HOW OUR DEPARTED ONES LIVE: THE EXPERIENCE OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH. By Monk Mitrophan. Translated, Archpriest John R. Shaw. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Publications, 2015. 452 pps. ISBN-10: 088465401X
The Wall Street Journal ran a headlining piece on March 31, 2011 entitled, “The Last Laugh,” that anecdotally reported on a sea change in the conduct of funerals in the United States in which “families add humor, foibles to the eulogy.” A theologian is quoted in that article for this insight: “[T]oday’s funerals are shielding mourners from facing the sorrow of death,” such that a “good funeral is now marked by the level of laughter.”
A long lost book written by a Russian monk some 130 years before these jarring revelations of the Journal piece has the power not only to shield, but to erase, that unfortunate “sorrow of death” so ubiquitous in our American culture today.
That book, How Our Departed Ones Live: The Experience of the Orthodox Church, has just come out in a second printing (in English translation) by Holy Trinity Publications, the publishing arm of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York with the blessing of His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The 2005 first printing, after the initial translation into English by the Archpriest John R. Shaw (now retired Bishop Jerome), followed on the translation of Monk Mitrophan’s 1880 Russian work into French in 1884, which is important for this review, mainly because this second printing includes contemporaneous reviews from French and Belgian reviewers that form an excellent starting point for understanding just how powerful, and critically important to providing an antidote to Western society’s attempts to ignore—no, better said, dumb down—death, as reported on by the Journal. For example, from the French newspaper Journal de St.-Petersbourg of March 17, 1882 comes this recommendation: “[W]e hasten to say a few words about [this book], in the certainty that theologians and clergy of the West, and, in general all lovers of spiritual literature, regardless of denomination, will read it with equal interest.”
The reason for this glowing review is plain: The Monk Mitrophan divided his work into four parts that perfectly organize the major aspects of such a broad, and staggering, topic as “life after death,” making the challenge of tackling the subject matter that may cause many readers to shun as too prodigious a task, into an accessible and understandable read.
The four parts are:
- Death in Relation to Immortality; Concerning Death
- The Inner Connection and Mutual Relationship Between the Living and the Dead
- The Dogmatic Teaching of the Church Concerning Intercession by the Living for the Departed, and Requesting Forgiveness for the Sins of Certain Sinners
- Life Beyond the Grave: Its Inner Connection with the Preceding Sections
An immediate reaction to this tetralogy for those who are not Orthodox might well be: Hold on. This book is based on a purely Russian Orthodox worldview. I’m not Orthodox, and certainly not Russian, so why should I read this?
Well, beside the reasons given in that 1884 French book review, here’s why: Our erudite monastic author certainly does write from an Orthodox perspective, but not merely from that perspective. His erudition is too broad to ignore how civilizations throughout time and geography have viewed death and life thereafter. In the Fourth Part, our author recounts mythology and anthropology as varied as the wandering shades of Homer, the holiday of the dead in Nagasaki, and Virgil’s account of Aeneas descending into Hades through Lake Avernus within a robust and incredibly thorough review of the writings of the Eastern (and some early Western) Fathers of the Church on life after death.
The Fourth Part is in sympathetic vibration with a recent Russian language bestseller that was only months ago translated into English: Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin (Oneworld Publications, London; Lisa Hayden, translator), that takes place during the Plague Years of the 1400s in Russia, Central Europe, and the Holy Land, filled with holy fools, unmercenary saints, and peripatetic pilgrims, a the quest for redemption that has been lovingly compared to the works of Dostoyevsky and The Name of the Rose. In a scene from Laurus set in a monastery in medieval Rus, the Elder Nikandr in referring to the cemetery of the monastery during a discussion with the protagonist says ,“It is live people who lie there, after all.” When the protagonist answers, “I saw only the dead,” the Elder responds: “For God, all are living.”
The Third Part is the most distinctly Orthodox section, teaching the Orthodox Christian concept that we, the living, are encouraged to continue to pray for our departed relatives and friends after they fall asleep in the Lord. Even in this section, our monastic author inserts an early allusion to “A Short Account of the Customs and Mores of the Ancient Romans” as support for this very Orthodox concept. This custom—praying for the departed—is, of course, substantiated in the main by the Old and New Testament, and the writings of the Fathers, especially this excerpt from “[t]he great ecumenical Doctor, St. John Chrysostom” (as Monk Mitrophan calls him). Quoting St. John Chrysostom:
Those remaining on earth should not weep, not be distraught, but rather rejoice over the death of one close to their heart. One should not weep, but rejoice, whether the departed be righteous or a sinner…. Thus the prayers of the living for the dead save them both. To what end is distraught sorrow when the living can find mercy from God for the dead.
Are not these words of the Golden Tongued Orator of Constantinople, Brothers and Sisters, the serious, and effective, antidote for the “sorrow of death” that the Wall Street Journal bewails, rather than the counterfeit, forced humor, and embarrassing public recounting of the foibles of the decedent, that are apparently ubiquitous today in the “life celebrations,” as they are now euphemistically called, in today’s America?
Father Gregory Winsky is a priest and cleric of St. Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a parish of the Patriarchal Parishes in the USA (Moscow Patriarchate). In addition to his ongoing practice of intellectual property law, Father Gregory is a professor at the Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, presently teaching a course in Law and Justice in the Orthodox World.