A Christian Ending to Our Life

Most moderate-sized American cities are dominated by two structures: bank buildings and hospitals. The former are often large and new because it’s where we like to put our money. The latter are large because we’re afraid to die and don’t want to be sick. Both are particularly modern structures. You could travel to ancient Pompei, were it to be completely reconstructed. You would find neither bank nor hospital. Of the two, hospitals came first.

Ancient Greece and Rome had doctors. They worked with herbs, and even performed fairly simple surgeries. The “Hippocratic Oath,” sworn by modern doctors as part of their initiation into the field, was first crafted by Hippocrates, in the 4-5th century B.C. Doctors and medicine are part of our ancient heritage.

The practice of medicine was largely a private matter for many centuries, with some “clinics” of a sort being associated with particular temples, such as those of Asclepius. However, hospitals had to await the coming of Christianity. A name associated with one of the first such foundations was St. Basil the Great of Caesarea. He gave away his family inheritance for the needs of the poor, building a poorhouse, a hospice and a hospital just outside Caesarea. It was dubbed the “Basiliad.” St. Gregory the Theologian compared it to the “wonders of the world.”

St. Sampson the Hospitable was a doctor. He found favor with the Emperor Justinian and asked for help to build a hospital in Constantinople. It served that city for centuries. His title, the “Hospitable,” as well as our continuing use of the word “hospital” are worth considering. In Greek, his title is “philoxenos,” a word meaning the love of strangers – or kindness to strangers. Our word, “hospitality,” still has this connotation. Its origin is from the Latin, hospes, which also has the meaning of the care for the stranger or guest.

A recent conversation with a friend brought this reflection about. She had gone for a medical appointment and noticed that the doctor spent all of the visit looking at a computer screen. The patient was present and was questioned, but the reality, somehow, seemed to be onscreen. It’s an extreme example, I suspect, but rooted in a subtle shift in how we think of our health. Science, even modernity itself, focuses on the disease. The patient is the “host,” but the disease is the defining reality. Hospitals become “infirmaries,” a place that houses sickness.

When I first entered Orthodoxy, serving a starting mission, I took a job as a home hospice chaplain with the local hospital system. Medically, it was unlike anything I had seen before. Our patients were all dying, and our mission was palliative care. There was no “disease” to treat – only patients. There was a weekly “team meeting,” when the whole crew, from doctors to bath nurses, chaplains and social workers, all met and went through our cases. In that setting, the experience and thoughts of a bath nurse were considered as valid and vital as those of the doctor himself. After all, no one was more intimate and “hands-on” with the patient than the bath nurse. It was the first time I ever saw a doctor listening carefully to nurses and chaplains. There was nothing “active” that could be done other than providing comfort and support. The team stood in awe before the reality of dying, inevitably sharing the knowledge that what a patient was facing would be our own lot in time.

Our modern culture, with its brilliant work in science and technology, all too easily moves the discussion away from patients to disease. Patients are “unsolvable” problems for the most part, while a disease can be isolated, measured, and corrected (sometimes). Disease is easy – it’s people that are hard.

In the days following Christmas, I took part in the funeral of a 14 year-old boy who had died from sepsis (“blood poisoning”). It’s the sort of thing that strikes deep grief in the heart of parents and the wider community. Sepsis is more common than people realize, killing more people than cancer. A frequent remark I heard surrounding this particular funeral was how “unnatural” it was – “untimely” would have been a better word. The power of our technology has erected something of a dike against the always present flood of mortality. We forget that we are all going to die.

Acknowledging death was a key in hospice care, both for the patients and the medical team. I have long marveled at the fact that most people in modern culture have never been present for the death of another human being, nor for an actual birth. These are the two universal human experiences, both generally confined to a “hospital.” My last Anglican parish, just before taking up my work in hospice, saw 120 deaths in 9 years. It was a large parish, with an aging congregation. It prepared me for the work that was to come.

My writing was once criticized as being filled with “existential angst.” I suspect that comes from having personally watched death at close quarters so many times. It is not theory: it is intensely real. That same reality is the daily truth of our existence: life is fragile. Despite the ubiquity of human fragility, we hide it well. Our institutions cloak the presence of our mortality. It has struck me profoundly that arguments in favor of euthanasia come from a culture that avoids the truth of our existence. I suspect that the calls for death are primarily comfort measures for the living. We want the sick to go away, quietly.

In one His last parables, Christ said, “I was sick and you visited me.” He was not surrounded by a technological culture that denied death. Sickness and death were as certain then as they are now. However, His teaching recognized then (and it is still true) that the greatest loss in sickness is communion with others. Sickness and suffering isolate us. This is particularly the case in a culture that measures its success by productivity and consumption. Strangely, it is not unusual to hear sick people apologize for being sick!

Obviously, treating sickness is a good thing. My life has been saved several times by interventions. However, the primal intuition, that sickness makes of us a “guest” in need of hospitality, is always true. Every sick person who is cured will become sick again, and, finally, will die.

Scripture teaches us that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The prayers of the Church pray for “a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.” Like the martyrs, we look to die well. By that, we mean for our death to be marked by the victory of Christ over death. One of the thoughts that stayed with me from my hospice years has been how I want to die. I have thought that the last thing I can teach my children is, by God’s grace, to die well. I have seen it – more than once.

Strangely, that desire and vision is also required in order to teach how to live well. The monastic tradition of the Church has the notion that we should always keep death before our eyes. In a culture where sickness and death are hidden from view, such a notion can seem morbid and wrongly formulated. St. Paul said of himself, “I die daily” (1Cor. 15:31). More completely, he said,

“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

These are not morbid notions, but remembrances of the truth. If you lived on the edge of a cliff, only disaster could come from forgetting that fact. We remember the truth of our existence (including its end) so that our life might be shaped by the conscious remembrance of the name of God. When we pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” we proclaim the futility and emptiness of our self-existence, while more profoundly proclaiming the goodness and kindness of God in Christ who, in us, tramples down death by death.

There is a monastic saying in Orthodoxy: “If you die before your die, then you won’t have to die when you die.”

 

54 comments:

  1. Working in healthcare and having it tear at your soul every day… an essay like this by someone who understands…helps.

  2. Fr. Stephen,
    Your words always come to me when I need them. May God continue to bless and guide you. In Christ. ~dd

  3. I used to raise a few steers to supplement the family freezer. I only have a small acreage and it turned out to be a money-losing proposition and a lot of work in the end, but when I was contemplating the termination of this practice, what finally decided it for me wasn’t the money.

    The last steer I raised was one of the smartest I’d known, Oreo. He was also the most personable. If I rested my hand on a fence post, pretty soon he’d come up and lick my arm. When the time came to load him up on the trailer to go to market, he fought pretty hard. He knew. Finally I and the two handlers got him boxed into a corner with his head pressed against the fence rail. I remember going up, putting my hand on the side of his face and saying, “I understand, and I’m sorry. This isn’t the way I want it to be. But it’s the way it has to be for now. Please.”

    He looked at me for a moment. Then he quietly ambled over to the trailer ramp and walked right in. I just didn’t have the stomach for it after that. In fact it has become a vision of how I want to face my death when it comes – or anything in this life that shouldn’t be, but is.

  4. I have two non-Christian friends who are doctors. You will never meet anyone more afraid of death then they are. They have, so far, rejected God and look instead to science and technology to ‘save’ them. They think they will some day be able to transfer their consciences to a robot body or by some other science fiction invention be able to live forever. And they are not alone in this crazy belief. It is very sad, I pray for them often and try to be a good example. Unfortunately there are many like my friends who think they can be saved by their intellect and those are the hardest to reach. But all things are possible with God. Pray for the sick and the suffering every day. Both those who are physically sick and those who are spiritually sick.
    Lord, have mercy.

  5. Father, unfortunately the practice of staring into a computer “recording” information instead of actually seeing and talking with a patient is all too often the norm.

    Frankly, it infuriates me like nothing else (not a proper reaction). I have even asked such folk to move the computer to the side and talk to me. That has yet to succeed. They have no clue what I am asking for.

    The good and experienced caregivers instinctively have their computers off to the side. The worst act like androids never seeing or appreciating the deep humanity of the moment.

    The weird thing is that, especially in hospitals, the info goes in but does not come out for patient care-only for insurance and regulators who have easier access to our medical history than each of us does.

    Nurses in hospitals spend more and more time on “record keeping” and less and less on patient interaction.

    I make a point now to thank the ones who are more interested in me than in the computer.

  6. I’m the man on the other side of the screen the doctor is staring into. I make sure doctors, nurses, et al have access to your health care history from Tacoma to Chattanooga in one of the nations largest health systems.

    On the one hand, I am glad to do my work because it helps people.
    On the other hand, I regret that the system has become so complex that the patient is removed and the visit so impersonal.

    When I came into the Church, I tried to cultivate the habit of remembering death. It has taken much of the fear away, and there is a direct inverse correlation between my prayers and that fear: When one is great, the other is small, and vice-versa.

    Memento Mori.
    Thank you, Father.

  7. Father, another great post! I especially loved your observation: “I have long marveled at the fact that most people in modern culture have never been present for the death of another human being, nor for an actual birth. These are the two universal human experiences, both generally confined to a “hospital.”’ I have been fortunate to be present for two deaths, that of my grandmother and my mother, as well as numerous dogs and cats, and to be present at two births, one, my son’s at home, and at a friend’s home birth. I marvel at how people in our modern culture, after these two experiences, go on about their lives, as if nothing important happened.

  8. Thank you for this post, Father. You articulated beautifully some things I haven’t yet been able to put into words… My mother recently passed away after almost 2 years on hospice. I am so grateful to the hospice team for their care for her and for my family. I am grateful also for the ways that I have been changed through these long years of caring for her. By God’s grace, may we die daily.

  9. Scott,
    My son writes programs for the medical industry. His wife is a nurse as is my second daughter. It’s interesting as I listen to their various experiences. You and I (and they) did not invent the present system – we simply have to struggle to do good as we can, remembering our mortality and that of everyone around us.

    One observation I came to as a hospice chaplain: if at all possible, try to have a woman with you when you die (or with whomever is dying). There are many hidden things about male and female revealed in that moment. There’s a reason we call on the Theotokos, particularly at the time of death.

  10. To think on one’s death is to think always about reality. What is. The mind unaccustomed to examining its own thoughts runs a movie reel of stress and anxiety about health, cures, wholeness, and immortality. To tether oneself to the thought of one’s own death is the work of inquiry. The work of prayer. The thought of death is different than the thought of one’s own death. The modern world is obsessed with death, just not one’s own. Perhaps your critics confuse existential crisis with true inquiry, to always be thinking of reality. Death is not reality, it is a fearful nightmare of the mind. But one’s own death is ultimate reality. Sometimes I think that the two deaths in the Pascal hymn point to the two deaths, one is delusion, one is real. The fear of death is delusion, one’s own death is reality. Trampling down death (fear of death) by death (one’s own death). I know this is not the traditional understanding of the hymn, but it does open me up to the possibility of a Christian ending to my own death. It is the fear of death that is the cause of all suffering, all sin. But we are a Paschal people. We sing the victorious hymn. It is this that I pray I can bring to the deathbed of another, my friends, neighbors, family. I hope I can be open to this as I die, or when I die. To be fully present, fully open, unafraid, and full of repentance and hope. Even love. This is hard for me to articulate, but your post is moving. It felt absolutely real to me.

  11. Fr. Stephen,
    An article that will be read again!
    I think it was in Fr. John Behr’s book where he mentioned that 100 years ago, about every month (for those living in a town, village) someone in the neighborhood, or an acquaintance, a family member, etc., would die. Death was not removed from life in this setting. My mother would sometimes speak to us about this. If a relative died, family members would wash the body and dress it. Then the person’s body would be placed on a bed to be watched over and mourned. The next day would be the burial.
    We saw this in Mexico while living there…death was not removed from the living. I’m sure things there are changing with more embalming, etc.
    Of course, many Orthodox churches now have “burial team” volunteers who follow pretty much the procedure I mentioned above. The monastery which we attend follows the same course for those who repose. The body of the deceased nun is prepared by the nuns and placed in the church, where psalms and prayers are said over the relics until time for the funeral service. It is a very personal, loving way to say good bye to loved ones, as they are committed to the Lord after the beautiful Orthodox funeral service. No glossing over death here. So in contrast to the more plastic, high-tech “celebrations of life.” In Orthodoxy, death is the last enemy to be defeated, as Christ has and continues to “trample down death by death.”

  12. Sort of off topic a little:
    In the Church, the history of hospitals and shelters has even earlier history than St. Basil (though he is certainly one who is known as a founder of the Basiliada).

    For instance, St. Hermione–St. Philip the deacon’s daughter [Acts 21:9]–who founded the xenodokia (hospital-hostel), which became an Orthodox tradition. Also, Sts. Philonella and Zenaida had medical training and set up in a cave a place to heal souls and bodies. St. Ephraim of Syria collected donations to build a house for the poor and sick (and then went to live as a solitary). St. Zoticus, who was in the service of St. Constantine, gave this up and became a Priest. He took care of orphans and the poor, built a large place to treat the ill, and a homeless shelter, taking in lepers who had been condemned.

    Monasteries also, early on, often had shelters or hospitals. For instance St. Theodosios the Cenobiarch–one of the founders of cenobitic Monasticism– built a home for strangers, a shelter for the dying, and an infirmary for laymen (like, or equivalent to xenodokia) and a second infirmary for monks. Sometimes these Monasteries were in the desert, other times they were in the city (like St. Philothei’s Monasteries from which she also built homes for the elderly, schools, hospices and sought to ransom and shelter women fleeing Ottoman harems).

  13. The slow growth across Orthodox Churches of recapturing our death from modernity’s industries is very encouraging. Deacon Mark Barna and his wife, Elizabeth’s book, A Christian Ending, is a wonderful treasure for parishes and others to think about, and get practical about, death and dying. They are good friends. I traveled with Deacon Mark to Mt. Athos several years ago. He was particularly careful to visit and discuss burial practices among the monks – something that hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

  14. A couple years ago, I was out of town for a while for my Papou’s funeral. Afterwards, I was able to attend Lazarus Saturday Liturgy at a nearby OCA Parish. The Orthodox Priest there had roots in Syria & in his homily he spoke about how he was able to visit his ancestral town. He said it was very strange–culturally different–because in the middle of the dirt room, a relative of his was dying while children were playing around him. In our culture, the children would often be ‘sheltered’ from this reality of life.
    The burial and tomb of his relative was also very natural and ancient–probably very similar to how St. Lazarus himself had been buried.

  15. Oh Father! What a post! A million thoughts went through my head reading this one.
    Of course, the picture you used…pictures always capture me. I didn’t know what it was, but while reading your words about hospitals and hospitality I thought of the Good Samaritan. Yes indeed, I smiled at seeing the picture’s title. But that’s what we do…we are fellow aliens, strangers along side those who do not know Christ. But we are not aliens in the Kingdom. Jesus has blessed us with the abundance of Life, in the face of death (well, death has no more ‘face’ now). So how can we possibly turn our back on others, with whom we trod this earth…and turn our back at the hospitality that was freely given to us?!

    I do believe, Father, that if a person does not have “existential angst”, they have missed the boat on the journey to being fully human. It is no easy thing to come to grips with this ‘joyful sorrow’ we speak of.

    Indeed, God prepared you for your life as a pastor through the time spent caring for those in hospice. He does this ‘prep’ work in us, doesn’t He.
    I retired from nursing…my last years spent in ICU, working 7p to 7a, A good shift to work, as the busyness of the ‘institution’ was at rest during those hours. You were able to attend fully to your one, maybe two patients. And while you were at the bedside of those who ‘breathed their last’, you were still functioning as a nurse. There is a bond that is broken (and grief experienced) in the loss of a fellow person, but nothing like the loss realized by the person who is dying (I can only imagine what its like knowing you are going to depart and leave love ones behind) and the felt loss of loved ones. But these things must be embraced if you want to keep your sanity. Christ Jesus, as He does in every circumstance throughout our lives, and beyond, gives assurance, hope, and even peace during times of grief. So we give what we’ve been given, to others.

    There is something that is beyond me to explain…and I probably do not need to, for I think many will understand. Father, you speak here of the care given to dying human beings. You speak of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. I have been at the bedside of those who breathed their last, as a nurse, at another time, as a friend. But never as one who has taken care of someone 24/7…except for one…and that was my beloved Roscoe…yes, my dog. I almost feel like I have to apologize for saying this, shamefully, since after all, he was ‘just a dog’. I have no answer for those who would say such a thing. I willfully stand in shame, then. So be it.
    Roscoe came to me at 6 months old, and 15 years later he died. For the last 6 months of his life he was my hospice patient. Every day, and every minute of the day, was all about his care and comfort. I would have gladly given him the last drop of my blood if I had to. Now, this dog, the night before he died, in whatever way they know, knew he was loosing that life force. He just naturally showed it, and I knew, begrudgingly, what was going on. I had built a special area for him in the living-room, for his safely and for the sake of cleanliness. That night, I waited for him to settle down in his spot, then I went to my room to sleep. Only to hear minutes later his feeble ‘bay’ (a beagle’s). Then quiet. Then another ‘call’. By the 3rd time I got up, went to the living-room, picked up Roscoe, and we both went to sleep (sort of) on the couch. Throughout the night he’d wake up and ‘bay’, so weakly. I’d just kiss him on the head and tell him its ok. In the morning he was still breathing. I sat up and covered him, and said some prayers. When I was done, I turned back the covers, and Roscoe was gone…yeah, he breathed his last. This was Palm Sunday morning. (Right!) In grief, you know, you just go through motions. I put him down on the floor, covered in a blanket, and got ready for church. Came home later and buried him.
    Roscoe was not the first animal I’ve buried here. His death was one of many, but the grief of such a loss I couldn’t have felt any closer in heart, to anyone, like I did that dog. It has not endeared me to death in the least. It is an enemy in the fullest sense of the word. And Christ our God is the only One, the only one possible, to conquer death by entering into death and transforming it to life. And I believe He does this for every life form.
    This was my wake-up call, so to speak. My preparation…for what, I don’t know. Life’s joyful-sorrow, for one…
    May God give us grace!

    Father, thanks so much for this post. It’s another winner!

  16. Drewster…Oreo! Man, you ‘get it’!!
    Oh God…these animals…
    (Lump in my throat reading your comment…)

  17. I have wonderful beautiful tears streaming down my face. I have never been able to adequately articulate to my friends the absolute Beauty of Orthodoxy. The unique way it is able to bring us into the midst of the Living God. All of the profound words and ideas of Father and you respondents is amazing and touching and ALIVE. I wish that I could Express the wonderful comfort you have imparted to my tortured soul. Thank you all. Glory to God for all Things indeed!!!

  18. There is no shame in loving (or grieving) an animal. I think that when Adam names the animals, it’s not “giraffe, monkey, donkey, etc.,” but, ultimately, “Fido, Fluffy, and so on.” We are not “anthropomorphizing” animals – rather, we are slowly raising them up towards personhood, a process I suspect will be fulfilled in the age to come.

  19. Thank you for this article, Father.

    Whenever I think of death (in general, someone else’s, or my own inevitable), I’m reminded of a tombstone I once saw a picture of (I believe it’s in England) and I don’t know who is buried there.
    It reads: “As I am now, so will you someday be.”

    It makes me feel an odd mix of emotions I can’t accurately put into words but it’s stayed with me for at least a decade now.

  20. My late wife, Pamela, died 15 years ago, she and I were very fortunate our priest was there for most of the time as well as friends and chanters. I think we quite literally sang her into heaven. Her best friend was there also. Her experience of Pamela’s death led her and her family into the Church.

    I have known others who came to the Church after attending an Orthodox funeral.

    BTW, exestential angst is about the only proper attitude to have these days as long as it leads to transcendent hope in Jesus. That is where Father’s writings always direct me.

  21. Just two brief comments. First, I pray the pre-communions prayers from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s book, If We Confess Our Sins. The 23rd Psalm is part of those prayers, and until recently I thought the phrase “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” applied to people coming to the end of their lives. Now I look at it as a statement that death is a reality that we should all consider every day. None of us is promised tomorrow. The second thing is that there were hospitals in the Roman empire before St. Basil’s, but they were reserved for the military. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medicine_in_ancient_Rome.
    I am so happy to see that you seem to be writing more in your retirement. I always gain new insights and regularly refer others to your writing.

  22. I have been at the bedside of my father and my brother when they died. It was less difficult at the time of death than after (dealing with the loss of communion).

    I will say that, this last time during my brother’s stay in the hospital, the nurses in the ICU were immensely kind. I, and my family, were very aware of their kindness and I wrote a very long thank you note to them, listing them and thanking each one by name.

    The slow growth across Orthodox Churches of recapturing our death from modernity’s industries is very encouraging. Deacon Mark Barna and his wife, Elizabeth’s book, A Christian Ending, is a wonderful treasure for parishes and others to think about, and get practical about, death and dying.

    Our parish teamed with other parishes in the area to try and put together a team of people to “recapture our death” in an Orthodox manner. That is the book we used but the effort ended. I don’t remember exactly why.

  23. Michael…you know, sometimes that existential angst does lead that person to Christ. I must say, He always stands at the door and knocks.
    Another story:
    That ‘friend’ who I mentioned I was present at their death was my “ex”, Mitchell. We remained friends after the split. In his last week of life he was at the VA, and this fellow (another patient) approached him and they conversed. Mitchell’s daughter was with him. So in the course of the conversation the man asked Mitchell if he was saved (!). So later, he told his daughter”I want to be saved”. Later, the daughter called me. So I went. We talked. Rather, mostly he talked and I listened. I honestly don’t remember the conversation, but it was needful. Two days later the daughter called and said he’s about to die (per the nurse). Again, I went. His breathing was shallow. Yes, about to go. I sat on the bed next to him and leaned toward his ear and told him it’s ok, we’ll take care of things here…now you go to Jesus. Right at that moment, he took a gasping breath…and yes, that was it. It was his last. So Michael, you tell me….I think Mitchell finally heard the Knock. You know what I mean? I told my priest that story. He smiled and said, lets continue to pray for Mitchell.
    Indeed….
    The mercy of God…such infinite mercy…

    (BTW, the hospital chaplain did come in briefly and pray with us. Yes, he was there.)

  24. Thank you Father for this wonderful article.

    And to all commenting for your stories.

    I would like to share a link to a beautiful article (related in its content) by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, for those who may not have seen it before.

    http://www.mitras.ru/eng/eng_06.htm

    Blessings to all (especially personal friends here)
    [I meant to post a comment on the last article, in which the history/impact of this blog was discussed.
    Father, your blog is for me the source of most amazing connections and friends, I will forever be grateful to you for this foremost, not to mention all that I learn through your teaching and guiding us]

  25. Paula, I also “get it”. Totally. I have lost many people, and many beloved pets in my lifetime. May 2019 was the most recent, and in so many ways, the hardest so far. Heidi was given to me as a puppy – after the death of my previous husband. She was the sweetest and most loving dog you ever met. A Great Pyrenees, who loved everyone she met. She was 11 last Feb., and way past her breed’s expectancy – according to the vet – but doing fine. Suddenly her back end went out and she was in a lot of pain. We did all we could and as soon as we were able to get her to a vet – a few days and a lot of pain meds later – there was nothing they could do but put her out of pain. I requested her favorite vet, but the look in her eyes as the shot was given I will never forget. It makes me cry even now. She loved us so much she did not want to leave – even if it meant terrible pain. I was there when my previous husband died, and held his hand thru the 8 1/2 hours after he was taken off life support – as his brain dead body struggled before it died. It was a very hard experience, but even that God used later to let me share with another wife taking her husband off life support – how NOT to go thru the experience I had. I had a headstone made with both of us on it, never dreaming I would even date again, much less remarry. I prayed and thought about what to say as my “parting words”, and it came to me one day – “Don’t grieve for me, my spirit is free. I’ve gone back home with God to be. See you all again in eternity” Pretty much sums it up.

  26. Drewster, many native American tribes before they hunt ask to encounter those animals who, like Oreo, are willing to give their lives.

    Oreo, it seems to me, gave up his life for a friend.

  27. Dear Merry, thank you for comment, my friend. May of ’19, a very recent loss. Oh the grief…!!
    I had a Great Pyrenees too, Merry. Many years ago. Dakota was his name. Yes, that breed has a sweet disposition. And the very same thing happened…his hips gave out. Had to put him down. Very similar story we share, Merry.
    I am sorry to hear about the ordeal with your previous husband. It is a very delicate situation, from the nurses perspective, when to intervene with the medicines that will alleviate the pain. Very delicate. It can not be forgotten that you are also ‘treating’ the loved ones as well.

    Your parting words, Merry…sweet! Yes, it does sum it up!

  28. Michael…about Christ and Mitchell…I have always thought that myself. Thank you!

    Re: Oreo and the Native Americans…that’s just amazing stuff. I greatly admire such an attitude of respect.

    Father…I meant to thank you earlier, for your comment @11:42. I appreciate your thoughts about God’s creatures and our relationship with them. Very encouraging, coming from you.

  29. I absolutely love Hamlet’s line about death and many other things: If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all”.

    A friend of mine died a couple of years ago of heart failure. He had been told five years before that he had about five years to live. Live he did in humility and love. He was ready.

  30. Thank you for this article Father Stephen and all the comments are wonderful.

    Early in my life, among other things, I took in the view of death expounded by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and it stuck with me a long time. The one thing I always had problems with, when I took the time to think more deeply about it, was the idea that I would be dying over and over again and in any particular lifetime would seemingly be none the wiser. Maybe I would come a little closer to their version of enlightenment in a particular lifetime but the scales of Karma seemed incredibly harsh. This eventually led me to Nihilism and various other occult ideas, which I could never fully accept either.

    The first book on Orthodox Christianity I ever read by Father Seraphim Rose’s, The Soul After Death. Whatever some may think of the contents, it broke the hold of my previous beliefs and was actually what pushed my toward where I am now. It was just the antidote I needed to finally give up the Tibetan Book of the Dead for good.

    I thank God he has been merciful to me and allowed me to live long enough to find Orthodox Christianity and the peace promised by salvation in Jesus Christ.

  31. Agata,

    Thanks so much for the link to Metropolitan Anthony’s essay on death. It’s long but very good, densely packed with ancient wisdom.

  32. Drew,
    I am not able to follow the blog as much as I would like to these days, but I am so glad I stopped by to read your story about Oreo (after reading Father’s words in this article, very perfectly timed for what is happening around me in my life).
    To make peace with our own death (as Oreo did with your help) is the greatest gift God can give us (if we accept it). Fr. Zacharias from Essex has a beautiful prayer about our moment of death, which he says we should pray all our life, in preparation of that great and mystical moment, during which we will be very alone (even if surrounded by loving family here on earth).

    This text of Metropolitan Anthony is one of my favorites, with the stories in it (especially the one about how the author of some awful little book contributed to so much evil just because… Hitler read it. Very scary how our actions can have repercussions beyond anything we imagine or intend. Lord Have Mercy!)

  33. Dana,
    I will post it later. I have it hand written from one of Father’s talks or books or question-and-answer sessions he gave…
    I though Elder Sophrony composed it, but when I shared it with him in a personal visit, he exclaimed: “It’s my prayer!” 😊

  34. I’m grateful for this article and the comments, it helps me move towards accepting the reality of the passing away of my dad 5 years ago after a brief and intense period of illness.

    Fr. Stephen, Would you expand on your comment at10:28 about having a woman present at the time of dying and the differences revealed between genders at that time?

    Thanks

  35. Paula,
    As it always seems to happen – we ARE much alike in our life experiences. My previous husband – Shawn – taught me what a good man could be, and even though we only had 21 months together, it was a very intense relationship and soul deep experience. When we met, he was “anti-Christian” in that he believed in God, but not religion. He felt too much hatred and damage was done in the name of religions and Christianity. So, we agreed to disagree on that point. I prayed out loud, and things happened. That kept happening, and so the night before his heart surgery, he said “Don’t worry, God did not bring us together to separate us now.”. I knew then that I had gotten thru to him. He did not wake up from the heart surgery, and was not expected to last the night. He spent 8 days in a non-responsive coma, before he was declared brain dead – except for the brain stem. He had suffered several bad strokes too, and would have been severely disabled had he regained consciousness. I was given the option to take him off the life support that was breathing for him, and let him pass away, or put him in a care home where he would be totally helpless and die of something else later. He was 54; a Vietnam Veteran; a sixth degree black belt who taught karate for 30 yrs,; and ex-bullrider; a computer tech; and a big strong guy who would hate being helpless more than anything else. After talking it over with his children, and mine, we decided that he would want to be removed from the life support. I was sponging him with a cool cloth, for a fever he had, when it dawned on me that he had not been baptized, so I baptized him with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and sealed him with Christ. His whole body jumped like it was hit with an electrical charge, and his eyes flew open. For about 3 min. he could blink his eyes or wiggle his toes if you asked him something, and then he was gone. I thought we had the miracle I had prayed for, but it was a different kind. I believe it was the Holy Spirit saying he was accepted into Christ. I was not Orthodox then, but somehow I knew what needed to be said. I was angry with God for taking the one good husband I had ever had, and I could not see then that this was about Shawn, and not me. God had a lot more planned for me, as you know. It will be 12 years this March 6. 15 yrs on March 6 since Michael’s wife Pamela died. Yes, same date. Another story.

  36. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/12/23/15953/#comment-91760

    This is the prayer:

    “Lord, at the moment of my death, when I will be helpless and unable to pray, I beseech You: remember me. Now, while I am able, I want to entreat your help at that time. Be merciful o Lord God and at that dreadful hour, when my strenght shall fail me and I will be no longer able to cry out to Thee, when neither angel nor man can extend a helping hand to me, do Thou come to my aid and grant me the unspeakable joy of my salvation. Amen”

  37. Merry…such wonders! In that brief 21 months with Shawn, ending with his death, he received Life. Now that’s a beautiful story. Christ leads us to the Cross in such amazing ways.
    I think of that verse in 1 Corinthians – 14 – ” For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife…”. In your heart of hearts you acted upon that desire to bring him to Christ. The “awakening” of Shawn upon those sanctifying words in his baptism was indeed a sign. Just amazing, Merry. Yeah, you realized after your grief that it was ‘all about Shawn’…but, by grace, not apart from your participation. It’s a powerful thing, our prayers to God for salvation…for ourselves and for others. But especially others whom we have grown to love, because we ‘know’ them. We are intimately a part of them. And naturally we want them also to share, with us and all the faithful, Life in Christ. Such is heartfelt love, even in our brokenness. It comes from the depth…and God knows that depth. He has enabled us to love in that way.
    You just can’t stop thinking on the things God does in our lives. Much of it is realized in hindsight. And who would understand, but other believers. That’s one of the beauties of this blog. Many of us don’t have the opportunity to speak like this very often, except when we are at church. And not a few of us live far from church and so our communion together is not as frequent as we’d like.

    Another amazing thing Merry, is the same date of death for both Shawn and Michael’s wife Pamela. Again, story after story.
    BTW, Mitchell was a Vietnam vet too. A very proud man. I’ll just say this: Mitchell’s ending to his life made all the difficulties in our relationship seem like a mere shadow. And too, his daughter and son were very much comforted in what happened. They were there that day.
    God is good, Merry!

  38. Fr Stephen thank you for your wonderful blog site. I have recently found myself thanking God for the day of my death. Is that an odd thing to do?
    I am not from the Orthodox Church, (yet) what would your advice be to an Anglican in the uk, who suspects that you are right about so many things , and is wrestling with the question of whether or not to convert.

  39. Drewster2000 – You story about your last steer went straight to my heart and stayed there. Thank you.

  40. Father – When you said, “ I suspect that the calls for death are primarily comfort measures for the living. We want the sick to go away, quietly,” it reminded me of one of the lessons I learned from the late, great Fred Rogers:

    “People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’”

    I try to remember that whenever I interact with the sick, the suffering, and the dying.

  41. Agata, Thank you for that prayer! It is a wonderful one for all of us to keep.
    Paula – Thank you for your comments. They always resonate so well with my heart and my spirit. I was not sure what made me post that yesterday. But I trust someone needed to read it. You added such insight too.
    I find myself sharing things here at times that, this is perhaps the safest place to share.
    Yes, the date was a surprise. They also died at the same hospital and same floor. Pamela died of complications of something I have and control – diabetes, and when I met him, Michael needed open heart surgery to live and was not going to do it. What Shawn died of complications of. God is amazing! I went thru Michael’s open heart surgery with him too – shortly after we married. His had a good outcome, as you know. It is even stranger, that my first husband – my children’s father – was found dead in Texas on the same day that Shawn died here. THREE deaths on the same date. God has a plan, and it is often mysterious.

  42. H
    God bless you on your journey. I encourage you to read this blog rather than other blog sites. Father Stephen has the blessings of his bishop for writing this blog and my own priest recommended it. The search tool in this blog is helpful to find Fathers Stephen’s words on various topics. You have my prayers.

    In Christ,
    Dee

  43. Fr. Stephen,
    I’m wondering if what we experience at the time of our death is what we have believed about it. I think of the Catholic monk, a cheerful kitchen helper, who always went around saying to others, “Pray for my happy death!” One day, in the kitchen, he fell to the floor with a heart attack. A couple of other monks were there. He looked up at them, smiled, and said, “Arrivederci!,” and died. While you were a hospice chaplain you saw a great many deaths. You mentioned one dear pentecostal woman who, while dying, kept repeating, “Jesus, Jesus, dear Jesus.” Others see it as something very dreadful. As with the prayer Agatha posted above, I know we will pass it alone, yet not alone if we have always prayed beforehand, passing the vale with Christ and His Mother at our side. Another quick story I’ve mentioned before. The young Fr. Ware (Kallistos), went to the bedside of an elderly parishioner who had been long in a coma. As he prayed over her, releasing her soul to God, she suddenly sat up, arms uplifted toward heaven, and reposed peacefully… lying back on her pillow, forever with her Lord.

  44. Father, thank you. I’m in awe that God’s comfort and knowing are brought to me through the pixels forming words you typed with your very own hands. This revelation adds another small insight into the purpose and need of icon and of their purpose.

    Drewster2000, you wrote:
    “When the time came to load him up on the trailer to go to market, he fought pretty hard. He knew. Finally I and the two handlers got him boxed into a corner with his head pressed against the fence rail. I remember going up, putting my hand on the side of his face and saying, “I understand, and I’m sorry. This isn’t the way I want it to be. But it’s the way it has to be for now. Please.”

    He looked at me for a moment. Then he quietly ambled over to the trailer ramp and walked right in.”

    That’s where I broke down and sobbed. Even now, I am tearing up as I write these words. Oreo’s sudden compliance at your words rip at my heart. So much there…I have to stop, I can’t see the screen for my tears.

  45. Paula, David, Jeff,

    I’m sure Oreo would be honored to know his death was so helpful and instructive for others. I hope and pray mine will do likewise. In fact once in awhile when I grumble about having to live my life for others, the thought comes into my mind: “I die daily…”

    Ironically this life is teaching me how to die, so that through the process I can learn to truly live. As William Wallace said in Braveheart, “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”

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