But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
I Corinthians 12:31
Today begins a new unit on the Prayer Team, something that I’ve been thinking about writing for many years, and something which many Prayer Team members have encouraged me to write on. The subject matter may be a little sensitive for some readers, and for that I am sorry. I write to inform and inspire and hopefully this unit will do both, though some days may be more information and less inspiration. During this unit, the Prayer Team will celebrate its nine-year anniversary. By God’s grace, I have been able to write on many topics and the Prayer Team thrives because of God’s grace, your prayers and the variety of subjects covered. This unit will last from today through March 14 and a new unit will begin on the first day of Lent, March 18. As is customary, Saturdays and Sundays will cover the Sunday Epistle and Gospel Readings and there will be a few feast days which will have messages relevant to their readings. This unit will be approximately 42 reflections long. I hope you will get something positive out of it.
A well-known saying in America is “There is nothing guaranteed in life except for death and taxes.” No matter who we are, no matter what we do, we are all guaranteed that one day we will die. As Christians, we believe that death is an exit from this life and an entrance into eternal life, heaven. But do we really believe that?
Obviously, no one is overjoyed to see a loved one die. The loss of a loved one should feel bittersweet. There is the bitter sadness of someone we love leaving us. This should be tempered by a sweet thought that our loved one will be with the Lord. In my over twenty-five years as a priest, I have often experienced the bitter side of death. I’ve seen people who profess to be devout Christians fighting to keep a loved one going on life support even when they’ve been declared brain dead. I’ve watched families become divided over the prospect of saying goodbye and keeping the fight for life going. I’m still told “Father, when you go visit yiayia, make sure you don’t tell her you came just for her, because then she might think she’s going to die.” To which I always chuckle to myself “Should I tell Yiayia that I just happened to be on this side of town, stumbling around the hospital and randomly found her?” I even watched my own father in the latter stages of cancer be afraid of death, and he was a devout Christian.
In my twenty-five years as a priest, I’ve watched people go to death “kicking and screaming”, both the person dying and their family. And I’ve also had the privilege of helping and watching people have a peaceful, memorable, and even joyful end to their lives. I’ve seen families who have been able to find sweetness in the midst of bitter sorrow. I’ve actually seen what I think are miracles happen, even though these miracles involved someone dying. Miracles like someone who was dying reconciling with someone he hadn’t spoken with in years, like a family pouring encouragement on their loved one, so that he was glowing as he passed, and they were at peace. I’ve been in the room when people have passed from this life and felt the palpable presence of angels in the room.
Jesus promises eternal life to those who believe in Him. Heaven is a place where there is no pain, sorrow or suffering. And while we shouldn’t hate life or hope for it to end quickly, we should, on a Christian level, embrace death because death is the passage to eternal life.
Unfortunately, there are people who die young, from illness or horrific tragedy. I’ve experienced those as well. This unit is only going to give a cursory reflection on those circumstances. What this unit will be primarily concerned with is when someone is older and we have a sense that death is coming. Both my parents passed away at age 78. Many people would say that is not old, and by today’s standards it isn’t. My parents weren’t young either. They had lived a full life, saw grandchildren, enjoyed retirement, had both gotten sick with cancer, and fought valiantly, and just ran out of “cards to play.” In both instances, we had a sense it was coming and took the time to offer a meaningful good-bye to each other.
In every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, we pray for a good death. And yet when death comes, we seem to make it anything but good. I’m hoping to share some experiences, both good and bad, that I’ve had with people who are dying and their families. And talk specifically on how we can accept death, help our loved ones accept it, and I dare say even find some hope, and even joy, in death. If someone offered us free tickets to a tropical paradise, just about all of us would accept without hesitation and with great joy. Through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Lord offers us a chance to go to the Paradise of heaven forever, and yet we shutter at the thought.
A recent experience with a family, where fear gave way to peace and where we could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room with us, motivates me to write on a subject we are all going to experience several times in our lives with people we love, and something we will ultimately experience ourselves. Someone once told me that the most important day of our lives is the day we die, because how we die sets our path for eternity. Just look at the thief on the Cross who repented. His whole life had been deemed worthless as he was condemned to death. And yet, he was assured by Christ in his dying breath that he would see Jesus in heaven, that very day. This unit will help us understand death, and to prepare ourselves and our loved ones so that when the day comes, we are filled with hope, that there is sweetness and not just bitter sorrow at the prospect of death.
I do not write this unit as a theologian or in an academic tone. I write it as a priest, who has had the privilege to offer pastoral care to hundreds of people who have passed away and would like to share some ideas on how this can be a more meaningful, and even beautiful, experience for all those who are affected by it. Each of us will be affected by death in our families and close friends on numerous occasions throughout our lives, as we prepare for the moment we will experience it personally at the end of each of our lives.
The customary prayer for each reflection of this unit will take one of two forms. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter, and longest and Psalm in the Bible—it is 176 verses. The beginning of the Orthodox Funeral service contains 18 verses from this Psalm. The Lamentations on Good Friday, when sung completely (most churches do an abridged version) contain 176 hymns, each preceded by one verse of Psalm 119. Many reflections will end with an 8-verse excerpt from Psalm 119, so that in this unit the whole Psalm will be covered. Other reflections will include Prayers or Psalm verses directly connected to the content of the reflection.
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart, who also do not wrong but walk in His ways! Thou hast commanded Thy precepts to be kept diligently. O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping Thy statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all Thy commandments. I will praise Thee with an upright heart, when I learn Thy righteous ordinances. I will observe Thy statutes; O forsake me not utterly! Psalm 119:1-8
Is there such a thing as a good death? I believe there is. And this is what I hope to share with you through this unit, “Painless, Blameless, Peaceful: Reflections on Death, Dying, Salvation and Eternal Life.”