When I first heard about the aerial toll-houses, I dismissed them as the stuff of folklore, tales told by Old Nan to children when the winter days are short and the nights are long and cold. As terrifying as the White Walkers may be, still more terrifying are the fallen angels of the Christian imagination. Demons, devils, unclean spirits, diablos, jinns, shedim—surely a modern Christian is free to disbelieve their objective reality, along with faeries, leprechauns, trolls, and sprites. Yet that doesn’t feel quite right. How do we then make sense of our Lord’s many exorcisms or the gospel claim of his decisive and glorious victory over Satan on the Cross? After the unspeakable horrors of the 20th century—the genocide of the Armenians, the systematic starvation of the Ukrainians; two devastating world wars; the gas chambers of Belsen, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald; the killing fields of Cambodia—the existence of malignant supernatural powers hardly seems fantastical. At some point we hit a limit to our demythologization, not because we are incurably superstitious but because the mysteries and evils we experience refuse to be reduced to naturalistic explanations. Not all frightening tales are false.
Oh my sweet summer child, what do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord, when the white walkers move through the woods.
Why shouldn’t there be angels that surround the throne of God and minister his providential will? And if there are good angels, why not wicked ones? Since her beginning the Church of Jesus Christ has taught the existence of demons. Those who desired to enter into the Paschal mystery of Christ were first required to publicly renounce Satan: “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy works, and all thy pomp, and all thy service.” Believers were regularly reminded to resist the temptations of the demonic spirits. “Put on the whole armor of God,” the Apostle Paul exhorts, “that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12).
If they exist, then we should not be surprised that they would exploit the traumatic moment of death to do us harm and attempt to separate us from God, just as they have been doing throughout our lives. And so the Church prays:
At the hour of my passing, grant that without grief I may pass by the incorporeal satraps and the tyrannical battle-array in the air, that joyfully I may cry “Rejoice” to Thee, O Lady; Rejoice unashamed hope of all. (Jan 27, matins, tone 8, ode 5)
O Virgin, at the hour of my death, snatch me from the hands of demons, judgment, accusation, dread-testing, the cruel stations, the ferocious prince and eternal condemnation, O Mother of God. (Wednesday, matins, tone 4, ode 8)
When my soul is about to be separated violently from the members of the body, then, O Bride of God, come to my aid; scatter the counsels of the fleshless enemies and shatter their millstones, by which they seek to devour me mercilessly; that, unhindered, I may pass through the rulers of darkness standing in the air. (Friday, vespers, tone 2)
Surely such prayers may be prayed, should be prayed, no matter what one thinks of the elaborated mythology of the aerial toll-houses. The interpretation of these prayers does not pose any special challenges for the believer. We understand that when speaking of supranatural realities, we have no choice but to employ figurative and symbolic language. Those who reject the objective existence of angelic beings will, of course, interpret these prayers as metaphorically as possible. Those who affirm their existence will insist that the figurative language points us to realities for which our ordinary language is ill-equipped. And if figurative interpretation is necessary for simple prayers, how much more so must this be the case for visions of the afterlife. Jean-Claude Larchet explains:
This teaching on the aerial toll-houses should not be taken literally and in its materiality, as those who accept it have stressed moreover. St Theophan the Recluse notes that this teaching expresses the reality, but this does not mean that the reality is exactly as described in the texts that mention it. We have here a symbolic expression, under a sensible and material form accessible to all, of a spiritual reality which, in our present condition, eludes our experience and, therefore, our full comprehension. As can be observed, the different accounts do not agree on the number and nature of toll-house stations, and the sins and passions cited vary from one account to another: this is because they reflect the inner state, the frame of reference and the experience proper to each author. Therefore we should consider the details of the accounts at a certain remove, not reading and understanding them literally, but always taking their symbolic nature into account and above all seeking out their spiritual significance. St Macarius of Moscow clarifies this: “One must picture the toll-houses not in a sense that is crude and sensuous, but—as far as possible for us—in a spiritual sense, and not tied down to details which, in the various writers and various accounts of the Church herself, are presented in various ways, even though the basic idea of the toll-houses is one and the same.” (Life After Death According to the Orthodox Tradition, pp. 117-118)
Fr Seraphim Rose, whose book on toll-houses generated a goodly amount of controversy a few decades ago, agrees:
It is obvious to all but the youngest children that the name of “toll-house” is not to be taken literally; it is a metaphor which the Eastern Fathers have thought appropriate for describing the reality which the soul encounters after death. It is also obvious to all that some of the elements in the descriptions of these toll-houses are metaphorical or figurative. The accounts themselves, however, are neither “allegories” nor “fables,” but straightforward accounts of personal experiences in the most adequate language at the disposal of the teller. If the descriptions of the toll-houses seem too “vivid” for some, it is probably because they have not been aware of the actual nature of the unseen warfare waged during this life. Now too we are constantly beset by demonic tempters and accusers, but our spiritual eyes are closed and we see only the results of their activities—the sins into which we fall, the passions which develop in us. But after death, the eyes of the soul are open to spiritual reality and see (usually for the first time) the actual beings who have been attacking us during our lifetime. (The Soul After Death, p. 243)
Once the metaphorical door is opened, we will find ourselves pondering upon and arguing about the symbolic import of the toll-house teaching. Rose doesn’t want us dismissing the ancient testimonies to the soul’s post-mortem encounter with angels and demons. Fair enough. But when he goes on to say that they are “straightforward” accounts of personal experiences, it seems appropriate to reply, there’s nothing straightforward about them at all! They are no more obvious in meaning than the story of Adam and Eve, the Apocalypse of St John, or the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich. Careful interpretation, including attention to genre, culture, and religious parallels, is necessary. Orthodox Christians should be neither surprised nor disturbed. Our tradition, after all, gave birth to the typological and allegorical interpretation of Scripture. The discourse of eschatology poses a particular interpretative challenge. We can only speak of the transcendent future within the inadequate terms of our present experience. Eschatology pushes our imagination, as Zachary Hayes remarks, “to break beyond the limits of past and present experience to a new level of realization” (Visions of a Future, p. 90). We strain to imagine that which cannot be imagined; we shatter our words to speak of realities that cannot be spoken. Eschatological language, therefore, is inescapably metaphorical and symbolic. “At the very least, this means that eschatological language cannot be understood to be a literal description of the future” (p. 92).
Recognition of the nonliterality of eschatological discourse does not solve all of our toll-house problems, however. If one is Orthodox (and who but the Orthodox are curious about aerial toll-houses?), we will want to try to understand this teaching with as much sympathy as we can muster, while at the same time eschewing a naïve fundamentalism. Clearly it intends spiritual realities. We may find specific elements crude and inappropriate—surely there must be a better way for us to speak of the encounter with the demonic than one of barter and exchange—but we should not dismiss the teaching in toto. Most importantly, we must interpret the teaching through the gospel itself, employing what I have termed a hermeneutic of Pascha. Four principles constitute this hermeneutic:
1) By his death and resurrection, God has destroyed death and broken the power of sin.
2) By his death and resurrection, God has triumphed over the powers of evil and darkness.
3) By his death and resurrection, God has revealed himself as absolute, infinite, and unconditional Love.
4) By his death and resurrection, God has revealed that he wills our good, for he is himself our ultimate and final Good.
The list can be expanded, but these four maxims should be sufficient for our purposes. When taken together, they manifest the gospel of Jesus Christ as gladdening news and exhilarating hope. Christ is risen! Death is destroyed! Satan is cast down! The Kingdom has come and is coming! This is the message that transformed the ancient world, the message that the Church is solemnly charged to speak. All of her preaching, teaching, praying and liturgizing flows from and exhibits the death and resurrection of the Son of Man. The hermeneutic of Pascha norms the Church’s theological reflection and ensures faithfulness to her salvific mission. Christ has come not to terrify the world into repentance but to raise the dead. If the teaching of aerial toll-houses is true, then it too must bespeak the gospel. In everything God intends and wills our good.
St John Climacus relates the story of a hermit named Stephen. Before his death he experiences a state of ecstasy in which he is heard responding to an invisible interrogator:
“Yes, indeed that is true; but that is why I fasted for so many years.” And then, “No, actually you are lying; I did not do that.” And then again, “Yes, it is true; but I wept and served the brethren.” Yet again, “Yes, it is true. Yes, but I do not know what to say to this; in God there is mercy.” And it was an awful and horrible sight, this invisible and merciless calling to account. What was most terrible, moreover, was that he was accused even of what he had not done. And while thus being called to account, he was parted from his body, leaving us in uncertainty as to his judgement, or end, or sentence, or how the calling to account ended. (The Ladder, step 7)
Personally, I think the hermit held up pretty well. “In God there is mercy!”—what more need be said? Constantine Cavarnos comments:
This example helps us to understand what the calling to account is. It is the test to which the demons subject the imperfect soul. … During the attack of the demons, the soul defends itself, being aided by the Holy Angels, who report the soul’s deeds. … The souls of the sinners, those who die unrepentant, without works, without virtues to protect them from the opposing powers—these souls are seized by the demons. They are not taken, though, against God’s consent and without a divine concession, for God is the Lord of life and death. Thus the calling to account ends either with the safe passage of the soul through the midst of the demons, or with its being handed over to them. (The Future Life According to Orthodox Teaching, pp. 24-26)
This demonic “calling to account” sounds like a scene from a Hollywood horror film; but before we allow ourselves to get sucked into the Gothic imagery, I suggest we try the following experiment: for the assaulting demons, substitute your own condemning conscience. We all know this voice. It comes to us as we lie awake at night, when we say our prayers, when we wonder if we are sufficiently worthy to partake of Holy Mysteries. The voice is merciless, relentless, implacable. It condemns us for our sins, our failures, our weaknesses, real and imagined. It condemns us in our very existence. Martin Luther knew well this “torture of conscience.” Throughout his adult he endured its paralyzing accusations. “At such a time,” he wrote, “God seems so terribly angry, and with him the whole of creation. At such a time there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse” (LW 31:129-130). The soul is overwhelmed by its guilt. It cannot believe that it can ever be forgiven. As frightening as the visions of the toll-houses may be, are they any more frightening than our condemning conscience? It takes but a tiny imaginative leap to project the condemnation into eternity. Would this not be absolute hell?
Perhaps Luther’s anfechtung can be traced, at least partially, to some form of depression or mental illness; but it was also directly informed by the Latin understanding of the just God who retributively punishes the unrighteousness, combined with the medieval dogma that the final judgment is executed at the moment of death. Those who die in a state of mortal sin are forever damned. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has maintained the earlier patristic view that divine judgment is not truly final until the return of Christ and the transfiguration of the cosmos. Until that great eschatological event, Gehenna does not exist. In the meantime the damned await their damnation, as it were. Their suffering is caused both by the accusation of conscience and their inability, in their disembodied state, to satisfy their disordered desires. St John of Damascus describes this suffering as “the fire of the appetite for evil and sin.” St Dorotheos elaborates:
Through this body the soul gets away from its own passions and is comforted; it is fed, it drinks, meets and associates with friends. When at last it goes out of the body, it is alone with its own passions, and, in short, it is tormented by them, forever nattering to them and being incensed by the disturbance they cause and being torn to pieces by them so that it is unable to remember God. (Discourse 12)
Here, I think, is the ascetical point of the ancient teaching on the aerial toll-houses. According to Evagrian anthropology, the disordered desires of the human being are intrinsically correlated to demonic activity. The two go together. “Standing invisibly in the background,” explains Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge, “are the demons, who through their temptations incite us to turn things that in themselves are natural into passions” (Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread, p. 17). St Maximus the Confessor makes the connection with the afterlife explicit: “Remember death and the soul’s terror upon its leaving the body, and how the powers of the air and the dark forces come to meet it, all disoriented and cut to pieces in proportion to its disastrous familiarity with them through the play of the passions” (Ep. 24).
Dumitru Staniloae also connects the post-mortem demonic assaults to the soul’s confrontation with conscience: “Never is man so face-to-face with his conscience than at that moment” (The Experience of God, VI:65). The soul that has not repented of its sins finds itself in a condition of suffering. It understands that it has become incapable of communion, both with Christ and with humanity. Stripped of the body and its pleasures, it can no longer avoid who it is, what it has done and what it has become; nor does it have the power to liberate itself from the bondage of desire and attachment to creaturely goods. In this state, it stands helpless before the malignant spirits with which it has collaborated:
The spiritual writings say a lot about the presence of demons and angels at the moment of judgment or before the sentence is pronounced. The demons bring forward the evil deeds of the deceased, and the angels the good deeds. The demons appear before the deceased’s sensitized conscience in order to torment him, in case through his deeds he has enclosed himself in his incapacity for communion with Christ; or in order to make him wait, holding his breath, for the salvation from Christ, that is, to have recourse to His mercy. For such a person, the last opportunity to be purified through repentance is when his reprehensible deeds are brought before his conscience. … Therefore, from one point of view, the end result of their accusations is a good one. For the demons are quickly driven away from the soul that hopes in Christ by the good angels, who strengthen the conscience and offer courage. (VI:66)
Staniloae thus sees a glimmer of hope for the impenitent, or perhaps more accurately, the partially penitent. In the particular judgment, the good angels act as Christ’s agents in their conversion and repentance. But for the truly impenitent there can be no hope. By their sins they have rendered themselves incapable of repentance and love. They now exist in spiritual death, the devils their only companions.
With or without the toll-houses, this is a bleak and depressing view. Most human beings, including believers, live and die in relative states of freedom and bondage. Orthodoxy affirms the efficacy of prayer for the departed, yet it remains unclear how our prayers can effect the kind of deliverance and transformation that the impenitent need to make them perfectly capable of enjoying the delights of heaven. What is required at this point is something akin to the “universal purgatory” proposed by Sergius Bulgakov. We all need purification.
My lack of sympathy for the doctrine of aerial toll-houses, at least in its popular form, is evident. I hope it is not true, though my hoping will not make it so. While its pastoral intent is to elicit repentance through fear, it might just as easily undermine the faith and joy that lies at the heart of Christian living. Too often this teaching is divorced from the gospel proclamation, thus becoming an independent doctrine that stands by itself. It’s as if there is the triumphant news of Pascha, which we joyfully celebrate once a year; and then there is what is really believed the rest of the year, namely, the harrowing gauntlet of demons through which we must all pass and somehow survive. The threat of hell becomes our decisive existential truth, terror and dread the driving force of our lives. The risen Savior is nowhere to be seen.
The question “Do the aerial custom-houses really exist?” is both irrelevant and distracting. We will not know the answer until we die, nor do we need to know. We have been baptized into the death of our Savior, and our life is now “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:4). This is our fundamental truth. The proponents of custom-houses thus do the Church a great disservice when they zealously advance a literalistic construal of custom-houses as an essential Christian belief, effectively attenuating their symbolic import. What is critical now is our battle with our passions and disordered desires, which is simply to say, what is critical now is faith in Christ and life in the Holy Spirit. Is this not the clear implication of Elder Sophrony’s explanation of the ancient teaching?
The toll houses about which the Fathers write are symbols of a reality. The Fathers understand them as follows: after the fall of man, the soul is nourished by the body, in other words, it finds refreshment in material pleasures. After death, however, these bodily passions that used to divert the soul no longer exist, because the soul has left the body, and they choke and stifle the soul. These are the toll houses and hell. (I Know a Man in Christ, p. 380)
I do not see how I could ever make aerial toll-booths a part of my preaching and catechesis or my own spiritual life. But perhaps the teaching can be reconstructed in a way that would make it preachable as both gospel and ascetical instruction. Consider this reflection by Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément:
The hell of the fallen condition is abolished in Christ. Everything now depends not on merits, but faith and love, on the relationship of each individual with Christ and with his neighbour. The early Church with its gaze fixed wholly on the Parousia had no conception either of the present existence of souls definitely damned, nor of an already consummated beatitude for the saints (or even for Christ, according to Origen), nor again of a ‘purgatory’ in the strictest sense of the word, meaning penal ‘satisfaction’ of a juridical nature, such as developed in the medieval West. What we find in the Fathers is the idea of a progressive purification and healing. After death the soul crosses either a ‘sea of fire’ or spiritual ‘frontier’, where the powers of evil wrest from it what belongs to them and leave it stripped, ready to embark on a life of peace and silence (the ‘abodes, one above another, of which St Ambrose speaks here suggest a progressive perfecting). Thus the ‘sleep’ of death appears as a contemplative state. Death, undoing the tangles of idolatry and sin, offers the soul that peace, quiet, hesychia, which spiritual persons know already here below, a blissful visitation of Christ who is always present in hell. For since Holy Saturday and the Ascension he is the fulfillment of all things. The Church does not forget that for the dead, fixed on their ignorance or greed or pride, there are states in which the peace, the silence, the light, and the glimpse of the Physician’s presence are experienced as torments. But the Church with all her love and all her power of intercession—that intercession for the damned to which Péguy’s Joan of Arc summoned the saints—prays for all the dead, including those who are in transitory ‘hells’. That is so especially during the ‘prayers of genuflexion’ at the Vespers of Pentecost. The love of God, multiplied by the prayers of the faithful, works from within upon the individual in order that, since no one is alone, each may, with a personal effort, become opened up to the ontological unity of the Body of Christ. (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 298)
May we today repent. May we today embrace the grace-filled ascetical disciplines that will deliver us from the bondages that hinder our communion with Christ. And when the demons assault us, whether in the present moment or in the hereafter, let us heed the counsel of Luther: “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also'” (Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 86-87).