Death is the great enemy of humanity. Only by an act of sustained denial do we not see it for what it is—the destruction of personal identity, the destruction of love and community, the destruction of meaning and hope. Atheists tell us that death is a natural phenomenon, neither to be feared nor dreaded. One can only admire the depth and commitment of their self-delusion and superficiality. Anyone who has hoped that life has ultimate purpose, both for themselves and for the world, must hate death. Anyone who has spent years building careers, institutions, and communities must hate death. Anyone who has truly loved and joined his future to the future of his or her beloved must hate death. Upon the death of his wife, the Plowman from Bohemia curses death and demands a trial before God: “Grim Destroyer of mankind, vengeful Persecutor of the whole world, frightful Murderer of all men, Thou, Death, be cursed!”
If death is the final word, then mortal life, with all its suffering and loss, is ultimately absurd.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (MacBeth V.5)
The great poets and artists have understood this. Neurotics who spend hours with their psychologists understand this. If Ernest Becker is right, at the heart of human violence and pathology is the repression of a terrible knowledge, the inevitability of our extinction. We yearn for an immortal existence that is not our own. As Abraham Maslow memorably expressed the tragedy of the human predicament, “We are simultaneously worms and gods.” Becker comments: “There it is again: gods with anuses.”
Nor is the existential crisis ameliorated by imagining a continuation of life beyond death. Consider the ghastly existence of the shades in Hades, dramatized in The Odyssey of Homer. Odysseus attempts to offer the dead Achilles some measure of solace. The great warrior replies, “O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying. I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be king over all the perished dead.”
Humanity’s dread of death, writes Dumitru Staniloae, is grounded in the mystery of personhood:
It is through death that the mystery of our existence as persons is revealed, as well as the depth and importance of our personal existence. The mystery of death and the mystery of personhood are tied together: when death is no longer experienced as a mystery, one’s entire life becomes trite. And vice versa, when personhood is no longer experienced as a mystery, death also ceases to be perceived as mystery. … But the person—as the greatest mystery of reality, as the only way in which man consciously experiences reality, and as the single reality that is not understood but understands everything, or is inclined to understand everything—does not allow himself to be shamefully disregarded by the supremely obtuse understanding of this strange phenomenon of existence. Death must represent a mystery that is equal to the mystery of the human person. (The Experience of God, VI:3-4)
We can ignore the inevitability of our death and pretend it will not eventually touch our lives and the lives of all we love. We might fight against it and seek to delay it. We might resign ourselves to it. After a lifetime of suffering, loss, and failure, perhaps we might even look forward to it as release from our burdens. “I am leaving because I am bored,” George Sanders wrote in his suicide note. But what is this boredom but recognition of the futility of being. No matter how hard we try, we cannot achieve the absolute meaningfulness that we crave. And so we abandon hope and topple into the abyss. “Let the day perish wherein I was born,” cries out Job in despair.
Yet the very fact that we despair witnesses to the mystery of existence. How is it, if death is so natural, that we experience it as something so profoundly unnatural. As the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev observes: “Not base fear but horror and anguish which death inspires in us prove that we belong not only to the surface but to the depths as well, not only to temporal life but also to eternity” (The Destiny of Man, p. 250).
But for those who live in the hope of the gospel, death becomes both fulfillment and promise—the conclusion of a mortal life lived, suffered, and sanctified in union with the risen Christ, and rebirth into the wholeness of theosis. In Christ, declares Staniloae, death becomes “a bridge to an endless existence whose meaning is its plenitude in God” (VI:4). Because the God-Man has redeemed death on Calvary, death gives meaning to life. In this faith the martyrs of the Church have courageously faced the violence of their persecutors. And so St Ignatius of Antioch pleaded with his brethren in Rome not to interfere with his planned execution:
I long after the Lord, the Son of the true God and Father, even Jesus Christ. Him I seek, who died for us and rose again. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me in attaining to life; for Jesus is the life of believers. Do not wish to keep me in a state of death, for life without Christ is death. While I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of Christ, my God. (Ep. Rom. 6)
An unbelieving and despairing world finds the joy of the martyr incomprehensible.
The secret of a holy and redemptive death, states Staniloae, is surrender: in surrender to the One who is resurrection and love, death becomes the “means for union with Him; it is a means for the human being’s fuller entrance into his mastery over himself as a person, even though death has its origin in the beginning punishment” (VI:13). Thus the ascetics of the Church have summoned the baptized to live their lives in penitent preparation. Believers daily die with Christ in the struggle to unite themselves to God, “for only by surrendering to Him, in order to attain a full communion with Him in freedom, do they truly achieve mastery over themselves” (VI:12). Surrender is simultaneously obedience and repentance, death to sin and the enslaving passions. For a life so lived, physical death becomes “an act of ultimate decision” (VI:12).
Fr Dumitru is well aware that not all are given the opportunity to appropriate their lives as surrender to God and willing embrace of death. He proposes an answer that some, including myself, will find unsatisfactory:
To the question of why some persons end up indifferent although they are given more time to leave this state of indifference, and again why the lives of others end before their still very oscillating mode of life is given a clear orientation, or why some die during childhood before deciding whether they will live for God or outside of Him—to all these questions, perhaps the response can be found in the fact that God sees in the deeper disposition of their souls that those in two former categories will not acquire any firmness, for which cause they will not ever be able to leave their former state. And in the case of children, God knows the direction toward which they would have gone once they attained the ability to decide on their own. Among others, some are left to actualize the good that they are capable of in this life, so that they may receive the most beautiful crown for their efforts and may also be an example for others; and still others, although on a good path, are taken before finishing this path because they are known up to where the path will (or will not) lead farther on. (VI:16)
Not only does Staniloae’s proposal raise questions about the coherence of divine foreknowledge and its compatibility with human freedom; but it also raises the even more serious question of why God created this world knowing that some would irredeemably fail in their vocation to become persons. We will return to these questions in future articles.
As paradoxical as it sounds, personhood is realized in the free acceptance of mortality. The person is not nullified by this acceptance, “because the surrender is a voluntary act. The eternal union with God always has in itself the human person’s act of surrender, or of mystical death with Christ, so that in his union with God he may be maintained eternally as a person and so that in total surrender full unity may be maintained” (VI:17).
And at the heart of all of this is the trinitarian circle of love:
Thus, the last resort of the life with Christ (which is at the same time a death with Him), and therefore the last resort of the final death and its tendency toward eternal life, is love. Out of love for God, the human person accepts all his ascesis, which ends in death. Out of love for God the Father and also for the human person, the Son of God accepted death as a man so that we may be able to die with Him, also out of love for God. (VI:28)
The gospel of the Crucified does not mitigate the bitterness of death. It certainly does not sentimentalize it. But through Pascha believers may now surrender themselves unto death as a necessary ascetical act that achieves the stability and unity of the person within the transcendent life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.