Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, popular Orthodox speaker, retired Oxford theology professor, and author of the best-selling (and outstanding) books The Orthdox Church, The Orthodox Way, and The Inner Kingdom
The Unnatural Gift
I thought I would wrap up my series on the Orthodox view of death by sharing and reflecting on some of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s writings on the subject. I recently read his excellent book The Inner Kingdom, and the second chapter “Go Joyfully: The Mystery of Death and Resurrection” confirms the idea of death as a horrifying, unnatural phenomenon. The Metropolitan writes:
Death…is present with us throughout our life, as a constant, ever-recurring daily experience. Yet, familiar though it may be, at the same time it is deeply unnatural. Death is not part of God’s primary purpose for His creation. He created us, not in order that we should die, but in order that we should live.
He then discusses how we are created as a unity of body and soul (contrary to the dualist theories held by Platonists, other Greek philosophers, and many people [even some Christians] today). God intended body and soul to be united, and their dissolution is therefore unnatural. As Met. Kallistos continues,
As the separation of body and soul, death is therefore a violent affront against the wholeness of our human nature. Death may be something that awaits us all, but it is at the same time profoundly abnormal. It is monstrous and tragic.
Having affirmed the horror of death, however, the Metropolitan adds another dimension not often considered:
Yet even though death is tragic, it is at the same time a blessing. Although not a part of God’s original plan, it is nonetheless His gift, an expression of His mercy and compassion. For us humans to live unendingly in this fallen world, caught forever in the vicious cycle of boredom and sin, would have been a fate too terrible for us to endure; and so God has supplied us with a way of escape. He dissolves the union of soul and body, so that He may afterwards shape them anew, uniting them again at the bodily resurrection on the Last Day and so recreating them to fullness of life…
As Benjamin Franklin stated in the epitaph that he composed for himself, death is the way in which we are “corrected and amended”: “The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, (Like the cover of an old book, Its contents worn out, And stript of its lettering and gilding) Lies here; food for worms! Yet the work itself will not be lost, For it will, as he believed, appear once more In a new And more beautiful edition, Corrected and amended By it’s Author!”
Remarkable words indeed for a man who called himself a Deist and who professed to not believe in miracles! Metropolitan Kallistos concludes with these words:
There is, then, a dialectic in our attitude toward death, but the two ways of approach are not in the final analysis contradictory. We see death as unnatural, abnormal, as contrary to the original plan of the Creator, and so we recoil from it with grief and despair. But we see it also as part of the divine will, as a blessing, not a punishment…We look beyond the separation of body and soul at death to their future reintegration at the final resurrection.
Now that we know that, in the Metropolitan’s words, “…we are to view our coming death with contrasting feelings—with sober realism on the one side, and at the same time with awe and wonder…”, what should we DO about it? These words by St. Isaac the Syrian, quoted by the Metropolitan, are instructive:
Prepare your heart for your departure. If you are wise, you will expect it every hour. Each day say to yourself: “See, the messenger who comes to fetch me is already at the door. Why am I sitting idle? I must depart for ever. I cannot come back again.” Go to sleep with these thoughts every night, and reflect on them throughout the day. And when the time of departure comes, go joyfully to meet it, saying, “Come in peace. I knew you would come, and I have not neglected anything that could help me in the journey.”
May God grant that we will all be ready for the time of our departure.