Bodily death as an experience of healing
Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / final lecture by Bishop Kallistos
Our theme during these days together has been to explore peace understood in terms of healing, of wholeness. So we looked at the wholeness of the human person in my first two talks, and the third we began to speak of the sacraments, and of confession as a sacrament of healing. My fourth and fifth talks were related to the Liturgy, the theme of peace of the Liturgy and now, in the last of my addresses, let us look together at death and let us ask how can death be an experience of healing. What is the connection between death and peace?
Now, if we take as our guide Orthodox prayers, we see that there is a connection. Often death and peace are mentioned together. Take for example from our evening prayers, the prayer divided into 24 short sections, that is attributed to St. John Chrysostom. One of the short prayers runs: “O Lord, grant me tears, mindfulness of death, and a sense of peace.” Surely, the context here is significant. Death is mentioned between “tears” and “a sense of peace.” Now, in the Orthodox understanding of tears, they may indeed signify repentance for sin, but tears can also mean tears of joy at the love of God. We weep in our personal human relations when we suddenly discover that someone else loves us very much, and so we weep also when we recognize how much we are loved by Christ. So tears involve joy, and we notice how mindfulness of death is linked with the sense of peace as well as with tears. Death is not to be a subject of anxiety and fear. It is linked with wholeness and hope. “Grant me tears, mindfulness of death and a sense of peace.”
The same connection between death and peace comes in the petition from the litany used at the Divine Liturgy, and at Orthros, and at Vespers. We pray for “a Christian end to our life, painless, unashamed and peaceful, a good answer before the dread judgement seat of Christ.” So once more there is a connection here between death and peace.
We notice the same connection in a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian, which could be taken as expressing in classic terms the Orthodox attitude to death. “Prepare your heart for your departure,” says St. Isaac. “If you are wise you will expect it every hour. Every day say to yourself: ‘See, the messenger who comes to fetch me is already at the door. Why am I sitting idle, I must depart for ever, I cannot come back again.’ Go to sleep with these thoughts every night and reflect on them throughout the day, and when the time of departure comes, go joyfully to meet the messenger and say: ‘Come in peace, I knew you would come, and I have not detected anything that could help me on the journey.’ Now what strikes me in that passage is a sense of sobriety and of gentle realism, and a sense of peacefulness. Prepare your heart for your departure. There is no way of avoiding death, unless the second coming happens in our lifetime — which it may, but that we do not know. But what strikes me particularly about St. Isaac is that death for him is not something that we should think about with revulsion and horror but has note of quiet eagerness. “When the time for departure comes, go joyfully to meet him.”
“Come in peace” — that is what we have to say to the angel of death when he appears to us. “I knew you would come, I knew I had to go on this journey, so I have got my little suitcase ready and we can set out now.” That is the spirit in which we are to think about our coming death.
There all kinds of preparations we can make, unless we are monastics living by strict poverty, which I am not. We should all of us make a will -as it causes great inconvenience to our friends and relatives if we don’t make a will. We should sort out our papers and correspondence. My house is full of thousands of sheets of paper and I dread to think what would happen if I died suddenly, which I may, so I ought to sort them out as otherwise I leave a difficult burden for other people. But there is something far more important that we should do to prepare for death, and that is mutual forgiveness. We should seek to be reconciled with all those from whom we are estranged. We should ask pardon and accept it, and we should take care not to leave this for the last moment for we don’t know when the last moment will come.
We live in a culture where it is bad taste to talk about death. Televisions, newspapers and modern novels are filled with violence and death, but it is bad taste to make it personal, to say, “I shall die and so will you.” President Mitterand shortly before his death, when he knew he was going to die, made some very interesting statements. “How to die?” he asked. “We live in a world which is frightened by such a question, a world which avoids even answering it.” And he said we must resist the modern deficient relationship with death in this hurried existence. In fact there is a conspiracy of silence about death, but the true Orthodox Christian approach is that we should be mindful of our death, exactly as St. Isaac says.
Now tonight I would like to explore two aspects of death understood in terms of personal healing. First let us take note how death and birth go together and let us note that in this context how death is far closer to us than we commonly imagine. Before our great death, the end of our life, we pass through many other deaths, and in each stage in our life death goes with growth. So perhaps we should see death as the final stage in our growth as persons. That is my first theme.
My second theme is to ask: “How should we regard death — as an enemy or as a friendly companion — or perhaps as both? Is our death to be seen as a tragedy, or as healing, or perhaps both?”
First then, birth and death. Let me start with three quotations. My first is from T.S. Eliott because the poets are often the best theologians. This is from his poem “The Dry Salvages” in The Four Quartets: “The time of death is every moment.” My second quotation is from the writer, Victorian author of the 19th century George McDonald. In his letters he says: “Death is only the outward form of birth.” And finally, I have a phrase from the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil to which we have been listening and praying during the Great Fast and Holy Week. In the anaphora it says, concerning Christ: “When He was about to go forth to His voluntary, awesome and life-creating death.” Let us hold fast to that phrase “life-creating death.”
Death is far closer than we imagine. “The time of death is every moment.” It is not just a distant event at the conclusion of our earthly existence. It is a present reality going on all the time around us and within us. All living is a kind of dying, we are dying all the time. But in this daily experience of dying, each death is followed by a new birth. All dying is also a kind of living. Life and death are not opposites, mutually exclusive, but they are intertwined. Our whole existence is a mixture of mortality and resurrection. As Paul says: “Dying and behold we live.” The whole of life is a constant passover, passing over through death into new life. We should never think of death alone, we should always think of death and resurrection.
Now let’s think about our life cycle and here I am drawing on a talk which impressed me very much when I read it some years ago by a Scottish Roman-Catholic priest, Fr. (?). Whoever thought that your bed is a very dangerous place because 95 percent of people die in their beds. And yet as I get older, I find going to bed and falling asleep is something that I look forward to. Falling asleep each night is in fact a foretaste of death, but is not a frightening experience. Because this foretaste of death is followed each morning by a foretaste of resurrection. When we awake the next morning, it is as if the world has been created anew. I like the Hebrew benediction, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who createst Thy world every morning afresh.” So falling asleep at night, waking up the next morning, is in its way a passing over through death into new life. Might not our eventual death be like that? A falling asleep followed by an awakening. We are not afraid to drop off to sleep each night, because we feel confident we are going to wake up once more next morning. But perhaps we won’t. Can we not with Christ’s help feel something of the same trust about our final falling asleep in death? May we not expect to wake up again in eternity?
I remember talking with my own father before his death. He had been a regular soldier. He had fought in both World Wars. He had had a great deal of experience of being in danger of death — certainly he had seen a great deal of death around him in those two wars. He confided in me shortly before he died that he was afraid of death, and I said to him: “Well, may it not be like falling asleep?” And in fact that was exactly how it was in his case. He fell asleep and he died in his sleep. He knew he was likely to die quite soon, and he had made his preparations. Well, that is one example of the way death and resurrection are intertwined into our daily life.
Then let’s think about growing up. Each time we pass from one stage of life into another, something dies in us so that something else can come alive. The transition — say, from being a child to becoming an adolescent — can often actually be quite painful and stormy. There is a death — the child has to die in us so that the growing adult may come alive. Perhaps there is another inner death when we pass from adolescence to being a mature adult.
These transitions are often painful and crisis-ridden. I read an account some time ago of Jesus at age twelve in the Temple. At first I was a little offended. Should we think of Christ in those terms? And then I thought, well, He was truly human, therefore He was a real human child and he went through all the processes of growth that we went through. The author commenting on the incident of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple and said — and I think that is true — that Mary and Joseph recognized they had a crisis on their hands when Jesus began to show independence as teenager. This is one way of looking at it, and perhaps not such an irrelevant way.
So all through our life, if we are to grow, we have got to be willing to let something die in us. If we refuse death, if we draw back from making the transition, we can’t become real persons. And here I would quote George McDonald again, this time from his novel Lillith: “You will be dead so long as you refuse to die.” We have to yield things, to give them up, if we are to receive new gifts. But in growing up each crisis of growth is also a lesson in love. Let me quote a poem by Cecil Day Lewis called “Walking away” where he is talking of leaving his young son for the firs time at school. “It is 18 years ago, almost to the day, a sunny day with the leaves just turning, since I watched you play your first game of football, then, like a satellite wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away behind a scatter of boys. I could see you walking away from me towards the school, with the pathos of a half fledged thing set free into a wilderness, the gait of one who finds no path where a path should be. That hesitant figure away like some winged seed loosened from its parents hold has something I never quite grasped, to convey about nature’s give and take. The small, the scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay. I have had worst partings, but none that so gnaws of my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly saying what God alone could perfectly show, how selfhood begins with a walking away and love is proved in the letting go.”
Another form of death is of course parting from friends and places, yet such partings are a necessary element in our growth. Unless we have sometimes the courage to leave familiar surroundings, to part with existing friends and to forge new links, we don’t realize our potential as persons. By hanging on to the old, we refuse the invitation to discover the new. As Cecil Day Lewis said: “Selfhood begins with a walking away and love is proved with the letting go.” That is a lesson we have to learn and relearn throughout our lives.
Rejection is another form of death that we have to face, all of us, at some point in our lives. As you probably know, my work is to teach in university, and I have seen — particularly in the last ten years, with the unemployment in Britain — how very difficult it is even for those who get quite a good degree in university then to find a job. They have to write not ten but perhaps a hundred times, applying for jobs, before they find one. Each time you apply for a job you’re offering yourself. Here am I with all my qualities — won’t you find a place for me? Each time you get a letter saying no, you undergo a certain death, a very hard death, as you face that disappointment, and yet perhaps that is what we have to learn if we are to become real persons.
Another kind of rejection, of course, and more profound, is rejection in love — when we love someone else and we find that our love isn’t returned. As children, if we come from happy homes, we often take love for granted. We assume that our parents will love and care for us. But then when we grow up we find we can’t assume that from other people — they are free and they may feel, yes, we are nice enough people, but they don’t love us in the way that we love them. Perhaps for many of us in our young years, the experience of being disappointed in love is the moment when we really begin to grow up, because bereavement is a form of death, not just for the one who dies but also for the one who remains alive. Yet bereavement faced inwardly and accepted through prayer, for that time is needed, makes us more authentically alive than we were before.
Another kind of death is the death of faith. Our Christian life surely has to be a journey, an exploration. We may at different times in our lives lose apparently our root certainties, or what we thought were certainties, about God and His existence. Nebukadnezzar gave a symbolic interpretation to the ten commandments and said that, when it is said in the ten commandments that you are to have no idols, that means also mental idols: conceptual and intellectual idols. All through our lives we have to be willing to shatter our idols about God, the ideas that we had, in order to come closer to the living God. To be fully alive, our faith has repeatedly to die.
Of course, long before we actually die, growing old is an experience of death. As we get older we have to be willing to yield the central place in the lime light to others, to let them shine. We have to apply to ourselves to what John the Baptist says: “He must increase and I must decrease.” As a teacher I think sometimes of the Jewish saying: “Blessed is the teacher who has pupils who are more clever then he.” Teachers don’t usually like it that pupils are more clever, but that is something we have to accept, especially as we get older, that they are going to be more brilliant, more up-to-date and more fashionable than we are.
Surely the secret of true life is to accept each state as it comes. To die the death and to live the new life, not to cling to the past but to live with total integrity in the present. Now in all these cases out of dying there comes resurrection. Not loss but enrichment, not decay but growth. Something dies means something comes alive. May not the death that comes right at the end of our life, fit into that pattern? May not our bodily death be the final stage in our growth? The last and greatest in the long series of deaths and resurrections, that we have been experiencing ever since the day we were born. If the small deaths each lead beyond death to resurrection, may this not be true of the great death that awaits us when we finally leave this world? May this not be the greatest passover? Then we should enlarge our vision, we should look beyond our own life stories to the Christ story. We should relate the death and resurrection pattern within our own life to the death and resurrection of Jesus our Saviour that we have just been celebrating. Our story makes sense in the light of His story. Our small deaths and resurrections are joined across history through His definitive death and resurrection. What did we hear at Paschal midnight? “Let none fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death. Christ is risen and death reigns in fear. Christ is risen and there is none dead in the tomb.”
Now, when people change their tapes over I know that means I have been talking quite a long time, so I’ll try and speed things up. That was my first theme. In Eliott’s words “A time of death is every moment,” that death is not closer than we think but death goes with growth and resurrection.
Now I want to look at the second question: “Is death enemy or friendly companion?” My answer here is that our attitude toward death should not be blind terror but awe and wonder.
What is death? Let me offer you two definitions. The first is from St. Clement of Alexandria, in the early third century. “Death,” he says, “is the separation from the soul and the body.” My second definition is from St. Maximus the Confessor, who writes: “Death in the true sense is the separation from God.” Now I think both definitions are true, but the second comes closer to the heart of the matter. St. Clement speaks of physical death, the separation of soul and body — the heart stops beating, the breathing ceases, the body grows cold, the person dissolves. But St. Maximus goes further. He speaks about spiritual death. Death, in the deep sense, is the separation of the total person, soul and body together from God. Life is communion with God, losing that communion we die. Now the corollary of this is many people die before their deaths. Outwardly and physically they are still alive, but inwardly and spiritually they are already dead. Their souls have died before their bodies. Animated corpses walk about in our midst and we meet them every day.
Now spiritual death, as separation from God, means a state of sinfulness. In Scripture death and sin are very closely related. Death is an aspect of our fallen condition. In the Genesis story, disobedience to God’s command brings death. God says “On the day you eat from the tree which you are told not to eat from, you shall surely die.” So the real death is not physical but spiritual.
Now is death an enemy or a friend? From one point of view, it is an enemy. The true person, of the Christian understanding as I have already said in my opening talk, is a undivided unity of soul and body together. The body is not a prison or tomb. It is an integral part of our personhood. As C.G. Jung says: “Spirit is the living body seen from within and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit.” So death from this point of view is not natural. It is profoundly unnatural. It is an affront against the wholeness of our human nature. It is not what God intended for us. He didn’t create us for death but for life. Death in this sense is monstrous and tragic. It is, in Paul’s words, “an enemy to be destroyed” and hence Christ’s grief and tears at the grave of His friend Lazarus. Jesus wept. If He wept at the face of death, so may we. St. Paul tells us not to refrain altogether from sorrow, but he simply says we are not to sorrow as others do who have no hope (1 Th 4-13). So he doesn’t disapprove of all sorrow, only unbelieving, hopeless sorrow. I often think of that beautiful passage in The Brothers Karamazov where starets Zosima speaks with a woman who has lost her child and he doesn’t say to her stop weeping, he tells her that she should weep. And yet he says the time will come when, through your weeping, you will reach peace. Tears can have a healing effect, the bereaved need to be allowed to mourn and they have to have time for their mourning.
What I find impressive about the Orthodox funeral service is that people don’t feel ashamed to weep. I was brought up in a culture which thought that a funeral should be very tight lipped and restrained, dignified. If people broke down and showed grief, the others were embarrassed. But thank God, in the Orthodox Church, we are not embarrassed.
If Christ wept so may we. At Gethsemane, Christ felt real anguish in the face of death. He did feel a sense of horror at His own coming death. So death can be seen as an enemy, but it is also a friend. It may be monstrous but it can be full of beauty. Yes, we do feel grief at the death of those we love, but the sorrow can be a sorrow that leads to joy. Death is not part of God’s original purpose for us but is in a fallen world part of His loving providence. There is a Russian fable that Jim [Forest] probably knows better than I do. Once upon a time a peasant was walking the woods and he met death. Being quite an alert character, very quickly he put his sack over death’s head and tied him up inside the sack and took him back home all tied up. Death struggled and shouted but the person said “I am not going to let you out.” At first everybody said he was a marvelous man because he got rid of death. But then people just went on living. They got older and older and their rheumatism got worse and worse. They grew more and more tired, but there was no release. They just had to go on living. So after a time they came to the man and said: “For goodness sake, let death out again so we can have a way of escape.” I think that is true, in the fallen world, simply to live forever in this fallen world is not endurable. God in His mercy has given us a way of escape.
That is the way Jeremiah sees it when he uses the analogy of the potter. He goes down, in Jeremiah chapter 18 to the potter’s house and he sees how the pot has been spoiled on the wheel. The potter than shatters the clay and reworks it. So death is the shattering of the pot, so that it may be refashioned. It is also what we say in the funeral service: “Of old Thou has created me from nothing and honored me with Thy divine image, but when I disobey Thy commandment, Thou hast returned me to the earth whence I was taken. Lead me back again to Thy likeness, refashioning my ancient beauty.” So there death is seen as a way in which we are led back again to our true home, we are refashioned. So death is also a friend.
Just before supper I went into the Basilica and went round to the place where there is a statue of St. Francis. The Canticle of the Son is posted there. I read St. Francis’ words written just before his death “Praised be my Lord for our sister bodily death.” Death is the means of our return to God. It is an encounter with Christ. It could be transformed into an act of worship, into an experience of healing. It is a friend not an enemy. It is a beginning, not an end.
I think of the last words of the Russia thinker Prince Trubetskoy. As he was dying, he said: “The royal doors are open, the great Liturgy is about to begin.”
Bishop Kallistos is Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and leads the Greek parish in the same city. His books include The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. His lecture may not be reproduced without his permission. The transcription was made by Maria Armstrong. Our thanks to her.