"Julia Voznesenskaya . . . [writes] about our life after death, the knowledge of which is kept by the patristic experience and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church." — Olga Golosova
The light and carefree days slowly flowed by. In the mornings I regularly went with my whole family to church and tried to pray there, but at the exclamation, "Catechumens, depart!" I obediently left.
Until the end of the liturgy, I was on my own. Usually I went on a lonely walk, and in a few days I managed to survey the entire Valley by foot and by flight.
Oh, how good it was! A ridge of mountains fringed it on the left, if you were looking at the river, and on the right there were hills, and above them a lonely distant peak with a golden Cross was always visible: this was the very mountain Golgotha where we went to worship God. In some incomprehensible way, this Cross was visible from anywhere in the Valley and, as I later learned from my brother, from anywhere in the universe, except Earth. But, as Alyosha said, at the Savior's future return to Earth, he will also be simultaneously visible to all of Earth's inhabitants. It was incomprehensible to me, because the Earth is round, but I believed Alyosha.
It seemed to me that the most wonderful thing about the Valley was its effect on my new body. It grew stronger and younger every hour. I was literally filled with light and strength. When I died, I was only a little over forty. I was not particularly ill, but my age was beginning to affect me: I was slightly overweight, my back ached from long hours spent at the computer, and my cervical vertebrae sometimes creaked. Now all these signs of aging could be forgotten. Any movement was joyful to the body, my vision became sharp as in my youth, and I completely forgot about fatigue.
Enjoying these purely physical joys, I remembered the infirm old people who did not believe in the afterlife: how they, poor people, are afraid of death! How much effort and money is spent on prolonging painful old age!
And the pitiful old women who try to make themselves look young, stupefied by hormones, cut up by surgeons and cosmetologists: if only they knew that death is the elixir of eternal youth! However, it may be good for the time being that it is hidden from them, otherwise they would run to commit suicide in order to be rejuvenated.
After the common meal, which I tried to return to in time from my walk, the classes began at my grandfather's school. I just looked into the pavilions: multi-colored screens were shining there, music was playing, and some experiments were going on in laboratories. But very often the classes were held right in the garden, in a large marble pavilion, or simply in a clearing. Grandfather or Alyosha sat on the bench, and the listeners surrounded them like an attentive flock, sitting right on the grass.
I was drawn to them. I quietly approached, sat down behind everyone on the sidelines, and conscientiously tried to delve into their reasoning about God and His universe.
All the students were young and beautiful in face, and their bodies shone. But they were far from Angel or Grandfather! Even Alyosha and Katya and Nina were more full of light than any of the students. All these young people looked at me with interest and, as it seemed to me, a little sympathetically. This did not offend me in the least: they were chosen for Paradise, although they must take preparatory courses, and here I am a purely temporary and random person. All of them were distinguished by deep seriousness in their studies, as if they were trying to stock up on knowledge for an eternity.
The students lived individually and in small groups, wherever they wanted to. They made houses for themselves in accordance with their earthly dreams and ideas about ideal architecture, so that a town which looked beautiful from a distance, on closer inspection might appear to be Disneyland: an Indian wigwam could stand next to a little Parthenon, and a carved tower could be adjacent to a toy medieval castle. But all this was built at first, when they just arrived from Earth and frantically took the opportunity to materialize their fantasies. Then all of these toys got boring, and the students moved to austere pavilions or simple rural houses, and their architectural inventions filled the gardens of the Valley with very picturesque, but gradually melting ruins, of which in the end not a trace remained.
In addition to classes and services, the students worked hard and willingly. They looked after the forests and meadows in the mountains, the gardens in the town, and kept the streams and lakes clean. The animals also needed care and attention: the beasts, birds, and amphibians clung to people. Of course, there were no dangerous ones among them, for all the predators in Paradise had switched to a vegetarian diet. I didn't meet any sick animals.
Once while flying I accidentally touched and injured a dragonfly. The Angel and I found the emerald beauty in the grass and took it to a girl who worked with insects. She lived in a glass pavilion on the island. We told her our problem and showed her the crippled insect. She carefully put the dragonfly in her palm and invited us to her workshop. Only using her fingers, without the aid of tools, she straightened and healed the injured wing.
While the girl was busy with the dragonfly, I looked at the vivid drawings of butterflies, made directly on the pavilion glass. On the table was a huge white butterfly, made, as it seemed to me, of paper. There were cups with brushes and paints nearby. The edge of the butterfly's wing was tinted with blue paint.
"What is this?" I asked.
“A model of a new variety of butterflies,” the girl replied. "I'm picking out a color scheme for it."
So, quite by accident, the curtain was opened, and I learned something about what the students are prepared for in my Grandfather's school. They can create and color butterflies!
Often during school hours, the Angel would invite me to take a long walk. Outside the Valley, I was not allowed to fly on my own, and the Guardian took me in his arms. These flights under his wing, in his big and strong hands, brought me into a state of exultant happiness.
Birds love angels, and they often accompanied us in cheerful chirping flocks. Light fluffy clouds floated past us, and below us, one wonderful landscape was replaced by another. From the height of angelic flight, we went down to places that I liked, and the Guardian was always patient with me: he could wait for hours while I collected shells on the seashore and blue alpine bells and pale gray edelweiss on the edge of glaciers.
Once he showed me a community of nuns. From above it looked like a white southern city drowning in gardens, built up with only churches. Thousands of ornamented crosses seemed like solid gold lace thrown over the dark green of large trees from a distance.
We made a circle over the monastery, and I saw in its streets the dazzling beauty of young girls dressed in white monastic clothes. They noticed us and, smiling, pointed us out to each other. Some waved at us. I really wanted to go down to them and get to know them, talk to them, but this turned out to be impossible: as soon as we went down a little, I had to beg piteously:
"My angel, let's fly home! The air here is very thin, I guess my head is spinning. And it hurts my eyes!"
"It's not because of the air," said the Guardian Angel, "The Grace of God is too abundant here for you, you cannot bear it."
I saw that my wretched condition saddened my Angel, but what could I do?
The Guardian Angel and I visited many wonderful places, but almost every time, our heavenly walks ended with choosing a quiet corner in nature and sitting down to chat. We were endlessly shaking up and reviewing my life, and he tried to explain to me what I did wrong, how I sinned, and how I should have built my life in order to avoid sins and to save my soul.
For the most part, I agreed with him. How could I have disagreed, after my experience with the tollhouses? But sometimes our conversations turned into discussions.
“You’re all telling me that God is merciful to sinners,” I began, “and you also assert that He does not limit my freedom in anything. But God doesn't want me to sin, right? And thus He is already infringing on my right to freely dispose of my destiny."
"No, God really does not limit you in anything. He wants you to limit yourself. He loves you and expects you to do it out of love for Him."
"Why doesn't He say so directly?"
"He said it very bluntly. You've read the Gospel, haven't you?"
"Of course, and I was amazed by it."
"What amazed you?"
"The beauty of the poetry. It is written in such free verse!"
"Oh my God!" The angel threw up his hands and wings. "And it never occurred to you for a moment that the Gospel is the Good News addressed directly to you? It clearly sets out the conditions for the salvation of your soul. Didn't you notice?"
"No. What are these conditions?"
"Complete obedience to the commandments of Christ."
"Something like that did flash through my mind. I even tried to imagine what would happen to me if I started to live according to the commandments."
"And what did you imagine?"
"That I would cease to be myself, I would lose my individuality and might even become self-righteous and a hypocrite. I immediately abandoned that idea."
“And thus you missed yor chance to start the work of your salvation."
"You know, if I could return to that life, I would reconsider a lot now. But what's the use of late regrets?"
"There is no point in fruitless regrets, that's true. But the mercy of God knows no limit."
"If that's the case, then God should take extenuating circumstances into account all the more: doesn't He know what environment I grew up in?"
"You are so concerned with your personal independence, but as soon as the matter touches on personal responsibility, it all begins: Wednesday*, Thursday, Friday ... But only the day of Resurrection (Sunday) is important! Understand that for your salvation - specifically yours! - He descended to Earth, took all your sins upon himself, was crucified for them and rose again. This is your personal salvation."
"Wasn't it you and Grandfather that saved me in the tollhouses?"
"Your grandfather was able to drag you through them only because you believed in him and rushed to him for salvation. If only a second before death you had rushed to God with the same faith and love, you would have been saved for eternal life."
"But now, when almost everything has become clear and understandable to me, why does God want to separate me from my loved ones? Does he really resent giving me a place in the Valley? After all, I do not strive for the seventh heaven, I do not strive for some higher spiritual perfection. I would like to live peacefully here, on the edge of Paradise!"
"That's what you say now. You love your family, not God. And without love for God, you cannot live in the world of His love. Now you are nourished and kept in Grace by the love and prayer of your grandfather and your whole family. But they cannot be your donors for all of Eternity. As soon as they remove their attention from you, all the former passions that you did not get rid of during your lifetime will revive in you and begin to act. Paradise will seem insipid and boring to you, and you will not be able to fight that and will fall into despondency. You will wither like a plant that does not have its own roots, like a plucked flower in water: no matter how cherished it is, it is doomed to death."
It was all sad and convincing. Oddly enough, in Paradise I talked to the Angel about demons. Once I asked him:
"Tell me, is there a place in the universe where you can do without God, and live forever according to your own will?"
"You said, "the universe", and that already says everything, since the world was created by God. But the world was not left by Him after creation to its own devices: the world is held by God alone, and deprived of His grace, it would crumble in an instant and cease to be. We can say that there is one God, and we are all His creation, existing by His will. You can be farther away from Him, or you can be closer, but it is impossible to be outside of Him."
"What about Satan and the demons? They obviously live without God."
"No, they were also created by God."
"Yes, I remember what Satan was like in the past, when he was called the Morning Star."
"I remember reading that Satan is a former supreme angel. So it turns out that, by creating the Morning Star, the future Satan, God Himself created Evil in the world? Or did Satan create evil? But in that case, he really is a creator and demiurge, as he calls himself."
"He is lying, he did not really create anything! I remember how he and all his followers announced that they would tear the old world down to the ground, and then build a new world better than the previous one. Well, where is this new world?"
"Probably, it is the Earth with sin and sinful humanity? How many things there have been created by Satan: wars, radioactive and biological weapons, environmental destruction, crime and murder. In general, everything bad and destructive on Earth is a world built by Satan and his army."
"You chose the right definition - destructive. Everything that Satan supposedly created is in fact not something newly created, but only a distortion and destruction of what God created. Satan did not create even a speck of dust on his own. Death is the destruction of life, hatred is the destruction of love, the fall is the destruction of the primordial nature of man. He claims to be creative, but he has nothing to create, because this process requires God's power and God's permission. And along the way, as if competing with the Creator, the fallen angels not only created a cosmic caricature of the creative process, but also distorted themselves unwillingly, lost the angelic image - and remained without an image. They became ugly. Have you noticed how changeable and fluid their appearance is?"
"Yes. They seem to be unable to keep themselves within the framework of one appearance and are constantly changing before our eyes. Satan does too."
“That is because they have no real being. Their existence, no matter how long it may seem according to human perceptions, is essentially a self-destruction extended in time. Their existence is catastrophic, they do not live - they perish. Rejecting God, they threw themselves into the abyss of destruction and for millions of years they fly and fly to the bottom, in order to eventually reach the limit set by God."
"Do they believe in God?"
"How can they not believe in the One with whom they are trying to wage war? They invented atheism to tempt people, but they themselves, naturally, do not believe in such nonsense. In impotent rage, they strive to drag along with them into the terrible funnel of nothingness at least a part of what God has created. And you, people, first of all, since man is God's beloved creation."
"I don’t know, maybe I don’t know how to love God properly, but I definitely hate Satan and the demons!"
"That is not enough, but it is already good. By the way, did it ever occur to you that while fighting the Soviet regime, you were, in essence, fighting Satan, because it was a satanic regime?"
“Many called it that, but I thought it was a metaphor."
"What metaphor? Russia was given over to him because of its sins."
"We thought that dissidence was a political factor, but it turned out that it was an instrument of God."
“However, you are still conceited!"
"Exactly. There is a grain of truth in that, since any standing for the truth is pleasing to God, but only on the condition that it is done for the sake of truth, and not for its own sake, not for self-affirmation."
I was embarrassed and tried to get the conversation back on track:
"Aren't you sorry for the demons? After all, they are your former brothers."
"How would you react to a freak who climbed into a maternity hospital and cut all the babies so that they wouldn't grow into healthy and beautiful people?"
"I would try to stop him, and if it was impossible otherwise, I would kill him. I would feel sorry for him, but more sorry for the children."
“Thus it is with us angels. First of all, we feel sorry for the children entrusted to us - people. God wants you to become spiritually healthy and beautiful, that is, to return to your natural sinless state, and Satan, out of envy, wants to corrupt and destroy you."
"Can't God pull all the sinners out of hell, forgive them and put them in Paradise?"
"And what would Paradise become? Sinners would build supermarkets and discos, invent fashions and start producing fashionable things, divide into parties, turn churches into discussion clubs - and very soon poor Paradise would turn into a degraded version of the Earth, and all that would remain would be to invite the demons here!"
"Why would it be worse than on Earth?
"Because sinners would have more opportunities to sin. You saw a girl composing butterflies. During her lifetime, she was a landscape painter, a believer, she even tried to paint icons. It would never come into her clever head to create some kind of monster for a change instead of her innocent flying creatures. But imagine in her place a young man who has read your horror stories: what can keep him from trying to create flying vampires for his own entertainment and launch them into space? Even if it was only to hunt them with his friends later. When you're bored there's nothing you won't think of."
"Don't be angry, but I wouldn't mind hunting some gargoyles, like those, for example, that are seated on the roof and cornices of Notre Dame Cathedral: they are so funny in their fearfulness!"
“Until now, they’ve been hunting you. Have you forgotten that these very gargoyles, whom the Parisians consider the guardians of their city, are actually demons? By the way, many people on Earth are now possessed by demons. Should they be invited to Paradise together with the parasites living in them?"
"And what would happen if you just went and invited them?"
The Angel smiled: "You know, nothing special would happen: they would simply dissolve in the heavenly light without a trace, annihilating both the hosts and the parasites."
"So demons can parasitize people?"
"If the soul does not have the protection of the Holy Spirit, they move directly into the soul, eat it up with the help of sin, and thereby destroy it."
"Did demons live in me during my life?"
"Inside you - no. The sacrament of Baptism and the prayers of your Grandfather kept them from that. Also I guarded you as best I could. But outside you were covered with them like leeches. Sometimes it was impossible to approach you, such was the stench from them. Why are you wincing? You don't like my words? But if you could see yourself in their environment, you would go crazy with horror and disgust. It God's great mercy that you are not given to see demons during your life."
I absolutely agreed with this- I would never want to see them in that life or in this life! So it turned out that sitting, one might say, on the edge of Paradise, we kept talking about demons. My Guardian told me a lot about the world of spirits, about the secrets of eternity, but I did not understand and remember everything then, and I could not retell many things, even if I wanted to: the Angel forbade me to, and I dared not disobey him.
Next to my Angel, Alyosha spent the most time with me. I fell in love with him all over again, in a new way. As a child, as far as I can remember, he was always there. When we were little they pushed us in the same carriage, until the age of five we slept in the same crib and always fell asleep hugging each other. It seemed to me that we thought and felt the same way. We were sick with the same illnesses, except for that ill-fated scarlet fever: he caught it during the winter holidays, which I spent in a children's sports camp outside the city. When I returned, everything was already coming to an end . . .
Grieving for Alyosha, I always imagined him as my age. Now he looked ten years younger, but in intelligence and spiritual development he was, of course, my older brother.
Alyosha asked me endlessly about our life without him, about the illness and death of my mother, about my father. He was sincerely interested in my life with George. But he refused to talk to me about politics or about some abstract topics, it seems that he did not even care about the events in Russia: he said that this was only the outer side of the spiritual process.
"Do you regret that you died young?" I asked him once.
"It is good that Grandfather asked God for an early death for me: if I had not died, I would have perished."
"What do you mean?"
"It's very simple. I would inevitably have fallen under the influence of my father, and you and I would have become enemies. Do you know what I would have become?"
"An employee of the KGB department for combating dissidents."
"I cannot believe that!"
"I know it for sure. I saw the course my development was going to follow."
"And where is our father now?"
"I do not know. At first I tried to find out, but then I realized that it was a hopeless case."
I tried to tell my brother about my travels abroad, about Australia, India, and Japan, where I happened to be, but he surprised me even then.
"I have seen it all and gone everywhere. I have traveled to all the countries that I dreamed of as a child. For a few days after my death my grandfather and I devoted our time to traveling around Earth. At that time it seemed amazing and beautiful to me, but when I got here, I quickly forgot everything. It was much more interesting for a little boy here: you could go to any time of human history, and for several years I did this with enthusiasm until I realized that human history is, in essence, a very sad story."
"What did you see, what historical events?"
"I saw the Baptism of Russia in the year 988. I also saw many famous battles. I was still a kid when I got here, after all, and it was interesting for me to see with my own eyes the Battle of Borodino, and then the Battle of Waterloo. Later, I was interested in more important moments in history for mankind: I walked with the apostles when they accompanied the Savior, saw the death of martyrs for the faith, and watched the creation of the first monasteries. I was a child, so I wanted to get to know Jordan the lion, and the bear of Saint Seraphim."
"Who are Jordan and Seraphim?"
Alyosha began to tell me pious Christian stories, which soon made me yawn. He also tried to educate me and was very upset that I did not know how to pray.
"But I don't understand, why does the Lord need your choral singing? Doesn't He already know that you love Him and worship Him?"
"Of course the Lord knows it. But why do you tell me about your love ten times a day?"
"So that you know. And besides, I missed you so much, Alyoshenka!"
"If only you knew how much people love God and how much those who love Him long for Him . . . But you don't tell me that you love me, merely for my information. It's because it makes you happy to say it, and me happy to hear it. It's the same in a person's fellowship with God, that is, in prayer: we are happy to praise Him, and He is happy to hear it.
"But why crowd in temples for prayer? You can pray one at a time."
"Do you remember how we would hang on our father and compete with each other over how much we loved him? Do you remember how happy we were, and how much he loved for us to meet him when he came home from work?"
"We were children."
"In relation to God, we always remain children."
"Do you really love God more than you loved your father? You were his favorite!"
"Of course, I love God much more."
"More than Grandpa? More than me?"
Alyosha laughed and nodded in the affirmative. I was offended.
In the evenings, the whole family gathered around the fireplace. They lit it, not for warmth, but for comfort. The conversations of my loved ones mostly remained incomprehensible to me, but it was good for me to sit with them by the fire, remember what I saw during the day and ask everyone about everything. Everyone was very affectionate to me and pampered me as best they could. They poured me a glass of some kind of drink, the taste and color reminiscent of the best burgundy, my favorite wine. This drink mad one cheerful, but not intoxicated. I sipped it in small sips, looking at the coals in the fireplace, listening to the lovely voices, often without paying attention to what they were talking about. And the conversation was not only about affairs at school and in the Valley, but also about the exploits of the saints, about the future destinies of the world and Russia, and most of all, of course, about God.
Then I would say goodbye, go upstairs, read my only prayer in front of the icon of the Mother of God, and wish her good night.
Source: Мои посмертные приключения (Russian)
* This is a play on words. In Russian, the words for 'environment' and 'Wednesday' are the same.
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