Bones, Bodies and Belief

monk with skulls 2And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. (2Kings 13:20-21 or 4 Kingdoms 13:20-21).

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Every year at the end of October, America engages with a holiday that is quite strange. It has vague connections with earlier British customs and a host of modern myths about the origins of holidays. It is the cultural festival of Halloween (from the older English, “All Hallows’ Eve” or today’s All Saints’ Day). The celebration has little or nothing to do with modern Christianity (indeed a number of conservative Christian groups condemn it). It has become a festival of candy (children go house to house and are given candy at each home). But it also is a holiday that celebrates much of the modern fascination with the macabre. Children dress up in costume. Many are to be found in the guise of innocent Disney characters and the like. However, there is a long-running practice in which children are also disguised as demons, witches, zombies, etc. Television in America concentrates on the genre of “horrow movies” for weeks ahead of the candy festival and for some time following (of course there are entire cable channels in America dedicated to horrow films).

All of this strikes me as odd. It cannot be said that “horror” has modern roots in religion. America, though fascinated with vampires, zombies and the like, has, on the other hand, very little acquaintance with death (not the idea of death, but actual dead people). The American funeral industry has consistently moved away from dead bodies, embalming, viewing – all of the older trappings of death. Instead, cremation has become far more common (if not dominant in some parts of our culture). No one need see those they love in the covering of death. The funeral industry has done much to shield people from the unpleasantness of death. Here in my home in Tennessee – a local mortuary has begun to run television commercials for cremation – encouraging its practice in an area where conservative Protestants are less comfortable with such customs. When I have spoken on this topic before groups of people, I have often asked the question, “How many of you have seen a baby be born?” and “How many of you have actually witnessed a person’s death?” I am still surprised when the answer comes out to be but a small minority. There are two things people have to do: be born and die. However, it appears that a majority of modern populations have seen neither (women obviously have an advantage over men in witnessing the birth of a child).

Strangely, the same modern population has turned macabre treatments of death into an entertainment industry. The advent of highly sophisticated “special-effects” in movies have only made this industry more extreme. Older films of the horror-variety are primarily suggestive in their depictions. Current films are pornographic by comparison.

This may seem a strange introduction to a post about the veneration of saints’ relics – but it seems to me to be quite germane. For the context of modern Christianity is a world in which the stuff of death has been clinically hidden from sight – while the imagination of death has been rendered into entertainment. To suggest that there is a place for bones and bodies within the religious context simply begs the horrific revulsion of our culture. To tell the non-Orthodox that Orthodox funerals include an action called “the Last Kiss,” in which the faithful offer a reverential kiss to the body of the departed, is to suggest, for many, the unimaginable. With that, we turn to the subject of relics.

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The cornerstone teaching of Apostolic Christianity, is that God became man and dwelt among us. He was fully man, flesh and bone, with a human soul. He suffered death and crucifixion. His death was real in every human sense of the word. He descended into Hades, and freed us from our bondage to sin and death. In His resurrection we are raised from the dead. He carried us with Him into the bosom of the Father.

But in that He accomplished all of this as man, as well as God, there is no “bodiless” Jesus. Christ, dead on the Cross, is no different than the two thieves dead on their crosses, or dead men and women everywhere. The women disciples who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, did not go looking for a resurrection. They went looking for a dead body, to refresh the hurriedly wrapped and buried body of that Friday before sunset. It is in that mundane action, which would have been done for any loved one who had been so hurriedly buried, that they encountered the risen Lord. They were doing something which modern culture would pay someone else to do, but would generally be horrified were it to be asked of them.

With this image in mind, I can turn our attention to the place of relics in the Orthodox Church. From earliest times, the bodies of the saints have been recognized as a source of miracles and the power of God. You need only read the short passage from the book of Kings quoted above to know what even the Old Testament recognized as true. Contact with the bones of Elisha raised a man from the dead.

From the earliest days, disciples reverently gathered the remains of martyrs (among other objects), and preserved them carefully. They quickly (and as surely as the bones of Elisha) became objects of honor and devotion. This is perfectly natural and human, and illustrates proper piety and devotion in the light of Holy Scripture. Relics are never worshipped (such a practice is contrary to the canons of the Church). However, they are given the honor that is due them.

During extreme times of the Reformation or of the Puritan revolutions, bodies of the saints in many Western Churches, were removed from Churches and burned (not given a Christian burial, but burned like heretics). This was iconoclasm at its worst.

To this day, Orthodox Christians continue to give honor and reverence to the bodies and bones of true saints of God (sometimes including their garments or other effects). This is true not only for saints of ancient times, but for saints of modern times.

There are those who have inherited the skepticism of our culture and question relics. They assume that anything that can be questioned may (even should) be questioned. They repeat myths (like there being enough relics of the “true cross” to build a ship). This is actually a lie. There are not even enough relics of the true cross to reconstitute a single cross. But ignorance becomes more believable with repetition.

That there is a reason to venerate the relics of the holy saints is made clear in Scripture (see 2 Kings 13:21). That the Church continues to do so is simply a testament to the faithfulness of those who received the fullness of Christian Tradition. That the relics of contemporary saints continue to be places where miracles occur is simply a testimony of the faithfulness of God who “never leaves us nor forsakes us.”

That our culture is revulsed by such actions is a testimony to the deranged values that surround us. We pay money to watch make-believe films of those who eat the dead, while we would prefer not even to touch the body of our own loved ones. The Tradition of the Church in the matter of relics calls us both to be faithful to the example of our fathers in the faith, and to renounce the macabre distortions of our own culture. We despise what we should love and judge others who love what we despise. Merciful God, save us!

59 comments:

  1. I loved this the first time round and even more so today. Preoccupation with horror as a form of inane entertainment, evinces a marriage of the earthly to the hellish – rather than to the heavenly (to which traditional familiarity with real death as a sleep ‘unto resurrection’ attests). I recall CS Lewis’ words not as prophetic about the eschata -which is how he meant it- but as prophetic for our time…

    I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.

  2. Great article, Father. I know that for a period in the Western Church All Hallow’s Eve formed a triduum with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Do we in the OC have anything similar/equivalent liturgically? Also, what is the general practice of the Orthodox with regard to Halloween?

  3. This comment is not directly related to the post, but I see no place for general messages, so apologies in advance for breaking the thread of discussion.

    Father, you are a treasure. Discovering your blog has been a real blessing. I am reading through all your postings, have finished your book, and am going through your podcasts. I feel a real hunger that is being filled here.

    If you have the chance to do so, I would really appreciate a post on Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholics. I was raised Ukrainian Catholic and we felt much closer to Orthodoxy than to Roman Catholics. Now that I am in a foreign country, I really feel it, not being at home in an RC church, but unable to declare that I am Orthodox, even if I feel so.

  4. Thank you father for this excellent article. By the way: I saw on the news that many Americans now spend hundreds to thousand of dollars dressing up their dogs for halloween. Hummm!!

  5. David A.,
    In general, Orthodox in the West participate in the cultural festivities of Halloween as they choose, but it has nothing to do with Orthodoxy. It is not our All Saints’ Day (that is the Sunday after Pentecost). But we have many “Soul Saturdays” – mostly during Great Lent – on which we pray for the departed.

    The pattern of Soul Saturdays, woven intimately into Great Lent, then culminating in Pascha and finally at Pentecost, deeply links the prayers for the departed with the Resurrection of Christ – rather than a somewhat detached afterthought.

    The same must be said when we think of the memorial services offered for the departed on the third, ninth and 40th day after death as well as the services offered on the anniversary. The West really has no parallel to this – so that the “culture” or “ethos” of the Church is quite different.

    I have observed that this ethos surrounding death and prayers is among the more difficult things for converts to adopt. They have no theological problems, but they lack a “feel” for it…while that feel always seems very deep in the lives of those who grew up in an Orthodox culture.

  6. I think that Halloween and other festivals of the dead help people to deal with Death. In a superstitious culture these celebrations both protect from the dead arising and harming us ,and also help the dead to sleep in peace. Gruesome folk tales and stories of zombies and vampires et al, help to inoculate us against the terror of death perhaps, as do the graphic images in movies these days. The macabre has a function in our psyches even today and here, where real horror is largely absent.
    As you say, few people deal directly with birth or death now, but both were a common sight for our ancestors, and are currently everyday experiences in other cultures .
    But it is difficult to explain to non Orthodox why we honour saints’ relics. They think we are either crazy or perverted! I shocked a young Protestant in Athens by venerating a saint’s relic in a church we visited. It is as if we have retained a strong connection with the earthy essence of life and death in our church and others have moved away from that connection into symbolism.
    Here in France I notice that many people have been taking flowers to cemeteries this week . Another tradition to help deal with Death and its power ?

  7. Father,

    I have also become aware the West having a problem with this subject matter. Even our westernised minds (of ‘cradle orthodox’ people) lately, have a far greater need for rational explanations and justifications concerning traditional attitudes towards (for example) the three, nine, and forty day memorials. The relevant ‘catechism’ (the answers) which can provide such ‘explanations’ is readily available to those who are genuinely interested nowadays; the problem however, is that people who disparage such traditions are rather disinterested in investigating their foundations – it seems iconoclasm is as ingrained as what you would expect of militant atheists…
    The other sister problem we also see a great deal (and we keep needing to provide explanations for) is that which the (‘activistic’) West has with the (‘hesychastic’) stillness of the East. (as was mentioned previously concerning ‘wasting time in the presence of God’).

  8. Mark, one of the priests in my parish is a former Eastern Rite Roman Catholic, another (I understand) was from a Ukrainian Orthodox Church not in communion with the canonical Orthodox Churches. We welcome many from all different Christian traditions coming home to the Orthodox Church. My own parish is quite a mix of “cradle” Orthodox and those, like me, who are converts from different backgrounds. You might try to visit an Orthodox parish in your region. If you are not familiar with St. Alexis Toth, his story seems relevant to your situation:
    http://oca.org/saints/lives/2014/05/07/101300-repose-of-st-alexis-toth-the-confessor-and-defender-of-orthodoxy

  9. Fr. Stephen
    I’m sure that in the 30 years since leaving Mexico much has changed in the culture. However, when we were there death was much more ” real” than here. An old neighbor of ours died in the morning and that evening a vigil was held around his unembalmed body…open casket. At this time dia de muertos (the day of the dead) is celebrated there. It’s even a bank holiday. Altars in many homes are set up to honor deceased loved ones and prayers offered. It was quite a day at cemeteries… almost a festive atmosphere with people bringing food and beverages for departed loved ones, young ones scurrying around cleaning the tombs…even vendors there hawking sodas and candy. I vividly recall a poignant event. A baby of a very poor family had died. All they could afford was a Styrofoam coffin ( looked like a cheap soda cooler). At the cemetery the grave digger refused to bury the baby because they couldn’t tip him sufficiently. So there they were haggling over the baby’ s coffin. We finally passed a hat and collected enough to bury the little child. I know much of what goes on in the Day of the Dead stems from ancient Aztec practices. But at least when we lived there death was not glossed over as it is here.

  10. I have a question: why is it that the more materialistic our culture becones , the less we value our own bodies and the bodies of others?

  11. Michael,
    Because, significantly, I think we are not a materialistic culture. We are not. Material things mean nothing to us. The “sentiment is the thing.” Orthodoxy is the only true materialism. The rest are Idealists in the worst sense of the word.

  12. So we have become disincarnate “ghosts” and shape shifters? Explains a lot about halloween.

    Explains a lot about many other things too.

  13. Father,
    I assume Orthodox Christianity is truly, a “sacred materialism”. But do you mean that the rest are phenomenalistic idealists? And is it because of being grounded in rationalisations of a core ego-centricity (to the point of self worship)? Or do I misunderstand?

  14. Jesus clearly said let the dead bury the dead & u follow Me.
    We r called to b fishers of men.
    We r called to b compassionate & hv mercy.

    I’m Orthodox by birth.
    My people here in Melbourne Australia r perishing due to lack of KNOWLEDGE, yet memorials with their banquets r the in thing.

    Yes Elisah’s bones, like the handerchiuef & shadow of the Apostle, witnessed to their obedience to All Mighty God.

    May we hv the faith of Elisha who demanded a double portion of blessing from Elijah before Elijah departed in a firy chariot to Heaven.

    Lord hv mercy on me a sinner. AMEN.

  15. Father thank you for this post. I am so saddened with all the preparation and excitement that surrounds Halloween. Particularly, living in New England, I hear over and over again, how people regard Halloween as their favorite holiday.

    I have a question with regards to our memorial services. I understand the significance of having memorial services on the 3rd and 40th day following the falling asleep of the departed, however, what is the reason for 9th day service?

  16. Panayiota,
    What I have heard before is that, the ninth day memorial service is because the ninth day is considered the day when the body begins to dissolve and most importantly, we also entreat God to forgive sins and include the departed with the nine orders of the angels… We also entreat those nine angelic orders to pray for the departed. I have also come across something about the soul’s tour of paradise up to the ninth day and its subsequent tour of hades up to the 40th…

  17. Dino,
    Thank you so much for you explanation. It was most helpful.
    I was a little confused when you mentioned the subsequent tour of Hades on the 40th day. I thought Hades was destroyed.
    I have been reading Fathers blog on “Invisible Shame” over and over again. I thought to myself, that I should read some more on Hades.

  18. Our Orthodox family of six (four sons ages 5, 6, 8 and 9) participates in the festivities of Halloween. And while these festivities have nothing to do with Orthodoxy, they can be an opportunity for teaching lessons to the little ones.

    After trick-or-treating when we gather for evening prayers, I have offered a prayer that goes something like: “Thank you Christ our God for having conquered Death by Death. Thank You that You are greater than all evil. Even the demons obey You. Lord, help us to always flee from evil or to struggle against it – when we see it around us or in our own souls. Thank You for the blessings that come from struggling against evil. Thank You, God for the candy we received from our generous neighbors, and help us to remember that You, Holy Spirit, are the Treasury of good things and the Giver of Life. Amen.”

  19. “Because, significantly, I think we are not a materialistic culture. We are not. Material things mean nothing to us. The “sentiment is the thing.” Orthodoxy is the only true materialism. The rest are Idealists in the worst sense of the word.”

    What an excellent summary.

  20. Dino,
    I’m not sure I could follow the terminology. What I mean is something quite modern and not very sophisticated. It is that what we think and feel about things is what is real to us. The material world could be a projection on a tv screen and it would make no difference so long as it did not interfere with how we thought and felt.

    I would not really want to go so far as to say we are “idealists.” Rather, we are sentimentalists.

  21. Fr. Stephen,
    Why do we dismember our saints’ bodies and send their relics to different places if we honor the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit? Would not they be better honored whole?

  22. having returned from the memorial service of our only nephew who died at the age of 26 after 3 and a half years battle with lung cancer, which was genetic in origin, he fought the good fight of life and died heroically in a hospice, a hospice with a zen focus. he was raised catholic but the memorial service was at his parents’ current church which is Presbyterian and a great comfort to the family. (the catholocism was mostly from schooling) the beginning for the memorial service: The Lord is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. My (Orthodox Chrisitan) 14 year old son showed me this in the service sheet and I said, “they know the truth, it will set them free”

    Fr. Stephen, I cannot thank you enough for writing about our modern world and our role as Christians within it. This article here is another support from you to our faith, thank you. We understand that we can pray for our nephew departed from this life, and pray for his parents, still coping with the loss of their only child, we gain from you the support in a belief of a good God who loves Mankind. Thank you

  23. Father,
    Correct me if I err, but I cannot help thinking that it is really the objective ‘absoluteness’, the ‘all or nothingness’ of Christ, the only Truth, that is inexcusable to modern relativistic subjectivism. The utter absoluteness and ‘objectiveness’- of the Other (that is the Lord ‘I am that I am’) is problematic to ‘subjective idealism’ – where the center is always my interpretation, my subjective sentiments.
    Of course this is not entirely unrelated to the ‘hypostatic’ principle… the problem here however, is that this is more of a perverted parody of that. Once this notion is coupled with a platonic dejection of the sanctity of matter, and of incarnation, we have contemporary zeitgeist’s recipe.

  24. I say this under the influence of reading some of Lewis’ ‘surprised by joy’. What a brilliant mind.

  25. Dino,
    The slow evolution of modern thought is always worth considering. There is, of course, a huge course of anti-sacramental Protestantism – first the “all things are sacred/holy” which quickly degenerates to “nothing is sacred/holy.” But it is the unrelenting love and abandonment to the passions that, I think, ultimately drives sentimentality. There is no true asceticism in modernity (other than dieting and exercise). I think that there have been earlier strong elements of a proper materialism – I have seen it among farming people. The strange manifestations of modern animal rights movements are something of a reaction to the false ideas of modernity – and quite ironic that some folks attack Christianity as the source of devaluing nature.

  26. I’m happy you touched the subject of animal rights, Father. As a veterinary surgeon, I swim this sea quite regularly and it’s a bitter one to say the least. I even sent you an e-mail once about it, but it probably got lost.
    I have seen very few people, aside from my relatively uneducated parents who bred and kept animals their entire life, who would have a proper, sane attitude towards them. Nowadays most swing between the two extremes of either treating them like organic machines which leads to the unimaginable abuse in the intensive farming, puppy-mills and the like or raising them to the status of a human being, which burdens the poor creatures with expectations that they are simply not able to meet and deforms their growth and their very being.

    Do you know any writings by our Saints or elders on this subject I could reach to for guidance? I confess it is increasingly difficult to fight off despair, avoid getting violent or run away screaming.
    Thank you.

  27. newenglandsun,
    I have a BA in Classical Languages, an MDiv from an Anglican Seminary. I have an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Duke University. I was in the doctoral program there, and chose in my last year for a variety of reasons to turn my Doctoral work into a terminal M.A. My thesis was on “The Icon as Theology.” Systematic Theology is not, generally, a process or discipline used in Orthodoxy, but has been very helpful to me. Hope that answers your questions.

  28. LI,
    There is a book, Animals and Man: A State of Blessedness, that is worth reading. In a subsequent text the author seemed to get somewhat “strange.” It’s obvious that we can take these things too far. The first text has some patristic stuff, and a wonderful collection of animals and saints stories. I haven’t read it in years (maybe 20 or more), but I recall enjoying it.

  29. It has been my experience that many of those who would impute human dignity and “rights” to animals are those same people who are quite confused about a proper anthropology (these include those who are “Christians”). On the one hand, they are quite “sentimental” about baby animals, and on the other hand, they are very “unsentimental” about baby humans. Animals are to be treated with human dignity, but the unborn (and now the sick, aged, etc.) are to be treated as something less than human. It is no doubt a demonically inspired contradiction.

    LI,

    The last time I was at my vet this past summer our cat had just died. The vet gave me all sorts of very “sentimental” (and no doubt very profitable) options for it’s burial. A number of years ago, another vet told us that the only way for our cat to survive (this was another cat) was for it to have a kidney transplant (which of course was very expensive). I explained to him I would have trouble affording a kidney transplant for myself (and I am “Obama rich”) let alone the cat – the cat did not make it 😉 . It strikes me that many (most?) vet’s are all to happy to take advantage of this demonic sentimentalization of animals…

  30. The question of Christian anthropology also includes a proper understanding of suffering within the divine economy. I don’t know if you have ever addressed that issue directly Father, but it would be helpful in the light of the increasing trend toward assisted suicide and euthanasia.

    Again, I cringe every time an ASPCA ad comes on chronically the mistreatment of animals and how horrible it is knowing that a large number of their supporters are pro-abortion. Even the numbers ASPCA gives for animal cruelty is far less than the 3700 abortions daily in the US.

  31. For me, the relics of the saints prove the real existence of the saints, that their stories are not just fables and fairy tales.

  32. Michael,
    I think that as far as a proper understanding of suffering goes, the modern way of thinking has not just (obviously, …’understandably’ even) deviated from the ‘scandalous’ Christian (crucificial) notion, but lacks even the philosophical grounding of traditional atheists such as Nietzsche!
    Wasn’t it him who admitted that,

    “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any thing.”

    ? which is reminiscent of the most insightful saying of Epictitus (which Christianity readily adopted from the start):

    “Our problem is not suffering but lack of real meaning.”

    The labyrinth of modern problems that are now appearing due to the possibilities made available to us through modern technology (especially concerning the beginnings and the endings of our lives) will never find properly discerned and believable answers without this focus on meaning and value.
    Ultimately, the ‘logoi’ of things, their ‘raison d’ être’, cannot be discerned without recourse to the ultimate meaning/Logos – Christ. And He has made Himself the provider par excellence of all meaning even in the midst of the most meaningless suffering.

  33. Thanks for this post. I am not Orthodox, but I have always been moved by the customary reverence for the bodies of the dead shown by the Orthodox. It is a reflection of the “true materialism” of the Orthodox Church as well as a testimony to the hope of the Resurrection.

    I think it also is a reflection of our true human need (We are not “only human.” I think we aren’t human enough and are becoming even less and less so). I am almost 37 years old and to this day carry with me a sense of lacking closure at not seeing my father’s body after his death. He died suddenly in his sleep 20 years ago when I was still in high school. My parents were divorced and he lived far from us. By the time I was notified of his death he had already been shipped off to the crematorium by his relatives and sent back to his hometown for burial. Having neither the time nor money to make such a quick trip, I had to make due with a bulletin from his Requiem Mass. For reasons I could not articulate back then, it would have been so healing for me to see and kiss the body of the man I called “Dad.” The typical sentimental platitudes: “it doesn’t matter, he’s not really there” and the like were never (and still are not) comforting to me. I never, ever speak thus while ministering to the bereaved. We love persons, and relate to each other as persons bodily. To me, it only makes sense to continue that love even when body and soul are separated by death, for they are destined for reunion.

  34. Dino, Nietzsche’s ubermensch was the one who could bear the most and master it out of sheer force of will and his innate superiority. That mastery gave him the right to control the rest of us too. Quite un-Christ like

    When I read Nietzsche 40 years ago God’s grace allowed me to see only that which led in Christ’s direction. Reading Nietzsche has been invaluable to me.

  35. Michael,
    I assume you’ve guessed that I’ve no interest in ubermensch’s self-centred perversion of ‘meaning’ that is the core of hell. I do think I could “twist his twistedness” though, and re-employ his saying, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any thing” in a Christian sense, in the knowledge that Christ’s love is paradisial fullness of meaning, even in the midst of suffering. (and concerning the ethical dilemmas that modern health&medicinal etc science is creating)

  36. Yes that can certainly be done that is one of the odd things about Nietzsche — there are many places where his twistedness can be twisted and lead to Christ.

  37. Nietzsche took things in a very different (and I would certainly say logical) direction than we would, but I know of many Orthodox for whom he is an enormously influential figure: for example, it is Nietzsche who emerges repeatedly as the philosopher who best understood the implications of secularization in the work of David Hart.

  38. Ronald, I was able to be present with the body of my grandmother when I was 16. It was a profound experience of saying farewell, of understanding that the body was indeed part of who she was, and of the beginning of the understanding of the teaching regarding the resurrection of the body. I am sorry you were denied this experience with your father.

    In another direction: I was baptized in 2007; before that I was Presbyterian. My former church no longer allows funerals (with the body present) but only memorial services. This really bothered me, and I asked for the reasoning. Apparently, “having the body present is too upsetting. It brings death too close.”

    If the Christians can’t be bothered with death, given the hope of the Resurrection, what on earth is everyone else supposed to do?

    I am so thankful for the Orthodox Church!!

  39. Rudy Reudelhuber,
    We might have been neighbors in suburban Atlanta. Please check your spam for a message from Lynne.

  40. Father Stephen,

    Sorry ahead of time for some seriously off-topic material. The posts on your blog continue to inspire me with a comfort, hope and joy that is truly rare eslewhere. Particularly jaw-dropping of late were your “Has Your Bible Become a Quran?” and “the Long Defeat” from Tolkien. You may have (but then again you may!) no idea how liberating (an ugly word, these days; hopefully I mean something less “cheap”) and especially beautiful it was to hear that “submission is not a word that passes the lips of Christ” and further that submission to God =/= union with Christ and obedience to the Gospel. Embarrassing admission: I had previously thought of it, prayed on it, as “submitting my will to God.” These two essays may have dealt serious fatal blows to all the scattered remains of heterodoxy I’ve been literally set adrift upon. To my heterodox eyes, nearly everything I’ve encountered on the web about Orthodoxy is more appealing than the Luther I’ve been raised with, though I feel sentimentally bad for my folks and other folks’ commendable perseverance in raising me up on that. Not for naught in the end, I like to think. The only thing that remains is quitting the Ideal and entering reality. The things that actually hold me back are all ridiculous, too: Singleness, careerless, stationlessness, waywardness–all things that are extremely hard to expect to carry into the door of a Church (any Church, really–especially today’s churches) and for good and proper reasons. Inviting the question “why are you still single?” is one I’d typically prefer avoid; the trouble is it’s terribly reasonable. And my response is nearly always obnoxious: “where is this fictitious ample pool of like-minded women in their 30’s in today’s world who have the similar vision before them of Christian marriage as sacrament being, of primacy, the ONLY acceptable marriage before God?” I tend to find even the premise of that conversation excruciatingly difficult to have with women my age; they have often been systematically programmed by society not to countenance or tolerate it. Still Orthodoxy, I think, is the balm to all that ails me. Forgive me finally for making you the victim of all this horrid oversharing.

    But on topic! I have serious fears about cremation, and I don’t imagine I’m alone. What I mean is the incineration of the body strikes me as an express contradiction (perhaps even outright insult!) to the resurrection of the body. And, of course, should someone object to my saying that, it seems to me well within my rights (of dialetical procedure) to ask that person if their type of Christianity consists in us being “pure spirits” after we die? Furthermore, how do they theologically (perhaps even in terms of sorteriology) prove that? May be a dead end, but something I surely worry about.

    And I think you’ve really struck the heart of the matter in terms of the Horror industry. I’ve never understood or been at all able to relate to my generation’s love of terror (ironic there, how much effort we exert into fighting it overseas) and blood and gore and perversion. The horror genre I consider to have 0 redeeming literary value, other than its copious amounts of capitalistic incentive. Not because it’s “cheap” or “lowbrow” (I can appreciate a fair and fun amount of lowbrow in my literature) but because it is perverse and a perversely dishonorable contribution to (and way to profit off) society. Kind of, frankly, parasitic of folks’ basest urges. However, to be fair, modern literature of any genre (even Literary) is not immune or exempt from the charge of a deep perversion itself; at least there is some refuge from that, though, in scope and modus operandi of attempts to elicit disgust. I worry about the folks who delight and thrill at images of ritualistic mutilation and post mortem autopsy; I really do.

    Peace and blessings, Father.

  41. Patty, very sad to read what you wrote regarding the fact that your former church no longer allows funerals. I say “sad”, yet at the same time, I recognize that they’re simply following the logical conclusions of their beliefs. Thanks for sharing that though…..it helps me process and work through ideas and conclusions.

    Father Stephen, have you ever written a post on cremation and why it’s to be avoided? If not, I believe it would be most helpful for me (and I assume, many others).

  42. Alan, thank you for your kind words.

    I have a couple of thoughts regarding the Orthodox opposition to cremation, but I am sure Father Stephen and others can give much better explanations. One thing that strikes me about cremation is that it puts US in charge of destroying what God has created. Burial leaves the remains in the hands of God, and lets us as believers find (later) the incorrupt relics of saints. When we cremate, we destroy what God has blessed. And, as an aside, cremation is a violent process. People don’t think about that when they consign their bodies to the oven…but it is a violent process.

    There are other reasons but this is one that stands out to me.

  43. One thing I was hoping to find in this post or comments was suggestions about how to “resurrect” Halloween, even if it’s just done with one’s own family. A few years ago the church I was a part of went to the cemetery early on the afternoon of Halloween and said prayers for the dead. While this was fitting, it certainly didn’t translate for the kids as a replacement for the candy grab.

    Later when I had my own family, my wife and I started just calling the event a Family Fall Fiesta and basically stayed home and had a special meal, did things together – some years inviting other families to be a part of it as well.

    Does anyone have other suggestions?

  44. Father Stephen,

    I am deeply grateful for your writing. Please pray for me.

    There are two things about relics that I struggle with:

    1. As someone else asked earlier, why do we cut the Saints bones in to tiny pieces and spread them around the world? This doesn’t seem to fit with my understanding of how the bodies of the departed are to be treated. Who decides to start cutting up the bones, when and how is this done? Is this an ancient Christian practice?

    2. Sometimes I just can’t “believe” what I’ve been told about a relic or other holy item. An Orthodox parish in my area had a piece of the True Cross that was being toured around the world a while back. I thought, “Why am I not dropping everything to run and bow down before this?” I just didn’t really believe that it was what they said it was. What does it mean for me if I do believe what someone says about something like that? What if I act as if that is REALLY a relic of the Apostle Andrew in front of me and it’s not? Maybe I am just afraid of being duped. Lord have mercy.

    Thank you to Father, or anyone else for any feedback.

  45. Andrew,
    These are very normal reactions from within our cultural background. Relics tend to fragment on their own and it is these fragments rather than cutting them up that are shared. It certainly began quite early. Significant portions of the relics of St. Stephen the Protomartyr were taken to Hippo in N. Africa, when Augustine was Bishop. He wrote accounts about the many miracles worked through the saint’s intercession. (It’s my favorite part of Augustine).

    Can we be duped? Of course. But, I think God honors our intention nonetheless. I am cautious about relics and weeping icons, etc., as well. It’s a reserve in my mind, accompanied by doubt (I am a modern man myself). But I’ve been surprised and overwhelmed on more than one occasion and I allow the modern doubter in me to be humiliated. He needs it.

  46. There are also saints “Myrrh-gushers” whose bodies remain more or less whole but who exude liquid that is used in anointing. The one I know the most about: Mother Walburga of Eikstadt, is now claimed by the RCC but did extensive missionary work in German lands prior to the schism. My bishop recommended her to me as an Orthodox German saint. She reposed in the late 8th century and was canonized in 890 by the Bishop of Rome.

    Her remains lie in state in the monastery (now Benedictine) that she founded. Every year starting in late October and continuing into February her remains exude a clear liquid which is collected and bottled and sent around the world (my parish has a small bottle in our chapel of the Unmercenaries.) She is widely known for her healing.

    The Tradition of Relics is not something of the past. It is quite alive and an important part of the life of the Church. Weeping icons, especially of the Theotokos seem to be relatively common although there are also fakes.

    But even through the fakes blessings occur. Father is correct the intent of those approaching such items is taken into account.

  47. I had always thought that it would be horrible to actually be present when someone died, and I hoped that I would never have to see that. This changed in December, 2014 when my aunt (who had raised me), died at home while I cradled her head in my arm. She gave a sigh and quietly and gently passed from this life to life eternal. I thank God that He gave me the blessing to be with her when she died, to give her what small comfort my presence could give her. It was so wonderful to see that death is nothing to fear. I called my parish priest and he came to our house at 3 a.m. and stayed until the funeral director carried my aunt out as we chanted the Trisagion Prayer together and it is a memory that will comfort me for the rest of my life.

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