Director of the Sophia Institute: International Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture;
Nielsen Professor in Ancient & Byzantine Church History,
Union Theological Seminary;
Professor of Byzantine Christian Studies, Department of Religion,
This beautifully produced book from St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery is a monumental treatment of the Orthodox teaching on the state of the soul after death. It brings together a most impressive and carefully selected range of authoritative sources: ancient Irish monastic writings, Byzantine hagiographies, testimonies from the great saints and theologians of the Greek, Slavic, and Romanian Orthodox traditions, ancient and modern. It will surely become the standard work of reference for the whole question of the soul’s post-death judgement as seen in Eastern Orthodoxy. The very concept of death is one that our modern society has turned away from: as if by ignoring it, it could make it go away.
Orthodox spiritual teaching, on the other hand, leads us to face death and welcome it as a life-giving mystery from the hand of a merciful Lord. Yet, as the teaching of our saints shows, the mercy of the Lord is not sweetly saccharine. It is a mercy precisely because it cleanses and restores us to life in the Kingdom, not life according to our mortal animality. Many people in our present society have ceased to believe there is any life after the collapse of our temporary bodily existence. Of those who have retained some concept of it, many have fallen prey to a myth that all will be automatically sweetness and light. The core aspect of the Kingdom of God coming as divine vindication seems to have escaped them, and they have closed their eyes to any sense of personal judgement or accountability.
This book reminds us of these key Orthodox dogmas. It also gives us the encouragement to understand how important it is to pray for the dead: another doctrine that has been abandoned in many parts of the Christian world today. From being initially composed in order to answer an internal Orthodox controversy (how central was the concept of the Toll Houses) it has risen up to become a magisterial collection of patristic resources: the testimonies of the great saints, the Vitae, the liturgical teachings, a superb collation of icon and fresco evidences from all over the Orthodox world: all presented to the reader and demonstrating that the doctrine of the individual soul’s immediate posthumous judgement is certainly a central doctrine of Orthodoxy that must be taken seriously; but should not alarm the prepared soul.
Even though the Lord’s judgement is a strict concern to affirm justice and banish evil, He will have great mercy on those who can cry out to him in faith and love, as once the repentant tax collector did in the Temple: Kyrie eleison me hamartolon.