Today is the third Sunday of the Triodion, the Sunday of the Last Judgement. Given our recent silence, due to our being busy without our having much to say or having appropriate emails to reply to, we thought that we would talk a little about the memory of death. Sunday of the Last Judgement, memory of death—all sounds a bit morbid for an optimistic America.
What is the memory of death? It’s a charism of the Holy Spirit. It’s not depression or Seasonal Affect Disorder. The memory of death is a meditation (yes, we know that’s a bad word among some ultra-Orthodox) designed to sober up the frivolous monk.
As a meditation, the memory of death is something that can be cultivated; as a charism of the Holy Spirit it is something that is given in the Holy Spirit; as something that is not psychologically disturbed, it is healthy. We are of the opinion that there are ages at which the memory of death is difficult and unusual. If a twenty-year-old man or woman were able to engage in the memory of death in a healthy way, it would be most unusual. Twenty-year-olds are full of life and expectation; otherwise there could be no wars. On the other hand eighty-year-old men and women would take naturally to the memory of death: their body has long since told them that they are on their way out.
Because the memory of death is a charism of the Holy Spirit it cannot be explained in words; it can only be practised. Because it is a voluntary activity, the memory of death is something that the monk or lay person must engage in willingly: they must turn to the idea of departure and focus on it.
Let’s suppose that we focus on our departure. We realize that when we die we are alone: no one is going to die for us or with us. Yes, someone might die next to us in the car if we die in a car accident, but, still, in death they will have their own burden to bear: they are not going to carry us on their backs. We have to die for ourselves and give an account of ourselves to Christ. No one is going to give an account for us. We have to take responsibility for the life we’ve lived—whether as a monk or lay person.
Now we can see why we have the memory of death: if we realize soberly that we are going to die, we can first of all begin to think about the saying of the Gospel: ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ Something today’s politicians should consider, true, but something that the monk or layperson also should consider. For while we waste our time criticizing and condemning one politician or another, one public figure or another, still we’re going to have to give an account of ourselves, not of the politician, on the day of our death. And we have just said that no one—not even the politician whom we have been criticizing—is going to answer for us. They’ve done what they’ve done and will answer for it; we’ve done what we’ve done and will answer for it. It doesn’t relieve our burden at the hour of our death that someone else has started a war or two or three for no reason. They answer for their wars; we answer for what we’ve done; and the judgements of God are inscrutable and deep, so we should not think like the Pharisee that we are better than the war-starting politician and get a free pass.
This is also true when we criticize public figures of the Church. They’ve done what they’ve done, and sometimes as members of the Church we must speak up, but they will bear their burden and we will bear our burden at the hour of our death—including for having spoken out against a ruler of the Church.
We can be saved; we can be lost. We Orthodox do not believe that we are ‘born again’ in a flash and then whatever we do afterwards we are eternally saved by election or pre-destination. We are born again in Baptism, if indeed we are baptized, but that does not guarantee us that we will be saved. Baptism guarantees us the possibility of being saved.
So how do we get saved? As all men and women must, we die. We meet Christ and give an account of ourselves. In today’s Gospel, set not in the judgement immediately after death but in the General Resurrection and the Last Judgement before eternal life or eternal hell, Christ’s criterion of salvation is mercy towards our brother or sister Christian. Christ’s criterion of salvation is not our attitude towards erring politician or prelate. Have we helped the poor? The sick? The lame? The imprisoned? Christ expects us to help from what we can do, not from what we cannot do. If you do not have the money or the ability to care for the sick (for many people it’s not that easy) then you can at least say a prayer for them. Can’t pray? Well, at least light a candle for them in church. Don’t go to church? Well, chances are that it’s going to be difficult to give an account of yourself if you don’t even go to church. Remember the parable of the talents where the man with one talent buried it in the ground. Christ castigates him that he didn’t even give it to the bankers. Who are the bankers? Christ means that the man should at least have gone to church regularly, drawing interest from the corporate prayers of the church. Burying the talent means doing nothing, not even bothering to go to church.
So let’s suppose that we do go to church and figure that maybe we have five talents and can invest them. What should we invest our talent(s) in? In fulfilling the Gospel commandments.
Let’s go back to the memory of death. The heart of the memory of death is a sober recognition that one day we die and give an account of ourselves. When we focus on that thought then obviously it will eventually dawn on us that we better get our act together. What does that mean? Well it means we’d better review what we’ve been doing in comparison to how the Church understands the Gospel commandments. In other words there’s an examination of conscience. Not scrupulously, looking for the gnats to strain while we swallow a camel of pride and hypocrisy, but soberly reviewing how our life has been going. And as St Paul says, the kindness of God is meant to lead us to repentance. So if we engage in the memory of death we should begin to look seriously at our serious faults. We should think about what’s going to happen if we have not yet corrected certain things and we die. For we might think that we have a few years yet, but there’s that doctor coming with a sober frown on his face. Something about the CAT scan of our liver. He doesn’t seem happy. Something about it being a form of cancer that gives us two weeks to live. Or something about an uneasy feeling getting a lift with Jim in his car after he’s had a few too many drinks. We should have known—what’s that Mack truck doing there in the snow where it shouldn’t be in front of us!
So the memory of death is a very great gift of our good God. If we practise it, we will ultimately repent. And we will thank God that he has given us the means to lead us to repentance rather than abandoning us. And maybe we will even find time to go to confession. To make a serious, sober confession about our real faults to a good confessor who’s neither a fool nor undiscerning about what’s important and what’s not.
Best wishes to all (and, no, at the moment Orthodox Monk is not on his deathbed). Good Lent to all.