by Fr. Deacon James K. Cairns II
When is the right time to talk about death? It is not a topic that we often contemplate or even like to generally dwell on. In our society, we live in the now. We have become creatures of instant gratification with the advent of computers and the several modes of electronic communication that have occurred in the last decade. Today’s youth are all about the email, texting, and twittering.
We live life in short bursts of 140 characters or less. How can you discuss or even have a meaningful conversation about something as important as death under these conditions? The answer is you can’t, but we need to take time to reflect upon this occasion that we shall all eventually encounter.
Why don’t we discuss death? Since we live in the now, many find it hard to relate to the end of life. We as Orthodox Christians, however, should not be afraid to discuss this topic. We should be secure in our faith in Jesus Christ, and our belief in His Heavenly Kingdom to view death not as an ending, but rather as a beginning.
I met my friend David almost twelve years ago. From the moment we were first introduced, I knew that we would get along great even though he was probably a few years older than my father. David just has that kind of instant affability that binds him with people. Our relationship was one where we would run into each other once a month, or every other month for a few hours and we would get caught up over cake and coffee for an hour or so. About a year after meeting David, he was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer. He weighed his options and he chose to have surgery to remove the tumor even though there was a great possibility that he would be neurologically affected as a result of the invasive procedure. Initially after surgery, he seemed a little disoriented and couldn’t remember people’s names and events from his life, nor could he remember how to walk.
Six months of rehabilitation brought back his memories and he was soon walking with the assistance of a cane and more often than not, carrying the cane. Six months later, the doctors proclaimed him cured of the cancer. This was almost a decade in the past. About nine months ago, David was devastated to learn that his cancer had returned and it had metastasized into his joints. David has always been the most cheerful of people even during his first battle with cancer. He has always been upbeat, and he approached his illness with a very positive attitude towards recovery. Yet this second attack of cancer seems to have beaten him. He is still very cheery when talking to him, but a somber attitude has crept in, that is not part of the David I have come to know all these years.
I had lost touch with David the first couple of months this year, not actually speaking to him directly, but rather through infrequent emails, so imagine my surprise when less than a month after being ordained to the Diaconate, David called me with an unusual request. He informed me that in February he had a stroke, and although I could not detect any signs of it in his voice, he was having a very difficult time recovering from the stroke and dealing with the return of the cancer(s).
The unusual request came when David stated that he and his wife, were by their own admission, nominal Christians. They believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but they did not follow or belong to any organized Christian Church. David then asked if I would come talk to him about God, not only as a friend, but as a spiritual advisor. In my opinion, I think I was very calm and professional when I told him that it would be my pleasure to sit down and speak with him about any concerns he might have. In my heart though, I was a panicked mess.
When I hung up with David, I immediately called my spiritual father and advisor to seek guidance. He assured me that in his opinion I was capable of handling this with God’s help, but he also gave me an out when he informed me that he would be willing to talk with David upon his return from vacation if I did not feel confident enough. It seems like Divine Intervention now, but I had just finished reading Matthew Binkewicz’s book, A Peaceful Journey, which deals with a variety of hospice and end of life issues from an Orthodox viewpoint, so I actually felt as if I had the tools to tackle this issue. What I lacked was confidence.
That night I prayed and asked God not only for wisdom, but that He give me the strength to show David the Truth about His Eternal Kingdom . I know that God answered my prayers because I awoke the following morning feeling confident that not only could I handle this situation with David as a friend, but also confident that I could act as a guide for him to understand God’s Love for him in his time of need.
I called David back and made arrangements to come over and meet with him, but the day we were supposed to meet, David called me and cancelled our meeting as he was not feeling well. We made plans for the following week, but he again cancelled. This back and forth of making calls and being cancelled has lasted for over six months, and has led me to the conclusion that although David is trying to come to grips with his illness and eventual death, he is afraid of it, and more importantly he is afraid of talking about the act of death. This conclusion led me to examine my own thoughts about dying and my relationship with God. Thankfully, I have two very important aides in my life, my belief in Jesus Christ and Salvation, and the Words He left us in the form of His Holy Gospel.
This mortal life that we live in the now, is transitory. The life we shall live with Christ after the Resurrection, is Eternal. One of the concepts that Binkewicz relays to a hospice patient regarding death and the human condition is that death as we know it, is a result of Adam and Eve’s original transgression. When God created man and woman, death was not in His design, but it was due to Adam and Eve’s sin that they became cognizant of death, and consequently we suffer death of our mortal form. It was also at the same time that they became aware of death that they recognized pain and suffering (Binkewicz, 89).
It is the Orthodox view that we as the descendents of Adam and Eve, are forced to suffer these consequences of Adam’s sin. We do not share in the “original” sin as outlined by St. Augustine of Hippo, rather as St. Cyril of Alexandria who wrote, mankind suffers pain and death not because we inherited Adam’s sin, but because we “shared his nature which had fallen under the law of sin.” In John 9, when the disciples ask Jesus,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Christ responds that,
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned”.
As Binkewicz points out, we are all like that blind man, in that any pain and suffering we encounter is not necessarily a result of our individual sins, or that sins can be inherited, but rather is a result of our sharing Adam’s nature. We feel pain and suffer and yes we eventually die because we share Adam’s nature, yet God gives us hope, joy and gladness to offset the consequences of that first sin. It is our belief that Christ is the new Adam, and that when He comes again, we will share in the nature of Christ as much as we now share in Adam’s.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This is the basic premise upon which Orthodoxy views death. We shall not perish.
“It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27).
Then what is death? Death is the separation of the soul from our mortal body. Archbishop John Maximovitch in his address regarding life after death states that upon the death of our physical body, “the soul continues to live. Not for an instant does it cease to exist.” (Maximovitch, Life After Death) Each of us will reach a point where our physical being shall cease to work and we shall die a physical death, but we who believe in Christ, believe that we never really die as our immortal soul continues and shall be reunited with our physical body upon that day of judgment. It is for this reason that we proscribe burial rather than cremation after death. We believe as Orthodox Christians that after our mortal body dies, we go to sleep, just as if we were taking a nap until the day of resurrection. How then shall we be reunited as body and soul when judged?
“With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
So why does death frighten us so? As stated earlier, we are physical creatures. We live in the now. We allow our lives to be run by the series of sensations that we feel physically and emotionally. These sensations are the basis upon which we live our lives. Without a physical body, how are we to experience these sensations? Most people cannot contemplate the loss of these feelings without fear as they have no point of reference. It is ironic that those who suffer the most through cancer or other debilitating diseases are often the ones who can contemplate the lack of sensation best. They desire the cessation of sensation, so to them death and its lack of feelings is something to be embraced.
Yet, even those that are in great pain and desire the ending of their suffering, still may fear death as it is an unknown sensation. I think this is where my friend David, is at right now. He knows intellectually that he is dying; he feels the pain being inflicted upon his body by his cancers, yet he is still afraid to embrace the inevitable experience, that is death.
So when is the right time to discuss death? Right now is the time. Take time now to pray to God for guidance and understanding. Listen to Him. Hear His words and know that through Him, there is no death. Do not fear the ending of your mortal frame, rather embrace it when it comes.
Know that God is Love and in His Love, is where you shall experience Eternity.