The Soul After Death (Fr. Artemy Vladimirov)

"For three days, according to the teaching of the Church, the soul is allowed to stay close to its body. . . . it is greatly surprised when leaving the body at what opens up to its gaze . . . "

There are many different ways to talk about those who were with us just yesterday. "He departed, he died, he is deceased, he passed away, he passed into another world, he fell asleep in the Lord..." But no matter how you say it, there is a mystery behind what happened. I don’t know if any of my readers happened to be present at the death of a loved one. But as soon as it is over and the soul passes from this fragile place of earthly existence into the spiritual world, suddenly there is a great peace.

Left behind is the dying yearning, the struggle of the toiling soul with the crumbling composition called a body. Just as a bird beating against the bars of a cramped cage finally breaks free of it, so the soul, tormented by suffering, suddenly finds freedom - and sighs with relief. It is finished!

And if a true Christian has died, with hope in the Lord and faith in eternal life, God gives His grace to those present at the departure of a pious soul. In the ensuing prayerful silence, no one will utter a single superfluous word. Friends and relatives who saw off the newly departed feel the peace of Christ in their hearts. It seems that the bond of love with the deceased has become even closer, even stronger. Believers seem to feel the presence of the soul next to them, bright, triumphant, celebrating the day of their spiritual birth.

Yes, yes, spiritual birth, in relation to which the whole earthly life was only a preparation! And if the baby, proceeding from the mother's womb, cries, then the God-loving Christian soul rejoices, rejoices, being confident in the mercy of the Lord, whom it served in the body until its last breath - with faith, hope and love.

For three days, according to the teaching of the Church, the soul is allowed to stay close to its body. And no matter how enlightened it is by the knowledge of the Law of God, no matter what firm and definitive concepts about Eternity it absorbed from the lips of the Mother Church, it is greatly surprised when leaving the body at what opens up to its gaze. Let it re-enter its body and tell about everything that it saw and heard there, and it would not have found words that could convey the secret of that world. "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into the hearts of man, what God has prepared for those who love Him." 

And the first thing that strikes the soul is its freedom in relation to the body! "How can this be? I am lying down and I am standing?! I am dead and I am alive?!" (It does not immediately get used to its new being.) Here are my relatives crowded around my bed, some of them can hardly restrain their sobs, on their exhausted faces there is a stamp of sorrow. But for me, exclaims the God-loving disciple of Christ, I feel so good and light! It tries to tell them something, to touch them - but those living in the body do not hear and do not feel it. The division between the two worlds is determined by God Himself! And only faith can see the secrets of the afterlife.

They say that before the church funeral, the pious souls of the newly departed strive to stay in those places where, mainly during the days of earthly life, they were saturated with God's grace. They have been given the freedom to overcome earthly space, no material barriers have any meaning for them. Their native parish church appears to them in wondrous radiance! The soul experiences inexpressible bliss at the sound of chants and, listening to prayers, is enlightened by the grace of the Spirit to such an extent that it resembles the sun. "How can some of those who have come to the temple remain in such blindness?" - the soul asks itself and is horrified by the gloomy spiritual state of some people, fearlessly talking among themselves during the service. Imagine, dear readers, that God has given the soul to see what is usually hidden from us while we are in the body.

But then the funeral service takes place. In the funeral chants, the Church intercedes before God for the forgiveness of the sins of the newly departed servant of God, and that mercy may be granted to him from the Almighty Judge. It is not given to me, due to the coarseness of my mind and heart, to comprehend and express in words how wonderful our Guardian Angel is, who throughout the entire earthly life of a Christian instructs and enlightens him with the knowledge of the will of God, and after death he takes the soul under his direct tutelage.

The holy saints of God describe him as a wondrous, radiant youth in long snow-white robes, girded across his chest crosswise with a deacon's ribbon - an orarion, and with two mighty wings behind his back.

They say that no one while in the body can contemplate their Angel, because the inhabitants of heaven are filled with such Divine glory and majesty. However, the Church has given us a wonderful means of communication with our heavenly mentor - a prayer canon to the Guardian Angel. (This prayer sequence can be found in the Orthodox prayer book, where, in addition to morning and evening prayers, the canons to the Savior, the Mother of God, the Guardian Angel and the rule for Holy Communion are usually placed.) Pious Christians, each time preparing for Holy Communion, read this canon, asking the holy Angel to draw near to them, to overshadow their minds, to pacify their hearts and drive away evil spirits that are constantly plotting against the children of God.

If the soul has mercy from the Lord, then the Guardian Angel honors its conversations, enlightens it with many of the secrets of the afterlife, and most importantly, with its sword of light he protects it from the dark forces, from the demons who still do not lose hope to take possession of it, if the soul is caught in unrepentant sins.

After the funeral service and burial of the body of the deceased, according to the Orthodox tradition, the Guardian Angel commands the soul to begin the ascent to the Throne of God. For forty whole days, according to earthly reckoning, a mysterious and terrible journey continues, which none of the Christians would have been able to pass safely if it had not been for the grace of the Lord that covers and protects them, assimilated by the soldiers of Christ through the deeds of repentance, communion, prayer and works of piety. "Blessed are the dead," says the Book of Revelation, "those who die in the Lord . . . their deeds follow them!"

Regarding those who, during their earthly life, neglected the fulfillment of the commandments and darkened their soul and body with unrepentant sins, it is said differently: "The death of sinners is evil, for it is terrible to fall into the hands of the Living God!"

The Guardian Angel shows the high abodes to the worthy soul and introduces it to the heavenly glory to the saints of God. If a soul on earth especially honored one of the saints, prayed to them, visited their tombs, it is given the great consolation of meeting them face to face. I hope you know and venerate St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, St. Sergius of Radonezh, and the holy great martyr and healer Panteleimon? All of them help the soul with their prayers, so that, ascending to the Judgment of God, it safely passes through the barriers in the air, where demons, disgusting in appearance, meet it with the intention of looking for any unconfessed sins in the conscience of the newly departed, or blaming it for unresolved passions and vices.

Now you understand, friends, why the Lord in the Gospel commands us to make peace with our rival while we are still on our way to death? He calls an incorruptible conscience a rival, which convicts us for sins and bad deeds, and then justifies us when we repent and correct our life and do good. Look, the Lord warns each of us so that "the rival would not give you over to the judge, and the judge would not give you up to the servant, and they would not throw you into prison; truly I say to you: you will not leave there until you give up to the last penny."

Do not let Thy light-bearing angels leave us for a minute, O Merciful God, so that the evil and unclean spirits may not triumph over us!

Their appearance is so terrible that the soul would rather die (which is impossible), then contemplate their terrible animal-like faces. I will tell you that the Most Pure Virgin Mary Herself, who did not commit a single sin during her lifetime, shortly before Her blessed death, prayed to the Lord that He would deliver Her from the vision of evil spirits. That is why church and home prayer for the newly departed is of such great importance.

In churches, panikhidas are usually served by zealous relatives and friends of the deceased, as a rule, on the ninth and fortieth days, and at home they read the Holy Psalter, the inspired psalms of King David, many of which Christians know by heart. There is also a pious custom of giving alms for the repose of the soul of a deceased Christian. And the most significant way of commemoration is the congregational prayer at the Divine Liturgy, the main church service. During the liturgy, the clergy take particles removed from the prosphora in commemoration of souls who have reposed, and they lower these particles into the Holy Chalice with the Holy Gifts, praying for the remission of all the sins of the deceased.

The soul is shown the dark dungeons of hell, it is convinced of the dejection of the state of human souls who died in disbelief with the weight of mortal sins lying on the conscience. Only guarded by the cover of angelic wings can the soul pass through these terrible places.

You may ask: "And why exactly on the ninth and fortieth days after death do they serve panikhidas for the newly departed in the church?" In response, the Church will reveal to you a secret: on the ninth day, a pious Christian soul is granted to worship the Lord Christ, the King of heaven and earth. The biblical prophet Isaiah clearly speaks about unrepentant people bound by mortal sins in this regard: "the wicked . . . will not look upon the greatness of the Lord." And on the fortieth day (in the earthly reckoning of time), the Lord utters His righteous determination about the soul's abode until its reunification with its body at the Terrible and Final Judgment of God: either it will be in joyful anticipation of heavenly bliss, co-existence with Christ, or, possessed by demons, will be languishing, lamenting and sighing about its wickedly spent life, gnawed at by its useless repentance in the prison of God's ignorance, expecting a terrible but just fate at the resurrection of its sinful body - an everlasting coexistence with the spirits of darkness in rejection from God, the Source of life and love.

Everything I have described, dear friends, is the teaching of the Church about the mysteries of the life beyond the grave. Many questions arose in the hearts of attentive readers. With God's help, I will only answer a few of them.

Is it given to the soul of an Orthodox Christian even after the fortieth day, to contemplate the Lord Jesus Christ in anticipation of the Last Judgment? This honor, according to the testimony of Holy Scripture, is enjoyed only by holy martyrs who shed their blood for confessing the faith of Christ.

Does the spiritual growth of a person who has received grace from the Lord stop behind the grave, or does the soul grow in the knowledge of God? Like the holy angels who cannot be satisfied with the beholding of the glory of God and constantly grow in the knowledge of God, the soul receives more and more perfect knowledge of God and the secrets of His Providence, therefore, it is changed by the power of the grace of God, ceaselessly ascending to spiritual perfection.

For which of the departed Orthodox Christians does the Holy Church predominantly pray at the Divine Liturgy? For those of them who repented of their sins during their lifetime, but still did not enter the state of holiness and spiritual perfection. The merciful Lord accepts the prayers of the Church for His children and, out of endless goodness and love for mankind, enlightens the souls of the departed, granting them a change for the better, placing them in resting places.

Why does the Church not pray for suicides who deliberately commit suicide? Because, due to their bitterness and anger, they cannot and do not want to accept a propitious sacrifice for themselves.

O All-merciful God and our Lord, Jesus Christ! May Thy mysteries not be to us for condemnation, but perfect us, children of Thy Church, with spiritual perfection, and let us pass through the trials of the air without restraint, and gain mercy from Thee, our Righteous Judge, through the prayers of Thy Most Pure Mother and our holy Guardian Angels and all the saints who have pleased you throughout the centuries! Amen.

An excerpt from the book "Textbook of Life"

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