by Erik C. Young
Below we offer a brief exhortation to overcome the secular phobia of death and suffering that pervades every corner of modern life.
Euripides is quoted as saying, “No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.” Our inevitable confrontation with this truth is anathema to modern society — an evil that is not to be entertained. The inevitability of death is a specter that hangs over us and whose looming we cannot easily ignore.
It is our experience as survivors that informs our outlook on death. Perhaps we have childhood memories of loved ones who passed away. It may be that as young children we didn’t fully comprehend what death meant beyond the obvious realization that our loved one would not be around for us anymore. For some of us, death may be something we didn’t personally encounter until we were adults. In any case, our sense of loss will be more acute as an adult because we may better grasp the duration and permanence of that loss. Perhaps we are affected by news reports of tragedies befalling total strangers half a world away. In any case, we respond to death with grief, guilt, depression, anger, and, in some cases, a sense of relief. What does this experience as a survivor contribute to our fears of dying? It reminds us that our time is coming. We have come to fear the prospect of death knowing that there is no way to escape it. So, why do we spend so much of our finite life trying to escape the inevitable? If anything is to be overcome here, it is the worldly fear of death, not death itself.
Our experience of life is physical. The material world is full of delights that satisfy our appetites, if only temporarily. When the serpent offers Eve the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, we are told that the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.1 The fruit that was forbidden by God was also created by God. Its material value was established in its ability to satisfy hunger, please the senses, and provide wisdom. All of these attributes of the fruit are the very aspirations of the human person. These are the things that make life worth living. It is difficult, then, to understand that all of these good impulses to nourish, take pleasure, and understand, can be evil if they are merely self-indulgent. Nourishment is good until it becomes gluttonous. Pleasure is of merit until it becomes hedonism. The pursuit of understanding is commendable up to the point it is prideful.
Death is an experience common to all people. It is, perhaps, the most fully human experience we undertake. Thus, the effort to avoid or escape death is inhuman. St Peter of Damascus wrote that the fear of death is “conducive to repentance.” St Symeon the New Theologian sees the fear of death as the means to the “renunciation of self-will” and the impetus to becoming “the servant of all.” Even the rejection of aging is inhuman.
A virtue of the Orthodox Faith is that it affirms life in all of its stages and forms. Even in the decline of health and vitality, the human body is alive and may avail itself of the gifts life offers, among them the gift of fellowship. In this way, death is always a communal experience. The Church has enshrined rites that call to mind our fellow Christians who have fallen asleep in the Lord. The Orthodox funeral service is a service of remembrance but it is also a reminder that our loved ones are only sleeping and that we have an obligation to pray for them and remember them. We don’t ask that the dead rest in peace. We ask that their memory be eternal because we are the means of keeping the memory of the dead as a perpetual practice. It is the community of the faithful in the local parish that carries the weight of remembering the dead.
As a hospital chaplain, I have come to see my weekly encounters with death as a sacred gift. To be with a person as they make the transition from life to the unknown realm of death is a holy moment; a moment pregnant with divine mercy and grace. St Peter of Damascus says this: “Already I am dying. For Christ controls both life and death. Why do I worry and strive in vain?” Christ tells us to take up our cross and follow Him. The discipline of taking up our cross begins with identifying our cross. For many of us, it is an unnatural, unholy fear of death that paralyzes us and compels us toward self-will.
In the funeral service, St John of Damascus writes, “What earthly sweetness remaineth unmixed with sorrow? What glory on earth continueth unchanged? All things are more feeble than shadows, all things are more deceptive than dreams; yet one moment, and Death shall take away them all.” Even in the sorrowful depths of grief, our funeral service reminds us that the joys of life cannot withstand the stroke of death. The satisfaction of plenty; the ecstasy of laughter; the pleasure of embracing our loved ones; the exhilaration of achievement; all of these things do not, and cannot, endure. Death brings an end to it all. But death also brings an end to the sorrows of human suffering; the despair of loneliness; the grief of loss. Death inaugurates a new hope that God will “raise me up according to Thy likeness, that I may be fashioned in the former beauty.”2 This is our hope and a panacea for all earthly ills. Prepare now for your death so that you may face it bravely and be found worthy of the prize when your contending is finished.
Erik C. Young is an adjunct professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL and a chaplain at St Mary’s Hospital in his hometown of Kankakee, IL. He is a tonsured reader at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.
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