Said Abba Elias: “I fear three things: the first, the time just before my soul goes out from my body: the second, the time just before I meet God face to face: the third, the time just before he pronounces his sentence upon me.”
One realization I had today is that I have been sorely neglecting this essential practice, the memory of death. I know that I am dying and will die and that I ought to think on that constantly. I am mortal, my time is limited, and I do not know it’s end. I know this, but … how can I describe it? Can someone know something without really believing it?
While the fear of death is something Christ came to overcome, willful ignorance of death is surely worse or, at least, a worse species of it. One truly aware of his/her own mortality fears death in a different way, a healthier, albeit heavier, way.
“I fear three things,” says Abba Elias, “the first, the time just before my soul goes out from my body: the second, the time just before I meet God face to face: the third, the time just before he pronounces his sentence upon me.” Or, we might simply say, Abba Elias fears death—not in the sense of being dominated by it but rather of a sober awareness of all that it is or, more accurately, is not. Death is the dissolution of life, not a thing in itself. And precisely in its non-being, it is a terrifying anti-mystery.
Abba Elias fears 1) the moment just before his death, 2) the moment just after his death, and 3) the due consequences of his life.
Why fear “the time just before my soul goes out from my body”? There is a different death that happens in that moment: the death of every facade and pretense I have ever created or embraced. One might say, conversely, that moment is the birth of true, brutal honesty—the birth of truth. “Shall we, perhaps, in Purgatory,” writes C. S. Lewis, “see our own faces and hear our own voices as they really were?”
Anyone who’s been unsettled by the sound of one’s voice recorded has foretasted this fear, if only slightly. It is the horror of the thought: “Is that how I really sound?” It sounds as if someone else has parroted the words we had spoken in a chillingly, almost-perfect impression. And we realize that, all along, rather it was we who had been impersonating ourselves to our own selves, masking our own voices, hiding our true faces.
Why fear meeting God “face to face”? Well, there’s the whole God part of that sentence for one. However, there is another aspect: the face part. No masks are allowed for the one who sees God. It requires a truly, if painfully, purified heart. And it is not merely that we meet God, but “face to face”—it is God as he is as well. All the best theological conceptions—the masks we put in front of his face—fall infinitely short of the reality of God as he truly is.
The ancient Hebrews presumed that if they were not dead already, to see God would mean their ends. And thus several biblical figures express wonderment at the paradox: “I have seen God and lived.” That, perhaps, we do not even understand how this is a paradox in the first place demonstrates the poverty of our piety today.
Why fear the time “just before [God] pronounces his sentence upon me”? Because, to that moment, only the prideful would claim to know the outcome, and the outcome for them will not be what they think—it cannot be.
For all the rebellion against judicial metaphors for the spiritual life, I would caution against going too far. Orthodox Christians confess that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” “To judge.” While I would tend toward a spiritual interpretation of some sort, one cannot make sense of the analogy apart from grasping the literal meaning first. Metaphysics may simply be my natural method of rationalization. But whatever the case, in some sense or another, Christ promises judgment, not an unmerciful judgment but nevertheless a setting right of all that has gone wrong, a paying of all dues.
At the very least, that is something to fear inasmuch as everyone has something that needs to be set right. We all attach things to our identity that are, in reality, a corruption of our true selves. Their passing away is another death. And worst of all, we may fear that when all is stripped away, nothing will remain.
But there is hope. As we travel this Lenten journey, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not given any simple solution to life’s problems nor any quick-fix for what has gone wrong. Nevertheless, we press on toward Pascha (Easter), the great feast of Christ’s resurrection. There, despite all uncertainty and fear, we can say, “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me” (Psalm 23 [22 LXX]). We are not given an equation to explain away the deaths we have to face—this circle cannot be squared. We are, however, given something better: victory. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
It is telling, I think, to note what Abba Elias does not fear: he does not fear the moment after God’s judgment. So perhaps, though humble with regards to his own works, he has faith in something stronger, hope that work of Christ outweighs the spiritual straw of his own efforts.
And perhaps, then, this sheds some light on my favorite saying from St. Antony: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.” To move beyond fear—how can that be done? Perhaps, as no doubt was the case, St. Antony (unlike myself) so constantly practiced the remembrance of death that he moved beyond it, a foretaste now of that “life of the age to come,” a blessed vision of the face of God for the pure in heart.
If only we have eyes to see it, if only we remove the masks from our faces through the constant remembrance of our mortality, through which we see most clearly the distinction between ourselves and God, between the creature and the Creator, then in the face of Jesus Christ we would see most perfectly that “God is love”—even that very love that alone drives away all fear.