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Contemporary Culture, Remembrance of Death, and the Hope of Repentance

October 1, 2012

Our thoughts are precious, for they express the innermost content of our lives, but those thoughts are not entirely ours. They are in constant dialogue with what we see, what we hear, and what we do. That dialogue often unwittingly reshapes us, altering our intentions, motivations, expectations, as well as the focus of our attention. And this is yet another reason why we need to be watchful, for if we are not watchful, we will never be free. This is one of the reasons why the ancient fathers went into the desert, stripping themselves of the trappings of the sophistication of antiquity, so that they could see the basic facts of existence: life and death, virtue and sin, the eternal and the transitory.

If we are to be free and exercise our choice in the world of the thoughts, we need from time to time to go into the desert, to separate ourselves from our contemporary culture, and to gain a new sensitivity to life, virtue, and eternity, which includes an awareness of death, sin, and the passing of time. If we step back, we can see so clearly that Western culture eschews thoughts of death and mortality.  A primary example of this is our obsession with constant activity and amusement.  We are bombarded with cultural clues found in advertisements, television, movies, and the media that life is useless if we are not constantly striving for that new job, new car, new house, or new relationship.  We are taught that human life is valued as an economic commodity in terms of its productivity. This, however, is an illusion and a delusion. And within any illusion or delusion, there can be no healthy spiritual life, but only festering spiritual death.

Yet, the antidote for the cultural difficulties in antiquity is still potent and useful to counteract our own cultural tendencies.  The fathers counsel a continual, abiding remembrance of God.  The remembrance of the eternal God cannot be separated from the awareness of our own mortality.  This is not in any fashion a morbid obsession with our finitude, but a wholesome acknowledgment that death is the major problem that we will inevitably face in this life and the sole solution to this problem is Jesus Christ. When we understand the problem and the solution, than we can view this life on earth as a good preparation for a better eternity.  Many modern Christians—who struggle with bad thoughts while neglecting to cultivate good thoughts—don’t think or act as if judgment and eternal life are around the corner in the life of each and every human being, although signs of mortality surround us.

We see this in funeral services that have been transformed into “celebrations of life” wherein there is scarcely a mention of suffering and death.  This is not consistent with our lived human experience and totally incompatible with a Christian worldview.  This secular worldview spills over into the stages prior to death as well.  Traditional preparation for a “good death” includes fervent prayer, confession, and reception of the holy mysteries.  All too often, those who are dying are abandoned and left alone with no one to pray with them and for them.  Rather than a morbid reminder of our own mortality and death, another’s final illness and death makes us aware of how precious each moment is and how we should fill each moment with compassion and love for others. Our contact with those suffering and dying should fill us with a longing for our union and their union with the Son of God Who alone is victorious over death.  Death is tragic and horrible and should remind us of our immeasurably more tragic and horrible estrangement from God, but it should also remind us of the path back.

Thus, the ancient fathers remind us that earthly life is an opportunity for repentance.  Nothing in life is more important.  Abba Sisoes was one of the best loved and holiest of the Desert Fathers. When it came time for him to die, the brothers gathered around his bed. Some of them saw that his lips were moving. “Who are you talking to, Father?” they asked him. “See,” he replied, “the angels have come to take me, and I am asking them for more time – more time to repent.” His disciples said, “You have no need to repent.” But the old man said, “Truly, I am not sure whether I have even begun to repent.”

If we, then, wish to be free, we need to swim against the currents of today’s worldview of acquiring the new, being amused, and viewing productivity as the ultimate good. We need to recognize the basic realities of life and death. We need to look to our brothers and sisters facing suffering and death and to face it with them. We need to help them prepare and help them repent. And in so doing, we will help ourselves to come closer to the Victor over death and the Savior of our souls, who came to give repentance unto life eternal.

From → Thoughts

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