In the midst of his exposition of of Christ’s individual judgment upon the soul, Fr Dumitru Staniloae observes that “while the Holy Fathers make Christ’s judgment dependent upon human beings’ works during their lives on earth, the funeral prayers and hymns—imbued with pity for him who departs, and with a humble understanding of human weakness—place the emphasis almost exclusively on Christ’s forgiveness. They shine a brighter light upon Christ’s active role at the judgment, and they do so in order to affirm the hope that Christ will make use of His mercy in forgiving the deceased” (The Experience of God, VI:62).
Up to this point Staniloae has been relatively content to articulate the faith of the Church by appeal to the Holy Fathers. As we have seen, he has presented us with a stark picture regarding the eternal destiny of the departed—only those who die in a state of faith and repentance will be saved. Yet Staniloae recognizes that his exposition is incomplete. I’m almost tempted to suggest that here he takes off his theological cap and dons the cap of the pastor. Standing before the mystery of the death and sin, the Church can only utter one word, “Lord, forgive.”
In the place of your rest, O Lord, where all your saints repose, give rest also to the soul of your servant.
The Church appeals to the incarnate Son to show mercy in the exercise of his judgment. “Christ’s judgment,” Staniloae elaborates, “does not only consist in a passive ruling, made according to the souls’ intrinsic characters when the souls are separated from the body, but also in an act of power to forgive their sins. All the Church’s prayers and hymns of the Church from the funeral service are based on this faith in Christ’s power to forgive sins at the judgment, as well as his mercy” (VI:62).
This is a potentially explosive kerygmatic claim, and Staniloae almost immediately moves back into theological mode to dampen the explosion. But the word of hope stands. The Church prays for mercy. The Church prays for forgiveness. The Church prays for the salvation of the departed. With the Most Holy Theotokos and all the saints she intercedes for the deceased. I am not well acquainted with the canons that guide a parish priest on whom he may bury (I would be curious to hear from any priests, Orthodox or Catholic, regarding the canonical restrictions under which they minister); but I suspect that most pastors simply bury whomever they are asked to bury (canons permitting), without worrying too much about whether the deceased was a great saint or a great sinner (or even a generous supporter of the parish); and I’m confident they do not cross their fingers behind their backs when they chant the prayers. Death is the great leveler.
And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind, forgive him (her) every sin he (she) has committed by thought, word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin: You alone are without sin, Your righteousness is everlasting, and Your word is true.
What else can the appeal to the Lord’s authority to forgive the departed mean but invocation of the eschatological power to give to the soul that which was missing in his life and death: “The prayers at the parting of the soul in particular are offered on behalf of the deceased, expressing his repentance during the moments immediately prior to the parting of the soul” (VI:65). We do not of course know whether the deceased in fact died in a state of repentance, yet the Church prays as if he did. The hope of the Church transcends the books of theologians. May not the Lord bestow upon the departed the transformative gift of repentance? Is the omnipotent God of Love impotent before our hardened hearts?
But I am putting a construal upon the words of the Romanian theologian that he most certainly did not intend. Staniloae makes it clear that he believes that our Lord only forgives, can only forgive, the repentant soul. The prayers and hymns of the Church offered on behalf of the deceased “presuppose his repentance at least in the final moments of his life, or the soul’s departure from the body in a repentant state” (VI:64-65). Yet why pray for mercy and forgiveness if the divine judgment is a foregone conclusion, totally conditioned by the inner state of the departed? Staniloae himself acknowledges: “The Church prays even today for all those who have fallen asleep, both righteous and sinners, and for their salvation, not knowing which ones are righteous” (VI:227, n. 33).
Memory eternal, we cry. Long after the body has been laid in the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, we continue to pray for the departed soul. In faith we maintain relationship with him or her, and we ask our heavenly Father to do so likewise. We assume responsibility for the salvation for the person we loved—or perhaps did not love. This dialogical structure is “imprinted” on every human being. “The responsibility for one’s neighbor, nourished by the responsibility toward God,” Staniloae writes, “is the engine that gives power to prayer and action toward others. For it keeps man’s being dialogically connected to God and at the same time to his neighbors. God binds us to Himself so that through Himself He may bind us to others. He is the central power station to which all the wires that carry the current (that is, life) lead and from which all start” (VI:97). God wants to save all men, and this is why God does not forget the dead and why he enjoins his Church to remember and pray for the dead.
Staniloae’s understanding of the cosmic dimension of the Church is expressed in this explication of prayer for the departed within the life of the Church and the Holy Trinity:
There is a strong faith that Christ, who became man out of mercy for all human beings so that He may save all (1 Tim 2:4), unite all, and reconcile all in Himself (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10), in His all-loving heart—that is, so that all may return to the mutual love to which He urged us (John 15:12)—rejoices in and takes into account this manifestation of love from all on behalf of the soul that is on the verge of eventual eternal damnation. The Church on earth tearfully prays to Christ and asks the angelic world, as well as the Church in heaven, to join her in an immense or cosmic prayer to Christ so that He may give rest to the soul of the departed along with the host of the righteous. … The entire Church on earth—for the priest, who has alongside him the Church community, represents the entire Church with which he is in communion—and the Church in heaven are united in prayer around a person’s soul. This demonstrates the priceless value of a person, as well as the importance of the communion of the Church. Every funeral service is an opportunity to strengthen the unity of the Church in love. The Church’s sobornicity is an extremely important affirmation for the eternal fate of every soul. The Holy Apostle Paul urged us to “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication with all the saints” (Eph 6:18), that is, with all the members of the Church. And as in the Church that prays, the Spirit Himself prays, or in the Church’s solidarity as a body Christ Himself is found, it can be said that through His Holy Spirit Christ Himself moves the Church to again and again unite in prayer for every soul of a deceased believer. This is because the Church desires to forgive and save him, if he had faith in Christ’s power to save him and if he sees in the prayer of many persons for him that he was not completely unfruitful in their lives. (VI:73-74)
Staniloae then goes on to speak of the risen Christ as the transcendent Subject of all creaturely subjects:
The bosom of Abraham, or the courts of the righteous who are under the same light of Christ and who are warmed by the same love of Christ, signifies the union of all in Christ’s love. He who loves Christ does not experience Him as an object but as another subject, as the Subject from whom the endless love, the source of every love, shines forth. But to experience another as a subject means to experience him in yourself as a subject of your subject, as moving your subject. In this sense the Holy Apostle Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). And this occurs in every love. All those whom I love are subjects in myself, without being confused among themselves and without me being confused in them. But among all whom I experience as subjects in myself, the central, leading subject, the source who pours forth an infinite will for communion is Christ. With his great love for me, He makes me experience all as subjects within myself, because He experiences them as subjects within Himself. Through the paramount intensity of Christ’s presence within me, I am able to experience the presence of all the others in me as subjects. And when I experience another person in whom Christ is so intensely felt as a subject, through faith, through him I can also experience Christ as a subject. But it is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ a subject in me, or who opens me up as a subject to Christ and who unites all person with Christ within me. … Hell means frozen loneliness, which is why it is the extreme lessening of life. Paradise means, on the contrary, the intimate presence of all in all, the intimate presence of all in God, the One who is infinite in life and love. (VI:74-75)
We pray for the departed. We pray that God will remember them. And thus they remain alive in the divine memory. They do not dissolve into the nothingness. They remain connected to all of creation and to all of humanity. They remain persons. “God never addresses Himself to a person in isolation because He does not see them in isolation” (VI:99). God remembers the dead through the prayers of the Church, and those prayers are prayers for mercy and forgiveness, not condemnation. “The Church strongly believes that this collective mercy and prayer, which springs forth from the mercy of the Son of God who became man for us and from trusting in His mercy, must have an effect at the judgment of Christ,” Staniloae affirms (VI:73). And again he writes: “If the prayer is intense and persistent, it is impossible that it will not soften the hardness of that person” (VI:95). And who prays more intensely and persistently for every departed soul than the Mother of God? Who prays more intensely and persistently than our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ the Crucified?
I find Fr Dumitru’s exposition of divine judgment simultaneously enlightening and frustrating. He is reluctant to say straight out that God unconditionally loves those who reject him—hence his repeated qualifications. At one point he even remarks that the “all” whom God desires to save is restricted to those who responded to his grace during their earthly lives (VI:99), and two pages later he invokes the possibility that in truth God forgets incorrigible sinners (VI:101). He describes it as a “voluntary divine amnesia,” the result of which is the fall of the damned from all dialogue with God and the Church into “a phantasmagoric and senseless emptiness, which constitutes an unspeakable torment” (VI:101). St Paisios the Athonite also speaks of this paradisal amnesia:
Look my child, just like those who are out at night in the dark see who is inside a lit room, so those who will be in Hell will see those who will be in Paradise. And this will make it worse for them. And just as those who are in the lit room at night do not see what is out in the dark, so those who will be in Paradise will not see those who will be in hell. Because if they saw the damned, they would ache, they would grieve on their behalf, and would certainly not “enjoy” Paradise. But in Paradise, as we sing: “pain is no more …” And not only will they not see the damned, but neither will they remember if they had a brother or father or mother, if these are ‘missing’ from Paradise! “In that very day his thoughts perish,” says the Psalmist. … Because if they remember them, how would Paradise be Paradise? In fact all who will be in Paradise, will think there are no other people, nor will they remember their sins! Because if they remember the sins they had once done, they would not bear the thought that they had grieved God.
Amnesia solves the problem of sadness in the Kingdom, both for God and for the blessed; but if love can forget, is it love? In contrast, Sergius Bulgakov was scandalized by the proposal of divine/churchly amnesia:
To consider, as is usually done, that, having entered into paradise, the righteous completely forget about the condemned sinners and are separated from them by the ice wall of this forgetting—is to completely contradict the Church’s entire teaching on salvation and redemption. In itself, such a forgetting would be the greatest of sins, capable of leading to the perdition of those guilty of it even after justification at the Last Judgment. This sin would consist precisely in that for which the sinners were rejected: the absence of love for suffering humankind and, in this humankind, for the suffering Christ. (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 514)
We can forget that all are saved with all, just as all are condemned with all and all are responsible for all, only if we understand eschatology exclusively from the criminal-law point of view, and especially if we understand salvation individualistically (if not egotistically). Is it possible to accept that the righteous are capable of forgetting their rejected brothers, of being indifferent to them? Do not Moses and the apostle Paul offer a model of love when they declare themselves ready to be rejected for the sins of their people, together with their people? Such a forgetting, if it could occur at all, would be sufficient to sentence the righteous themselves to the torments of hell for the great sin against love. How could a mother remain indifferent to the perdition of her son or a son remain indifferent to the fate of his mother? Can the diverse personal ties of love that connect humankind be frayed to the point where our very memories of one another are lost? Such a picture of mutual annihilationism in love is a terrible nightmare, a blasphemous slander against the God of love and the Church. On the contrary, the existence of a hell with eternal torments affects all humankind, the whole body of the Church like a common malady. The presence of hell becomes a reality for all creation. Therefore, even for the righteous, heavenly bliss comes only after the expulsion of hell from the world. “For he [Christ] must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet … that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:25, 28). All perish and are saved together, although differently, by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, which creaturely sin can neither negate nor limit. And, like the pitying heart of the Mother of God, the Church’s love also does not know any limits. (p. 516)
I have tried to interpret Fr Dumitru Staniloae’s presentation of eternal damnation as positively and hopefully as I can; but I admit that his exposition moves in the opposite direction. Perhaps if pushed he would have conceded that we do not in fact know if anyone dies in a state of mortal sin (i.e., implacable, irredeemable hatred of God), thus permitting the kind of universalist hope described by Met Kallistos Ware. I do not know. But I close my reflections with these words from Fr Dumitru, which surprised me when I first read them:
Through our prayers we keep eternally alive those who were. None is definitively lost. (VI:101)