...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Saying goodbye

R.F.'s funeral was yesterday morning. The wife and I went to the visitation on Friday night, where I met more of his family and saw a few other staf members. It was strange to see him laying in the casket in a tux instead of a hospital bed with a gown. Stranger still to see how fake he looked with all that makeup on. But that few moments at the casket gave me a chance to say goodbye and I could not help but reflect on how much I've grown and experienced over the course of the last year. My wife's aunt died last summer and we attended both the visitation and the funeral. The visitation, quite honestly, freaked me out a little bit. I've only been to a few funerals and as far as I can remember, this was the first one with the actual body on display. And people were touching her, which made me even more uncomfortable. The wife grew up in a small town in Illinois in a larger church with the whole span of ages present. She'd been to quite a few visitations like this, so for her it was old hat.

But over the course of the last year, I've had the unique privilege of taking care of the recently deceased on a number of different occasions. And I do take it as a privilege - the chance to show a few last acts of love and respect for someone whom I had known and cared for, and who was deeply and passionately loved by the God who died to snuff out death entirely. I've cleaned them one last time, removed the IV lines, EKG leads and other medical implements that allow us to provide heroic care but also, in their own subtle ways, dehumanize the patient, make them into a squiggly line on a computer screen or a drip rate, rather than a person. So I take it as a solemn honor to rehumanize them, so to speak, to return them more closely to how they were when they came into the world. And standing there, sometimes alone with the body, I have found myself almost irresistibily drawn to pray for that person, to pray for their soul and for God's mercy on them. From the Orthodox and Catholic perspectives, I know there is nothing wrong with this. Prayers for the dead are salutary and beneficial for those whom we pray. I also know there is pratically no biblical warrant for it, which is why the Protestant perspectives deem such prayers as at best ineffectual (the person having already been judged based on their own faith or lack thereof), and at worst, sinful to some degree. I don't know who is right or what to make of it all except that it just seems right. It seems like the loving thing to do, to beseech God for their entry into His presence with joy, for His mercy on their sins, for them to hear their name called from the Book of Life.

So I said goodbye to R.F. on Friday night, but the wife and I were invited to a dinner after the funeral to celebrate his life. I felt honored to be invited, but as Saturday noon rolled around, I also felt quite uncomfortable about it. We decided to go and I'm glad we did. His family, those who weren't able to visit him much while he was in the hospital, needed to hear about his final week, the things he said, the feelings he expressed. They just needed to hear it and frankly, I needed to tell it to someone who knew him. It was good. It was bittersweet, shot through with rays of joy and eternal expectations despite the present pain.


Hilarius said...

Very touching story about rehumanizing folks - bless you for doing that!

As for the bibilical basis for prayers for the departed . . . I think this an unfortunate result of the Protestant departure from the canon of scripture used by the Church - both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions have II Maccabees in the canon of scripture, and there in 12:38-45 you have a most eloquent and clear understanding of praying for the deceased in hope of the resurrection.

So - it is scriptural :)

Take care

Check it out.

Rhirhok said...

In 2 Maccabees 12:38-45, we do have an example of prayers being offered for the dead soldiers. The problem is that these men committed the mortal sin of idolatry. Prayers would mean nothing for these men because they would not be going to purgatory, but hell itself. Given the mistake of these men, we have to wonder if praying for the dead is ever appropriate, or if it is a further mistake itself.

I guess I am not sure if Eastern Orthodoxy lines up with the Roman Catholic church on the issue of purgatory and mortal sins.

I have always wondered how long someone would be able to offer up prayers for the dead? What is the time table after someone dies? How do we know whether not one offers up prayers too late?

Hilarius said...

rhirhok - this is something to check with the guys on Pontifications about (Orthodox Catholic and Roman Catholic) insofar as differences go, but my understanding is that the Orthodox Church has not so specifically discussed mortal and venial sin dogmatically in those terms, nor does it have a view of purgatory like Roman Catholic doctrine (although there is some discussion of the 'tollhouses' by some Orthodox - again I'd check with an Orthodox priest like Fr. Stephen Freeman).

So - while you conclude that it is a mortal sin, and a vain act, I'm not entirely sure. The passage itself suggests, in light of the later revelation of Christ as to the resurrection, that it was not a vain act.

Interestingly there was a call-in show recently on Catholic Answers about this subject in relation to 1 John 5:16-17. The apologists did not seem to think this apostolic prohibition on praying for certain folk prohibited prayers for those who had committed a mortal sin (probably there is a transcript on their site); my sense was that they understood it as a prohibition against praying for someone who had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.

My copy of the Jerusalem Bible (a Roman Catholic translation bearing the imprimatur of John Cardinal Heenan, 1966) in footnote on this passage says:

Judas is thinking of the resurrection of his fallen soldiers, cf. 7:9+, which, however, is dependent on atonement in the other world. Expiation for their sins is to be won by prayer, v. 42, and the offering of sacrifice, v. 43. After their resurrection the soldiers will receive their reward, v. 45. This is the only O.T. text mentioning an intermediate state where the souls of the dead are purified, and assisted in the process by the prayers of the living; i.e., purgatory.

That, at least, is a modern Roman Catholic exegesis of a scriptural text which has been in the canon of both the Orthodox and Roman communions for 2000 years.

I also was reading some Jewish commentary generally on prayers for the dead, and there is a custom of praying for the dead for their 'merits' or some such, whilst yet awaiting Messiah and resurrection. So there seems to be some continuity there as well.

I'm not Roman Catholic, so that's as much as I can say.

All I know is what the Holy Scripture says - "For if he [Judas M.] had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout."

Jesus clearly was not a Sadducee, and he taught us that God is a God of the living and not the dead. Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, and he informed the religious leaders that he knew Abraham. When we pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who have 'fallen asleep' are they not still 'alive' in Christ, awaiting his second coming when there will be the resurrection of the body?

The Church has its long-hallowed practice as to how long the people should pray for the souls of the reposed in public worship and when to stop.

Of course, if one does not believe that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in all truth, as the Master promised, and that the Church has authority to bind and loose and declare right teaching, because it is the pillar and ground of Truth, that is, Christ, being the body of Christ, then none of that is authoritative, nor is the older canon of the OT. :)


Chase Vaughn said...

I find the terms Orthodox Catholic and Roman Catholic very ironic considering that both communions excommunicated each other after the east/west split (not even addressing the fact the the Western church has had times with up to three popes excommunicating each other's communions. It's a mad house! a mad house!)

Hilarius said...


The Orthodox profess one holy catholic and apostolic Church and thus, as a descriptive term, it is appropriate to refer to Eastern Orthodox as Orthodox Catholics in contradistinction to Roman Catholics simply to identify groups - it was not meant as a polemic about the RCC.

As to the anethemas hurled in 1054, I believe both communions have technically recognized (a) they were individual re: Bishop of Rome and Bishop of Constantinople; but also (b) that there was functional growing schism between the Byzantines and the West which had its seeds sown much earlier and was well-nigh complete with the later sack of Constantinople, and certainly complete (and a bit of a practical improbability) after the failed Council of Florence and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

The schism is a tragedy. The further schisms of Protestant Europe are a further tragedy. The question is, who has preserved the faith once delivered? Moreover, the present question here was the foundation for prayers for our beloved departed.

If you care to read, for example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Cathechetical lectures (readily available on CCEL in npnf-207, I think), I think it is fair to say that what the Orthodox practice now and believe now what was practiced then and believed then . . . that is, the essentially Nicene era (and I would posit, earlier consistent) orthodox Catholic faith in the area of baptism, eucharist, worship, polity, and creed.

St. Cyril speaks specifically about prayers for the departed.

There will always be tares among the wheat, or goats among the sheep. Thus, the 'here and now' of the Church will exhibit people who are yet not 'of' the Church and evils will occur. I pray that my Lord will humble my heart that I not be separated with the goats, and that I may at least take the least little place in the kingdom.

Peace to you.