Paths (Part 56: Death Is A Teacher)

After my mother’s death I spent a lot of time staring at nothing in particular: staring out the window of my office, staring into the forested open space behind our house, staring up at the sky, or at my hands. And I spent a lot of time weeping. I wept in the shower, in my truck, in front of my computer, and at anytime of the day or night; sometimes waking up to cry, after crying in my dreams. I sometimes fell into despair over the loss, but I also fought for hope and joy in the midst of this distress. But mostly I just endured, in an earthly purgatory, not entirely in a pit of sorrow, yet not quite finding any heights of joy either. I found I had a strong urge to avoid the pain and the melancholy, a desire to distract myself with any kind of entertainment, or to attach myself to something, or someone, to avoid the pain of my utter interior loneliness.  Somehow though I resisted most of these urges, as I sensed a great opportunity before me now to seek my solace in God alone, and to place everything and everyone in my life, second to God. This of course is how it should be, it is a command of Jesus Christ that we have no love greater than our love for Him, but honestly up to this point I had never been able to follow this command; I loved many things in this life more than Him, as I made completely evident by how I spent my time, and what I thought about throughout the day.

I began to pray much more, in order to develop a deeper relationship with God, and as I did this I began to see a battle playing out within me for my affections, between every kind of idol, and God Himself. The more I sought God alone through my prayers, the more all of the things I had ever enjoyed in life fought to hold onto me, and direct my attention back to them. The loss of this most important person in my life though had a sobering effect on me, and allowed me to see these idols clearly; they were much the same as I had made my mother; she and they had become, in a certain sense, stumbling-blocks coming between me and God, keeping me from deepening my relationship with Him, preventing me from finding Him, and dwelling with Him.

Jesus made many difficult statements and among them is the one where He tells us that unless we love Him more than mother and father, or son and daughter then we are not worthy of Him. When my mom died, my entire world was shaken from the foundations that I had known and found comfort in, and now, as I wandered in a haze, somewhat aimlessly, uprooted, and without certainty, there was danger that I could lose my way, but also a great chance to realign myself according to Christ’s most difficult commands. I saw myself as a baby again with a chance to make God my new mother. I could step into a new way of life, and be a new person, because the bonds that had held me to the past, had been loosened; I was free now.

There are many fathers of the church, some of the same ones that helped choose which  books to include in Holy Scripture, that have written about prayer as our most powerful and effective means of developing a relationship, and a life with God. I began to read more of these writers, who wrote extensively about prayer, and stillness, and watchfulness as the central practices of a Christian. The volumes of the Philokalia, which are dedicated entirely to these principles, I began to read daily, and to put much of what I learned from them into practice. I read other books on prayer, and how to pray, and how to struggle when prayer is difficult. I began to make prayer my best friend, and to pray as often as I could, not just in the morning and night, and the times I had set aside during the day; but I found myself more able and focused on prayer of the heart, or praying without ceasing, at every moment of the day, as I’ve already mentioned earlier. I’m not saying that I became able to pray without ceasing every moment of the day, but rather that I made greater strides towards this goal, because I had become more aware of my desperate need for it. I began to see that prayer was essential to my life; that without it, my life would be wasted, my remaining time here on earth would be wasted, and in a very real sense, I would be lost.

As I considered how I should best spend the remaining time I have in this life, I began to confront, daily, the inevitability of my own death. With this fact clearly before me each day, things began to fall into place; God had to be primary, for there was no other logical, useful, or trustworthy entity, or thing, to dedicate myself in this life, or to put my hope for eternity. There is a long tradition in the Orthodox church, particularly among monks, to keep the knowledge of our inevitable death always in our minds; this can help us keep a proper perspective on the issues and problems of each day, give us a correct understanding of ourselves in relation to everyone we meet, increase our vigilance in our battle with our own vices, or passions, and foment a healthy and purifying fear of God, which leads to wisdom and purity of heart. Wisdom is its own reward, in this life and the next, and purity of heart, Jesus says in the Beatitudes, is the prerequisite for those who desire to see God; for those who wish to know God.

I oscillated often between the fear of death and the horror of it, with its cruel tearing away of all the beloved in my life, I faltered between this fear, and the fear of God and the joy that this leads to—the determination to live according to His commands, the repentance of everything repugnant to Him, and ultimately to a deep and abiding love for Him. On one hand I realized that at any moment everything could just suddenly dissolve and disappear, that nothing here had any genuine solidity, it was all just a vapor, and this disturbed me, but on the other hand this truth also drove me more genuinely into the arms of God and made me seriously consider the great possibility of eternity; eternal existence, which, if true, then spiritual considerations are much more real, and ‘solid’ than the materiality of this present, passing world.

I had always envisioned my life, and everything in it, to be like a screen before me, scenes from my movie that I was constantly stepping into, paths that led me ever forward into the pictures of my life. But now, with the fact of death present within me—my own, and that of everyone I held dear, suddenly this screen before me began to dissolve, and instead, I began to perceive my life as that of a passing landscape, viewed out the side window of a moving vehicle. Before, this movie which I was constantly entering, was my destination, but now I had a new, eternal destination ahead of me, which was more compelling than this movie of my life.

(to be continued)


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