The Christian soul that lives with a profound hope of life beyond the grave and the sweet anticipation of the most desirable Paradise attempts to maintain a vivid memory of death. The Wisdom of Sirach says: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (7:36). The Christian knows that he will live after death and, therefore, should constantly be aware of his present mortality, keeping before him his exodus from the present world, the Second Coming, the future judgment, and his endless Eternity. For this reason Saint Gregory the Theologian often repeats the saying of Plato which suggests that the present life ought to be “a meditation upon death.” He advised his friend Philagrios to live “instead of the present the future and to make this life a meditation and practice of death.” To the priest Photios he wrote: “Our cares and our attention are concentrated on one thing only our departure from this world. And for this departure, we prepare ourselves and gather our baggage as prudent travelers would do.” Also, Saint Athanasios advises in his treatise On Virginity: “Recall your exodus every hour; keep death before your eyes on a daily basis. Remember before whom you must appear.” Saint John of Sinai advises: “Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you.”
Someone perhaps could object: “Is it not a morbid condition to be remembering constantly our exodus from this life? Would not this memory stifle our activities? Would not such a stance despise the present life which is a gift of God? Certainly, people who are far from Christ and who do not believe in life beyond the grave are usually panic-stricken by the memory of death. This is the reason that all of them avoid speaking about death. Even the word “death” itself is sufficient to upset them. Because of this, they give themselves over to entertainments, dances, and banquets: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13). With all these, they attempt to forget that there is death! Even “those great words that are heard often about the prolongation of life, about the imminent overcoming of death; the desperate attempts of many persons for some security indicate without a doubt their agonizing attempt to escape from the very experience of insecurity.” Because sin has become over-abundant “contemporary man is haunted by an unconscious absence of security and he stubbornly refuses to open a dialogue with death.” For this reason “when strong thoughts or external events bring upon his cheeks the breath of death,” modern man is shaken to his very foundations.
But for the man of God, who sees and examines everything under the prism of eternity, the memory of death is an essential presupposition for genuine spiritual life. It is the constant kindling for the battle against sin. This memory of death helps him to hate sin, to evaluate correctly and positively the things of the present; to evaluate appropriately the value of the “future age,” which he desires with all the power of his soul. Saint Maximos the Confessor teaches that the memory of death, when accompanied by the memory of God, is very helpful to the believer in his life in Christ: “Nothing is more fearful than the thought of death, and nothing is more marvelous than the memory of God.” For, as he says, the memory of death “produces in the soul salutary sorrow,” while The memory of god produces in the soul “joy and gladness.” This is why the Prophet said, “I remembered God and was pleased” (Psalm 76:4:), while the wise man of the Old Testament was advised, “Remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (Wis.Sir. 7:36). For it is impossible to keep oneself unfounded by sin if one does not experience the salutary “sourness” of the memory of death.
But, why should we seek the words of holy men when the Lord Himself repeatedly recommends the memory of death? It is worthy of note that the note of His voice on this Truth was one of command: “Watch, therefore, and pray, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42; 26:41). A hieromartyr of our Church comments on these words of the Savior: “Through these words, the God-Man was giving a warning to us all about the remembrance of death, so that we should be prepared to offer a defense, grounded in works and attentiveness, that will be acceptable to God.”
Please note: The coronavirus has forced people to face reality and to think of his/her mortality. We all know that death is inevitable and inescapable. This life is transient and all of us are passing through. Our earthly life is brief and temporary. As Christian believers, we must use the gift of life to prepare ourselves spiritually for eternity. It is up to us to decide here and now where we want to spend eternity. Saint Isaiah the anchorite, a contemporary of Saint Makarios the Great, advises: “He who ponders each day and say to himself that he has just today to remain in the world, will never sin against God.” Saint Pahomios, wrote in his Catechesis: “Brothers, let us struggle with all our heart to keep in our mind at all times both death and the fearful hell…When man remembers the time of death and the tribunal of the impartial Judge, he is protected from a multitude of sins and becomes (indeed a true temple of God), in which case, (what satanic machinations can deceive us?”
Saint John Chrysostom himself did not overlook the value of this salutary truth. He says: “Death both as a present and anticipated reality helps us very much. To look upon death or to anticipate it and to remember it convinces us to be humbly and modest. It also helps us to live with prudence and to be kept from sin and, generally speaking, to be spared from every evil.”
Not thinking of death does not make it go away or escape it. The decision of how long we are to live on earth is God’s alone. His decision is not negotiable but rather final. Repentance can take place here and now. There is no repentance after death. Knowing that none of us are ready spiritually it is imperative that we use the time we have prudently and prepare for this one-way journey. We definitely know that by not living a life of righteousness, of holiness, of obedience, of virtue, of faith, of love, of purity, we have acquired or accumulated heavy baggage of mistakes, sins, transgressions, etc. It is therefore necessary to remove and free ourselves from this heavy burden before we depart this life. For the Orthodox Christian believer, it means to repent of one’s sins and to seek absolution of them. This is done through the Mysterion (Sacrament) of Repentance and Confession. The penitent who truly and sincerely repents will be granted forgiveness by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All sins confessed with tears will be cleansed and the image of God within him or her, will once again be bright and pure. We cannot enter into the Kingdom of God with a dirty, filthy, and stained robe.
Saint Paul in his First Epistle (Letter) to the Corinthians 15:54 writes, “When the perishable puts n the imperishable and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”