorized or defined by any scientific or academic standards.
From another perspective although we are cautioned in our exploration of the subject, we can’t be insensitive to the questions of our faithful who are looking for answers. Church members who are bombarded by secular, philosophical, and atheistic ideologies on life and death are turning towards the Church to find comfort and answers. Based on the number of publications on this subject from both secular and fundamentalist perspectives, the Orthodox Church takes a defensive approach regarding this question. Credibility and trust in the Church are questioned as there is no response on these questions. The following words of St. John of the Ladder are the most thought-provoking:
“It is dangerous to be inquisitive about the depth of the divine judgement, because the inquisitive sail in the ship of conceit. Yet because of the weakness of many, something should be said”.
Although we are cautioned not to cross the boundaries of the unknown, the Orthodox Church, based on theology and mystical literature, is able to give a positive response about death and the afterlife. The experiences of the monastics, based on the solid anthropological foundations of the Church, including the Holy Scripture and the life of the Saints, could become the spiritual assurance and guidance people are looking for.
The second observation is a positive one that emphasizes Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and our participation in God’s life through Baptism. Based on these fundamental truths, we can, to a certain degree, penetrate the mystery of death. As such, this discussion is strictly an ecclesial issue where we find an ecclesial foundation for the discussion. Our task will be to lead our discussion between these two critical observations.
Here is a short and condensed overview of the theme based on theological and monastic literature. The following thoughts are meant to be understood only as a step towards prayer and contemplation on this question. As the analysis requires certain humility and prayer, we humbly ask for forgiveness for any misinterpretation or omissions in our discussion.
From the perspective of the Orthodox Church, it is extremely important to have our commemorative prayers for the beloved deceased ones. Traditionally, this is done on the third day, the ninth day, and the fortieth day after death. There are also commemorative prayers on the half-year and yearly anniversary, during the Holy and Great Fast: Meat-fare Week, the second, third, and fourth Saturday of the Great Fast, on Saturday before the Pentecost and on Saturday before the Feast of St. Demetrius. The importance of the commemorative prayers is so fundamental for the consciousness of the faithful of the Orthodox Church that every Eucharistic celebration contains the intercessory prayers for the deceased. After the epiclesis, the second prayer in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom says:
“…Remember all those who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection and eternal life (the priest commemorates the names of the departed); and grant them rest, where the light of Your countenance shines…”.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem doesn’t hesitate to state that the petitions made for the deceased person during the Divine Liturgy bring him very great benefits. The main purpose of the intercessory prayer, especially in the context of the Divine Liturgy, is the possibility for the deceased to achieve perfect blessedness. In the Akathist to the Holy Spirit, the Church pleads to God the Holy Spirit to restore in us the purity of the conscious in order to partake in the uncreated light. One characteristic of this prayer is the notion of hope in resurrection, which will be elaborated further in our discussion. The deceased are also commemorated at the midnight service troparia and prayers for the dead. They are also commemorated in prayers of the worshipping community at Matins and Vespers at the Augmented Litany. For our purpose, we will concentrate on the prayers on the fortieth day after the death, as this time is of special importance.
The number forty, in the writing of the Old and New Testament, has a symbolic interpretation. Without entering the field of numerology, here are some of the most characteristic events related to the number forty. At the time of Noah, it rained for forty days and nights, causing a great flood. We can recall the fact that the nation of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ entered the desert in order to fast for forty days. The Feast of Ascension falls on the fortieth day after the Resurrection. In general, the number forty represents a long period of time. In these examples though, there is one common link that unites all of them. It is an element of transition from one stage to another; from one reality into another. Based on these examples, the number forty represents a certain degree of transition in order to enter into another dimension of life.
According to the anthropology of the Orthodox Church, the human soul, up to the moment of death, knows only one way of life: to live with the body. The soul, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, in addition to bringing vital power to the body and activating the senses, possesses a noetic ability that reaches towards God. By the grace of God, the noetic ability of the soul is immortal as the soul is immortal. In theological thought, the noetic ability is described as a spirit or a “Chariot of God”. Our life, as an intrinsically linked entity between soul and body, is explained as a natural and proper way of our existence. A human being is one mysterious entity:
“body and psyche, where the body is knitted together with the soul in the same way that flour and water are mixed together to make dough”.
It is God that created us in this way.
At the moment of death, there is a separation of the soul from the body that is presented in the funeral rite as a “state of unrest”. The term “state” is understood as a condition or a mode of being. There exists a profound mystery in the event of death. Death is a border point in a person’s life between the biological life and entrance into a spiritual reality. According to Orthodox theological interpretation, death is a violent intrusion into a God-given life that ought not to be separated. As such, death is a metaphysical (immaterial or incorporeal) catastrophe of human destiny. St. John Chrysostom defines death as an unalterable executioner and a traumatic event that disintegrates the unity between the soul and the body. As such, it is called the arch-manifestation of failure, disharmony and dissonance. Death is a “parasite” that will be destroyed at the second coming of Jesus Christ. In ascetic literature, the moment of death is also called a “moment of truth” or a “personal apocalypse”. The essence of death is evil.
At the point of death, there is a fear-trembling experience that is intrinsic for all of us, regardless of faith, education or race. According to St. Paul, humanity is “enslaved by a fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). In a way, the separation of the soul from the body is manifested by a mysterious force that invades the life of mankind. As a consequence, man is afraid to die. According to St. Maximos the Confessor:
“nothing is more fearful than the thought of death, and nothing is more marvelous than the memory of God”.
The only hope that enlightens the mystery of death is the presence of God and the prayers of the Church community. This is the main reason why we constantly sing the comforting words: “Упокой Господи душу раба твого…Give rest, o Lord, to the soul of your servant”. This is a plea of the family and the Church community to God to comfort and reassure the soul of the deceased one about the presence of God at the moment of death.
The separation of the soul from the body is also accentuated by a tremendous feeling of “sadness” for leaving behind loved ones. The extremities of this overwhelming feeling could be compared only to the sense of “intense sorrow and internal pain”. The soul experiences at once a reality of the unknown state of death and a heart-breaking feeling of separation with those who mourn. It is a very excruciating and mysterious stage-transition that penetrates the entire entity of the soul. The point of death is also described as a “state of indifference or estrangement towards everything” where the soul experiences, in some instances, a state of calm. The soul moves towards the spiritually predisposed dimensions, while reflecting upon those who stay behind. It is a feeling of jubilation and at the same time it is a pain of separation that does not correspond to anything familiar in the present life reality. It is a feeling of joy, but at the same time it is a tremendous agony of leaving behind our loved ones.
After death, the soul that remains immortal after the separation from the body moves through the “process of adjustment or transition” that ends on the 40th day after death. Based on the mystical experience of the Fathers of the Church and Holy Tradition, on the fortieth day there is a mysterious culmination of transition of the soul from this life to another spiritual dimension of life: from the earthly sphere of time to another dimension of timeless reality. By adopting modern terminology, the soul is experiencing at that time a transition to a spiritual plane that is “different” from the earthly one. The soul is conscious of its new condition. Although it is a spiritual and familiar state, it is not a natural state for the soul.
The transition has certain stages of culmination that are also evident on the ninth day. Traditionally, the ninth-day Panakhyda is often explained as the representation of the nine levels of angelic orders. The ninth day prayer service accentuates the degree of awareness of the soul. The nine levels of angelic orders are also an indication of the degrees of participation of the soul in the presence of God. Without entering into the field of angelology, different levels of angels correspond to the ability of the angelic world to participate in the glory of God. It is very curious to note the fact that the soul is given the ability to experience those spiritual realms. The ability of the soul to experience the abode of the angelic spiritual world emphasizes the immense importance of humanity in the creation of the world, such that even those spiritual realms of angelic powers are represented only as a point of transition. As a result, St. Paul in his first letter to the 1 Corinthians 6:3 even stipulates the idea of us judging the angels. In order to participate in this culmination of the adjustment of soul in the other dimension and in order to assist, the local community comes together to pray to God to accept the soul and to comfort it on the other side. Our prayers comfort us and the soul of the deceased that the transition will be eased by the presence of God. At that time, the soul finishes the process of transition-adjustment in order to be enlightened by the Spirit.
The soul, in its awareness and enlightened by the Spirit, begins the process of self-reflection: partial judgement that is considered as the most profound judgement known by humanity. In contemporary Orthodox theological thought, this state is also called a mode of self-confrontation and encounter. In the presence of God, the soul can’t help but self-reflect, revealing the true self. There is no room for self-deception as the soul can’t deny its own reality. As a result, there is a revelation of an inner being and the most hidden depths of the heart. According to one of the venerable Orthodox Fathers, at that time a person will see “even the slightest deed done in his life, just as in a fraction of a second one sees a small impurity in a glass of water”. According to contemporary Orthodox commentators, partial judgement consists in the allocation of the soul to the spiritual state, where the conscience will act as an accuser and the ultimate judge.
As a self-reflection, the soul can experience the bliss of the presence of God or the fury and anguish of passions. In a self-reflecting reality of the soul, the awareness of memories and the experience of earthly life becomes the ultimate judge. All the memories, even the repressed ones, will reaffirm themselves with a massive force and intensity from which there will be no escape. All the scenes of earthly sins will return as the ultimate judge. One of the images illustrating this reality is an image of a mirror of the self as a reflection of inner dispositions. The bliss of the presence of God is understood as the light of God searching for love in the depths of our hearts. Thus said, God will judge us with absolute and perfect love. In effect, from the view of God’s creation, hell and paradise do not exist, as God invites everybody into a relationship. For those who respond in a positive way to the call of God, the relationship with God will become paradise. For those who refuse to enter into a relationship with God, they will experience hell as a lack of communion with God. As a consequence, heaven and hell aren’t two different places, but the same reality of two different experiences or responses to the same eternal call from God. As such, the experience of a relationship with God in paradise will be the revelation of the fullness of life as opposed to the experience of hell that reveals the inability to experience the fullness of God’s gift. Hell can be understood as an existence in a “nonbeing condition” created by man as a rejection of the Love of God. According to Efthimios Zigavinos:
“God is fire that illuminates and brightens the pure, and burns and obscures the unclean”.
The concept of God judging us with a perfect love might be a paradox for the Western World that operates within the frame of law and punishment. There is no punishment as bitter as to be scourged by perfect love. The concept of paradise and hell cannot be understood as a reward and punishment, as often understood in popular literature. For those who embraced love for goodness towards the creation of God, this light will be the sweetness and delight of living with God. This state is also described in Orthodox literature as a state of “inexpressible and intense utter joy”. The feeling of sweetness, delight, and inexpressible joy of living with God are understood as a presence in the holiness of God. The experience lies beyond description and human comprehension. This might be one of the reasons why in the commemorative prayer service there is so much emphasis on the plea from the Church to place the deceased in the heavenly abode with all the saints: holiness of God. The placement of the soul along with the saints liberates man from the oppression of sin and places the soul in a living eternal memory of God. For those whose consciousness is entrapped by passions, the same light of God will become a river of fire or a constant torment of the soul. This might be a reason for describing hell as a condition of the soul with the experience of the fullness of the caustic energy of God. As a consequence, hell is understood as an experience of God not as light and eternal Grace, but as eternal fire and continual torment. For some Orthodox commentators, hell is understood as a state devoid of light or a dark interval. Another characteristic of this state is an inert condition of isolated inactivity and lack of interpersonal relationship. The Old Testament describes this condition as: “…land of darkness and gloominess, a land of perpetual darkness where there is no light, neither can anyone see the life of mortals” (Job 10:22). Within the Orthodox Church worship, this reality is described in the following way:
“Deliver me, O Lord, from the gates of hell, from chaos and darkness without light, from the lowest depths of the earth and the unquenchable fire, and from all other everlasting punishment”.
It is a condition of love that suffocates the soul, creating a condition of torment. From the Orthodox perspective, hell is understood as a spiritual condition of the soul after death. The spiritual condition has to be understood as a separation from God, which transmits itself into the inability of the soul to participate in the ever-embracing love of God. God always extends His love to the entire creation as an unconditional gift to participate in His life. According to St. Gregory Palamas, the light of God is present everywhere, but it doesn’t shine with the same intensity on everyone. There is a dependency on the purity of heart of a particular individual and the will of God. The inability of the soul to respond to this invitation manifests itself in the internal agony of the soul that is naturally predisposed to taste the heavenly mystery of the Kingdom. Monastic Orthodox literature is full of images of constantly tormented souls in a form of horrifying visions of black fallen angels of passions. Similar images are found in the Gospels themselves, where we find the images of hell, of eternal darkness and continual fire. Even Orthodox literature in the first part of the 20th century used this kind of language in order to define the reality of hell. In contemporary Orthodox thought, the images of the Last Judgement, hell, eternal damnation…, have to be understood in the context of God’s love and man’s inability to respond to the call from God. In the light of God, the soul meets its own conscience using the graphic images with its own thoughts, words, and deeds. The images in the past were used as an educational tool to illustrate this particular condition of “immoral conscience and a bitter remorse”. As such, these images and pictures that contain in themselves another reality can’t be discarded as irrelevant for the contemporary mindset. It is a “pictorial language” of metaphors and symbols in order to deliver the message of a metaphysical reality. This is also the way we interpret the image of toll-houses, elaborated especially in the middle ages. The scholastic representation of the theology of “hell and damnation”, as it was understood in traditional theological thought of the Orthodox Church of the middle ages, needs more clarification in light of the Church Fathers of the first seven centuries of Christianity.
According to Orthodox thought, those who die never disappear from the sight of God, as creation can’t destroy God-given existence. The souls of our deceased ones possess awareness, noetic perception and transcendental knowledge. Earthly memories and experiences are part of their continuum. For some Orthodox theologians, one of the characteristics of a person that will be transferred to the other side of death will be the name of a person. The existence of a name on the other side will presuppose a unique and personal relationship with God as well as a continuum and a transfer of a personal identity from one dimension to the other. A name presupposes a unique personal reality that invokes the presence of an individual. It also defines an intimacy between a particular individual and God. Very characteristic is the episode of Mary Magdalene after Christ’s Resurrection outside the tomb (John 20:16). It is only after Jesus Christ calls her by name that she recognizes Him in a very unique and personal way. The recognition from the “other side” is founded upon the unique revelation of God and human recognition and worthiness of the reality. The recognition of a name is also closely related to the Book of Life that is described as a land of the living:
“…and establish their spirits in the hope of Resurrection unto life eternal, and ascribe their names in the Book of Life, in the bosom of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, and in the land of the living, in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the Paradise of sweetness…”.
The existence of a name of an individual in the land of the living involves a living relationship with the living man. From another perspective, the lack of a name presupposes a denial of existence and a lack of communication. According to Orthodox theological thought, a name provides the description of the existing reality that can distinguish itself by relation and knowledge of its own existence. The existence of a name on the other side provides a particular identity and an access of our identification with the deceased. In the Orthodox Funeral Rite, there exists a particular emphasis on the presence of the name in the prayer. The name is included in the plea of the Church for the forgiveness of sins:
“Again we pray for the repose of the soul(s) of God (name(s)), departed this life; and that he (she, they) may be pardoned all his (her, their) sins, both voluntary and involuntary”.
In the consciousness of the Orthodox Church, there exists a conviction that the presence of a name in the aspect of prayer presupposes the aspect of worthiness in the eyes of God. The lack of acceptance by God is equal to the refusal to remember the name by God: “… nor will I make remembrance of their names through “…My lips”” (Ps. 15:3). There is also an aspect of a specific personal distinctiveness that exists in the theological awareness of the Orthodox Church.
We should never think about the deceased as motionless spirits that are deprived of experiences or perceptions. According to Metropolitan Hierotheos:
“the souls of those who have fallen asleep remember the people with whom they were connected in life, they are concerned about them, but they are in a different dimension of space and time… They hear us, they receive our prayers and pray to God for us”.
In effect, there could be no evidence of the existence on the other side of death of: “knowledge and social interest”. An identical idea is expressed by others, who clearly see the possibility for the soul to hear, think, and feel (Luke 20:38; Mat.22:32). This idea closely corresponds to the spiritual reality of saints who have the extraordinary ability to know our thoughts and wants: “But with God’s saints this spiritual eye is refined, even during their lifetime, to the highest degree of purity possible for man, and after their death, when they have become united by God, through God’s grace it becomes still clearer and wider in the limits of its vision. Therefore the saints see very clearly, widely, and far: they see our spiritual wants, they see and hear all those who call upon them with their whole hearts- that is, those whose mental eyes are fixed straight upon them, and are not darkened or dimmed when so fixed by unbelief and doubt; in other words, when the eyes of the heart of those who pray, so to say, meet the eyes of those they call upon”. What is even more interesting is that the soul acquires better precision of thought, memory clarifies and becomes more energetic. According to Dorotheos of Gaza, thoughts and memories will have as much power over the self as they did in life, indeed more so. It is especially evident in the case of the saints who are predisposed by the proximity to God to listen to our voice. In extension, those who are experiencing the presence of God, after they pass away, have the ability to hear the voice of the families and the loved ones:
“The heart is the eye of the human being. The purer the heart is, the quicker, further, and clearer it can see… How easy it is to communicate with the saints”.
As a result, the aspect of hearing, listening, and feeling continues with those who pass away. These elements are the eternal components of the reality that, although different, closely relates to the earthly one. In addition, according to the Synaxarion of the Meatfare, the soul has a specific ability to recognize the beloved ones and those whom it never met before. This characteristic is a very important one as it emphasizes the continuum of the awareness of the soul on the other side. It is a further indication of the fact that death does not destroy the awareness of the soul as this continues its characteristics on the other side. The ability to recognize the loved ones on the other side emphasizes the importance of the aspect of relationship we create in our life. The relationship continues, although it is a different kind of relationship in the Spirit. The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Mt. 17:1-9) demonstrates this kind of relationship where Moses and Elijah not only know each other, but they converse with Jesus. Without any doubt, it is a relationship transformed by the very presence of the Divine that can’t be separated from their life on earth. The recognition of others is based on the experience of inter-personal relationship in life. It is the experience of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) who remembers those left behind as well as recognizing Lazarus being taken into the heavens. This is one of the most important explanations of the prayer of absolution read at the culmination of the Funeral Rite. The forgiveness of sins of the deceased one puts the community and the family in the right and proper relationship with each other and God. The prayer of Absolution allows the soul of the deceased to enter into a new experience in the heavenly abode that is not preconditioned by the memories of the past.
The soul enters a “different” stage of existence where our consciousness-awareness continues (Lk. 16:19-31; 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, Daniel 12:2). The continual presence of the awareness of the soul has to be especially emphasized. The ability to recognize and to experience the presence of God requires the presence of awareness or consciousness. The aspect of awareness has to be especially applied to the existence of hell and heaven. Without the presence of awareness, even the transition of the soul in the spiritual realm would be incomprehensible.
The awareness of the human soul is preserved and strengthened by a new spiritual reality. We should hesitate to enter into a further discussion of this subject, as this requires further analysis and spiritual discernment. The emphasis on the preservation of the identity and the awareness of the human soul is especially important in the modern world which leans towards an atheistic and agnostic approach to the afterlife. The notion of the soul not having an awareness after death, especially in an atheistic world, releases humanity from the aspect of responsibility. The death of a human being understood as non-existence may be one of the reasons for a modern day crisis, where all is allowed as long as it serves an individual. Destruction, war, human extermination… might be some of the effects of this approach. This kind of ideology can lead humanity only to self-extermination. In contrast, Orthodox theology emphasizes the remarkable place of humanity in the realm of life, as well as the condition of a higher calling where the awareness of humanity continues even after death.
The deceased enter into the so-called “state of slumber-sleep-repose” as a state of “waiting for the second coming of Christ”. As a state between death and the Second Coming of Christ, this spiritual reality doesn’t have any spatial or geographical coordinates known to us within a space-time system. The soul is unaware of the presence and passage of time. As a result, in this spiritual reality, there is no necessity of perceiving distance as it is seen in the three dimensional world. One of the descriptions that could define the new reality is the “desert infinity” of the presence of God. According to St. Mark Eugenicus, a member of the Council of Ferrara-Florence 1438-39, it is a noetic state that is “bodiless, supracelestial and supramundane”. The soul experiences a new reality that goes beyond the three-dimensional world. The entrance of the soul into this new reality corresponds with the difficulties of relating this new experience in the language of our physical experience (the experience of St. Paul taken to the third Heaven). We should also remember that the world of the five senses is not the only world that exists. There are other worlds that are layered and related to each other in a hierarchical manner. Those worlds are defined by the wisdom of the Church as spiritual abodes: Heavens. From this perspective, man is not alone in the universe-creation of God, as there could be other intelligences with higher or lesser developed abilities. It is only lately that the scientific world recognizes the existence of these unknown spiritual realities. It is a radically different world of different dimensions that is also called a “radiant realm”. It is a spiritual state of relationship with God where all the external stimuli are removed. As such, it is a state of “sensory deprivation” where the soul has an awareness of being with God. The state is also described by mystic literature as a loss of every sensation of worldly matters as a self-reflective repose. One of the characteristics of the experience is the fact that this is not God’s created reality as presented by Dante’s Inferno, but an uncreated reality that corresponds to the presence of God.
The testimonies of some of the Fathers of the Church and holy monks give evidence of the possibility of tasting the “other sweetness” of spiritual life. The experience is associated with the paradistic or a blessed condition as a positive and eternal contemplation of the presence of God. As an experiential condition, the heavenly abode is described by indescribable beauty. A strong relationship with God manifests itself in the ability of man’s soul to participate in the Divine life, which translates in the ability of the soul to “taste” the heavens. The soul experiences a similar but transformed state to the way of life before death. Closeness to God transmits itself into the heavenly abode of the saints. The term of “the tasting of sweetness” is a spiritual dimension of the prophets that is called the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In theological Orthodox thought, Abraham’s bosom represents a specific and close communion with God. It is a state of God’s assurance and fullness of hope. The Church prays for this specific condition to be the experience of joy and light. According to St. John of Damascus, this place is a Divine paradise, a treasure house of every joy, and pleasure of the worthy habitation of God. According to him, the place of the saints is:
“…comprehended from within and is intelligible and bodiless in nature from which it is present and acts”.
The state of heavenly joy, which is not a worldly condition, is a gift that only God can bestow upon man. St. Macarius of Ephesus calls this reality the “state of blessed condition”. This state is also described as a “constant contemplation and memory of God”. The Evlogitaria of the dead on the “Saturday of the Dead” describes this state as a “refashioned ancient beauty of humanity”. It is an active reality that involves the totality and complete transformation of man. Orthodox literature describes this state as a reality where “man is wounded by God’s Love”. This may have been experienced by Dannion Brinkley, who after three episodes of near death experience, was: “screaming and kicking” in order to stay on the other side of death. This is also the experience of St. Salvius, who debated his return back to earth. To use his words, both found themselves at “home”.
Our prayers contain the aspect of hope that will eliminate the element of sickness, sighing, and sorrow. The aspect of hope for the restoration of every human being is so immense that every phrase of the Orthodox prayer service turns towards the mercy of our Loving God. God loves mankind as the light of Christ shines in the heart of every human being. This is the assurance that God is on our side at the time of departure as He was also on our side when the Son of God was crucified on the cross. The infinite love of God towards humankind allows us to move beyond earthly dimensions to where the only limitation of the love of God is a lack of limitations. This is a reason for man to look upon Christ as eternal paradise, where hell has no place. The light of Christ turns the grief of death into a joyous event, where even after death the soul of man is being led by the Divine presence. A remarkable experience of the discussed light of Christ is given by St. Salvius, who describes it as a
“cloud that shone more brightly than any of these with its own brilliance”.
Saint John of Sinai defines the uncreated light of Christ as:
“an all-consuming fire and an illuminating light”.
At the moment of prayer, we unite with the deceased as it is the Holy Spirit that sanctifies prayers on both sides of life. A continual prayer of the Church and the family, according to mystic literature of the Orthodox Church, leads the deceased one back to the Kingdom of God. It is a dynamic reality that corresponds to the aforementioned transition. Prayers by the living earthly Church constantly intercede for the deceased. The progression of the soul towards God is also infinite: from one continuum or surprise to the other continuum or surprise. This is a reason why the saints and angels continuously glorify God as they witness God bestowing His love within their hearts. Regardless of how far removed is the deceased from God, the Holy Spirit as the Healer brings and reunites the separated one with the light of God. In Orthodox theology, the Holy Spirit is the “Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Treasure of all Blessings and a Giver of Life”. The worshipping community pleads to God to comfort the soul through the Holy Spirit and release it from the oppression of passions. The prayers for the deceased are for spiritual needs identical to the needs of a living person. They include the aspects of mercy, goodness, forgiveness of sins, joy, and entrance into the Abode of the Saints. As such, in the prayer of the Church for the deceased one,
“the Holy Spirit is activated, approaching the souls of these people and guiding them away from their hell”.
This is one of the main reasons for the living faith of the family and praying community to be actively engaged in the life of God and our Church. For Orthodox theology, sanctity means life. At the moment of prayer for the deceased one, we are sanctifying the world on both sides of death with the active participation of the Holy Spirit Who is being called a “life giving Spirit”. This is why at the point of sanctification of the bread, honey, wheat-kolyvo, fruits, the grace of the Spirit is given to people, while prayers are directed to those on the other side. It is possible to assume that at the point of prayer we have our unique and personal experiences with the reality of the after-life. They are conscious of the memorials, liturgies, and prayers of the church community. What unites all of us those who passed away and those living is the Holy Spirit. All the living and the dead have an awareness of this unifying link. This union is especially important when we are praying to the Holy Spirit on the fortieth-day Panakhyda. At that time, the living and the dead are united into oneness as Church. It is the Holy Spirit that allows us to commune with the deceased in the same way as the one on the other side communes with the human race. The fortieth-day Panakhyda is a burst of eternity of the Spirit upon the deceased one, who becomes a link for the entire family to join him in the heavenly mystery. It is a final point of the soul’s transition into the other dimension when the souls unite themselves with the appropriate spiritual state that corresponds with the ability to participate in the Glory of God. The worshipping community unites itself at this point to plead to God on behalf of the deceased one in order to increase the participation in the Glory of God. We should not forget the fact that the nation of Israel of the Old Testament mourned for Moses for forty days. They remembered the one who liberated them from the oppression of slavery. They remembered the land promised by Moses, which in Orthodox thought is understood as the heavenly abode of the saints. There exists a language of images that is especially exemplified right after death and at the place of death. Very interesting are the images of a black crow present around the house of the deceased one or smiling small children looking into a window at the time of the memorial luncheon. For others, there is an image of a rainbow that appears unexpectedly in front of their eyes or a recurrence of dreams of the deceased. It is very interesting to note that the dreams express the state of the soul of an individual and, based on ascetic literature, the state of the soul of the deceased one. The interpretation of this experience should not push us to speculation but rather to a mystical conviction that there is more to know in faith then we can imagine.
The prayers on the fortieth day after death contain in themselves an element of confirmation to become Christ-like. Our prayers for the forgiveness of sins of the specific person have the intent for the soul to become more aware of the loving embrace of God. As the soul, says St. John Chrysostom, becomes aware of the loving embrace of the grace of God, the soul is “calmed and consoled”. It has a confidence it didn’t have before. It is the hope of the praying community that there will be an increase of the soul for the reception of God’s grace. The soul is being liberated from a hellish condition: separation from the love of God in the direction to see the light of the Divine, which in Orthodox theology is defined as the illuminating and deifying energy of God. The words of the book of Maccabees are very supportive:
“It is holy and pious… to pray for the dead… that they might be delivered from their sins”, (II Maccabees 12, 44-45).
This experience might be best presented with a kiss of a parent on the forehead of a sleeping child at night, when the parent covers a child with a blanket. At this point, a child is calmed. This is an experience of the souls of the deceased ones when the prayers of the Church bring them comfort and calmness. The prayers are an act of love and a duty for all Christians.
From this perspective, the memorial service has a double effect: consolation of the mourning family and comforting of the soul of the deceased one. The lack of prayers is an indication of our negligence in our duty to pray. For some contemporary Orthodox commentators, it is unnatural for the members of the Church to cease praying for the deceased. At the point of prayer for the deceased, God is on our side as a testimony of the transformed reality. Even “Memory eternal-Vichnaya pamyat” sung at the very end of a Panakhyda is the image of paradisiac eternity, a never-ending perfection that is expressed in Divine memory. St. Symeon of Thessaloniki states that memorials indicate perfection and immortality. The petition of the Church at the very end of the Panakhyda is a plea to place the deceased in the never-ending perfect condition when the individual is becoming more and more human. Eternal memory is a never-ending life process of becoming like God that continues even after death. From the theological perspective, the emphasis of Church prayer for eternal memory pleads God to situate man in the original intent of His design, where the mercy of God will eliminate the “negativity of human consciousness from sin”. Metropolitan Hierotheos at this point echoes St. Gregory of Nyssa, saying:
“Likewise the same fire, the purifying grace of God, will work in those who have fallen asleep who have entered the stage of purification but not had time to be purified. Thus, through the memorial services and prayers of the Church, the person is purified and ascends into the stages of spiritual perfection, where, moreover, the perfection is never ending”.
The definition of “never-ending perfection” presupposes paradistic experience as a dynamic and constantly developing relationship with God. It is exactly here for the praying community of Christians to intercede for the deceased one. We have to remember that sin destroys harmony and causes disintegration in the nature of a person. The liberation of a human being from the oppression of sin puts him in the original intent of God’s design, where a person can experience the intended sweetness of God’s life. The original intent of God directs us towards the restoration into Paradise. This is one of the reasons why the members of a prayerful community continually cross themselves as the cross is considered in Orthodox theology as a gate to paradise. The cross is the power of God that sanctifies all, including all those requesting Church intercession. While life eternal presupposes eternal glorification of God and memory, the presence of sin requires the aspect of forgiveness. It is not a scientific experience, but a spiritual reality that goes beyond the limitation of science.
When we talk about the experience of the soul after death, we are touching upon the subject of eschatology that deals with the experiences beyond the realms of our world. The experience is based on extraordinary powers bestowed upon man by God. This is an example of the limitation of human language when it comes to the spiritual reality. Monastic literature advises us to be extremely cautious with any conclusive statements. We have to remember that our language operates only in a physical, three-dimensional world. As such, human language is limited. The experience of the soul after death lies beyond physical time and space. As the concept of logic of our language ceases its function, the experience ceases to be descriptive. This is exactly the experience of St. Paul being taken to the third heaven:
“And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows; how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:3-4).
Seeing the things after death is beyond our senses and perception. Our faith is the only assurance we have as our hope is the only guide of the future life in God. At a certain point of our discussion and deliberation on the subject of life after death, we have to acquire the perception of St. Paul who said: “I can’t tell: God knows”.