Thursday, March 19, 2009

The 18th Day: On Death and Life

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT - The Eighteenth Day

"We see the water of a river flowing uninterruptedly
and passing away, and all that floats on its surface,
rubbish or beams of trees, all pass by. Christian! So
does our life ... I was an infant, and that time has
gone. I was an adolescent, and that too has passed. I
was a young man, and that too is far behind me. The
strong and mature man that I was is no more. My hair
turns white, I succumb to age, but that too passes; I
approach the end and will go the way of all flesh. I was
born in order to die. I die that I may live. Remember
me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!"

- St. Tikhon of Voronezh (18th c.)

Now that is genuine Christian realism. A healthy, sober, clear, and illusion-free understanding of how things are. Nowadays, of course, such thoughts would be mistaken for - and denounced as - pessimism. We are supposed to live for the moment, emphasize the positive, and not reflect gloomily on our eventual death. Society scolds us for dwelling on the "negative." But is that possible for a reflective human being? Should we ignore or abandon our human capacity to reflect on our mortality because it causes us dread and anxiety? We know that an awareness of our mortality will always seep through the most well-constructed defenses, and then whisper its terrible truth when least expected or desired. And the tension caused by the simultaneous denial and awareness of our mortality is psychologically and spiritually debilitating. The greater the awareness, the greater the denial. The great saints were right when they spoke of memento mori - the remembrance of death - as a positive theme for reflection and meditation. It keeps one humble, realistic, and able to see things in a greater and truer perspective. Of course, this has nothing to do with a morbid and exhaustive preoccupation with death, which can have a paralyzing effect upon one's life. The remembrance of death raises the question of the existence of God and the meaning of life. Without God, just how much meaning does a life that ends in death actually have?

Thus, there is nothing in what St. Tikhon writes that is not a precise description of what he calls "the way of all flesh." Or, a bit more starkly, but still realistically, he writes: "I was born in order to die." From the "moment of conception," the hourglass, so to speak, is turned over and our allotted time begins to run its irretrievable course: birth, infancy, adolescence, maturity, and decline. However, youth and a strong sense of indestructibility seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps, then, what St. Tikhon writes is most meaningful for those of us in decline. Experience reinforces the truth of his words. The "handwriting is on the wall!" Great Lent is a time to meditate upon these realities with the soberness and clarity mentioned above, yet all within the context of the Death and Resurrection of Christ

For the passage above from St. Tikhon is not a stoical resignation in the face of the inevitable. He is reflecting precisely as a Christian who is appealing to fellow Christians. (Toward the end of his life, St. Tikhon was a retired bishop living in seclusion. He was known as a man pastorally sensitive and compassionate toward all human suffering. His humble life greatly impressed the great Russian novelist, Dostoevsky). His reflection closes on the paradoxical hope of all Christians: "I die that I may live." Here is something new - "life in death" as St. Ignatius of Antioch expressed it in the 2nd c. The certainty of that "life in death" is interwoven into the Tradition of the Church as it unfolds from generation to generation. It begins and ends with Christ. Which is why St. Tikhon concludes with the prayer of the "good thief:" "Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!" He is offering his long life back to God in humility and the recognition that only God can "save" his life.

Our culture silently lives by the denial of death. The Church loudly proclaims the destruction of death. Not biological death, but death as the annihilation of our personhood. What is temporarily separated - "soul and body" - will be reunited, reintegrated and renewed in the "resurrection of the dead." No sense dressing up for Pascha if you do not believe this. To live is to die; and to die is to live. That is the realistic hope of the Christian. It is foolish to deny the one; and hopeless to deny the other.

Fr. Steven

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