Sunday, 28 April 2013

On Spiritual Reading - Elder Paisios of Mount Athos

I was lying comfortably on the sofa as I read this:
"Today with so much reading people end up like tape recorders, filling up their cassettes with superfluous matters. According to Abba Isaac, however, Wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace. You see, many who are interested in sports read sports magazines and newspapers while they are sitting. They may be like the fatted calf, but they still marvel at the athletes. “Oh he is marvellous! He is great! Bravo!” But they don’t work up any sweat, and don’t lose any pounds. They read and read about athletic events, and then they go and lie down; they gain nothing. They are satisfied with the pleasure of reading. Some worldly people read newspapers, others romantic literature or an adventure novel, still others watch a football game at the stadium and pass their time. The same thing is done by people who read spiritual books. They may spend the whole night reading spiritual books with great intensity and be content. They take a spiritual book, sit comfortably, and begin reading. “Oh, I profited from that,” they say. It would be better to say, “I enjoyed myself, I spent my time pleasantly.” But this is not profit. 
"We profit when we understand what we read, when we censure ourselves and discipline ourselves by applying it: “What does this mean? Where do I stand in relation to this spiritual truth? What must I do now?” After all, the more we learn, the more responsibility we have to live up to what we have learned. I am not saying that we should not read so that we can plead ignorance and therefore be set free from responsibility, for this is a cunning deception; I am saying that we should not read merely to pass our time pleasantly. The bad thing is that if someone reads a lot and has a strong memory, he may remember many things and even talk a lot about what he has read, and thus deceive himself into thinking that he also personally observes the many things he reads. So he has created an illusion toward himself and others. So don’t be comforted by the thought that you read a lot. Instead, turn your attention to applying what you have read. Much reading alone will only educate you encyclopaedically."

From Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, Spiritual Counsels, Vol. II: Spiritual Awakening, Souroti, Thessaloniki: Holy Monastery “Evangelist John the Theologian”, 2008, pp.110-11.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Life After Death

Since we’re approaching the Raising of Lazarus tomorrow, I thought it appropriate to post a review of a relevant book I just finished reading: Life After Death by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos (Levadia, Hellas: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2005). Having read Orthodox Psychotherapy by the same author the week before, I was keen to get a copy, but was put off by the extortionate prices online. I was, however, lucky enough to stumble across it in an ecclesiastical shop in Cyprus a few days ago, this time with a slightly more agreeable price tag.

A section of the book, ‘The Taxing of Souls’, is one I have recently seen appear on a number of blogs, websites, and magazines, though I must confess to not having taken the time to read it until I got the book. While Met. Hierotheos accepts the so-called ‘Toll House Theory’ – a strongly divisive topic, elevated to the status of doctrine by the more extreme of its proponents, and rejected as a heresy of heresies by its opponents – there are a number of elements which sets this book apart from the (in)famous and similarly titled work of Hieromonk Seraphim Rose on the topic, The Soul After Death:
1. The purely symbolic nature of ‘taxing’, ‘toll’, ‘customs’ is made clear from the outset. The demons which appear as the soul departs from the body are likened to tax-collectors on account of the rather unpleasant nature of that profession in the ancient world. Today it might be better to speak of the “aerial parking wardens”. While Fr. Seraphim clearly states the ‘toll houses’ are symbolic in that there are not literal demon-operated booths in the sky, it is still fair to call him a literalist.

2. The Metropolitan limits himself to the liturgical texts of the Church and commonly accepted patristic references. He does not go into the level of detail one finds in Fr. Seraphim’s book, much of which is based on a single source of dubious origin (The Life of St. Basil the New). The number of toll-houses is not mentioned, nor is the nature of each toll-house, nor the way in which the soul is prevented on its journey towards Christ until the demonic customs officers have been paid off by the prayers of the person’s spiritual guide, etc.
3. The fact that the demons have no power over the soul of the person who has joined themselves to Christ is repeated time and again. The demons attempt to ‘claim’ only that soul which has already willingly attached itself to them.
4. The Metropolitan acknowledges that the idea of toll-houses has its roots in Gnosticism and various pagan myths, such as those of the Egyptians and Chaldeans. He argues, however, that the Fathers took these ideas and reinterpreted and reapplied them to Christian truths, something they did with many other ideas. The example he gives is the immortality of the soul, an idea borrowed by the Fathers from Greek philosophy, but while the pagans held the soul to be immortal by nature, Christianity holds it to be immortal by grace. Imagery and terminology is borrowed, but the ideas they are employed to express are very different.
5. Without denying the reality of the presence of angels (both good and evil) at the moment of death, the Metropolitan also stresses the patristic interpretation of the toll-houses as the presence of the passions. It is the memory of ones unrepentant sins which torment the soul at its departure, while its attachment to worldly things prevents it from ascending to God. This, I believe, is the interpretation favoured by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, who represents the opposite side of the toll-house spectrum. Elsewhere, on the subject of near death experiences, the Met. Hierotheos writes: "I cannot maintain that all the views of Father Seraphim Rose are orthodox, and besides, I have no intention of being his advocate. Nor do I maintain that the theological arguments of 'Archbishop' Lazar are not right, but I want to emphasise that great care is needed" (p.120).

Thus, while one could certainly argue against Met. Hierotheos’ acceptance of the toll-houses, he remains solidly grounded in the liturgical and patristic tradition of the Church and represents something of a middle way on the topic. What he presents here, then, is a perfectly Orthodox theologoumenon – theological opinion – which avoids the literal and overly speculative mythology one finds among writers like Fr. Seraphim,[1] who often run the risk of undermining true Orthodox soteriology. In Fr. Seraphim’s book, we are also informed about the passage of the soul before the third and fortieth day after its separation from the body (corresponding to the days on which we customarily perform memorial services for the departed). Once again, this kind of speculation, which is presented quite dogmatically in Fr. Seraphim’s book, is avoided here. As the author quite rightly notes "In the tradition of the Church death is called a mystery. And in fact it is a mystery, not in the sense of the sacraments, through which we partake of the uncreated grace of God, but from the point of view that at the hour of death and afterwards mysterious things take place which man's reasoning cannot yet grasp" (p.51).

I have spent quite a lot of time on toll-houses here because it is such a contentious topic. In the book itself, however, only a mere 18 pages out of a total 384 are directly related to this idea, and only a single chapter is devoted to the more general theme of the soul's separation from the body. The rest of the book is a brilliantly clear and comprehensive exposition of the patristic understanding of things such as the nature of the soul, Orthodox anthropology, the nature of death and its defeat by Christ, the state of the soul between death and the day of resurrection, the second coming and the judgment, the nature of heaven and hell, the state of those who die in infancy, the renewal of creation, theosis, the nature of time, etc. Some might find the second half of the book a bit heavy-going, and due to the overlapping themes there is also quite a bit of repetition. The good thing about that, however, is that it allows you to read each chapter as a stand-alone essay, which is useful for such a lengthy work which many will probably not have time to read cover to cover over a short period. There is also a very interesting chapter on the Orthodox-Catholic debate over purgatory at the Council of Florence chapter 5, while chapter 8 provides an Orthodox reading of St. Gregory of Nyssa's writings on the restoration of all things, which have led most academics to conclude he taught a form of Origenist apokatastasis. Whether you find the author's arguments to the contrary convincing, he bases himself on the opinions of St. Maximos the Confessor and St. Mark of Ephesus, both of whom argued that St. Gregory's views on the subject were Orthodox when read correctly.

Even for the most ardent anti-toll-houser, then, this book will prove to be a goldmine of information, not only on the question of life after death, but on many of the core themes of Christian doctrine. As we approach Pascha, we await the celebration of Christ's victory over death, the trampling down of death by death, and the defeat of Hades. The subject of death, then, is absolutely central to the Christian faith. As the most comprehensive work I've read on the subject, I would go so far as to call this book required reading, and would certainly recommend it over any of the other similarly titled works I have come across. I am pleased to say that it was yet another pleasant surprise.

[1] I should point out, though, that most of Fr. Seraphim’s popular works are not simple expositions of Orthodox teaching, but attempts at responding to popular ideas and movements of his day. Venturing into unchartered territory a lot of the time, it should not come as a surprise that he occasionally got things wrong. Moreover, the errors were often not his own, but the prevailing tendencies among theologians in the ROCOR to which he belonged, which he in all humility accepted as standard Orthodox teaching.