Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, a former Protestant pastor and missionary, has been a priest in the Greek Archdiocese since 2000. He has taught in a number of universities in different parts of the world, including Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. His academic degrees and publications are in the fields of Philosophy, Comparative Cultures, Christian Dogmatic Theology and Patristics, New Testament, Christian Medieval Mysticism and Christian Mission.
Every year at Halloween, Americans entertain themselves with television shows, movies and weird stories about the walking dead. It is a strange fascination, probably because we do not like death and do not really know very much about it. We no longer bathe the bodies of loved ones who die, or even get very close to them (a recent news item was about a funeral home that has a drive-by “viewing window” for the convenience of the squeamish and those-in-a-hurry).
So I would like to take a moment to think about the real walking dead. I am one of them. In fact, in my earliest memory I was already dead.
When I was a little over two years old, I got very sick. Years later my father, who was a doctor, told me that the pediatrician’s nurse misplaced a decimal point and gave me ten times the dosage of medicine I was supposed to receive. I had an anaphylactic reaction and went into shock. I didn’t know that; what I knew was that I woke up in a hospital, floating somewhere above the ceiling fan.
Looking down on myself in bed, I saw nurses and doctors and my mother coming and going. It was a Catholic hospital, so nuns came running into the room and prayed. On the wall was a picture of Jesus at Gethsemane. I can still remember the color of the walls—institutional green, with green and black tiles on the floor. I saw technicians try desperately to draw blood from my neck, having failed to find a vein in my arms and feet. Then I was in an oxygen tent, and after that I wasn’t floating anymore.
Children do not really know how to analyze things like that, so for a very long time I thought the experience was normal. I was a normal child, except that I was probably more emotional than most, spent a lot of time alone in conversations with God, and had a peculiar rapport with nature and with animals—even wild ones—who would walk up to me without fear. I also had a dim memory of very bright light, so that sometimes I daydreamed about it and wanted to see it again.
Usually, people who die and come back to life are changed by the experience, and try to live better. I do not know if I did that. I do know that when I forgot about the experience, and acted like someone who had never died, I did not live very well. But when I remembered that I had already died, things were much better.
Many years later, while tending to some sheep, it suddenly occurred to me that dying and coming back was not ordinary and that I had some kind of responsibility because of it. That is when my wife and I became Orthodox Christians, and that is why I became a priest. Orthodoxy teaches us to live as though we had already died.
Famously, St. Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Actually, the Apostle really did die and come back to life in this world. He mentions the experience in his second letter to the Corinthians, Ch. 2, where he tells about being caught up into the heavens, “whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know.” But then he encourages everyone who wants to live truly, to live as though they were walking dead.
When we were baptized into Christ, we died to this world. St. Paul mentions this many times in his apostolic letters, for example when he says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4, RSV).
Incidentally, the “glory of the Father” is that bright light that I remembered for so many years, and that the great saints or Hesychasts experience much more when they are deeply in prayer. They call the experience theoria: not a “theory,” but the actual experience of uncreated light, the divine glory.
All this is to say that the experience of being walking dead is not about darkness, but inexpressible light. It is not about ghosts and pumpkins and horrible masks, but about the beauty of creation and the divine image in every human being. It is not scary, but extraordinarily beautiful. It allows us to live for the first time.
Of course, all this is true only if we choose to walk in the light. People who choose to live in darkness and who are fascinated with evil, with horrible things and ugliness, apparently experience exactly that when they die. Any priest who has held the hands of those who were dying can tell you that. Physical death can be terrifying for those who want to grasp for themselves all the things of the world. But if we have died already, then all the riches of the world are nothing compared to the joy and glory that are to come.
So this is my advice: Die in Christ, so that you can truly live. Let go of this world so that you can really participate in it without fear and without suffering loss. And by the way, if you are one of those walking dead, the real demons and evil spirits won’t like you at all. They’ll run when they see you coming. It’s a neat way to spend Halloween.
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