by Fr. George Metallinos
Part Four of his four-part series on Paradise and Hell in the Orthodox Tradition.
The mystery of Paradise-hell is also experienced in the life of the Church in the world. During the sacraments, there is a participation of the faithful in Grace, so that Grace may be activated in our lives, by our course towards Christ. Especially during the Divine Eucharist, the uncreated-Holy Communion-becomes inside us either Paradise or hell, depending on our condition. But mostly, our participation in Holy Communion is a participation in Paradise or hell, throughout history. That is why we beseech God, prior to receiving Holy Communion, to render the Precious Gifts inside us not as judgment or condemnation, or as eternal damnation.
Participation in Holy Communion is thus linked to the overall spiritual course of the faithful. When we approach Holy Communion uncleansed and unrepentant, we are condemned (burnt). Holy Communion inside us becomes the “inferno” and “spiritual death.” Not because it is transformed into those things of course, but because our own uncleanliness cannot accept Holy Communion as “Paradise.” Given that Holy Communion is called
“medication for immortality” (St. Ignatius the God-bearer, 2nd century),
the same thing exactly occurs as with any medication. If our organism does not have the prerequisites to absorb the medication, then the medication will produce side-effects and will kill instead of heal. It is not the medication that is responsible, but the condition of our organism. It must be stressed, that if we do not accept Christianity as a therapeutic process, and its sacraments as spiritual medication, then we are led to a “religionizing” of Christianity; in other words, we “idolatrize” it.
And unfortunately, this is a frequent occurrence, when we perceive Christianity as a “religion.”
St. Basil the Great tells us:
“Everything we do is in preparation of another life.”
Our life must be a continuous preparation for our participation in “Paradise” -our community with the Uncreated. And everything begins from this lifetime. That is why the Apostle Paul says:
“Behold, now is the opportune time. Behold, now is the day of redemption.” (2 Cor 6:2).
Every moment of our lives is of redemptive importance. Either we gain eternity, the eternal community with God, or we lose it. Consequently, we can now understand why oriental religions and cults that preach reincarnations are injuring mankind; they are virtually transferring the problem to other, (nonexistent of course) lifetimes. The truth is, however, that only one life corresponds to each of us, whether we are saved or condemned. This is why St. Basil the Great continues:
“Those things therefore that lead us towards that life, we need to say should be cherished and pursued with all our might; and those that do not lead us there, we should disregard, as something of no value.”
This is the criterion of Christian living.
A Christian continuously chooses whatever favors his salvation. We gain Paradise or lose it and end up in hell, in this lifetime. As St. John the Evangelist says:
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (Jn 3:18)
Consequently, the work of the church is not to “send” people to Paradise or to hell, but to prepare them for the final judgment. The work of the Clergy is therapeutic and not moralistic or character-shaping, in the temporal sense of the word. The essence of life in Christ is preserved in monasteries – naturally wherever they are Orthodox and of course patristic. The purpose of the Church’s offered therapy is not to create “useful” citizens and essentially “usable” ones, but citizens of the celestial (uncreated) kingdom. Such citizens are the Confessors and the Martyrs, the true faithful, the saints.
However, this is also the way that our mission is supervised: What are we inviting people to? To the Church as a Hospital and a Therapy Center, or just an ideology that is labelled “Christian?”
More often than not, we strive to secure a place in “Paradise,” instead of striving to be healed. That is why we focus on rituals and not on therapy. This of course does not signify a rejection of worship. But, without ascesis (spiritual exercise, ascetic lifestyle, act of therapy), worship cannot hallow us. The Grace that pours forth from it remains inert inside us. Orthodoxy doesn’t make any promises to send mankind to any sort of Paradise or hell; but it does have the power-as evidenced by the incorruptible and miracle-working relics of our saints (incorruptibility=theosis)-to prepare man, so that he may forever look upon the Uncreated Grace and the Kingdom of Christ as Paradise, and not as Hell.