Fr. Seraphim (Rose), “The Soul After Death” (1980)


“The author of one of the new books on after-death experiences made a point of asking the opinion of various ‘sects’ on the state of the soul after death. Thus, he called a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and was given a very general opinion of the existence of heaven and hell, but was told that Orthodoxy does not have ‘any specific idea of what the hereafter would be like.’ The author could only conclude that ‘the Greek Orthodox view of the hereafter is not clear.’ On the contrary, of course, Orthodox Christianity has a quite precise doctrine and view of life after death, beginning from the very moment of death itself.”

(The Soul After Death, 3)

(Continued from part 5.)

If anyone asks for an example of Fr. Seraphim’s impact on Orthodox life, at least we can say that now, nearly 40 years after the publication of The Soul After Death, it is very difficult to imagine that an ordained Orthodox clergyman could give such a flippant answer to a question about the afterlife. The first obligation of any religion is to provide a clear and understandable explanation of what happens after we die — anything less would be unprofessional.

The Soul After Death was written in response to another spiritual fad of the 1970s, namely heightened interest in “out-of-body experiences.” As Fr. Seraphim put it, “a number of books purporting to describe ‘after-death’ experiences have been published in the past two years, and reputable scientists and physicians have either authored such books themselves or given them their wholehearted endorsement. One of these, the world-renowned physician and ‘expert’ on problems of death and dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, finds that these researches into after-death experiences ‘will enlighten many and will confirm what we have been taught for two thousand years — that there is life after death.’” (1) In Fr. Seraphim’s opinion, the religious community in general (including Orthodoxy, as seen above) was unprepared or unwilling to explain the accounts described in these books, even though “[t]he Orthodox Christian thus has a whole wealth of literature at his disposal, by means of which it is possible to understand the new ‘after-death’ experiences and evaluate them in the light of the whole Christian doctrine of life after death.” (4) He saw his own book as a summary of this teaching that would help Orthodox Christians to delve deeper into the works of the Holy Fathers.

Thus, The Soul After Death is similar, in its structure, motivation and (as we will see) conclusions, to Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. Both books start with then-contemporary “spiritual” trends; both books argue that the experiences underlying these trends have some basis in reality, often drawing parallels between observations made by “reputable scientists” and statements from Orthodox sources through the ages; finally, both books argue that these experiences are harmful and incompatible with Christianity, even the ones that have some superficial “Christian” content. Since we have already seen Orthodoxy go through these steps, it should be fairly clear what we can expect and what conclusions might be drawn, and we might reasonably ask why there was a need for another round of this.

However, despite their similarities, Fr. Seraphim chose to keep the two books separate (The Soul contains only two brief references to Orthodoxy, in footnotes), and, in fact, The Soul has its own set of grateful readers, both in its native English and in Russian translation. Its tone is calmer, and it goes into Orthodox philosophy in more detail. In a way, its subject is more important than that of Orthodoxy; even if “it is later than we think,” we can still hope that the Apocalypse will not occur in our lifetimes (our children’s, on the other hand…), but we will all have to deal with death, one way or the other.

Of course, the “scientific” dimension of “after-death” literature is questionable. Looking at a book that he calls “a fairly objective and systematic approach to the whole subject,” (4) written by someone with a Ph.D. in psychology, Fr. Seraphim observes that the author “admits that it is actually impossible to study this question ‘scientifically,’ and in fact he turns for an explanation of it to parallel experiences in…occult writings…noting that he intends now to look more closely at ‘the vast literature on paranormal and occult phenomena’ to increase his understanding of the events he has studied.” (6) We have already observed that claims of “scientific validity” are a fundamental characteristic of the religion of the future, so it is only to be expected that this kind of blatant occultism would have sold over ten million copies worldwide.

But, just as with the cults and sects discussed in Orthodoxy, one might ask why we should care about this panopticum of kooks and charlatans 40 years later, when they have all been long forgotten. Indeed, Fr. Seraphim’s monastic respect for the printed word (one quality that he shares with the 4th-century Desert Fathers) often leads him to view some of these people more seriously than they deserve. To him, anyone with an advanced degree is a “reputable scientist,” even when that degree is in geology or some other totally unrelated field, or when that person’s writing bears much more resemblance to a sensational cash grab than to a serious scientific analysis. (The author quoted above is still alive, and still offering “consultations” about out-of-body experiences for the low, low price of $350/hour. It’s a steal, folks!)

Yet, if we look a bit more closely, it turns out that perhaps these trendy writers have not been quite so forgotten after all. In fact, you may know some of them. You may not even be aware of it.

fivestagesPage from an eighth-grade health textbook.

Surely you are familiar with the “five stages of grief,” if you went through the American public school system. Most likely, however, you cannot name the inventor of this classification — it is simply one of those anonymous “facts” that drifted into your memory (you know, one of those things that “scientists say”), or, more accurately, were implanted into it. However, the “five stages” model does have an author: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a name that appears quite often in The Soul After Death.


“To live on borrowed time, to wait in vain for the doctors to make rounds, lingering on from visiting hours to visiting hours, looking out of the window, hoping for a nurse with some extra time for a chat…this is the way many terminally ill patients spend their time. Is it then surprising when such a patient is intrigued by a strange visitor who wants to talk to her about her own feelings, her own reaction to this state of affairs? …It may just be this attention that helps and that brings a little sunshine, meaning, and perhaps hope into the life of the terminally ill patient.”

(On Death and Dying, 231-232)

Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist with a medical degree who held several academic positions, including one at the Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago. She became interested in the problem of therapy for the terminally ill, which led her to create what she called an “interdisciplinary seminar on death and dying,” consisting mainly of conversations with terminally ill patients conducted by herself, her medical colleagues, hospital chaplains and other such personnel. In 1969, Kübler-Ross published a book titled On Death and Dying which summarized the results of these interviews in a half-clinical, half-literary form. The five stages are first presented there as a way to categorize the emotional states of these patients, in order to make the discussion more systematic. This book became quite popular and influential, and is still in print today (however, my cited page numbers come from a 1972 edition by Macmillan — support your local library!), although, as we can see, the five stages have now taken on a life of their own and are much more widely recognized than their creator.

Well, in order to be sure that I was getting the original, unadulterated version of Kübler-Ross’ ideas, I read On Death and Dying. My immediate impression was that I was reading a work of literature rather than a scientific inquiry. On Death comes from a time in which psychologists took considerable liberties in interacting with patients. A contemporary of Kübler-Ross was one Milton Rokeach, another academic psychologist who wrote a book called The Three Christs of Ypsilanti about his unsuccessful attempts to rehabilitate three insane men, each of whom proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ, by making them spend time together. The Three Christs is written in a very similar literary style, but has no scientific value, and ultimately made even its own author question whether he had any right to do any of the things he wrote about.

Positivism: the god that failed.

From the first pages of On Death, however, it is clear that its author was a thoughtful and empathetic person, capable of sincere compassion. The first two chapters, titled “On the Fear of Death” and “Attitudes Toward Death and Dying,” really have nothing to do with the patient interviews or the five stages, and more properly belong to the genre of philosophical prose.

“One of the most important facts is that dying nowadays is more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely, mechanical, and dehumanized… When a patient is severely ill, he is often treated like a person with no right to an opinion. It is often someone else who makes the decision if and when and where a patient should be hospitalized… [The patient] will be surrounded by busy nurses, orderlies, interns, residents, a lab technician perhaps, a lab technician who will take some blood, an electrocardiogram technician who takes the cardiogram. He may be moved to X-ray and he will overhear opinions of his condition and discussions and questions to members of the family. He slowly but surely is beginning to be treated like a thing. He is no longer a person.”

(On Death, 7-8)

“If we can drive the highways at rapid speed, if we can come back home from Vietnam, we must indeed feel immune to death. We have killed ten times the number of enemies compared to our own losses — we hear on the news almost daily. …If a whole nation, a whole society suffers from such a fear and denial of death, it has to use defenses which can only be destructive. …While the religious denial, i.e., the belief in the meaning of suffering here on earth and reward in heaven after death, has offered hope and purpose, the denial of society has given neither hope nor purpose but has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our own destructiveness and aggressiveness — to kill in order to avoid the reality and facing of our own death. [Emphasis added. -FL]

(On Death, 13-14)

This is the language of poetry, not medical policy. These are not research conclusions, statements for which one can or should try to present supporting evidence. Nonetheless, in a certain specific sense, Kübler-Ross is obviously right (how little has changed in 50 years) and it is difficult to argue with her. Our society enjoys killing — our much-maligned violent media are a consequence of this enjoyment, not its cause — and it is quite surprising to hear a medical professional assert so explicitly that this is a direct result of secularization. I wonder if this was a sudden flash of insight rather than a thought-out position, because ironically it sounds much more like something that Fr. Seraphim might have said. Purposefully or not, Kübler-Ross intuited that the omnipresence of suffering in traditional life paradoxically made certain aspects of that life more humane, and more human, than whatever it is that we live in now.

The five stages themselves are presented with much more perception than the stereotype would suggest. As can be seen above, eighth-grade students are taught to regurgitate the statement that, “In the last stage of dying, a person with a terminal illness will often feel a sense of peace,” which is a cheap palliative for our conscience — if we convince ourselves that the dying are at “peace,” it gives us an excuse to ignore them — and also a glib trivialization of the state that we ourselves will inevitably face. But Kübler-Ross explicitly says, “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings. …While the dying patient has found some peace and acceptance, his circle of interest diminishes. He wishes to be left alone or at least not stirred up by news and problems of the outside world. Visitors are often not desired and if they come, the patient is no longer in a talkative mood.(On Death, 100) In other words, “acceptance” is a state of absolute, irreversible solitude, which (as many spouses and families are shocked and unprepared to discover) no amount of emotional support can rectify.

Unfortunately for Kübler-Ross herself, her critique of secularism is powerless because she has already accepted that there can be no alternative. She writes, “We live in a society of the mass rather than the individual man,” (15) a fitting epitaph for all of our empty words about individual freedom. Her lyrical pangs of sorrow for the passing of traditional life are rooted in her conviction that it is gone forever and that there is nothing to be done about it. This imposes a strong feeling of defeatism on everything that she talks about, and ultimately raises the question (unanswered by her) of whether any of it really has any point. Fr. Seraphim concisely articulates this objection:

“No Christian, surely, can fail to sympathize with the cause that Dr. Kübler-Ross has chosen to champion: a humane and helpful attitude toward the dying, in contrast with the cold, helpless, and often fearful attitude which has often prevailed not only among doctors and nurses in hospitals, but even among clergymen who are supposed to have the ‘answer’ to the questions raised by the fact of death. …To be sure, anyone who accepts the traditional Christian view of life as a testing-ground for eternity…will find her book discouraging. To have a humane attitude toward a dying person, to help him ‘prepare’ for death, without placing faith in Christ and hope of salvation in the first place — is, when all is said and done, to remain in the same dreary realm of ‘humanism’ to which mankind has been reduced by modern unbelief. The experience of dying can be made more pleasant than it usually is in today’s hospitals; but if there is no knowledge of what comes after death, or that there is anything after death, the work of people like Kübler-Ross is reduced to the level of giving harmless colored pills to the incurably ill to make them at least feel that ‘something is being done.'”

(The Soul, 155-156)

Perhaps Kübler-Ross also experienced this feeling of futility; it would explain why she was never quite satisfied with merely providing emotional support to her patients, and why she continued to search for some supernatural purpose to justify her work. Well, she found it. These people always do.

“At this moment a woman appeared in front of the elevator. I stared at this woman. I cannot tell you how this woman looked, but you can imagine what it’s like when you see somebody that you know terribly well, but you suddenly block out who it is. I said to [my companion], ‘God, who is that? I know that woman, and she’s staring at me; she’s just waiting until you go into the elevator, and then she’ll come.’ I was so preoccupied with who she was I forgot that I tried to grab him. She stopped that. She was very transparent, but not transparent enough that you could see very much behind her. I asked him once more, but he didn’t tell me who she was, so I gave up on him. The last thing I said to him was kind of, ‘To heck, I’m going over and telling her I just cannot remember her name.’ That was my last thought before he left.
The moment he had entered the elevator, this woman walked straight towards me and said, ‘Dr. Ross, I had to come back. Do you mind if I walk you to your office? It will only take two minutes.’ Something like this. And because she knew where my office was, and she knew my name, I felt kind of safe, I didn’t have to admit that I didn’t know who she was. This was the longest walk of my life. I am a psychiatrist. I work with schizophrenic patients all the time, and I love them. When they would have visual hallucinations I would tell them, ‘I know you see that Madonna on the wall, but I don’t see it.’ Now I said to myself, ‘Elisabeth, I know you see this woman, but that can’t be.’
All the way from the elevator to my office I did reality testing on myself. I said ‘I’m tired, I need a vacation. I think I’ve seen too many schizophrenic patients. I’m beginning to see things. I have to touch her, to know if she’s real.’ I even touched her skin to see if it was cold or warm, or if the skin would disappear when I touched it. It was the most incredible walk I have ever taken, not knowing why I was doing what I was doing. I was both an observing psychiatrist and a patient. I was everything at one time. I didn’t know why I did what I did, or who I thought she was. I even repressed the thought that this could actually be Mrs. Schwarz, who had died and was buried months ago.
When we reached my door she opened it with this incredible kindness and tenderness and love, and she said, ‘Dr. Ross, I had to come back for two reasons. One, to thank you and Reverend Gaines…(he was a beautiful black minister with whom I had a super, ideal symbiosis), ‘to thank you and him for what you did for me. But the other reason I had to come back is that you cannot stop this work on death and dying, not yet.’
I looked at her, and I don’t know if I thought by then, ‘It could be Mrs. Schwarz,’ I mean, this woman had been buried for ten months, and I didn’t believe in all that stuff. I finally got to my desk. I touched everything that was real. I touched my pen, my desk, my chair, and it’s real. I was hoping that she would disappear. But she didn’t. She just stood there and stubbornly, but lovingly, said, ‘Dr. Ross, do you hear me? Your work is not finished. We [“We”? Who are “we”?! -FL] will help you, and you will know when the time is right, but do not stop now. Promise?’
I thought, ‘My God, nobody would ever believe me if I told them this, not even my dearest friend.’ Little did I know I would later tell this to several hundred people. Then the scientist in me won, and I said something very shrewd and a big fat lie. I said to her, ‘You know Reverend Gaines is in Urbana now.’…I said, ‘He would just love to have a note from you. Would you mind?’ And I gave her a piece of paper and a pencil. You understand, I had no intention of sending this note to my friend, but I needed scientific proof. I mean, somebody who’s buried can’t write little love letters. And this woman, with the most human, no, not human, most loving smile, knowing every thought I had -– and I knew, it was thought transference if I’ve ever experienced it -– took the paper and wrote a note. Then she said (but without words), ‘Are you satisfied now?’ I looked at her and thought, I will never be able to share this with anybody, but I am going to really hold onto this. Then she got up, ready to leave, repeating: ‘Dr. Ross, you promise,’ implying not to give up this work yet. I said, ‘I promise.’ And the moment I said, ‘I promise,’ she disappeared. We still have the note.”

Kübler-Ross in 1977

I give this lengthy quote because Fr. Seraphim doesn’t — he mentions this occurrence, but his entire summary of it is less than half a page long — and the full text shows just how much he was understating the case. This rambling, repetitive tale contains much material for a psychiatric case study of the author herself; for instance, in an earlier part of the same account, Kübler-Ross states, “I mentioned briefly that I was born an ‘unwanted’ child. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want a child. They wanted a girl very badly, but a pretty, beautiful, ten-pound girl. They did not expect triplets, and when I came, I was only two pounds and very ugly with no hair, and it was a terrible, terrible disappointment.” Thus, unfortunately, even her assurances of compassion and empathy start to take on an excessive, self-justifying character, while her patients (whose personhood she defended so eloquently before) turn into a backdrop for her own emotions: “Not really knowing any psychiatry, being very lonely and miserable and unhappy but not wanting to make my new husband unhappy, I opened up to the patients. I identified myself with their misery and their loneliness and their desperation, and suddenly my patients started to talk, even people who didn’t talk for twenty years. They started to verbalize, and share their feelings, and I suddenly knew that I was not alone in my misery. Suddenly I felt only half as miserable working in a state hospital…I barely understood their English, but we loved each other. We really cared.

Of course, Kübler-Ross’ self-revealing monologue (titled “Death Does Not Exist,” a statement that, again, could have come very close to Orthodox philosophy, though unfortunately the conclusions went in the opposite direction) was not the end, but only the beginning. The facts of the case, as summarized by Fr. Seraphim, only became stranger:

“Later, Dr. Kübler-Ross’ contacts with the ‘spirit-world’ became much more intimate. In 1978, before an enthralled audience of 2200 in Ashland, Oregon, she related how she was first brought into contact with her ‘spirit-guides.’ A spiritistic-type assembly was rather mysteriously arranged for her, evidently in southern California, with 75 people singing together in order to ‘raise the necessary energy for this event. I was moved and touched that they would do that for me. Not more than two minutes later, I saw huge feet in front of me. There was an immense man standing in front of me.’ This ‘man’ told her that she was to be a teacher and needed this firsthand experience to give her strength and courage for her work. ‘About a half-minute later, another person literally materialized about 1/2 inch from my feet… I understood that he was my guardian angel… He called me Isabelle, and he asked me if I remembered how, 2000 years ago, we had both worked with the Christ.’ [Emphasis added; cf. Philip K. Dick’s monologue in part 5. -FL]
…At a holistic health conference in San Francisco in September 1976, Dr. Kübler-Ross shared with an audience of 2300 physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals a ‘profound mystical experience’ that had occurred to her only the night before… [As we have seen, these experiences just happen on demand, with no effort required. -FL] ‘Last night, I was visited by Salem, my spirit guide, and two of his companions… They were with us until three o’clock in the morning. We talked, laughed and sang together. They spoke and touched me with the most incredible love and tenderness imaginable. This was the highlight of my life.'”

(The Soul, 157-158)

Once again, I will not discuss whether any of this really happened — although Kübler-Ross really lays it on a bit thick, so that even our intrepid monk is inclined to write off a large part of it as “wishful thinking” — but I will remind you that her ideas are in the public school curriculum. And I have to ask: for God’s sake, why? Who, after all, decided that millions of middle school students must uncritically memorize the five stages of dying?

Well, one could say that Kübler-Ross’ contributions to psychiatry should be considered independently of her own personal problems. But then again…why? After all, her famous book describes dialogues with patients, in which Kübler-Ross was an active participant. If the doctor herself was motivated by very peculiar spiritual ideas, and was, at the very least, deeply disturbed, then wouldn’t that influence the scientific integrity of the study? And, if she went off the deep end only a few years after her book was published, isn’t it possible that this was merely the consequence of some defect in her personality that was always there, before she became famous, back when she was still a “lonely and miserable” clinical psychiatrist? Wouldn’t that defect have also had some effect on the validity of her work? (In fact, although Kübler-Ross only started talking about her “visions” after On Death was published, the experience she describes above was said to have taken place in 1967 — in other words, the book was being written with all of this already in her mind.)

The life of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is a horrifying illustration of how the throne never stays empty. She wrote, “Men of the churches may not even be successful in bringing many more people back to the belief in a life after death,” (On Death, 15) but it seems that belief is not the issue at all. As her own case shows, religious indifference is perfectly compatible with an overwhelming, fanatical belief in the supernatural, expressed in the wildest possible forms. In fact, the traditional faith that she sadly recalls — “In the old days, more people seemed to believe in God unquestionably; they believed in a hereafter, which was to relieve people of their suffering and their pain. There was a reward in heaven, and if we had suffered much here on earth we would be rewarded after death depending on the courage and grace, patience and dignity with which we had carried our burden.” (13) — is much more sensible, even more “scientific” in the sense that it can much more easily be reconciled with material reality, than her “profound mystical experiences.”

The most compelling aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s analysis of Kübler-Ross is that he never once mentions the five stages. The Soul After Death was written in the late seventies, before Kübler-Ross’ model had entered the cultural mainstream. Fr. Seraphim simply didn’t know that this one aspect of her book was going to become so important as to eclipse the rest of it. The fact that it did is, in my view, another illustration that we do not live in a secular society; we live in a religious society that falsely claims to be secular. The most outrageous superstitions and delusions lie barely concealed beneath the surface of seemingly rational, scientific attitudes.

Thus, when Fr. Seraphim arrives on the scene with the warning that, “the realm of ‘after-death’ experiences…is still a realm in which demonic deceptions and suggestions are not only possible, but are positively to be expected,” (The Soul, 42) it may not be very surprising to his longtime readers, but looking at Kübler-Ross’ ecstatic outpourings, one really starts to wonder. The cautionary statement that Fr. Seraphim quotes from St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), “If the saints have not always recognized demons who appeared to them in the form of saints and Christ Himself, how is it possible for us to think of ourselves that we will recognize them without mistake? The sole means of salvation from these spirits is absolutely to refuse perception of them,” (61) is just good plain common sense. It is truly strange (that is, if one tries to approach it rationally) that people who so strongly believe in a realm about which, by definition, nothing can be proved or understood with certainty, would also place such blind trust in their fragmentary “experience” of it. In this we see the true importance and value of organized religion — it serves as a form of spiritual hygiene, and the “limitations” that it places on its adherents have the function of preventing small children from putting everything they see into their mouths.

“These visions are not spiritual, but worldly. They are so quick, so easily attained, so common, so earthly in their imagery… Rather than producing the profound awe, fear of God, and repentance which the authentic experience of God’s presence has evoked in Christian saints (of which St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus may be taken as a model — Acts 9:3-9), the present-day experiences produce something much more akin to the ‘comfort’ and ‘peace’ of the modern spiritistic and pentecostal movements.”

(The Soul, 50)

“The true experience of heaven is accompanied by a feeling of such awe and fear before the greatness of God, and a feeling of such unworthiness to be beholding it, as are seldom found even among Orthodox Christians today, let alone those outside the Church of Christ. St. Salvius’ heartfelt expressions of his unworthiness, St. Andrew’s trembling prostration before Christ, even K. Uekskuell’s blindness in the light he was unworthy to behold — are unheard of in today’s experiences. Those who are seeing ‘paradise’ in the aerial realm today are ‘pleased,’ ‘happy,’ ‘satisfied’ — seldom anything more; if they behold ‘Christ’ in some form, it is only to indulge in the familiar ‘dialogues’ with him that characterize experiences in the ‘charismatic’ movement. The element of the Divine and of man’s awe before it, the fear of God, are absent in such experiences.”

(The Soul, 144-145)

In Fr. Seraphim’s exposition, a defining characteristic of “true experiences of heaven,” by which they may be distinguished from demonic deceptions, is the presence of “fear of God” and “repentance,” which are indeed quite lacking in all of the “after-death” accounts that he surveys. At this point, however, the sceptical reader might start to suspect that the author’s objection to these accounts is based more on distaste for the very notion that the afterlife might be pleasant, than on deeper theological or philosophical grounds. The reader might then choose to see a certain amount of indignation in a statement like, “What the rest of mankind learns from these experiences is not repentance and the closeness of God’s judgment — but a strange, enticing new gospel of pleasant ‘other-worldly’ experience and the abolition of…the fear of death,” (166) which does sound like it could have comfortably fit into a sermon by a fundamentalist Protestant minister.

Of course, “the fear of death” is also strongly emphasized in Orthodox philosophy and ascetic literature. The great medieval tracts all have entire chapters on this subject; the Holy Fathers often invoke it in order to move the faithful to repentance. St. John Climacus famously wrote one especially poetic exhortation of this kind, about a monk who “spent many years in monastic labours, and shone forth with many virtues, in particular had been adorned by fasting and tears,” and still dreaded the approaching hour of judgment:

“But then, this honourable man made the decision to undertake the most active, the most severe and strict repentance, and departed for the abiding-place of hermits, which was called Siddim, and there spent several years of the most strict and austere living; for that place was devoid of any comfort, and was distanced from all walks of human life… Before his death, the elder returned to his cell upon the holy mountain, where he had two disciples from Palestine, most devout, who guarded the elder’s cell during his absence. Having spent not many days there, the elder fell ill and expired. The day before, he fell into delirium, and with open eyes gazed to the right and the left of his bed and, as if tortured by someone, he sometimes said in the hearing of others: ‘Yes, indeed, it is true; but because of that I fasted for many years’; and sometimes: ‘No, I did not do that, you are lying’; then again he said: ‘Yes, truly it is so, but I wept and served the brothers’; and sometimes objected: ‘No, you are slandering me.’ And sometimes he replied: ‘Yes, exactly so, and I do not know what to say to this: but God has mercy.’ Truly, one trembled at the frightening sight of this invisible and merciless torment; and worst of all, he was accused of things that he had never done. Alas! this man of silence and solitude said, regarding some of his sins: ‘I do not know what to say to this’ — although he had spent nearly forty years as a monk and had been granted the gift of tears… During the course of this torment his soul departed from his body; and it remained unknown what were the conclusion and verdict of this tribunal, and what was the sentence that followed.”

St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Life is short, and that becomes an excuse to say that there was not enough time to stop and think, to try to see myself as I really am. Mortality is the only limit to this ability to rationalize, the last and only chance to understand the import of everything that I have done to others. The “fear of death” is not (only) of punishment, but of the irrefutable, inescapable understanding that I was actually much worse than I had imagined; that, in all the time I had been given, I proved to be fruitless, incapable of any good works that might speak in my defense after I am gone.

All Christians nominally believe in the idea that God is a Person — that is, that God has an individual mind, not bound by human opinions or demands, or by any external conditions, with the absolute freedom to think and do as He wants without limitation. However, Orthodoxy in particular elevates this concept to a central role and makes it the foundation for its entire philosophy of the nature of man and man’s relationship to God. Personhood is the one quality that God and man have in common; when God “created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him,” this refers to the gift of individuality, which reflects an aspect of the Divine nature. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “‘For who hath known the mind of the Lord?’ — says the apostle (Romans 11:34). To this I will add: who has known his own mind? Let those who claim to have comprehended the nature of God by their reason first answer whether they have comprehended themselves. Have they understood the nature of their own mind?” and concludes, “Since one of the qualities that we perceive in the nature of God is the inconceivability of its essence, it necessarily follows that, in this, the image also bears a similarity to its Origin.”

Man’s individuality enables man to engage in direct dialogue with God, and, in the ideal, to take on a greater measure of likeness to Him. However, God does not passively wait for this to happen. God’s individuality likewise leaves Him free to choose to go searching for man on His own, and to willingly impose limits on Himself in order to establish this contact, to the point of voluntarily subjecting Himself to death. The “fear of God” is the fear of this very openness. Any dialogue with another human being brings one into the realm of the unknown. We never know what the other person is thinking or what might really underlie their words; if we are the ones speaking, the other person is free to reject our point of view (perhaps not openly) or to refuse to continue the conversation. Communication with another living, intelligent mind always brings with it a certain amount of anxiety and requires a certain amount of trust. All of this should apply all the more to dialogue with God — it can only occur by His choice, and He is free to refrain from it or to leave it at any moment, but also to continue it even when we would rather run away. This freedom of God is what is frightening — we cannot make Him listen to us, and when He chooses to do so, we cannot make Him like what we say, if only it does not turn out that we have nothing to say in the first place. The “judgment” of God could be nothing more than His freedom to have His own opinion of us, and it would be no less unbearable. There is no way to remove the uncertainty inherent in this dialogue; one can only trust in God’s goodness.

Comparing this conception of communication with God to the one found in the “after-death experiences” surveyed by Fr. Seraphim, the first problem with the latter is not even that it is “worldly,” but that it is infantile. According to these accounts, “God” has nothing better to do than to sit around waiting for various self-absorbed people to decide that they want to go “traveling on the spiritual plane,” which they tend to do out of idle curiosity and without much effort. Once they finally get around to this, “God” then lavishes various sensuous entertainments on them in “a ‘summerland’ of pleasant experiences in the ‘other world.’” (The Soul, 153) In other words, these people are not interested in communicating with anyone other than themselves; what they want is to spend eternity in an amusement park, alone, in the complete absence of any other sentient beings, since all the “spirits” that they encounter likewise exist entirely for their personal entertainment and “development.” This aspect does, in fact, have disturbing implications for our future, because right before our eyes, words like “growth” and “development” are now being unironically used to describe extreme egocentrism, total incapacity to relate to any other living being, and total unwillingness to look at oneself from any other point of view. Before you start talking to God, it might be useful to first learn how to carry on a basic conversation about the weather.

Any worldview in which God is impersonal is a worldview that has no understanding of the very concept of dialogue. “Judgment” and “punishment” are not the issue — nothing would change even if God were to be merely an equal participant in the dialogue rather than an almighty judge, as any communication with any other individual at all would be a distraction from modern man’s all-important “experience” and sensations. But, more than that, the Personhood of God is the philosophical foundation for the personhood of man — because individuality is the most Divine quality in man, it is also the most human quality in God, and thus it underlies our humanity. On the other hand, those teachings that propose to remove the Personhood of God (again, even those that do not admit to having any spiritual content) all openly express the desire to “move beyond” humanity, one example quoted by Fr. Seraphim being, “According to these new views, development of the soul…does not stop upon death. Rather, it continues on the other side, perhaps eternally…” (The Soul, 161) In other words, any philosophy that teaches the impersonality of God will also teach the abandonment of humanity, purportedly for the sake of achieving something “better,” but in reality leading us into a kind of social psychopathy where everyone has been “enlightened” and yet is utterly alone in the universe, unable to comprehend or bear the mere fact of anyone else’s existence. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

But should we ever need to remember what humanity is, or was, we can look back to the monk in St. John’s story — a man of deep moral feeling, with the strength to admit and accept responsibility for the entirety of his life. Whether he was forgiven is, as St. John says, not something we can know, but one can be sure that God would at least hear what such a person had to say. “Repentance” is the act of honestly asking oneself the question of whether one is still really human; of grasping for the humanity that, one suddenly realizes, may have long been lost. Inseparable from this act is a profound and frightening uncertainty, which cannot be resolved until after death:

“When the venerable Sisoes lay on his deathbed, the disciples who had gathered around him saw that his face was shining with light. They asked the dying man what he was seeing. Abba Sisoes answered that he saw the holy prophets and apostles. The disciples asked with whom the venerable Father was speaking. He said that the angels had come for his soul, but that he had asked them to grant him a short time for repentance. The disciples objected, ‘You, Father, have no need of repentance.’ But the venerable Sisoes, through his great humility, replied, ‘Truly I do not know if I have even laid the beginnings of my repentance.’ After these words the face of the holy father shone so brightly that the brothers did not dare to look upon him. The saint told them that he now saw the Lord Himself, and his holy soul departed for the Kingdom of Heaven.”

from the Life of St. Sisoes the Great, †429 AD

In the end, Fr. Seraphim’s critique of “after-death experiences” turns out to be surprisingly tangential to the significance of The Soul After Death. For all that “after-death literature” may have sold millions of copies at the time, most people still remain happily unaware of these writers and their problems; one cannot even understand the full import of Fr. Seraphim’s analysis without making some additional enquiries. On the other hand, one can see, through Fr. Seraphim’s exposition, that there also exists — has existed for centuries — a different teaching with a radically different philosophical anthropology, which, for all its stern injunctions to repent, ultimately places the highest value on the concept of human freedom, whereas the religion of the future, under the guise of rational science, seeks to deny and destroy it.

You would think that Orthodox believers, at least, would be gladdened and inspired by this message. Surprisingly, however, The Soul attracted controversy upon publication, and not from occultists and sectarians, but from ostensibly Orthodox writers. Their lengthy and often vehement arguments were directed at a secondary dimension of the book, namely the chapter on “the aerial toll-houses.” This term refers to an aspect of Orthodox iconography which accompanies the greater Church teaching on the afterlife. It is said that, on the third day after death, the soul is guided by angels toward heaven, where it will receive the Particular Judgment of God and “dwell in heaven or hell awaiting the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment.(The Soul, 121) On its way to meet God, however, the soul is accosted by demons and confronted with its own past actions, thereby revealing its affinity to different types of sin. Or, as explained in a sermon by St. John of Shanghai, “At this time (the third day [after death]), [the soul] passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins, to which they themselves had tempted it. According to various revelations there are twenty such obstacles, the so-called ‘toll-houses,’ at each of which one or another form of sin is tested; after passing through one the soul comes upon the next one, and only after successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue its path without immediately being cast into gehenna.” (184)

wrath“The twelfth ordeal: where the sins of wrath and fury are excruciated.”
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria.

The imagery of the toll-houses (which, perhaps, would be more accurately called “ordeals”) was widely drawn upon by Orthodox writers throughout the ages; Fr. Seraphim cites many examples from Church services, Lives of Saints, and ascetic literature. The confrontation with the accusing demons is described in metaphors, e.g., from a homily by St. Ephraim of Syria, “These are…the fearful publicans, registrars, tax-collectors; they meet [the soul] on the way, register, examine, and count the sins and debts of this man — the sins of youth and old age, voluntary and involuntary, committed in deed, word, and thought.” (73) The soul’s angel guides do their best to refute these demonic charges with evidence of the person’s good deeds, which may be shown allegorically as “scrolls” or “gold.” Fr. Seraphim includes numerous cautionary notes on how these images should be interpreted:

“No one aware of Orthodox teaching would say that the toll-houses are not ‘real,’ are not actually experienced by the soul after death. But we must keep in mind that these experiences occur not in our crudely material world; that both time and space, while obviously present, are quite different from our earthly concepts of time and space; and that accounts of these experiences in earthly language invariably fall short of the reality. …Thus, of course, there are no visible ‘houses’ or ‘booths’ in the air where ‘taxes’ are collected, and where there is mention of ‘scrolls’ or writing implements whereby sins are recorded, or ‘scales’ by which virtues are weighed, or ‘gold’ by which ‘debts’ are paid — in all such cases we may properly understand these images to be figurative or interpretive devices used to express the spiritual reality which the soul faces at that time. …What is certain is that there is a testing by demons, who appear in a frightful but human form, accuse the newly-departed of sins and literally try to seize the subtle body of the soul, which is grasped firmly by angels; and all this occurs in the air above us and can be seen by those whose eyes are open to spiritual reality.”

(The Soul, 68-69)

Even so, many academic theological writers were made uncomfortable by the “literal” quality of these images. Appendix III of The Soul gives Fr. Seraphim’s response to a “critic” who, apparently, was especially outraged by the toll-houses. I am not qualified to join the debate between these learned men, and so I will pass over the theology of the toll-houses; it seems to me, however, that with the passage of time the debate has mostly ended, and that if you were to speak with a priest at a ROC(OR) parish in the late 2010s, what you would most likely hear is a plain and simple affirmation of the traditional teaching with reference to the numerous Patristic sources cited in The Soul (and, probably, to The Soul itself). The 2005 edition of the standard ROCOR prayer-book, published by the Holy Trinity Monastery, explicitly cites the toll-houses on pp. 408-409.

“No matter how absurd the idea of the toll-houses may seem to our ‘wise men,’ they will not escape passing through them.”

St. Theophanes the Recluse (The Soul, 86)

miserliness“The seventh ordeal: greed.” Kiev Caves Monastery.

In my view, it is much more important to understand the implications of the Particular Judgment for the overall Orthodox view of humanity. The most startling aspect of the Particular Judgment — especially if one only has a general familiarity with the stereotype of the Christian afterlife, i.e., that “good people go to heaven” and “bad people go to hell” — is that its outcome is not permanent, however frightening the toll-houses may be. A precise statement was made in 1439 by St. Mark of Ephesus as part of a refutation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory: “We affirm that neither the righteous have as yet received the fullness of their lot and that blessed condition for which they have prepared themselves here through works, nor have sinners, after death, been led away into the eternal punishment in which they shall be tormented forever. Rather, both the one and the other must necessarily take place after the Judgment of that last day and the resurrection of all. Now, however, both the one and the other are in places proper to them: the first, in absolute repose and free, are in heaven with the angels and before God Himself…while the second, in their turn, being confined in hell, remain in the lowest pit, in darkness and in the shadow of death (Psalms 87:7) Neither have the first yet received the inheritance of the Kingdom and those good things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man (1 Corinthians 2:9); nor have the second yet been given over to eternal torments nor to burning in the unquenchable fire.” (The Soul, 211-212) As long as the material world continues to exist, the state of souls in heaven and hell is not final. First, heaven and hell themselves are in a certain sense incomplete — as Fr. Seraphim explains, “what is seen in experiences of hell is often an image of future torments rather than a literal depiction of the present state of those awaiting the Last Judgment in hell” (148), and also, “There is no fire tormenting sinners now, however…all visions of fire which are seen by men are as it were images or prophecies of what will be in the future age.” (198) Second, until the Last Judgment, the possibility remains that a soul might still be delivered. St. Mark continues, “All [sinners in hell], we affirm, are helped by the prayers and Liturgies performed for them, with the cooperation of the Divine goodness and love for mankind. This Divine cooperation immediately disdains and remits some sins, those committed out of human weakness, as Dionysius [the Areopagite] says…while other sins, after a certain time, by righteous judgments it either likewise releases and forgives — and that completely — or lightens the responsibility for them until that final Judgment. And therefore we see no necessity whatever for any other punishment or for a cleansing [purgatorial] fire; for some are cleansed by fear, while others are devoured by the gnawings of conscience…and still others are cleansed only by the very terror before the Divine Glory and the uncertainty as to what the future will be.” (201-202)

Only the Last Judgment is final, because then “there should be time no longer” — but, until that last day, even sinners who are already in hell may be forgiven. St. John of Shanghai observes, “In the Church prayers are ever offered for the repose of the dead, and on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, in the kneeling prayers at vespers, there is even a special petition ‘for those in hell.’” (190) It directly follows that the Last Judgment will be more merciful than the Particular Judgment — that many of the “verdicts” will be reviewed, many of the “sentences” commuted, their exact number known only to God. Suddenly, the “fear of death” becomes miraculously transmuted into its opposite, so that St. Isaac of Syria writes, “When the power of reason, which is within us, becomes enlightened, man entirely despises the fear of death and comes to be always inspired by the hope of resurrection.”

theodoraIllustrated 18th-century manuscript showing the toll-houses.

While this mercy toward departed souls is an act of God’s will, the faithful are active participants in it through their prayers. St. John of Shanghai pleads, “O relatives and close ones of the dead! Do for them what is needful for them and what is within your power… Show mercy to the dead, take care for their souls. Before us all stands that same path, and how we shall then wish that we would be remembered in prayer! Let us therefore be merciful to the dead.” (192) His most accomplished student then writes, in turn, about him: “The present writer remembers well the solemn services for the repose of Archbishop John Maximovitch in 1966, culminating in the day of his funeral. All present felt they were witnessing the burial of a saint… No one present thought that our prayers alone would save him from the ‘tests’ of the demons, and no one pictured in his mind an exchange of ‘tolls’ at some ‘houses’ in the sky; but these appeals helped to inspire the fervent piety of the faithful, and doubtless this helped him to get through these toll-houses.” (253) But this is not limited to great saints. It may be that your life did not appear to produce many good works; and yet, if someone remains behind who is willing to pray for you, that may become the justification of your life on earth. And, likewise, if you should stop and say such a prayer for someone else, you may gain more certainty that “the departed are alive, and our communion with them is not broken,” (St. Theophanes the Recluse) than could ever be gained from any extravagant vision or experience.

The Soul After Death teaches that we should approach the afterlife seriously, that we are responsible for every moment we spend on earth; but also that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” that His compassion does not end with our death, and that we (or those who have already left us) are not left alone to face His judgment.

judgmentIcon of the Last Judgment. Novgorod, late 15th century.
The twenty ordeals are represented by rings on the winding path to the Throne.

(Continuation: part 7.)

One thought on “Fr. Seraphim (Rose), “The Soul After Death” (1980)

  1. Pingback: Fr. Seraphim (Rose), “The Soul After Death” (1980) — Fallen Leaves –

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