The penitent St. Augustine confessed it was deep thought on his death that turned him from darkness to light, from sin to salvation. What it did for him then, it can do for the individual believer now. The disciple of Christ must keep death ever before his consciousness, allowing it to be the sign post, the guide post of his life.
What continual meditation on the conclusion of their earthly pilgrimage did for the saints, it can also do for the pious Orthodox believer today. A day will arrive, for who can seriously doubt it, when you yourself will be seriously and gravely ill, beyond recovery, and lying dying in your bed. Do you think these thoughts are somewhat ludicrous? Simply apply them to yourself and they will serve and have the effect of plunging you into deep and serious thought! If introspection upon death has not deterred the Orthodox believer from evil and profited your spiritual life, it is because you have thought about someone else's death, not your own. You can even vividly recall your mother's, your father's, or for that matter, any dear one's death and it may not produce any change in your spiritual life. But think of the day when you will close your own eyes for the last time, when the eyelids will no longer open to permit the glory of God's beauteous creation to stimulate the image-producing nerves on the retina.
When the time for your departure comes, everything about will echo that call of death about which St. Paul eloquently speaks at length. God forbid that you be the only one deaf to its challenge. Let us picture the scene. Everyone seems upset and unnerved. The priest arrives, bringing with him our Lord in the Eucharist. He. has come to dispose you for death. Then follows the anointing of the sick, for if it be God's will you may recover. He hears your confession if it is at all possible, while affixing to it pardon and remission of your sins. Then he imparts to you the precious Body and Blood of our Saviour so that you might be transported into eternity by the grace of this august sacramental Mystery. Then in solemn monotone, he recites the prayers for the commending of your soul into the hands of our merciful God.
And your heart, it seems as if it is so difficult for it to, pump the life-blood through the body, particularly the limbs. For it is these that first experience lifelessness. You will know you are dying when you no longer sense life in them. The tips, of your fingers and the extremities of your feet will signal you that life is slowly waning. Before, in your perfect health,-you never even noticed the heart functioning! You faintly discern the low nervous mumbling of your family on their knees about your death-bed praying - if indeed there will be someone to assist you in your last moments before the doors to eternity open - by assaulting heaven with prayers for mercy on your soul while you lie staring blankly on your death-bed.
Your entire body is convulsed into a cold sweat as you wrestle with life. You are frightened and you do not wish to part with your loved ones. Gradually, however, the fingers stiffen, there is a twitching of your limbs and their extremities, as if you attempt for the last time to clutch onto something of this world. The sacred crucifix is placed into your hands, and you try to lift it for a last glimpse and a final veneration. Your relatives, seizing on your eagerness, place it against your lips where it makes a cold impression.
You no longer feel life in the limbs; your legs, your arms, slowly the shadows of death crowd upon you more thickly until at last they completely envelop you. You acquire a gaze that looks as if you are pursuing sights that quickly vanish. Already the eyes close, the mind has become insensitive, grasps a glimpse of eternity and is quickly startled.
In all this, a prayer, hopefully enters your mind, your heart and your soul,
My Lord, Who for the love of a dreadful sinner did submit to the anguish of dying, do not fail me even when life itself forsakes me. 0 Master and Saviour, I have so offended You throughout my life. What can I offer You now for the countless insults and offenses hurled at You? Accept this last and final anguish and pain. Take it, unworthy though it be and grant it stature in union with the grace of Your final moments on earth while on the Cross for my sins. My own prayer is not worthy enough. I can only repeat Your own words to the Father:
Into your hands I commend my spirit Luke 23:46.
And at long last, your soul will quit your body, leaving it a repulsive heap of-lifeless matter. The bells of the church you so often heard tolled for others will now be rung for you. How strange it seems to hear them announce your passing into eternity through death! Then the requiem services and the funeral Liturgy will be offered for you. Your name will be inserted in its proper place in the Liturgy for departed souls. Even in death the Church has not forgotten its own and has given you prayers distinctively your own.
But this is only the individual believer who has the good fortune of having a priest at his death bed. Who can count on being so blessed, like the Blessed Mother of God, to receive an angelic greeting to foretell the imminence of death? Is not your illness this angel of God in disguise? Our Lord must have a special love for those to whom He permits long, suffering, incurable diseases, for they are like the angel who greeted Mary, telling us to prepare, that our days are limited on the face of the earth. They shout loudly and prayerfully: Prepare for death! The days of your stewardship on earth are slowly coming to an end!
What of the death of the individual who finds his end crossing the street, or the housewife who carelessly climbs the stairs in the so called safety of her home and falls to her unexpected death with no preparation; how dangerous for the eternal destiny of the soul! When you had the opportunity, you did not take seriously the value of frequent confession and contrition. Now it is too late to think of what a fool you were to believe the priest should have ceased his constant reminders and admonitions for you to seek God's forgiveness in the confessional. Eternity slips through your fingers because you were too stubborn to believe Christ's representative and ambassador of His Word.
Finally, there will be the interment and burial, again distinctively your own. Your will be placed into your own grave site while your relatives, loved ones and friends gather about to witness it. They will in good faith attempt to cover up your lack of faith, your terrible deportment, your bad temper and sterile love of God and even create a scene to effect their affection for you. But these are all of no value. The mounds of flowers your popularity has aroused associates to send become a wasted heap. You no longer cherish their meager attempts to show the world how much they love and miss you. The lamentations and the dirges never had as much significance for you when you lived and simply endured them. Finally, you realize how beautiful the prayers for the dead, the depths of meaning they contain. But your family, just like you in your life on earth, does not seem to pay attention. They are preoccupied with their grief, sadness and loss. They too are concerned with complying with 'proper' reaction to the death of a loved one and, may find it most difficult to process about your casket to offer their last farewell while they venerate the Cross of Christ, the symbol of our salvation. They are moved to inexplicable sadness of soul when they hear "Eternal Memory" resound throughout the church, this time sung especially for the repose of your soul. Then you will be wheeled out of the House of God for the last time. Perhaps your soul will call to mind the all too infrequent visits you made there while alive in the flesh. Oh, if you only had another life to live. Oh, if only another opportunity for salvation. How different it would be! Then you would really be the devoted follower of Christ! But alas, it is too late-for you have been pulled from among the living and must make the journey alone, accompanied only by your sins and virtues.
Now what good all the world, all the flowers, the vast throngs of mourners, courteously dropping the petals of flowers into your grave? What good the material wealth with which you occupied your soul and in which you buried deeply your heart's affections? What good all the friends, what good earthly honors and glory? Then you lose everything, even your identity. Everything is forgotten, but your deeds and actions. Only them do you take beyond the grave with you. You hear the trickling of the soil of the grave over your earthly flesh. It weighs down upon you more heavily. But this burden is without significance compared to the weight of guilt you bear for sacrilegious confessions, the dissipated life, the neglected spiritual life, the oftentimes forgotten legitimate concerns for the soul. You can only cry out in desperation, hoping the mercy of the Eternal Father will outreach itself to you and make lighter your weighty burden in eternity.
Too late have you learned there is no security in earthly life. During that time, in your existence on earth, death had no meaning or significance. But now you comprehend at least in part its sanctity, its finality. Now you know why death should be respected and as joyous to the believing Orthodox Christian as earthly birth.