Natural Death and the Work of Perfection (Part II)

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


By Father Alexey Young from "Christian Bioethics"

In some Western Christian groups, radiant health and youthful vigor are seen as proof of the vitality and validity of one's faith (this is undoubtedly the most recent incarnation of the Puritan doctrine of predestination and a sign that one is among the "elect".) According to this view, illness is to be banished at all cost and death must be pushed away as far and as long as possible. In its most extreme form, this theology is expressed by Christian Scientists (who say that pain and death have no reality) or other faith-healing denominations. This idea, however, is of relatively recent origin in the West and may actually have contributed to our culture's obsession with avoiding suffering and illness, particularly in connection with the dying process. Without its Calvinistic underpinnings, however, this view easily lends itself to the desirability of suicide or physician-assisted suicide, for if one cannot completely avoid pain and suffering (these being among the very highest values of contemporary Western man), death should then be hastened in order to avoid that which is seen as "negative," "bad," o without any redeeming value. Death becomes "good" and causing death may even be a "virtue."

Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, have always believed, and still, do, that the highest way to serve God is not out of expectation of any kind of reward but simply out of love. The act of loving God is thus seen as a reward and a goal in itself. This does not mean that one cannot ask God for bodily (as well as mental and spiritual health--Orthodox Christians, for instance, constantly pray for "health, salvation, and welfare" in our Divine services--but such well-being is not seen as an end itself, nor is a lack of health seen as "bad" or a sign of spiritual weakness (unless, of course, one has ruined one's own health through poor stewardship of the body).

This reflects still another ancient Christian idea, preserved today primarily by Orthodox Christians: that suffering and sorrows, when carried in the shadow of the Cross, have value:

"Church Tradition relates that Saint John the Merciful, after completing a Divine service, once noticed that a woman was crying bitterly in a corner of the church. He told his deacon: "Go and bring that woman, so that we can find out why she is so grieved: whether her husband has died, or her children are sick, or God has sent her some other misfortune."

The deacon brought the woman to the Saint. When Saint John asked her why she was crying so inconsolably, she said: "How can I not cry, holy father! Three years have passed, and no sorrow has come to us. It seems that God has forgotten us completely. There is no sickness in the home, no ox has been lost, nor has a sheep died, and my family has begun to live carelessly. I am afraid that we will perish because of our easy life, and that is why I am crying." The bishop-Saint marveled at that answer and praised God.

In such a way the Christians of the past have considered suffering to be sent from God and have grieved when they did not have sorrows...

Similarly, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninove explains:

"A sorrowless earthly life is a true sign that the Lord has turned His face from a man, and that he is displeasing to God, even though outwardly he may seem reverent and virtuous."

The Saints Show Us How to Die

Orthodox Christianity not only possesses a body of abstract theology and doctrine but also contains what could be called living theology or "theology in action"--which is the Lives of the Saints. Thus, "the Christian experience is the same across generations. From the inside, one will experience this unity as a bond of God across the generations of Christians. Dogmas are not simply to be known but experienced and lived."

This is where the Saints can be of help, for their lives are not intellectual arguments but actual experience. Such a traditional and rich Christian theology reflects and describes the process of sanctification and transfiguration rather than being reduced either to theological theories or twentieth-century political-sociological principles. Therefore the Saints--that is, those who have been specially chosen by the Holy Spirit and revealed to the Church for special honor and emulation by the faithful--are actually "theology incarnate." This gives them practical power in the day-to-day lives of the faithful, for they often provide better and more accessible models for how to live and die than could many learned volumes by the fathers of the Church. Thus, Saint John of Kronstadt exhorts his readers:

"Call upon the Saints, so that seeing every virtue realized in them, you may yourself imitate every virtue...When your faith in the Lord, whether in health or in sickness, in prosperity or poverty, whether at any time during this life, or at the moment of leaving it, grows dim from worldly vanity or from illness and the terrors and darkness of death, then look with the eyes of your heart and mind upon the companies of the Saints...These living examples, so numerous, can strengthen the wavering faith in the Lord and the future life of each and every Christian communities who do not venerate the Saints...lose much in devotion and in Christian hope. They deprive themselves of the great strengthening of the faith by the examples of men like unto themselves."

Accordingly, if we look at the various ways in which traditional Christian Saints arrive at the moment of death--almost always through pain and suffering of a "final illness," just like everyone else--we can see healthy and congruent models not only of what is called a "holy death" but vivid descriptions of how traditional Christians in fact die.  (Source: Orthodox Heritage)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!" -- Saint John Chrysostomos


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia (Ministry),
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George