Death is indeed a mystery, but it is also dreadful as an event because it fills the soul with deep pain and bewilderment, numerous unanswered questions, distress and uncontrollable fear. Death defeats common sense, breaks down our sentimental world, and exceeds human measures. One cannot comprehend it, bear it, or even deal with it. Only one thing can defeat death: faith, or even more so, faith in the resurrected Lord. When we chant the Paschal hymn, we say: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death hath He trampled down death, and upon those in the graves hath He bestowed life.” The Resurrection of Christ marks the defeat of death and transforms it from a definite end and merciless threat into a passage to the true life. “O Death, where is thy sting?” exclaims Saint John Chrysostom. Man is made for life, not for death. That is why we so greatly honor the feast of the Resurrection of the Lord.
Death, apart from being a terrible mystery, is also beyond reach. Therefore, the only way to approach it is by the revelation and grace of God, not through intellectual theological contemplation. What happens to the body during the moment of death is of medical concern; yet, what happens to the soul, its state and course, is purely a matter of the Church, namely, of its theology and life, of its divine teaching and the experience of its saints. “How is the soul forcibly parted from the body, from its frame? And how is that most natural bond of union cut off by the will of God?” No science can speak of this mystery, not even formal scholastic theology. As with the Incarnation of the Logos of God by the Virgin Mary, “we cannot fathom this mystery,” but we can only confess it with faith, so also with the mystery of death: “Every tongue is at a loss, even a spirit from the world above is filled with dizziness” in trying to conceive it, or, all the more, to express it. The mystery cannot be conceived, nor can it be interpreted. We can only describe it through the experience of faith and the illumination of divine revelation.
Some say that death could mean the final return of man to the state of non-existence after his fleeting life in this world. Others say it could also mean an endless journey to the unknown. However, the Orthodox know it very well as standing before the righteous judgment seat of God: being translated either to eternal life in His Kingdom or to separation from God in Hades. Within the Church we experience death as the translation to eternity, the passage from this ephemeral world to the truth of the real life, to the eternal Kingdom of God. That is why in the funeral service we chant to the departed: “Blessed is the way in which thou shalt walk today, O soul; for a place of rest is prepared for thee.”
According to Orthodox theology, our life is the greatest gift from God; its beginning and end are entirely in His hands. In this life the grace of God encounters the free will of man, and in this way his salvation is effected. Time constitutes the guarantee of the bond between soul and body.
The moment of death is the par excellence moment during which the value of a human being is defined, and for this reason we ought to deal with it with humility, awe, respect, and an awareness of our limits. In no way should we degrade the mystery to a mere event occurring in time. It is terrible to remove from the body the magnificent vestment of its dignity, when at the same time it is being denuded of the protection of the soul. According to Orthodox theology, death can be described in general terms, but it cannot be accurately defined in its details, because it is more of an unknown mystery than any biological event. And when it comes, we welcome death, as it introduces us to a higher state of life.
In this sense, we are entitled neither to break the sacred bond between soul and body, nor to shorten the lifespan of the psychosomatic union. Although life is a great gift, yet death may become a greater blessing. Therefore, we do not examine the event of death with boldness or excessive curiosity, based on our knowledge, but we stand before this unknown mystery with reservation, respect, and holy fear.
This is the reason why those who attempt to interpret death based on their own intellectual comprehension often fail, and instead of expressing the truth of God, they preach false assertions and erroneous teachings. Thus, it is of imminent importance to clarify the Orthodox truth from the various fallacies—something which is not easy to do. The initiative taken by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona is a wise one, and the load of the undertaken task quite heavy. The entire work is indeed praiseworthy.
The citations in The Departure of the Soul—free of arbitrary criticism and risky interpretations—taken from the God-inspired books of the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, the references to the Decrees of the Holy Synods and the writings of the holy Fathers of the Church, the presentation of rich liturgical texts that have been used for generations in the services of the Orthodox Church and have spiritually nurtured millions of faithful throughout the centuries, the excerpts from the lives of our saints, their wondrous experiences and divine revelations, the rich iconographic illustrations inspired by the spirit of Church Tradition and life, constitute a priceless treasure which we can all learn from and resort to so as to be enlightened and strengthen our faith.
The book is voluminous and includes extensive information, which one can read in detail; however, one has to have the right approach to it. The study and examination of the mystery of death does not aim to satisfy our curiosity or fill us with information on the exact details of the very moment of death. Rather, it aims to generate within us a sense of vigilance and yearning for the eternal Kingdom of God. Faith in our eternal perspective as well as in His love and mercy on our judgment day generates holy fear and longing for His Kingdom. Thus, we shall stand before the door of Paradise that will either open or remain closed so that some may go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt. 25:46).
Death is a given fact of human life; when we approach it as a mystery, it becomes the best window through which to see life.
Allow me to conclude with a personal experience of a dormition of an unknown monk on Mount Athos:
It was in a cell in the depths of the Athonite desert that I, now as a priest-monk, had a wonderful experience of the dormition of an ascetic who was known to God but unknown to me and to most of the world. I remember, years ago, when I was visiting two friends of mine who were monks at a hermitage in Kafsokalyvia, how an elder, who lived nearby, informed us that he had a very important announcement to make. The news was that he sensed that he was about to leave this world. As they say in the monasteries, he asked us to work our prayer-ropes all together in order to ease the departure of his soul. Such were his yearning and thirst to leave this world that they were beyond us, but we heeded his resolve and began to pray: “Lord, Jesus Christ, grant rest to the soul of your servant, the monk X.” He started to make the sign of the cross and to repeat: “Christ is Risen.” He made the sign of the cross again, once more saying: “Christ is Risen.” We continued our prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, grant rest to the soul of your servant.”
As time went by his voice gradually became more peaceful, and all the time more weak: what he was gaining in heavenly expression, he was losing in terms of earthly time. After a few minutes he gathered together all his strength and, in a voice full of praise, said: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!” tilted his head and breathed out a half breath: that half of the whole breath that God had given him, as He has given to all of us; the half that is necessary for the body to stay alive. And he kept the other half: the half that is essential for the soul to have eternal life; the breath that is the most valuable possession of every person in this life; the breath that works as fuel for the next life. The room immediately filled with a heavenly fragrance. I do not know if this was due to the breath that he breathed out or the one that he retained. The first was the affirmation of a holy life; the second, the promise of an eternal future. In some miraculous manner his body maintained its flexibility and warmth and exuded the scent of his sanctity as a form of consolation. Our eyes filled with tears. We were not lamenting the one who had departed: we felt sorrow for those who remained.
Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, His Eminence Nikolaos Hatzinikolaou, Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, holds a B.S. in Physics from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, an M.A. in Astrophysics from Harvard University, an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering and Hemodynamics from Harvard University.
He has worked as a researcher at the Cardiovascular Laboratory of the New England Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, at the Department of Anesthesiology of the Massachusetts General Hospital, and at the ICU of the Boston Children’s Hospital. He has also served as a consultant for NASA and the Arthur D. Little Company in Space Medical Technology.
He was awarded two Master’s degrees in Theology from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, and a Ph.D. in Theology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He has taught medical, bioethical, and theological courses at Harvard University, MIT, University of Athens, University of Crete, and the Theological School of Balamand in Lebanon; he founded the Hellenic Center for Biomedical Ethics and serves as its director; and he is the chairman of the Synodical Bioethics Committee of the Church of Greece. His Eminence is also the author of a number of theological and scientific articles and books.
A profound quest for God led him to Mount Athos. There, in the persons of unknown ascetics, in the traditional life of simple monks, and in the Jesus prayer flourishing in the Athonite desert, he recognized the uniqueness of the Orthodox faith and truth which he experienced in a revelation of the hidden man of the heart [1 Peter 3:4]. Receiving the monastic tonsure, he became a member of the holy synodia of the Monastery of Simonopetra, and in 2004 was elected Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece.