A Bunch of Stuff We Don’t Know

escherReading discussions about life after death, it is easy to get the impression that people actually know what they’re talking about, that perhaps they have been there, seen what goes on and therefore authoritatively opine on the nature of things. But, the truth is that we mostly don’t know. We have a few things given to us in Scripture, and even those few things are often somewhat cryptic or uncertain. I will come to what we may say with certainty later. But here at the beginning of this article, I want to say that we don’t know much.

As an Orthodox believer, I am comfortable with not knowing much. Strangely, Orthodoxy has a whole spiritual lifestyle based on not knowing much – it’s called apophaticism. But why do so many seem to (or claim to) know so many details – and to know them so well that they gladly enter into arguments on the topic? To a great degree, the answer is simple: arguments.

The greatest and longest argument in Christianity has raged between Protestants and Catholics for 500 years. Some might want to say that the split between the Orthodox and the Catholics is a longer argument. But though that split is 1,000 years old, it has not mostly been an argument. If anything, it has mostly been a case of not talking to each other. However, the rise of Protestantism must be seen as the rise of an argument. It began specifically as a critique of Roman Catholicism. One of the primary critiques of Catholicism centered around details of life after death. The notion of purgatory, the merits of the saints, heaven and hell, prayers for the dead, all came under fire in one way or another from virtually every angle of Protestantism. And Catholicism responded, particularly in the Counter-Reformation.

Arguments can have a life of their own. One aspect of an implacable target in an argument is the near impossibility of agreeing with them or ceding any ground whatsoever. Lines of thought become refined and ossified. I have an easy summary of Protestant thought about life after death: “Catholics are wrong.” Protestant thought on the afterlife is streamlined. Its scheme of salvation, of reward and punishment, is very straightforward and without wrinkles. Catholic thought, particularly as developed in response to Protestant critique, is not so straightforward, but it developed a very clear shape with definitive contours and describable rules.

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seems sloppy, even murky. Why do the Orthodox pray for the dead? “Because it is of benefit,” comes the official answer. Exactly how it benefits is a field for speculation and theologizing, but not a field for dogma. There are interesting details, rooted in what is essentially folklore, such as the “toll houses,” a description of particular judgments and battles with demons confronting the soul on its way to heaven (if it makes it). Stories abound in Orthodoxy. A saint prays and frees a soul from hell (it’s not an uncommon story). However, there’s no explanation for how such a thing can happen. Once a year, at the Vespers of Pentecost Sunday, prayers are offered for all the souls in Hades from Adam to the present. Again, no explanation is offered. Is Adam still there? Christ is seen in the icon of the resurrection taking Adam by the hand and leading him out. But there are the prayers.

It is deeply tempting (and frequently not resisted in the least) for Orthodox Christians to seek to systematize the whole process. This offers the convenience of making arguments with Catholics and Protestants more interesting. Saying, “We don’t exactly know,” is simply not persuasive. What apparently disturbs many Christians is the notion that we don’t actually know a lot about what seems an important matter (where I’m going to go when I die, what it’s like, how do I get there, etc.). But that is the plain truth. We don’t really know very much.

But we do know certain things, and they are the things that matter. When I say we “know,” I mean that as a solid data of the received faith, the very core of Christianity, we “know” or have been given to “know” certain things. We know that Christ died and was buried. We know that He rose on the third day. We know that He “trampled down death by death,” He “led captivity captive.” The way to the resurrection has been opened by Christ. We know that “if we are Baptized into His death, we shall also be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” And these are, generally, the sorts of things we know and can say for certain.

We are nowhere in the Scriptures, nor in the Tradition, given a roadmap complete with rules for life after death. Some like to make up rules because it makes a form of preaching sound plausible: “Unless you accept Christ as Savior, you’ll go to hell.” But, such preaching is largely based not on the Scriptures, but on the roadmaps of certainty forged in the debates of the Reformation. The Christian gospel is not based on accurate knowledge of the roadmap. The gospel is based on the certainty of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the promise that His resurrection is the sure and certain hope of all of creation to be delivered from its bondage.

The life and practices of the Church are built around this sure and certain hope. However, our hope and our certainty are not based on a topographical tour of the afterlife. Of course, it is impossible to suggest that people not ask questions or wonder about the topic. And the Church’s life is filled with stories and practices (such as prayers for the departed) that are rightly part of the ethos of the faith. But we do well to speak the truth to ourselves and accept the humility that God seems to have assigned to this topic.

It is important, as well, to resist the pressures that come from arguments of modern Christianity. The feeling that we are supposed to have assurance or certainty about the details and mechanics of all this is not a part of the Tradition, but simply an artifact of the argumentative habits of the past 500 years. Christ did not come to reveal the metaphysics of life after death. He came to destroy death. Having done so, those who follow Him seem strangely drawn towards the creation of a new paganism in which the afterlife is central. The truth is that union with Christ, in His death and resurrection, are the only central things in our faith.

At every turn, the source of our hope is simply what we have seen accomplished in Christ. We have His promises: “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (Joh 14:3) The fullness of the life of the Church teaches us how to hope and how to pray. It does not teach us what has not been given us to know.

I’ll close with a speculation of my own. I strongly suspect that one of the reasons we do not really know much is simply the nature of what there is that we want to know. Every version and image of life after death is inevitably nothing more than a beefed-up version of something we already know. But if, as St. Paul says, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him,” (1Co 2:9) then we might simply not know because it is beyond our knowing. It is also not unlikely that such knowledge would be a distraction – that is already evident by our wholesale abuse of our ignorance.

We know Christ, crucified and risen. He is our Pascha. Know that.

67 comments:

  1. Thanks very much, Father.
    One of the most liberating elements of Orthodoxy for me has been the release from the anxiety of not knowing all the answers. My family and friends have pretty much quit grilling me and nobody tries to hook me into doctrinal or theological arguments anymore because I don’t know all the answers and, to their utter exasperation, am not troubled that I don’t know the answers. And you’re right; most folks I have encountered over the years don’t actually want to know the answers–they just want to start an argument–and they can become really annoyed when you simply refuse to take the bait but they eventually move on.

  2. Wonderfully stated, Father! I wonder if our lack of knowledge is connected to the requirement to “give thanks in all things”? Perhaps it is a healthy need for the worshiping being (re: humanity) to worship the goodness of God that is revealed to us, not to fully understand His ways?

  3. With respect, Father, it is amazing me how much the early fathers of the Church did speak about heaven and what happens after we repose! I am reading Jean-Claude Larchet’s book “Life After Death” and am about 2/3 through, but it is a very throrough work, giving perspectives and reasons for the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant theologians’s ways of thinking.

  4. “The fullness of the life of the Church teaches us how to hope and how to pray.”
    Thank you.

  5. Thank you Father. Not knowing seems to have purpose in making us trust in Christ all the more. I have no other hope than Him. Knowledge puffs up and speculation becomes idolatry. I will stick with faith into Christ and rest assured that He will be ultimate fair and righteous.

  6. Fr. Stephen, Thank you for another quality post. I do have a question though.

    “Stories abound in Orthodoxy. A saint prays and frees a soul from hell (it’s not an uncommon story).”

    How do you explain this vis-a-vis Luke 16:26? It seems to me to be a contradiction. Thanks again.

  7. Beth,
    I indeed note the stories, etc., in the Fathers and elsewhere. But, this is far from dogmatizing. Most of the Orthodox opposition of St. Mark of Ephesus to the Council of Florence, was the Catholic claim to know and dogmatize what we don’t know. I think that our thoughts often drift towards these things, but they largely rank as speculation, not as the grounded dogma of the Church.

  8. George,
    Do you suspect me of not believing that He will come again to judge the living and the dead? However, the “dread judgment” belongs to the “many things in Scripture that are subject to interpretation and speculation.” The more you read about the judgment, the less (and more) you will know. But many, simply from the phrase “dread judgment,” already think they know something that they don’t.

    Yes, He will come to judge. And we are taught to pray that we may stand blameless and without shame before the dread judgment seat of Christ. The Church teaches us to repent. But do not embroider patterns on the cloth that exceed what we have been given.

  9. A great word for we “protestants” to hear. It is likely anxiety that drives us toward clear answers but trust in the one who said, “Be anxious for nothing” is often passed over in search of “knowing “. Thus we miss out on the relationship that comes from trusting.

  10. Adam,
    Well, because contradictions abound. For example, Matthew 5:26 “Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny,” is treated by some as a reference to an end of torments for some. What we cannot and should not do, is take single passages like Luke 16:26 and dogmatize from them. Take the whole, complete with the contradictions (and don’t try to pretend there are no contradictions) and then press into God and towards the prize of truly apprehending the mystery. I think there is lots and lots of shallow understandings because people settle for a quick escape from contradiction – it shields them from their own ignorance.

    Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing for an ignorant liberalism, simply for the honest path to true wisdom and understanding. The parables frequently teach through hyperbole, paradox and contradiction. Those things are very intentional. The disciples were completely overwhelmed by such teaching, but, somehow, we think that we understand. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

    Luke 16 is a parable. Think about what that means. Many things are possible in parables. Parables are not restrained by a literal account of anything. Why do we insist otherwise?

    What do we actually know – not from parables. I think it is all too easy to quickly leave Christ’s Pascha behind as if there was something more interesting to know, as if it were merely an initiatory event that now lets us get on to the better stuff.

  11. Thank you so much for this good word to Adam (and to me) Father, and for your article above. You provide us the means to step back from what we do when we try to think about and *how* we think about things we cannot know.

    I had (have) a daughter who died many years ago. And when I pray for her now I also ask the Theotokos to embrace her as I cannot. I trust in the motherly love of the Theotokos, but what that means for my daughter, I have no way of knowing. All I can do is trust. My daughter died without Baptism, and I love her dearly, and have missed her terribly. In my humble understanding of Orthodoxy, the living are with us even in death. But what that means in rational terms is far beyond me.

    I am so grateful for your blog Father Stephen!

  12. Father Bless!!!

    Powerful post and reminder of the Orthodox wisdom of not knowing …. that in many areas ‘less is more’ as we allow Him to the Divine Beyond that He is.

    I believe Orthodoxy has opened up through the church calendar and our daily participation in the services a very different kind of knowing …. an experiential knowing in the heart. Christ, is revealing Himself to us, right here right now. You have written extensively about this but the knowing I’m describing feels more like an encounter with Christ as he timelessly relives His Life in and with us.

    Today, as you know, we’ve celebrated the Mid-Feast of Pentecost and together we sing:

    Having been enlightened by the Resurrection of Christ the Savior, O ye brethren, and having reached the midst of the feast of the Master, let us truly keep the commandments of God, that we may be counted worthy to celebrate the Ascension and be vouchsafed the coming of the Holy Spirit.

    And in Vespers we will sing tonight:

    Before the venerable Cross and saving Passion, for the people’s benefit Thou wroughtest miracles. And at the Mid-feast set by the Law, almighty Savior, as it is written, Thou didst cry unto all: Should some one be pained by thirst, let him resort to Me, and have recourse to Me as the Source; let him draw and drink of divine water and rivers bearing life. For I grant streams of wisdom, strength, and life unto all that draw nigh unto Me in faith, since I took on man’s likeness of Mine own will, as the Friend of man.

    This possibility of knowing Christ as the Friend of man, of even me, who is unceasingly offering ‘streams of wisdom, strength, and life unto all’ who in faith draw closer!!! What an exciting and amazing promise we’re encouraged to experience as we ‘keep the commandments of God’ and take some small step in preparing ourselves for His Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

    Thank you so, so much for all you are doing to help us go beyond the knowing that restrains us to a knowing that opens us as you help guide us in this one day at a time journey with Christ through His Church.

    Much Love in Chirst … Bruce

  13. Just finished one of Rod Dreher’s articles…
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/taste-and-see-orthodoxy-catholicism/

    The Romanian monk asked a question which Rod re-stated:

    “Why do you ask questions of Christianity if you don’t want to be transformed by Christianity yourself? In other words, what is the point of your intellectual inquiry? Having all the facts and arguments in your head will not help you when you are put to the test.”

  14. Dee of St Herman’s,

    I too have lost children and find it difficult, if not impossible, to hand over my anxiety regarding their… whereabouts, I suppose. Do you have any pointers?

    Bless, Father.
    A sad, bitter pill. As stated above, I am worried that Christ’s rising from the dead is truly the end all be all and the only thing left for us is to die to ourselves and participate in his resurrection, something we can only do while living, and in the end is oblivion. Unfortunately, in my sadness and bitterness, this is not something I can accept at the moment. I’m sure there’s some eschatological term for this that escapes my knowledge… And though I pray for hope, and faithfulness, I am afraid that in the end that’s all that I will have, when what I really want is to see my children again.

    I suppose that means I don’t truly want theosis, at least not as badly as a reconciliation…

  15. Sophia,
    You will indeed see your children and your broken heart will be healed. The exact shape of that is not something given to us to know – but I assure you – you will see them. May God give you peace.

  16. Sophia, You and your children are in my prayers and I will pray for your peace.

    My answer for your question is simple in that all that I do is stand before the icons of Christ and the Theotokos and pray. And I believe our prayers are heard.

    May the Lord bless you and your children.

  17. Dear Friends,
    It is our substantiated belief and the persistently reiterated experience of the Church that in Christ we encounter and convene with all our loved ones. The closer we unite to Christ the more vividly we start to apprehend the tangibility of the life of our (beloved) departed ones. In truth, this is so. May we cleave to our Saviour and His Light will reveal to us the cherished faces of all those much-loved deceased ones, right there with Him.

  18. Adam says, “How do you explain this vis-a-vis Luke 16:26?”

    Adam, we pray for the dead and our prayer is beneficial for them because Christ is Risen. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”

    Prior to Christ’s incarnation on Earth, it was man’s “fate” to be separated from God. Neither the dead nor the living had hope of salvation. The Resurrection united humanity to divinity. Since the descent of Christ into Hades, the way to purification, sanctification and salvation (Theosis) has been opened for all, the living and the dead.

    You can also check out this link:

    “Prayer and the Departed Saints” by David C. Ford, Ph.D

    http://www.protomartyr.org/our-faith/prayer-and-the-departed-saints/

  19. Thank you Father Stephen, for this clarification and for stepping in on the prior thread. It’s distressing to see lengthy posts opining about things beyond our ken. Our prayers for the dead are not just a ‘one way street,’ in some beautiful mysterious way, we are also uplifted and healed. “Let there be no bitter memories of him/her upon the earth” is just one of many lines from the Akathist for the Departed tha cuts across both sides of that impassable gulf between us.

    I don’t have to know the details how the Body of Christ functions, I just have to let the transforming work of the Church do what it does to help me love in ways better than I could ever know were possible.
    Forgive me. kay

  20. Dino,
    Thank you for your words. May we grow united to Christ that we might live and encounter our beloved in His Light. I pray for my daughter but cannot bear the thought of torment to her. My hope and trust is in the love of Christ and in the motherly love of the Theotokos.

  21. My dear wife, long before she was Orthodox, lost a child a birth. She was and still is heartbroken by the death of her son over 40 years ago. Nevertheless when she talks about it she always tells the rest of the story: Not long after Justin’s death, my wife was praying in the Catholic church she attended. As she prayed, she felt the presence of the Blessed Mother. She looked up and saw her holding Justin. My wife knew then that all was well with Justin.

    In the Church we do not grieve alone. Most of us have lost people dear to us and Mary, too, had a sword pierce her heart at the loss of her own son.

    Christ is Risen!

  22. The truth that God loves us [as well as those we love] inconceivably more than we can ever dream up, and coordinates all things for our benefit is the fundamental axiom, something we can trust beyond all doubt.

  23. Father Stephen,

    What does the Orthodox Church teach about miscarried babies?
    It seem to me that the only way to think about that would be how Dino described it, entrusting them [and our pain] to God’s love and care…

    But how to comfort the (increasingly) many young women who experience this tragedy? [And it is one of the most heartbreaking experiences in a woman’s life, no matter how much or little support she gets to cope with it].
    Almost every woman I know has experienced this kind of a loss, as I myself have, but I have not thought about it in terms of “the one I loved and lost” till this conversation today…

    Thank you Michael for sharing your wife’s story….

  24. Agata,
    The Church has no official teaching. There are occasional mentions in the fathers, including a very disturbing comment in St. Gregory the Theologian. I think the consensus these days is that it is a child without sin. The OCA recently released a new set of prayers for a miscarried child. It’s consistently referred to as an “innocent” as I recall. We assume they are with Christ.

    The consciousness of the Church in this matter has been greatly enlightened through the world-wide struggle against abortions.

  25. Here are the prayers I have in the prayer book I bought from Ancient Faith. I’m certain there are more and other phrasings of these two.

    For a Woman After a Miscarriage

    O Sovereign Master, Lord our God, who were born of the all-pure Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary, and as an infant were laid in a manger: do You Yourself, according to your great mercy, have regard for this Your servant (name) who has miscarried that which was conceived in her. Heal her suffering, granting to her, O loving Lord, health and strength of body and soul. Guard her with a shining angel from every assault of sickness and weakness and all inward torment. I You who accept the innocent of infancy in Your kingdom, comfort the mind of Your servant and bring her peace. Amen.

    For a Departed Child after a Miscarriage

    Remember, O Lord and Lover of mankind, the soul of Your departed child, which has died in the womb of its mother. Baptize him/her, O Lord, in the sea of Your generosity and save him/her by Your ineffable grace. Amen.

  26. Agata, Fr Stephen has already answered your question. I will just add a quote from Prof Alexei Osipov’s booklet “Posthumous Life”:

    ‘God Himself said about the non-baptized infants: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. ( Matthew, 19, 14)…

    …Saint Gregory the Theologian wrote: infants “who haven’t been baptized will be neither glorified nor punished by the just Judge, because despite they haven’t been sealed, however they are not bad”. What does it mean, not glorified? They will not come into the Kingdom of God? – Nothing of the kind. The words of saint Gregory can be easily understood by way of an example of an army at action. What warriors are given the glory, who receives the award? Those who displayed courage, heroism. The remaining, who didn’t commit such expoits, naturally won’t receive such awards and glory. But aren’t they punished? St. Gregory continues his thought in such a way: “Not every … person unworthy of honour is worthy of punishment”. Here is the meaning of the above said. There is not a single conjecture about that those who haven’t been baptized will be deprived the Kingdom of God.

    The contemporary of St. Gregory the Theologian – venerable Ephraim of Syria spoke out his persuasion, that the dead infants will be higher than the saints. He does not even mention whether they have been baptized or not.

    “We praise you, our God, from the mouths of babies and children, who are as pure angels in Eden are feed in the Kingdom. As was said by the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel, 34, 14) they are tended in a rich pasture among trees, and Anchangel Gabriel – is the shepherd of this flock . There position is higher and more beautiful than of celibacy and the saints; they are the children of God, foster children of the Holy Spirit. They are accomplice of the those from the heaven, inhabitants of the pure land, far from the earth of damnations. On the day when they hear the voice of God’s Son, they will rejoice and their bones will enjoy, freedom will bow its head, which has not managed to stir the spirit yet. Short were their days on the earth, but their life in Eden is observed, and their parents would rather approach closer their habitation”.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa, the brother of St. Basil the Great, in a special work under the title “About babies, prematurely caught by death” directly states, that babies, as they had not committed any evil, are hampered by nothing to be communed with God’s Light. He says the following: “The baby who has not been tempted in the evil, as no illness hampers his spiritual eyes in communing with the Light, is staying in the natural condition, having no need in purification to restore his health, because he had not received an illness in the soul”.

    How remarkably St. Theofan the Recluse wrote about the non-baptized children:

    Children are all angels of God. Non-baptized, as everybody being outside the belief, should be granted to God’s mercy. They are not stepsons or stepdaughter of God. Because He knows what and how should be arranged for their sake. There are plenty of God’s ways!”

    The hieromonk Arseny of Athos, well known for his ascetic life (XIX), when asked about the lot of non-baptized babies answered:

    “As far as babies are concerned, about whom you have been asked to find out from us, we may say, that those who have been baptized, will rejoice and will be blissfully happy in the heavens for ever, though they died unexpectedly. In the same way we should not reject those babies, who were born dead or they had no time to be baptized: they are not guilty, that they did not get sacred Baptism, and God of the Heaven has many abodes, including those where these babies will rest for their belief and piety of their faithful parents, thought they didn’t receive the Holy Baptism due to non-experienced destinies of God. That is not contrary to the religious doctrine, and saint Fathers testify to it in the Sinaxaris about it, on Shrovetide Saturday. Parents may pray for them with their belief for God’s mercy”.

    …That is why the reference of some people to St. Augustine, who pointed out that the non-baptized babies would perish, is beneath criticism: not a single one out of the saint Farthers, at least Eastern, ever spoke out this thought. And only the late Catholic theology, having armed with “Augustinism”, “canonized” this delusion. Despite the teaching of saint Church Farthers, it has been adopted, unfortunately by our modern “teachers”.

    Lets us not be concerned about the lot of babies, they are all in God’ possession, but we must seriously ponder over our attitude to a child-birth, marriage, our “Christian” life , dear parents.’

    http://www.aosipov.ru/texts/POSTHUMOUS.doc

    God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.
    (St. John Chrysostom)

  27. Dee and other mothers, my dear husband left out a bit. It brings me to tears 45 years after it happened still. My second son, Justin, was stillborn. I was devastated, grieving and hurting so much that every word in church seemed to make it more painful. My three yr old son was sitting with me in church-Our Lady of Gudalupe in Topeka, Ks. I was looking down and in such deep pain. I heard the most beautiful voice speaking to me. She said there was a reason my son died but I was not to know it yet. She said I needed to forgive, let go, and trust her. I looked up, and there was our Holy Mother, glowing and holding Justin. She said to trust him to her. It was overwhelming, and I was on my knees in tears. Her love and compassion are beyond anything we can imagine. The doctors told me I could never have another child too. Once again, God had a plan. My toddler son prayed to Jesus every night for a baby sister. When he was 4 1/2, he came running to me one morning to announce he was going to have a baby sister! Jesus had told him so, and her name was to be Julina. In spite of all medical reasons it was not possible, Julina Maria was born the next July. When she was a year old, he prayed for a brother or sister to grow up with her. I had gotten blood poisoning and a life threatening infection – with lots of anti tetanus and strong new antibiotic drugs to save my life- in my first four weeks of pregnancy. Because I was a high risk mother to begin with, three doctors at three different hospitals said I had to get an abortion, because the baby could not be normal. It was too formative a time for the brain and nervous system. They said if the baby lived, it would be horribly damaged. I went to see a doctor 250 mile round trip from me. He said I had the best reason for a legal abortion he had ever seen, but if I wanted to trust God for this child, he would take care of us and deliver my baby. His due date was exactly four years since Justin’s stillbirth. I chose to have the baby. He will be 41 next month. He has a genius I.Q., built his own house, has degrees in Computer Science and Enology. Perfectly healthy, with a beautiful wife and two daughters. My toddler is 48, with a wife, four kids and four grandkids. Julina has two boys and has been a teacher for 18 yrs now. God has a plan, and the Theotokos has our children. She has loved and cared for them as her own. Orthodoxy has allowed me to fully love and thank her, as no other faith ever did. We are SO blessed. Our children are safe, loved, and I have no doubt we will see them again.

  28. Very good words from the Orthodox Fathers there, Alex. As the mother of a miscarried child, I thank you, dear brother!

    I have long believed and become emboldened in this conviction through my Orthodox faith that infants and young children denied Christian baptism in water through no fault of their own, are baptized into Christ in spiritual reality by the very event of their deaths. Do the Scriptures not teach “in Him we live and move and have our being”?

    In my parish we have a tradition where at the point in the Liturgy where the Priest comes out in front of the Ambon into the Nave to give his blessing, all the little children of the parish who are able run to hold onto his hand or vestments and are blessed at the conclusion of the prayer by his making the sign of the Cross over them. It is such a beautiful picture of Christ saying, “Let the little children come . . . “

  29. Merry,
    How can it not bring you to tears? Our God’s infinite mercy is mixed in with it all… thank you for your comment. One who reads it can never again forget it. What an infinite love our all-holy Mother has for us !

  30. Father,

    You mention in your article that saying “we just don’t know” isn’t very persuasive. I must disagree. I was never able to embrace Christianity until I accepted certain things as mysteries. In my case, at least, saying “we just don’t know” was absurdly and refreshingly persuasive. I had to face the fact that certain things weren’t meant for me. It sealed the deal for me, and I was reconciled to God.

  31. Byron, Alex and Merry,

    Thank you so much. Such beautiful, helpful and healing words and prayers.

    Thank you Alex for the explanation of the words of the Holy Fathers. How wonderful it is to know that in the Orthodox Tradition, nothing like this “Augustinian” thinking is ever accepted….

    “Because He knows what and how should be arranged for their sake. There are plenty of God’s ways!”
    (and we must remember that is it true for our life also!)

    Merry, yours is such a beautiful story. I am also blessed with three wonderful children (no grandchildren yet, they are only teenagers). I have always thanked God for not having been put in the position to even consider abortion, for whatever reason, although with one of my children I was told the baby may not be healthy…. Thank God they are all perfect and healthy.

    I thank you all for guiding this conversation here, I have not considered this part of the story of my life since it happened nearly 20 years ago. To know that baby is with God and the Theotokos (and with other departed family members, my brother and my father) is such a comfort and consolation.
    And meeting her (I think it was a girl, while I only have boys now) is something to look forward when I depart this life….

    I must thank Father Stephen here especially, since thanks to him (more than anybody else) I have now complete peace about my own death. Of course I know there is plenty of work to do about repentance and being ready for it, but I hope at the moment of death, I will be able to surround to Christ, trust in His Love and Mercy and “be curious”…. (as Father Stephen once said in his talk once 🙂 )

  32. In my parish we have a tradition where at the point in the Liturgy where the Priest comes out in front of the Ambon into the Nave to give his blessing, all the little children of the parish who are able run to hold onto his hand or vestments and are blessed at the conclusion of the prayer by his making the sign of the Cross over them. It is such a beautiful picture of Christ saying, “Let the little children come . . . “

    What a beautiful tradition!

  33. Merry, Dino and Alex,
    Thank you so much for what you have shared. They are balm to my grieving soul. I cannot describe myself as a believer when my daughter died. She was a little over 6 months old and today she would be 33 years old. Father Stephen describes well the grieving process of the unbeliever as a slow numbing “time heals all wounds”. But this wound didn’t seem to heal. I believe this wound is healing now. And your witnesses are participating in that healing process. Glory to God.

  34. Merry, wow…..simply saying “thank you” for sharing that with us seems totally inadequate. What a beautiful, amazing story, on many levels. Thank you so very much!!!

  35. Merry, … yes, what the others have said! The only thing to say that seems remotely adequate is to exclaim, Glory to God!

    Mine was a very early miscarriage, and I still grieved mightily. That child would have celebrated her 9th birthday this October. I had a dear high school friend whose only son was stillborn who died only a few hours before his birth. She has three daughters. I have been to the funeral of a five year old, and I have been to the 16th birthday party for the firstborn son of dear Christian friends where we knew it would likely be his last. Cancer took him a little over a year later. Death is obscene. To lose a child is the most incomprehensible grief, but Christ’s Pascha changes everything. The communion of Saints is indeed a sweet, healing balm.

  36. God be with you Dee. I was a bit worried to say so much, but something just told me I needed to share. June 8, Justin would have been 45. Instead Shawn will be 41 on June 18, and Julina 43 on July 4. Justin’s death has brought many blessings I could never have imagined. I can look back and see them now. He died while I was giving birth to him. Because he was a preemie, back then there was nothing they could do to save him. Shawn was born because of Justin’s birth and death on his due date. I just knew I could not abort a gift from God. I am extremely grateful now that I did not do what the doctors said I had to do. Glory to God in all things. They may seem cruel and unsurvivable at the time, but with God you can get thru.

  37. Alan, it is humbling when God leads us to share our deepest pain and healing with others. I am still so deeply aware of the love in the voice of The Theotokos when she spoke to me, and seeing her glowing and holding my tiny son – still brings me to my knees. Why did She choose to come to me? Her love for each of us is so overwhelming it is beyond words. Maybe it was so I could tell others someday. A grieving mother touched Her heart and she came to give me mercy and healing. She said she had lost a son too, and knew my pain. Believe me, She cares about every grieving parent, and her love is beyond our understanding. I chose her for my Saint, because I felt so close to her, and my name is pronounced the same.
    Fr. Stephen is continually amazing to me, in how he starts something and it catches fire and goes out to help so many!! I envied our mens group this year, because Fr. Stephen spoke at their retreat. We were so blessed, to get to hear him speak at our home church that Sunday night, and it was a real joy to meet him in person and hear him talk. His book “Everywhere Present” is a wonderful book too, in understanding that we are all here – in a one-story dimension. God, the Saints, and Heaven are not floating around in a cloud somewhere, but here with us. We read it in our Adult Sunday School last year – Michael Bauman leads it – and we all were transformed and comforted by the knowledge we gained. It is a book you should all read, if you have not as yet. I really loved it, and we had a lot of great discussions and sharing of experiences while we studied it.
    Thank you Fr. Stephen, for opening the door to all these discussions, and to the healing of some very painful wounds to many. Losing a child is always a terrible thing to survive, but when we survive, we have to come to terms with the loss and learn to go on. I went thru every phase, anger; pain; feeling cheated; and dealing with the grief. As a mother, and as a former widow, I can tell you that grief never goes away.
    You never “get past it”, and it will come back when you least expect it. You learn to live with it, and accept it. At some point, you let go and let God help you thru it.
    Try not to get too angry with people who have NO CLUE what you have gone thru, or still struggle with. They worry about your pain and suffering, and don’t want to lose you too. Since my son’s death, 45 yrs ago, I have learned such compassion for others, and to genuinely help others who share such a loss. So many things God has brought from that single little boy’s death. I could never have imagined back then.
    Our children, even un-babtized, went straight into Heaven and I have not the slightest doubt of that. It is the ultimate goal of us all – to be there with God.
    I look forward to seeing our Holy Mother, Blessed Theotokos again.
    Father bless.

  38. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this post and thank you to those here in the comment section who have shared their grief. I have known such grief and I am sure many who read the article and comments here know it also and will be comforted and encouraged. Glory to God for All Things!

    I have to also say that for some — maybe strange — reason I have found reading Fr. John Behr’s book “Becoming Human” to be very comforting and encouraging about this topic of “Things we don’t know”

    Thanks again, Fr. Stephen, for this blog. God bless and keep you and yours close always!

  39. Merry,

    Thank you again for your beautiful words. As Dino said, the only proper response to your story, illustrating God’s love for us, is tears and forever keeping its rememberance in our hearts.

    May God grant all who need it healing of their broken hearts, be it because of babies lost in the womb, at birth, in early days or later in life (my brother died of cancer just before turning 20, I don’t know how my parents survived it…).

    And let it remind us to pray for so many women who are faced with unexpected pregnancies and consider abortions…

    There is so much need for our prayers. Please know that you are all remembered in my unworthy prayers, some of you by name and all as “Father Stephen and all who follow his blog”…

    The only thing better than these virtual meetings would be a retreat where we could all meet in person… I have been after Father about this for some time now… Maybe he will succumb some day… 🙂

  40. Theodosia and Michael,
    Thank you, we can tell Father that there are four of us for sure. I think I can convince my friend Allison to bring her husband and daughters (I know you know them Michael), that would bring the number of participants to over 10 instantaneously… 🙂

    Theodosia, belated Happy Nameday to you (only by one day!) 🙂

  41. Would appreciate any perspective on understanding what it means to believe in Christ’s resurrection. Currently reading this book by a Jesuit: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/xavier-leon-dufour/resurrection-and-the-message-of-easter/

    Orthodoxwiki has this:

    “The Holy Resurrection of Our Savior, as a mystery, was invisible and outside the laws and processes of other resurrections, since through the Resurrection and in the Resurrection we do not have a simple resuscitation of the Master’s Body and its egress from the sepulchre, as, for example, in the case of St. Lazarus (a miracle perceptible to all, and the [eventual] return of his body to corruption), but its transition, as being henceforth “one with God” [ὁμόθεος] and, in an ineffable mystery, to uncreated reality; that is, we have an ontological transformation. A lucid commentary on this Patristic viewpoint is provided by Leonid Ouspensky, who writes:

    ‘The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind, and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence, in traditional Orthodox iconography, [of any depiction] of the actual moment of the Resurrection.'[17]”

    How does one believe in something that is unfathomable to the human mind?

    Am I to simply trust the Church? Is it more a matter of heart than head? Maybe love can comprehend beyond what the mind can?

  42. Wow! That’s a powerful exposition from then Cardinal Ratzinger. It seems to me he has truly captured the profundity of the truth of the gospel in the Resurrection of Jesus and made the intimate connection between classical Trinitarian theology, the nature of God’s love that creates and sustains the universe perfectly expressed in Christ, and our own ultimate transfiguration in that love. Truly love is stronger than death! It’s not for nothing many Orthodox have lauded this late Pope’s strong affinity for and recognition of the fullness of theological Orthodoxy. Thanks, Boyd!

  43. ‘The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind, and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence, in traditional Orthodox iconography, [of any depiction] of the actual moment of the Resurrection.'[17

    How does one believe in something that is unfathomable to the human mind? ]”

    Boyd, it has to be experience IMO. There are many ways to enter into that experience but it is always a gift of grace. In my case it came during Pascha, 2005 a few short weeks after the repose of my wife of 24 years. Still in deep grief, I nonetheless experienced what the Resurrection is. While I cannot to this day articulate the specifics of that experience as it was and is ineffable, it was/is deeply real and I will never forget it.

    Despite my grief, I knew that there was no more ‘sting of death’. It was a gift that still brings me to tears when I contemplate it.

  44. Agata, I am humbled by your kind comments. Part of the healing is sharing the miracles that come out of the worst things in our lives. I have had 45 years, and many things to see that have come of such a sad event at the time. God does turn things around – in His time. Even when things seem the most hopeless, God brings the light.
    I am totally in for that idea of a retreat for all of us with Fr. Stephen. I know Michael has wanted it for a while. He, and the men’s retreat for our area this year, all got to enjoy Fr. Stephen. We were blessed that he came and spoke with us that Sunday night too at our church. It was such a pleasure to finally meet him in person!

  45. How well explained Fr. Freemen! Wonderful! I noticed something from your essay. The Catholicism and the Protestantism are the two faces of the same coin named Western Christianity. As West is struggling for the last 600-700 years it is between the ancient Greek philosophers’ logic and the divine Judaeo-Christian moral. But the heaven and earth created by the Heavenly Father do not always obey the rules of ancient Greek philosophy. No logic, no analysis. That, I find, is the problem of the Western Christianity – the logic, the knowledge, the analysis, the dogmatic axioms. God is so great that no human axioms can explain Him. Same way is the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as the life after death. For that very reason even Jesus Christ had several slow steps and parables compare the Kingdom of God. He makes parables in parallels in order to make us just believe it is there but it is inexplicable. Same way the life after death and the heaven and hell. But one we can say for sure – Jesus Himself points that hell exists and it is terrible place to be after death, as well ass the heaven – the Kingdom of the Father exists as well.
    Thank you Fr. Freemen – wonderfully said!

  46. Thank you Father!
    You hit a lot of points as to why I am looking for a way out of Protestant Christianity. We don’t know everything. We have ideas, but when the ideas are taught as dogma, to the exclusion of all else, it starts to cause problems in the church. In some ways, many Protestant thoughts feel Gnostic. Know and believe this and you will be saved. We don’t know is the thing. And it ignores the idea of faith being a journey. We know some things that cannot be, but we don’t know the specifics of everything, including life after death.

  47. “We are nowhere in the Scriptures, nor in the Tradition, given a roadmap complete with rules for life after death”

    Or life before death, contrary to popular opinion.

    Great essay!

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