Saturday, May 30, 2015

Two Reflections on the Meaning of Life and Death

Fr. Roman Braga of blessed memory.
Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Attached below, you will find two extraordinary pieces that I hope you will take the time to read carefully. 

The one on Archimandrite Roman Braga was written by Dr. Dan Henshaw.  Dr. Henshaw was Fr. Roman's personal physician throughout Fr. Roman's last illness and final death process.  It amounts to an eyewitness bedside account of the death of a person who was "righteous" in the full biblical sense of that term: "Blessed are the righteous ... " 

If we can speak of the "art of living," then we need to acknowledge the "art of dying," and that is present in these deeply-felt reflections.  In fact, Fr. Roman's entire life was a preparation for its inevitable end.  (Something to think long and hard about). His death may not have been "painless," but it appears to have been "blameless and peaceful," and we can be assured that he presented a "good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ." Ultimately, there is more here than the much-desired "death with dignity." Dr. Henshaw delivered this talk at the memorial meal of Fr. Roman on the day of his funeral and burial.  The pain and suffering of Fr. Roman's death process are not hidden, but again, you sense "other realities" also at work here.  In fact, I believe that we are here given a momentary glimpse into the paschal nature of death that we seek based on the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

In short, there is much to be learned and meditated upon in this brief, but powerful witness from Dr. Henshaw.

The other essay by Archimandrite Vasilios is a profound supplement to what Dr. Henshaw witnessed in Fr. Roman.  It is a deeply-conceived and thoroughly Christocentric reflection upon the meaning of life and death from a revered elder and man of deep prayer.  This essay takes us into the deepest depths and layers of Orthodox Christianity.

I would like to thank Presvytera Deborah for preparing these two works for distribution to the parish.

Fr. Steven


Fr.Roman Braga 
April 2, 1922 – April 28, 2015
By Daniel Hinshaw, MD

Dr. Daniel Hinshaw – a spiritual son of Fr. Roman – spent most of the last four weeks of Fr. Roman’s life at his bedside, attending to his physical needs, as well as being a witness to the slow and “…tedious process of dying” that Fr. Roman underwent, but was also a witness of Fr. Roman’s “suffering through death unto real life,” which he so adequately and beautifully summarized. We offer these remarks made at Fr. Roman’s mercy meal as a source of reflection and strength.

In the instructions that Fr. Roman gave regarding his death and funeral, he specifically stated that there should be no eulogies given. But as one of his many spiritual children who were so fond of hearing him offer a “word” at the end of Liturgy, I would like to humbly offer with love and deep gratitude my observations, as one of his physicians, in witness to the final word he offered us as he approached his death. Fr. Roman always encouraged us to think of prayer as a continual, on going conversation with God; nothing, no activity no matter how seemingly trivial, falls outside of the Providence of God’s love and care for His creatures. And, so it has been during this long final leg of his journey toward the Kingdom. His living unto death has been one continual prayer. Always present, as a beacon guiding his path during these many months of decline and suffering, has been the precept so often stated by the spiritual father of his youth, Fr. Cleopa of Sihastria: “Patience, patience, patience!” He literally was a living icon of Christ’s admonition recorded in St. Luke’s gospel (21:19): “In patience possess your souls.”

In the same gospel (Luke 6:20), our Lord states: “Blessed are you poor…” Fr. Roman, as a monastic had already voluntarily embraced holy poverty but in these last two years of his life, he was given the grace to experience the absolute poverty of the dying, a particularly slow kenosis, a complete self-emptying, like his Crucified Lord. There was no hesitation, no resistance or bargaining, only full acceptance of whatever would come with all the uncertainty and suffering. At the time of his 93rd birthday, just a few weeks before his death, he was asked, if the traditional birthday salutation, “Many Years,” should be sung. His response summed up the essence of the Orthodox Christian life: “No! I have finally begun to learn how to die.”

When politely asked how he was doing, he would frequently reply with a smile, “I’m waiting.” That simple phrase, “I’m waiting,” must be placed within the context of the faithful, disciplined commitment to prayer during this long trial. Indeed, it is unlikely that he would have lived as long as he did, being literally eaten up by his illness, without the discipline of his prayer life. Not only did he live in continual conversation with God, he also placed this healing relationship within the communion and sacramental life of the Church. Armed with a habit of prayer, he could then face the gradual stripping away, first, of his ability to stand and serve as a priest at the altar, later, his ability to attend Liturgy in a wheelchair, and finally, even to rise from his bed to complete his daily rule of prayer. And yet, he continued to pray while lying immobile in bed the quintessential prayer of the Christian penitent, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” When speech finally deserted him, he still silently made the sign of the cross, for he had attained to silence, the language of Paradise.

In his constant concern for others and as the consummate teacher he was, he would, from the depths of his own struggles, stop and teach us. There was no act, no small kindness that escaped his notice. Even when he appeared to be asleep from exhaustion or in deep prayer, he would always say, “Thank you,” at which his caregivers would always marvel but secretly cherish in gratitude. When he could no longer ambulate, rather than complain, he simply said, “I can’t use my legs anymore, so I must rely more on God.” And in reference to the disruption of his long established monastic rule of prayer he said, “I just can’t do it any longer. God must take over.” There is a real tedium to dying. Near the end of his long decline, Fr. Roman expressed this reality by saying, “Dying is so difficult.” But, he transcended the difficulty of dying by embodying the monastic discipline of cheerfully accepting the ultra mundane. He fought boredom, the pain and frustration of his progressive disability by embracing small joys. None of us who witnessed his childlike pleasure when eating ice cream will ever thing of this dessert again without remembering his saying that “monks are children with beards.”

It is an enormous grace of God to attend to the suffering of the dying, especially when that dying person radiates the love of God. It creates a yearning to follow the loved one all the way and yet each death is ultimately a solitary experience. Graciously, Fr. Roman allowed us to journey with him and become witnesses of his suffering through death unto real life. The paradox of suffering is that we not only suffer alone but also in community. Love bridges the gap. Thank God that this man who had suffered so much in his earlier life was surrounded by a community of love and healing at the end of his earthly sojourn.

Fr. Roman’s long, slow decline over the past two years has been a type of the second half of the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Faithful, in which according to his own spiritual rhythm, his communion with God has been perfected in his suffering or in St. Paul’s words, God’s strength has been made perfect in his weakness. His spiritual health and his ultimate healing have been marked by his deep humility and devotion to the Eucharist in which he would proclaim, “I am not worthy to approach you Lord, but I cannot live without you.” Fr. Roman once made the profound observation that “suffering is the source of culture.” How we, as Christians, suffer can either elevate or diminish the essence or soul of our culture. So we look to the saints of old and those contemporary witnesses like Fr. Roman to serve as our models and guides as we face our own suffering.

Thank you Fr. Roman for teaching us until the very end. We ask for your continued prayers for all of your spiritual children and for the entire Church.

Dr. Daniel Hinshaw is a staff physician in the department of Palliative Medicine and Surgery at the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor and Professor of Surgery at the University of Michigan. He is the author of the book, “Suffering and the Nature of Healing,” published by SVS Seminary Press.


Dying and Behold We Live

by Archimandrite Vasileios of Mount Athos

In 1974 Archimandrite Vasileios (Gondikakis), then the Abbot of Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos, and now the retired Abbot of Iviron Monastery, spoke about the monastic life to Orthodox students in Dijon, France.  In 1984 St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press published his talk in English as a supplement to the translation of his book Hymn of Entry.  In introducing the Abbot’s talk on monasticism Bishop (now Metropolitan) Kallistos of Diokleia noted that although Father Vasileios is writing about monks, what he has to say in many ways applies to all Orthodox Christians.  “Thus, at many points in his address,” Bishop Kallistos writes, “where he speaks of the ‘monk’, readers will find it illuminating to substitute in their minds the word ‘Christian’.”  In my paraphrase here of sections of this address (whose title comes from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (See 2 Cor 6:1-10), I will simply use the word “Christian”.  [I update the language a bit for greater ease in reading.]

The Lord did not come into the world merely to make an improvement in our present conditions of life.  Neither did He come to put forward an economic or political system, nor to teach a method of arriving at a psychosomatic equilibrium. He came to conquer death and to bring eternal life:  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life”  (John 3:16).

This eternal life is not a promise of happiness beyond space and time.  It is not a mere survival after death or a prolongation of our present life.  Eternal life is the grace of God, which here and now illumines and gives sense to things present and things to come, to both body and soul, to the human person in his or her entirety.

The appearances of the risen Christ to His disciples had as their purpose to fill them with the certainty that death had been vanquished.  The Lord is risen.  Death has no more dominion over Him (Romans 6:9).  He is perfect God who goes in and out, the doors being shut  (John 20:19, 26).  He is perfect Man who can be touched, who eats and drinks like any one of His disciples.

What makes persons to be truly human and gives them their specific value, are not their physical or intellectual capacities, but the grace of having a share in the resurrection of Christ, of being able, from now on, to live and to die eternal life.

"He who loves his life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will keep it unto life eternal" (John 12:25).

True Christians, with the total gift of themselves to God, treasure this one unique truth.  They live this one unique joy.  He who loses his life in this world, will save it.  The life of a Christian, therefore, is a losing and a finding.

Orthodox Christians are persons raised up, sharing in the resurrection of Christ.  Their mission is not to affect something by their thoughts or to organize something by their own capacities, but by their lives to bear witness to the conquest of death.  And they do this only by burying themselves like a grain of wheat in the earth.

"Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24).

The true Christian is one who has been raised from the dead, an image of the risen Christ.  He or she shows that the immaterial is not necessarily spiritual, and that the body is not necessarily fleshly.  By “spiritual” is meant everything that has been sanctified by the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, whether material or immaterial; that is, everything which has been transfigured by God’s uncreated divine energies through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The true Christian reveals the spiritual mission of what is created and bodily.  At the same time she or he reveals the tangible, concrete existence of what is uncreated and immaterial.  The true Christian is a person who is totally wedded to this mystery.  He or she has the sacred task of celebrating, in the midst of the Orthodox Church, the salvation of all created things.

The true Christians’ purpose in life is not to achieve their individual progress or integration.  Their purpose is to serve the whole mystery of salvation, by living not for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again for us, and thereby living for all of their brothers and sisters, and the whole of humanity.

This becomes possible because the true Christian does not live according to his or her own will, but according to the universal, catholic will and tradition of Christ’s holy Church.

Christ is risen!   Our eternal joy!

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