In this introduction to "My Adventures After Death" by Julia Voznesenskaya, Olga Golosova discusses the Orthodox Christian understanding of what a human soul experiences after dying . . .
Arise, O my soul, O my soul why sleepest thou? The end draweth near, and thou must speak. Arise, therefore, from thy sleep, and Christ our God, who is in all places and filleth all things, shall spare thee.
Canon for Separation of the Soul from the Body
In our time, more and more people, not satisfied with materialistic descriptions of the world, rush to search for another, spiritual, or, as it is also called, "otherworldly" world. Advertising propaganda by the media of all kinds of religious movements, sects, occult societies and practicing magicians makes it easy, without obstacles, to penetrate into the life of any of us, who at best are swindlers, and at worst - representatives of sects and teachings that can forever destroy not only human life, but also the human soul.
The Orthodox Church always warns her children about this, as well as all those people who have not yet converted to Christ. Some are pushed in search of "spirituality" by curiosity, many are disappointed in their lives, trying to find consolation in some religious or occult teaching, and many are pushed to this by some kind of misfortune. More often than not, such people have lost their closest, most dear people - a child, husband, lover . . . It is scary to realize that you are forever separated from a dear person, that in the end, inevitable death awaits you. Powerless despair seizes a person at the thought of the absurdity of life, which will have to ingloriously end, while one could live and live . . .
Oh, how many of them fell into this abyss,
Openness far in the distance!
The day will come when I am gone
From the surface of the earth. . . .
And there is life with its daily bread,
With forgetfulness of the day.
And it was all — as would be under heaven
And there was no me!
— wrote Marina Tsvetaeva. And these lines are close to each of us, the feeling that dictated them is understandable. We are all doomed to die.
But Christianity proclaimed to all mankind truly the good news — the news about our personal immortality, about eternal life, about the victory over death. What does it mean?
It is in Christianity that we find the doctrine of personal immortality, of the eternal existence of the individual human soul. The Holy Scripture understands bodily death as a transition from one state to another, from one form of being to another.
The Orthodox Church teaches us that the death of a person is the separation of his soul from the body, and is called in Holy Scripture by different names: the exodus, the end, the withdrawal of the soul from its prison, the release from the bonds of the body, departure, dormition, and so on. With this separation of the two constituent parts of which a person consists, that is, soul and body, his body returns to the ground like dust, and his spirit returns to God (Eccl. 12: 7).
The cause man's death lies in his fall, since through his disobedience, man allowed death into the world. Death is the limit by which the time of deeds for a person ends, and the time of reward begins, so that after death repentance or correction is impossible for us.
In other words, death is not the disappearance of a person at all, but only a transition to a spiritual state, which is the ultimate goal of earthly life. With death, the moral development of a person stops, any further change in him is excluded, and moral retribution begins for everything that we have done in our life here in this world.
But our immortal souls, even after death, preserve their self-consciousness, spiritual strength and will intact. They remember the circumstances, persons, and events of their earthly life. That is, we remain ourselves even after death, not dissolving into faceless nothingness and not disappearing without a trace. Our bodies will turn to dust, and our souls will await the Last Judgment, staying, depending on their spiritual state at the time of death, either in paradise, with the souls of the righteous, or in hell, together with demons and the souls of sinners. We, like old clothes, will strip off our flesh and pass into the afterlife, waiting for the resurrection of all the dead, when "He who raised Christ from the dead will also revive your mortal bodies by His Spirit who lives in you." (Rom. 8:11)
But death remains deeply unnatural. It is alien to us, it evokes horror, for death was not part of God's pre-eternal plan for creation. God did not create us to die, but to live. Moreover, God created us as an indivisible whole.
By death, a person is painfully cut into two parts, his components, and after death there is no longer a whole person — his soul and body exist separately. By dividing body and soul, death thereby forcibly destroys the unity of our human nature. Yes, death awaits us all, but the Orthodox Church tells us that death is unnatural. It is monstrous and tragic. When we see it from the outside, it evokes a protest from our whole nature, a hopeless horror when we ourselves find ourselves face to face with it. Christ Himself prayed to escape it and wept over the deceased Lazarus. We live in a world saturated through and through with death, which came after our falling away from the Source of Eternal Life — from God.
Why did the Lord allow death?
Death is God's gift to people. This is the gift of His mercy and compassion. For us humans, eternal life, poisoned by suffering and sin, would turn into eternal torment. We would, unrestrained by anything, sink more and more into the abyss of sin brought about by our own will. We would become like Satan himself and his demons, which would turn eternal life into eternal death and endless torment. After all, it is this eternal existence — suffering, poisoned by sin — that will befall those who, at the Last Judgment, will be incapable of living with God due to their evil deeds. After death, every person will remain the way death found him, for this earthly life of ours is determined for us to test who we are with: with God and the saints, or with Satan and demons.
And so, God gave us a way out. He divides the unity of soul and body, in order to then recreate it anew, reunite it in bodily resurrection on the day of the Last Judgment, and thus bring the renewed person back to the fullness of life. As Bishop Diocleus Kallistos (Ware) once said: "By bodily death, the Lord brings home his child."
Sure, death itself is disgusting, abnormal, and unnatural, but Christians see in it the hope and blessing of God — after all, it returns us to the Father's house. And it is not for nothing that in the Orthodox tradition we call death a dormition — a quiet sleep of the body — while the soul awaits the glorious resurrection on that Day.
And everything in the life of a real Christian is the expectation of death and preparation for it, because it is our exodus and liberation from the bonds of the body. It is our rest from spiritual warfare and our meeting with Christ and our loved ones who had departed earlier. There the husband will meet his wife, and the mother will meet with her child. There in glory we will see our God, Creator and Savior.
And the whole life of a Christian is following this hope, the path to God, the traveler's return home.
What awaits the soul after death?
According to the teachings and Tradition of the Orthodox Church, after death our souls await a private judgment, different from the general Last Judgment, which has to be at the end of the world. How the private judgment takes place is not stated in Scripture. But a figurative representation of this judgment, based on Holy Tradition and in agreement with Holy Scripture, we find in the doctrine of the tollhouses, which has existed since ancient times in the Orthodox Church.
We find the essence of the teaching in the word of St. Cyril of Alexandria about the exodus of the soul, excerpts from which we will quote:
When our soul is separated from our body, on the one hand, armies and the forces of heaven will appear before us, on the other - the powers of darkness, evil rulers of the world, tax collectors, torturers and denunciators of our deeds . . . Having seen them, the soul will be indignant, shudder, tremble, and in confusion and horror will seek protection from the angels of God, but, having been received by the holy angels, and beginning to go up through the regions of the air under their protection, she will come to various tollhouses (like some outposts or customs offices, which collect duties), which will block her way to the Kingdom, will stop and hold back her striving for it. At each of these tollhouses, an account of special sins is required. . . . To put it briefly, every passion of the soul, every sin in this way will have its tax collectors and torturers . . . And if for a pious and godly life it turns out to be worthy, then the angels will perceive it, and then it will fly fearlessly towards the kingdom, accompanied by the holy powers. . . . On the contrary, if it turns out that she spent her life in negligence and intemperance, then she will hear this terrible voice: "let the ungodly be taken away, that he see not the glory of the Lord." (Is. 26:10) . . . then the angels of God will leave her and the terrible demons will take her . . . and the soul, bound by insoluble bonds, will plunge into a dark country, into places of hell, into underground prisons and hellish dungeons.
Metropolitan Makarii (Bulgakov) writes in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:
Hence, it is obvious that tollhouses represent an inevitable path by which all human souls, both evil and good, make their transition from temporary life to eternal lot; that during the tollhouses, during this transition, each soul, in the presence of angels and demons, no doubt before the eye of the All-Seeing Judge (my italics, O. G.), is gradually and thoroughly tried in all its deeds, evil and good; that as a result of these trials, this detailed account of each soul in its previous life, good souls, justified in all the tollhouses, are brought up by angels directly to heavenly abodes, and sinful souls, detained in one or another tollhouse, accused of wickedness, are drawn by the sentence of the invisible Judge to the gloomy abode of the demons.
And, consequently, the tollhouses are nothing more than a private judgment, which the Lord Jesus himself performs on human souls and invisibly through the angels, admitting to him the slanderers of our brethren, evil spirits — a judgment as all the soul's deeds are remembered and impartially evaluated before her, and after which her well-known fate is determined. . . . However, it should be noted that, just as in general in the depiction of objects of the spiritual world for us, clothed with flesh, more or less sensual, humanoid features are inevitable — in particular, they are inevitably allowed in the detailed teaching about the tollhouses that the human soul goes through after separation from the body.
Therefore, one must firmly remember the instruction that the angel gave to the Monk Macarius of Alexandria, as soon as he began to speak about the tollhouses: “Here, take earthly things for the weakest image of heavenly ones. It is necessary to represent the tollhouses not in a gross, sensual sense, but, as much as possible for us, in a spiritual sense, and not get attached to the particulars that are different from different writers and in different legends of the Church itself, given the unity of the main idea of the tollhouses."
In conclusion of the discussion about the private trial of the dead, one can add a very interesting thought of St. Theophan (Govorov) the Recluse:
No matter how wild the thought of tollhouses seems to clever people, they cannot be avoided. What are these tax collectors looking for in those that come by? They are looking to see if they have their product. And what is their product? Passions. Therefore, whoever has a pure heart and is alien to the passions, in him they cannot find anything to which they could be attached; on the contrary, the opposite quality will strike them like arrows of lightning.
To this one of the many scientists expressed the following thought: tollhouses seem to be something terrible; but it is very possible that the demons represent something pleasant instead of terrible. Seductively delightful, for all kinds of passions, they present to the passing soul one after another. When passions are driven out of the heart in the continuation of earthly life and the virtues opposite to them are implanted, then no matter what you imagine, the soul, which has no sympathy for that, will pass that, turning away from it with disgust.
But when the heart is not cleansed, then the soul rushes to the passion it most sympathizes with. Demons take the soul as if they were friends, and then they already know what to do with it. It means it is very doubtful that the soul, as long as sympathy for the objects of any passions remains in it, would be ashamed at the tollhouses. The shame here is that the soul throws itself into hell.
(St. Theophan the Recluse. Interpretation of Psalm 118.)
Summarizing the above, we can say with confidence that after death our souls really await a private trial in the form of the tollhouses, where we will be given the opportunity to realize our whole life, and where we will be convicted first of all by ourselves, by our own conscience and deeds. If we do not cleanse our souls here, in this life, by repentance and do not abandon our evil deeds, then we will follow the demons to hell, because we did their deeds, we did their will, we attached our hearts to them.
And our Church, reminding us during the liturgy about death and about judgment, prays to the Holy Trinity:
That we may spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord.
A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense at the dread judgement seat of Christ let us ask.
For those who remain here on earth, for the living, death is separation. But the Orthodox faith teaches us that this separation is temporary, and we all hope to be united again in our Lord Jesus Christ. For the Church, in the Church, the living and the dead are members of the same family. The abyss of death is not insurmountable due to the fact that all of us, both living and dead, are alive in Christ, and the souls of the departed hear our prayers. As if a person close to us is simply away, where we cannot write or call.
But we can pray for him, and he for us.
How can we keep in touch with the dead?
There is a false path. This is the path of the occult sciences, the path of spiritualism and necromancy. The Orthodox Church warns us about the danger and unacceptability of this path. Such attempts can plunge our souls into the power of demons, because we voluntarily call them, trying to find out something about the dead. In his "Notes", Fr. Alexander Elchaninov wrote:
"We must humbly accept the existence of the Mystery, and not try to make our way up the back staircase to eavesdrop at the door."
We know from the lives of saints that sometimes the dead communicate with the living in dreams or visions. But there should be no attempts on our part to impose such contacts. Any means of such spiritual extortion and blackmail are contrary to the Christian conscience and will not benefit us. Our communication with the dead takes place not on a mental, but on a spiritual level, and we meet each other not at a reception with an occultist or psychic, but in a church, during the celebration of the Eucharist.
We pray for the dead, and they pray for us, and in such prayerful intercession we are united, we overcome death. Our prayer for the departed is an expression of our love and care for them, and this is its main reason and explanation. How our prayer works, we are not given to know, just as we do not know, on what principle all our prayers operate. But we know, and this has been repeatedly confirmed in the revelations of the saints, that the dead receive relief from our prayerful intercession for them.
And the remembrance of the dead is an indispensable duty of love for those who live here, on earth, is the feat of piety for every Orthodox Christian. We all trust in the mercy of God and pray that every soul will be saved.
For after death the Paschal joy of the Resurrection awaits us!
O Death, where is thy sting; O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art cast down.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life flourisheth.
Christ is risen, and there is none dead in the tombs.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of them that have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen.
* * *
The book you hold in your hands, My Adventures After Death, is an attempt to convey the good news to the reader that we were not created to die. The fact that our life has a meaning, and all the people who have ever lived on our land have not disappeared without a trace. That we too “will not die by death”, because for a person death is not destruction, but a transition to another life — life after death.
There are many ways and techniques to appeal to the human soul, to call it to comprehend its further destiny. Fiction has always been one of the first in terms of impact. A book can have a huge impact on thoughts and feelings, the heroes of your favorite books are imprinted in one's heart for a long time.
That is why many writers choose an artistic word to express their thoughts, clothing their experiences in artistic images that they can share with the reader.
My Adventures After Death is an attempt to captivate us with reflections on the brevity of human memory and the scarcity of our knowledge of the secrets of the soul. In terms of genre and style, it is perhaps closest to the wonderful, good Christian books of C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, or to the books of our contemporary writer Nikolai Blokhin, Deep Mire and Grandmother's Glass.
The genre of these books can be designated as "Christian fantasy", but only conditionally, because what is narrated in them is not a fiction, but a symbolic story about spiritual reality.
Miracles and amazing events taking place with the main heroine of the book are woven from real episodes that took place in the life of the author of My Adventures After Death, and her loved ones. Julia Voznesenskaya resorts to artistic images, metaphors, comparisons, trying to convey the feelings of the soul that meets God. The fate of the heroine of Anna's book is an unpretentious invention of the author, and an attempt, in the form of a parable, to tell the reader about our life after death, the knowledge of which is kept by the patristic experience and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
My Adventures After Death urges each of us to think about the significance and purpose of earthly life, to realize the responsibility for every thought and deed, to evaluate our life according to our conscience and in the light of the commandments of the Lord.
Next chapter: My Adventures After Death - chapter 1
Source: Мои посмертные приключения (Russian)
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