DEATH

by Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon

 

A few days ago, while talking to a friend of mine, he told me about his conversation with a common friend of ours, who was later seriously diagnosed with cancer. My friend said to him, "We pray for you every day." The sick man replied, "I hope you are not asking unto many years! Because I am afraid that God may listen to you and delay my meeting of His Sweet Face." This reply comforted me because I do not reach this power of faith. With the same assurance, my grandfather welcomed his own death. He said to my grandmother, "Please, prepare some water, I want to have a bath because I will die today!" This was in the mid-twenties, and my grandfather did not suffer any disease. After he finished his bath, he put on his best Arabic vestments, lay down on his bed, Crossed himself and died. These are people who commonly [in the same manner] confront life and death. Mayhap, they feel that their death is the biggest reward. Their secret is this amazing calmness descending upon them from above. In the matter of death, it doesn't do you any better if you seemed, either in your own eyes or in the eyes of others, to be a man of faith. Recently, I was watching an episode of 'Carmelite’s Discussion' by Georges Bernaseaux on TV. I was attracted to this discussion between the convent elder with a novice nun. The spirituality of the elder was deep, even though it was expressed in a mind-psychological genre developed by French writers and usually used only by them. It surprised me that this great nun’s discussion was showing dread in this horrible conversation which revealed a great concern, bordering on atheism. It seems as if man is not what he lived but how he welcomes this big tunnel which he'll cross at the end. Does he cross it believing that the far end will deliver him to the Light? We can say great and beautiful words in God and we can work an entire lifetime for His sake, but we may not be with Him. Our effort may have been self-establishing rather than revealing for God, and our words about Him were for our own pleasure, beautiful like reciting poetry! Which brings back to my memory that terrible question a very sensitive painter asked me one day while I was leaving. She said, "What is the difference between religious and aesthetic feelings?" Knowing the close connection between the two, I explained hesitantly what I thought the difference seems to be. And I rushed off, leaving with great fear in my bones. Is it God’s beauty and the poetry of Christ’s death and this marvelous harmony in all the Christian elements, this amazing unity between the Gospel, Dogmas, Liturgies, Icons, Tones and Canons that I like? Suddenly, I awoke to my nakedness, confronted with my friend’s question like a sword to my neck! I do see myself closer to the Carmelite of Bernasaux than to my grandfather. It shone in front of me that my way to calmness of death is bumpy and I am still but in the beginning of the road.

It hurts me, in this banal civilization, that the comfort we badly run after is in reality just a mask for the last truth, which is death. We try to keep death away by medicine, diet, sport, high living and entertainment because the sight of death makes us live as if he [death] is the great ruler. We think deeply until we start to imagine that we live in death, and we start exposing ourselves to all kinds of futile labor, refusing to see our miserable state. Probably even in funeral rituals and customs, we try to escape from this reality, from some of this fear. We obscure the incident of death with a foggy vision away from our hearts, which, if they were pure, should repent at the remembrance of it. If we acknowledge death in its depth, this will become the biggest passage to truth, which helps us to establish a righteous life. Remembrance of death is always the sole power which enables us to fight the entertainment, decorations and prides of existence, for all glory in your eyes will vanish when confronted with the acknowledgment of the true Glory coming from the other end of the tunnel. Your only chance to live in the dignity of God is to lay aside the lie of the present time with all its non-authentic theatrics. Only then will you inherit your fortune, which is not to be crushed to the walls of the tunnel! Only your awareness of the beauty of what awaits you on the other side will enable you to live in patience and redemption to all those who fell in the illusions of this life.

The biggest fruit of acknowledging the truth of death is to start accepting your non-authenticity, not as a poetic suicide, but to understand that you will never understand! You'll never understand because of your fragility, which recalls mercy upon your soul. This brings you to the knowledge that you’re but a jar of clay (despite all your transfigurations), and that you have a "thorn in the flesh" that always stabs you to remind you of simplicity. Despite all this, if you were thrown on the gate of the Kingdom, you won’t be holding an entry ticket. Only the Lord can stretch His hand to you and make of you one of those who enter. That’s why, when the followers of St. Sissoes the great monk surrounded his death-bed and asked him, "Tell us a word of life," he answered, "How shall I give a word of life while I am still not repented?" This feeling of incompleteness in the presence of the Lord is what enables us to welcome death with some comfort.

The origin of death, according to Christian Tradition, is that it overtook us because of sin. According to St. Paul, the wages of sin is death, confirming what was written in the book of Wisdom: "God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth" (Wisdom 1:13,14). But because of death’s power, we always try to find the reason behind it, forgetting that death has no reason because it is a shock, contrary to nature. According to the Apostle, the last enemy that will be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Still, we cannot have peace with death despite the fact that the Master accepted it and tasted it. He too considered it as an enemy when He asked the Father to take the cup away from Him. After He abolished death in His resurrection, we started, by the birth of the Resurrection in our lives, to have a hope. Not that we accept death by faith, but we accept what comes afterward: eternal life. Eternal life isn't just a word we say and calm down. It is a great revelation, through the Holy Spirit, and costs us an entire lifetime to get familiar with this eternal truth which initiates our faith. Faith is a gift that descends from above and which we cannot understand no matter how hard we work. We live in what appears to us to be zeal: continuous and restless fights, vigils, fasts, bleeding and blood shedding. But we are not as pure as babies are nor are we closer to the Divine touch, which puts us in this martyrdom. Our story with God is not that of practices, which we repeat or that of tales we recite. It is rather that He will arrest us in His mercy, which flows upon our existence and enables us to destroy the barriers between Him and ourselves. As Ephraim the Syrian said: "if a table descends from heaven and becomes your feast, and you eat from this table but stay hungry for God, and if your soul eats His words and longs to see Him, then start to walk in His way and in His knowledge, which will enable you to see Him as your way to Him and the end of the way at the same time."

All this should give you His humility, which makes you, feel that you are nothing. If you stop seeing yourself through your own eyes and God becomes your witness, you have then quitted the world and your self at the same time. It is imperative to see yourself as a vacuum in order that God may become your entire existence. Then your joy won’t be in what you've accomplished, but in what God has accomplished in you. Perhaps the most important insight you acquire is the knowledge of what He said, "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, we are unprofitable servants, we have done what was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10). This causes all that you counted as your virtues to diminish in your eyes because every virtue has embedded in it that which makes you feel as if it originated from you. Nobody can know whether his works were good or as filthy rags, because you can’t judge yourself in the limitations of this life. God appointed the judgment only to Christ. That’s why you are only certain about one thing: you have enough sins to make you a target for the Divine wrath, and you are saved only by His absolute mercy. If you saw your self in its total nakedness, then God will clothe you with His Light. If you hope to put on His Light, it will be your safety in this world. This hope then guides you to the Divine Love. Inasmuch as your hope is powerful, so you'll be delivered from fear and calmed to the idea of meeting the Grace. If, through Grace, the face of God shines upon you, He will deliver you from the present world and your death becomes a peaceful promise of Eternal Life.

From An-Nahar (Lebanese newspaper)
June 17, 1995
Translated from Arabic

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