Be very constant in your prayers for the faithful departed, as if each dead person were a personal friend of yours.
~ Rule of Colmcille 13
Death has a way of straightening out our thoughts and perspective. Despite being a curse and contrary to nature, such tragedy can, nevertheless, be a spiritual blessing. Our enemy seeks to put all evil into our lives, but “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
St. Maximus the Confessor writes,
Man’s will, out of cowardice, tends away from suffering, and man, against his own will, remains utterly dominated by the fear of death, and, in his desire to live, clings to his slavery to pleasure.
This quote from St. Maximus, to me, may be the most precise and insightful observation concerning human behavior that I have ever read. When faced with death, the world we live in runs in fear. We are offered every opportunity to distract ourselves, to forget suffering and death and pretend they do not exist. So we seek refuge in pleasure. Pleasure comes in many forms, and in all of them it is equally enslaving and transient. We so wish to live in a fantasy world in which we live forever that we invent ways to live like it and lie to ourselves as long as we can.
The Rule of Colmcille challenges us to break the cycle: “Be very constant in your prayers for the faithful departed, as if each dead person were a personal friend of yours.” How long do we live forgetting how deeply connected we are to everyone else? How often do we hear of people passing, but give only a sigh, a mere moment of compassion? How quickly do we stuff that information into some nearly inaccessible compartment of our minds, to be safeguarded from ever truly reaching our hearts?
Instead, this community rule, named for a saint who spent his later years in exile from his home as penance for the deaths he had caused in his younger years—someone who surely had death daily on his mind—challenges us to take every word of news about the passing of another human being “as if each dead person were a personal friend.”
In the Orthodox Church, we set aside Saturdays as a day especially for remembering the dead and have a traditional prayer that we chant for the departed: “May his/her memory be eternal.” It is, I am sure, somewhat inspired by the petition of the thief, crucified to the right of Jesus Christ who prayed, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” to which Christ responds, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). He does not mean by “remember me” to simply “think fondly of me,” but rather to make him, a convicted criminal soon to die, whole.
In the face of death, which is a true tragedy and, indeed, is the source of the profound lack of wholeness in the world, we pray to him who conquered death by death to “remember,” to make whole the person who has departed, and in so doing we find peace and wholeness ourselves, reminding ourselves of the fact of death, breaking the cycle of fantasy living that we so easily fall into, and waking up to reality.
For all those recently departed, may their memories be eternal.