Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Orthodox View of Death (Part Two)

Nathan Hoppe, OCMC missionary to Albania and professor at Holy Resurrection Seminary in St. Vlash, Albania, with his two children Tristan and Katherine

As most of you have no doubt read by now, OCMC missionary to Albania Lynette Hoppe was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. After a heroic struggle with her cancer, Lynette reposed in the Lord in August of 2006. During this time, she kept a journal, excerpts of which have recently been published in the outstanding and inspiring book Lynette’s Hope (copyright 2008 Conciliar Press; click here for my review of the book). Lynette’s Hope also contains reflections and remembrances of Lynette by many of her friends and loved ones. Perhaps none of the reflections are quite as profound as those of her husband Nathan.

Thankfully, few of us experience the loss of our spouse to a long, agonizing battle with a fatal disease. Because Nathan Hoppe did, his view of death is not abstract or theoretical, but personal. Nathan, a professor at the Holy Resurrection of Christ Orthodox seminary in St. Vlash, Albania, penned a great summary of the contrast between the way most of the world sees death and the Orthodox view of what I call “The Great Separator.” Here I will quote his thoughts in full. The passage is rather lengthy (at least for a blog), but it is well worth the read.

In walking with [Lynette] through her final days into the arms of death, I confronted death in a personal way which allowed me to experience its power and terror. It is a fearful thing that ripped away the life which vivified my dear wife and left her a dead body growing cold and eventually falling into decay. Death is a tragedy and a betrayal of the life which God intended. Death is truly our greatest enemy…

I have noticed several different responses to death over the past year. Many dear people search for the right words to say and express many things which are kind and beautiful, but I have noticed that their responses often fall into three categories. First, there is the emotional response to death, which points to desperation and despair. Death is the end of everything and an unexplained tragedy which provokes inconsolable grief, uncontrolled wailing, anger and alienation.

I describe the second response as secular. It accepts death as a natural part of life. Many books on grieving fall into this category. They explain death as a natural part of the life cycle. Seeds are planted, they grow, they age, and they die. Animals are born, they mature, they grow old, and they die. These books point to the normal cycle of life and say that we must simply accept death as a part of that cycle. People are born, they grow up, they grow old, and they die. Our loved ones grow old and die, and we will grow old and die. The sooner we accept this fact, the easier it will be on all of us. There is no inherent meaning to life or death, and the sooner we accept the fact of death, the less we will allow the fear of it to spoil the fun of life. [Fr. James’ note: This seems to be the dominant view in today’s Western world, and unfortunately, it has been bought hook, line, and sinker by many Christians]

Finally, I saw the pseudo-religious approach to death. This view says that life in this fallen world is essentially evil, and we should gladly embrace death because it liberates us from this evil. Our real life begins after death. Life in this world only prepares us for the next life; thus death is not a tragedy, but a gift. [Fr. James' note: There is a sense in which, death is a gift, but this is not the main way that the Orthodox Church looks at it]

Although we may see elements of truth in all of these responses, I’ve realized that none of them are truly Christian. As Christians, we do not despair in the face of death, nor do we accept it as a normal part of life, nor do we embrace it as something good. Death is essentially abnormal. It is the destruction of what God intended. It is our great enemy, with which we must never make peace. The fact that we can be at peace in the face of death does not mean that we have made peace with it. We find peace with death because God has proven victorious over it. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This is the Christian approach.

Indeed. What a great summary! Tomorrow, I will post some of Fr. Thomas Hopko's reflections on the subject.

1 comment:

Clint said...

This would have been profound if it was just a theological treatise. But coming from a man dealing with the death of his spouse.... amazing.