I started to write this post just before the start of the pandemic last year and then suddenly death seemed to be everywhere and very close and I wasn’t sure it was the right moment. Things have gotten worse and better and worse and better and perhaps no moment is better to talk about this than now anyways. The truth is that we are wise to always keep death in our minds – our final falling asleep in the Lord – to help us keep a right mindset, use our time we’ll and not get caught up in the things of the world.
Image from Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash
The Big Secret
At the start of 2020 we lost two people close to us. My husband lost his grandfather at 99 years old and I lost a dear college friend. She was 37. From a secular perspective death is a tragedy. It is loss. It is the end. But even for those of us who truly believe it is not the end – death can be hard to understand and accept. Yet it is a part of life. And when we have children we wonder how to let them in on the big secret – We all die.
Most of us are scared of death – even while we hold dearly to the faith that we will depart into the arms of our creator – our loving Father – to a place of no suffering where lion and lamb lie together in peace. Still our faith is weak. I know my faith is. And there is a sense of the unknown – probably because my heart is clouded by sin and earthly cares and I don’t allow myself to truly know the completeness of God’s love.
And I don’t know exactly what is there. And I know that despite knowing that I must live in the world but not of it – detached – I am so very attached. And especially I am attached to these precious children our Lord has gifted me. I pray that he will take me before he takes them and yet this too is so hard to hold. As parents, we don’t want our children to fear death – ours or their own. If something happens to me I want them to know I am always with them and if somehow God calls one of them early I want them to know from the depths of their souls that they will always be loved and cherished and what awaits is even more glorious than they could ever imagine. I need them to know that! But how?
Talk about it together
For starters in our home we talk about death quite a bit. My husband and I are both doctors and our work gives us plenty of opportunities to pray for the sick and the souls of the recently departed. Our older neighbor died two years ago and we talk about her – being with God. And ten years ago last year my father died and we talk about Granddaddy Nicholas and how I miss him and how he is watching over me still I believe.
We try to make it simple. When someone has died we say they are “with God”. My eldest is quick to talk about how amazing it will be to be with God. We talk about how we will wait for each other there and meet up with all the people we have loved and many more souls there. We know we must wait till we die to see those people again. So my oldest asked: So we won’t ever be able to see E (His great grandfather) again in life? ” “No,” I said. “Not in this life but in the next. And them forevermore.”
How we describe heaven?
I can’t help it. I really talk heaven up. And we should right? It is what fills that hole that we so often feel in our lives. It is what completes us. It is what we were designed for. It is home. And yet so many worries creep into our minds. I, personally, am 100% sure that I’m completely unworthy. I am terribly jealous and can fly into fits of anger. I am greedy and selfish and proud. So I worry about my day of judgement and what will happen then.
Even growing up Orthodox I always thought of hell the way popular culture depicts it – or perhaps as Dante depicts it with the four headed dog chewing us relentlessly. Or the rich man across the chasm from Abraham and Lazarus. Cut off from God’s love forever. Unimaginable despair. Even Jesús describes it as a “first furnace” and a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:42). The good news is that as I have grown and learned more about our Faith I have learned that most Orthodox don’t viee “hell” quite as it is made out to be in the comic books or the billboards.
Saint Symeon the New Theologian described things thus:
“God is truth and light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The ‘books’ will be opened. What are these ‘books’? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice in seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.
So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation – and there really is – it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell.”
The idea of hating God seems very strange. Even most atheist don’t “hate” God, but perhaps just ignore him. In ousr home we emphasize all people as God’s beloved children’s “believers” and “unbelievers” alike. We often talk about friends who don’t believe in God or shw interest in God as not “knowing” God or having forgotten” about God. (More on this in a future blog.) It seems a true enough concept. Even now as we make our way through the old testament we see many times how the fleeing Israelites (who had witnessed God physically as cloud and fire) were still so quick to forget God and build a golden calf to worship.
But likely the “hate” St. Symeon refers to is a hate that has built up out of disconnection from God (who is love) and even the hate we may have in our hearts for our enemies whoever and wherever we perceive these enemies to be – from an offensive politician, to a friend we feel betrayed by, to a stranger who cuts us off in traffic.
In a beautiful article entitled “Why we need Hell” Fredericka Matthews-Green uses the church father’s writings to describe that hell isn’t a place, but a state of being (like St Simeon above describing the internal conditions of hell) and that it is through the continued hardening of our hearts that we come to find God’s presence unbearable torture. He is the all-consuming fire and His presence will either feel like a torturous flame or, if we are ready to be consumed in Him, heaven.
Starting, but Simply
Hell and judgement aren’t simple concepts and most of us as parents are still trying to wrap our own heads around it. Our Children will hear about Hell though. Even while our culture may try to eliminate any signs of God, people still somehow manage to include hell and the devil as terms to throw around – if only in jest. So we won’t long escape our children’s questions.
We have been taking our own time to follow through Elissa and Christina’s wonderful Journey Through the Parables from Tending the Garden of our Hearts. The first parables – especially of the wheat and the tares and the dragnet – begin to tackle the concept of judgement head on. And they do so in pointing out not that Christians are saved and others doomed – a destructive and pharisaical concept – but that being a true Christian means putting constant effort behind our belief – bearing the fruits of the spirit in our day to day: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And that we must only ever judge our own efforts as what is in the hearts of others is not known to us. (More on this later).
So, as always, we are reminded that we can only teach and impart what we hold in our hearts already. But if we can work towards an understanding of death as the completion of our journey towards God, and God’s love for each of us as beyond anything we can comprehend, then we can hope to transmit this sense when we speak of death with our children – others and our own.
Children’s understanding of death will shift and change and mature over time and a 2 year old isn’t ready to understand concepts that a 7 or 9 year old is. But that doesn’t mean that the 2 year old isn’t listening. I would urge, that we cannot shy away from speaking of death because of age – although we can move slowly and assess our children’s readiness and understanding. Children begin to hear about death from an early age and it is our job to help them to frame it not as pop culture would have them believe – which will only produce fear and despondency, but as St. Basil describes “the joy and divine palace of His glory, where there is the ceaseless sound of those that keep festival, and the unspeakable delight of those that behold the ineffable beauty of Thy countenance”.
Yes, there will be so many questions and you won’t have the answers. My 4 year old a few nights ago was wondering if we will have to find out houses again once we are in heaven. We talk about how our bodies don’t go right away. And we admit that we just don’t know, but trust God that it will feel like home – a place without sorrow and suffering where every tear will be wiped away. And we work daily to soften are hearts, to remind ourselves of God’s love, to show our faith in works and to love one another that we be counted worthy to stand before the Son of Man (Luke 21:36).
With love in Christ,