There is no better teacher than Death: Teachings and Lessons from the Grave
by Bryan Stiles
The title of this essay is deliberately provocative, meant to bluntly establish that, however morbid it may seem to one individual, the grave is truly one of our most tangible spiritual teachers in this realm. The first stanza of this title, first promulgated by St. Cosmas Aitolos, testifies to Orthodoxy's rich tradition, that death is a viable guide for our theosis. Even if we look throughout the various components of Orthodoxy, we find death to be a very eminent, re-occuring, and transformative trait. Throughout the centuries, men have pondered on what lies beyond the grave, yet neglected to focus on the very foundation of such a journey. Too often we spend day-dreaming our personal fantasies concerning heaven, indulging in our self-delusions, and give little credence to what could happen to us tomarrow or this very hour. This consequently gives rise to the greediness that often prevails among Earth's societies today - and this, this intrinsic flaw in our very nature, will be our main focus.
Let us first recall a relevant story, from an Athonite Gerontikon. A monk approached his elder, inquiring the already 100 year-old man, "Now that you will depart from this temporary life, what do you feel?" The wise and frail elder replied, saying "I feel such happiness and tranquility, as if I am going to a wedding."
Unfortunately, this type of euphoria concerning death is often lost in the common world. Especially within the diaspora, facing all Orthodox Christians of all jurisdictional backgrounds, one finds indulgence in the flesh around every corner. The reason why I say this euphoria is so rare, is because its antithesis reigns supreme over the general populous! It is indeed very hard to focus on death and the grave when we find ourselves already pre-occupied with sin and the passions therein (albeit, with our natural tendancy to flout our chest and become proud, this realization may not all the time be clear). So to re-adjust our lenses, we must take a multi-path course. I propose that we, sinful and despiseful as we are, first must take a look at those who have become "dead" to the world (i.e. monastics and clergy). Furthermore, through their sufferings, wisdom, and continual reflection over death, we may come to understand for ourselves the importance of death and what we must do now to prepare for our earthly departure. However, there is also a very direct connection in which we can realize this more clearly.
Imagine you are walking along the road, with cars passing by. There is no sidewalk in which you are strolling along, and you have little space on the shoulder of the road between the brush to your right and the rushing cars to your left. Your heart races and sweat surfaces on your forehead. Something hits your stomach as a stark realization comes to mind: "Wow, there is a definite possibility that I could get hit and die at any moment."
Well, I dont intend to paint such a terrifying picture. And no, I'm not saying that we should keep fear upon our mind constantly. What I'm saying is that everday incidents and possibilities could take us in our present state - without having any moment to repent of our sins in the day. Therefore, what we need to keep in our heart is not fear of impending danger but sincere repentence, BECAUSE of these possiblities in the world. To instill within ourselves this obedience of love, prayer, and repentence, I ask to turn to my initial example of the monastics - and what we call, joyful mourning.
Monastics are a beautiful example, a shining beacon that show us how we really need to act as Orthodox Christians. Just by the fact that they adorn themselves in black reminds us of their dedication to keep death upon their mind - and the benevolence and inexhaustible mercy of Our Lord. By keeping their death upon their mind, and their hopeful meeting with the Lord, they keep the words of "O God have Mercy upon me a sinner," upon their tounges every minute of the day. With each step, with each breath they sigh with a joyful mourning that both makes them look forward to the grave, by their continual repentence.
The holy St. Isaac of Syria once wrote, "Let us love silence till the world is made to die in our hearts. Let us always remember death, and in this thought draw near to God in our heart -- and the pleasures of this world will have our scorn." When we seek out the countenence of the Lord by dwelling upon the grave in this sincere repentence, we truly come closer to Him. We become aware of our mortality and our frailty as humans, and that truly brings us to our knees. Because in this instance, falling upon your face in the face of death, towards the Lord, is equal to ascending to Heaven.
This is the paradox of Orthodoxy: death brings life; darkness is light; mourning in joy; the dead speak with more wisdom than do the brightest teachers on earth. We are to look to the grave, see what our predecessors have done, and use them as a rule, accompanied by Holy Scripture and Tradition, to ascend higher in theosis. Whether they lived a rotten or holy life, let us look to the dead and use their examples so we may be found worthy in the sight of the Lord.
May God have mercy on us all. Amen.