Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
GREAT LENT - The Twenty-ninth Day
Today is the feast day of St. John Klimakos (March 30), and yesterday we brought to mind St. John as he is also commemorated on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. In his classic book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John teaches that one of the fundamental virtues of the Christian life is the "remembrance of death." I wrote about this in a fairly recent meditation (Thursday, March 19), within a different context. My point is not to morbidly pound home this theme of our ascetical tradition, but to make the simple point that it is a consistent teaching that can be found throughout the centuries from among the writings of the saints. And that means that the "remembrance of death" is "positive" and not "negative," for is counted as one of the virtues; and the virtues are the energies that imbue our lives with a God-centeredness that a lack of the virtues deprives us of.
This theme was brought back to my mind not only from looking through the Ladder of Divine Ascent again, but by a beautiful prayer that I just discovered coming from a certain Archimandrite Sophrony, entitled "A Prayer at Daybreak." This is a relatively lengthy prayer that covers over two pages in a newly published Prayer Book (that I will discuss below), that covers many aspects of our life as we place ourselves before God as humble servants seeking His daily blessing of our actions, words and thoughts. Near the end of this prayer, Archimandrite Sophrony includes the following paragraph that is a prayerful expression of the theme of the "remembrance of death:"
Yea, O Lord, by your Holy Spirit, teach me good judgment and knowledge. Grant me to know your truth before I go down into the grave. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto you worthy repentance. Take me not away in the midst of my days, nor while my mind is still blind. When you shall be pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before you.
The "time" we are given by God in this world is a time of repentance, service to and praise of God. It is also a time to grow in the love of God and neighbor. It is a time to establish loving relationships that will endure throughout eternity. It is a time to practice and perfect the activities of prayer, almsgiving and fasting, so that we can be worthy of these thrice-blessed goals. This is the only true way to "enjoy" life. It is nothing but an empty temptation to believe that the more pleasures we experience (hedonism); or the more things that we accumulate (materialism); or the more ego-satisfaction we pursue (solipsism), that our lives will be more complete - or whatever. Most human beings that make those pursuits the center of their lives are terrified of dying, because death is a meaningless frustration - if not absurd imposition - on their passion-filled lives. The "remembrance of death" would only be a hateful aberration that threatens one's psychological equilibrium.
We pray with Archimandrite Sophrony that we are spared from such blindness. We pray to know the Truth - Christ - before we go down into the grave. The "grave" is a forbidding word, but St. John Chrysostom in his paschal homily teaches that since Christ is risen, there are no longer any that are in the graves! The resurrection of the dead has already begun with the Resurrection of Christ. If there is only this life then one perhaps should "eat, drink and be merry;" "go for it;" or "get it while you can." (It may be true that you "only live once;" but it is also true that you live forever, and that there is a "second death" that will make that life unending misery). These are pathetic and pitiful replacements for the paschal mystery of dying and rising with Christ. The "remembrance of death" - certainly a practice that Great Lent can restore to our lives - will protect us from such counterfeit substitutions. Then we can concentrate on the Reality of Christ.
I found the prayer from Archimandrite Sophrony in a newly-published Prayer Book in Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, published by St. Arseny Press, Victoria, Canada. This is not the most complete Prayer Book that I have found to date. If you are interested, follow the provided link, or please let me know.