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Life in the Face of Death


In the Orthodox Church services we often pray for "a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, peaceful, and for a good defense at the dread judgment-seat of Christ." Fortunate are those who are able so graciously to depart this life. The Church, in her teachings tries to prepare us for such an end, but we are slow--sometimes even unwilling--pupils. Life in our modern world is fast-paced and mobile; if we meet with hard times, we can always have hope there will come a change for the better. And therefore we have great difficulty in grasping the concept of eternity, of a changeless destiny which offers no chance of upward mobility.

It is well to meditate on the Apostle's saying: 'I die daily; for if we live every day as if we were dying we shall not sin. St. Anthony the Great

Imagine, if you will, that you have just been diagnosed as having an incurable blood disease and the doctor has given you a matter of months to live. What is your reaction? Some people set about in a flurry of activity to fulfill the dreams and desires of a lifetime: a trip to Hawaii, dinners in fancy restaurants, golf in Palm Springs... Such a response reflects the pagan attitudes commonly found in our society: "Let us drink and make merry, for tomorrow we die. " Some spend ail their remaining energy in seeking, at any and all cost, the prolongation of physical life. They may become angry at the doctors for being helpless, or at God, Who until that time had been comfortably anonymous. The Christian, while he is not likely to rush off in either of these directions, may throw himself into a similar frenzy of activity--of making amends, almsgiving, confession, increased prayer. The very fact that the prospect of death should invite a radical transformation of life magnifies our singular lack of preparedness for the one thing in life which is inevitable.

The Holy Fathers often speak of the need for a constant thought of death. Those Christians who have been able to benefit from a close encounter with death understand the wisdom of this counsel. The proximity of death opens a new perspective on life. Suddenly one is struck by the frailty of life and one's utter dependence upon God. One of man's first lessons after the Fall was "dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return." While often treated as a poetic image, it acquires a sobering reality in the face of death.

Without the knowledge of Christ and hope in His salvation, the prospect of death can be terrifying. Even a Christian secure in his faith suddenly experiences a quickening fear of God and His judgment. Knowing that "a contrite heart God will not despise," he begins a thorough examination of his conscience. Are there any sins which, through shame or negligence, have never been confessed? In confession the priest reminds the penitent: "But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, then shalt thou have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest having come to the physician thou depart unhealed ,"

In making peace with God, a person preparing for death is naturally led to make peace with his neighbor. Has he offended anyone? is he harboring any ill feelings or resentment of wrongs, which will weigh him down on the Day of Judgment? This thought inspires a spirit of forgiveness which, under normal circumstances, is often stifled by pride. But in the face of death and eternity, even long-standing animosities are more easily erased in the desire to meet God with a clean heart.

The imminent prospect of death gives new value to earthly riches as a means towards heavenly gain. It no longer seems necessary to replace the car with a newer or fancier model, and last year's wardrobe appears perfectly adequate without the addition of the latest fashions. Instead, the Christian living in the face of death may discover in himself a previously unknown generosity in giving alms, in seeking to help the poor.

Time becomes very precious; it is not wasted in frivolous amusements, in sitting for hours before the T.V. Each and every day is appreciated for what it is--a gift from God. Faced with death, the wise Christian uses his time in preparing for his journey into the next world: inwardly--by intensified prayer, by spiritual reading, and by becoming more closely acquainted with the saints, those who are already citizens of paradise; and outwardly--seizing every opportunity to do good, to spend quality time with family and friends, to visit the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. How many such opportunities we let slip away, never stopping to think that we may be committing a sin of omission just as deplorable as any sin of commission.

In expectation of death a Christian more readily speaks out in situations when subjects such as premarital sex, homosexuality or abortion are raised, where previously he kept silent out of fear of offending, of appearing "fanatic" or being unwilling to "rock the boat." Silence is not always "golden." And he becomes more concerned in seeking the approval of God rather than man. Power, prestige and popularity appear superfluous before the sight of an open grave.

These are but a few ways in which we might want to change our lives if we were given to behold the approach of death. But who are we to assume we shall be granted such a chance to transform ourselves into "real" Christians at death's door? To most of us death will come unannounced. Will our lamps be trimmed and burning? Let us make use of our imagination--too often the playground of the devil--to see death just around the corner and thereby motivate ourselves to live as though our days were numbered--for indeed, they are. -

Fr. Vladimir Anderson
St John the Almsgiver Mission, Willits, CA

Never flag in the pursuit, nor relax your labors, nor say, We have continued long in the exercise; but rather, beginning anew each day let us increase our diligence. For the whole of man's life is exceedingly short, compared with the
ages to come, and the promise of eternal life is bought for a small price.

St. Anthony the Great