Monday, 15 July 2013

‘Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell’

South Court reflected in the windows of Mong Hall in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

As the sun was shining brightly and warmly outside the Mong Hall in Sidney Sussex College this afternoon, we were reminded by Father Alexander Tefft of how Saint Antony Great says in the Philokalia had written: “to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying the sun hides itself from the blind” (Philokalia vol 1, chapter 150).

Father Alexander opened his lecture on ‘Angels and the Last Judgement’ by quoting from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (Act 1):

Mephistopheles:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be:
And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not Heaven.

Faustus:
Come, I think hell’s a fable.

Mephistopheles:
Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.

Throughout his presentation, Father Alexander spoke of Love as Truth, of judgment, heaven, hell which are already now, though under a veil, and of how Christ permits angels merely to lift the veil, though they only lift the veil on what already is.

We speak of death, judgment, heaven and hell as the “four last things,” yet they are almost unknowable although paradoxically they are already happening now. “You can’t know an experience until you have it.”

There is confusion about what is real, about judgment and the judge, and that confusion creates fear. Christians are an eschatological people and we live the last things now, though under a veil. “The big difference between today and the day I die is how far the veil is lifted.”

Christ is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, but he is not coming in anger or vengeance but in glory. His ultimate act of judgment is his death (see John 12 and 16). The whole life of Christ is a light shining in darkness and judging simply by who he is.

He then discussed the relationship between judgment and death, and the last or universal judgment and partial judgment.

As an illustration of the Particular Judgment, he quoted from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since...”


Looking towards Sidney Sussex College from Bridge Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

He went on to discuss the teaching of Aerial Toll-Houses, which is much-debated and often divisive in Orthodoxy. This debate on the particular judgment seeks to understand the soul’s journey after its departure from the body. Some Orthodox bishops and theologians consider this teaching controversial, condemning it as a form of gnosticism or neo-gnosticism.

The main proponents of this teaching include Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, Saint Theophan the Recluse and Father Seraphim Rose. Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov and Saint Theophan the Recluse, among others have insisted not only on the truthfulness of but also on the necessity of this teaching in the spiritual life of a Christian.

Father Seraphim, an American Orthodox monk and author of The Soul After Death, says his teaching is derived from Patristic and other traditional Orthodox sources. His critics – including the Revd Dr Michael Azkoul and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Orthodox Church of America – challenge his conclusions.

Those who oppose this teaching argue that it emphasises fear and guilt as a way of keeping believers “in line” while ignoring the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

In its most general form, this teaching refers to the idea that after death, the demons attempt to find a basis for taking the soul to Hell, while the angels and the prayers of the living defend the soul. Whether the soul is finally seized by the demons, or taken to heaven depends on the state of the soul at death. In either case, the soul then experiences a foretaste of what it can expect after the final judgment.

According to Father Thomas Hopko, the teaching of the Toll Houses is found in virtually every Father of the Church. Father Alexander quoted this afternoon from Saint Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote:

What fear and trembling await you, O soul, in the day of death! You will see frightful, wild, cruel, unmerciful and shameless demons, like dark Ethiopians, standing before you. The very sight of them is worse than any torment. The soul, seeing them, becomes agitated, is disturbed, hastens to the angels of God. The holy angels hold the soul; passing with them through the air and rising, it encounters the toll-houses which guard the path from earth to heaven, detaining the soul and hindering it from ascending further. Each toll-house tests the sins corresponding to it; each sin, each passion has its tax-collectors and testers.

According to some writers, every Christian has a demon who tempts him or her. These demons keep a record of every sin of thought or action they succeed in tempting a person to commit, but repented sins are erased from the demonic records. On the third day after the soul separates from the body, according to these writers, it is carried by angels towards Heaven. On the way, souls must pass by 20 aerial toll-houses. Each toll house is populated by demons devoted to particular sins. At each toll-house, demons demand that the soul must “pay” for their sins by giving an account of compensatory good deeds. If the soul is unable to compensate for a sin, the demons take it to hell.
Traditionally, the 20 toll houses are listed as:

1, where the soul is questioned about the sins of the tongue;
2, the toll-house of lies;
3, the toll-house of slander;
4, the toll-house of gluttony;
5, the toll-house of laziness;
6, the toll-house of theft;
7, the toll-house of covetousness;
8, the toll-house of usury;
9, the toll-house of injustice;
10, the toll-house of envy;
11, the toll-house of pride;
12, the toll-house of anger;
13, the toll-house of remembering evil;
14, the toll-house of murder;
15, the toll-house of magic;
16, the toll-house of lust;
17, the toll-house of adultery;
18, the toll-house of sodomy;
19, the toll-house of heresy;
20, the toll-house of unmercifulness.

Several saints, including authors of the Philokalia, taught about the toll houses. For example, Saint Theodoros the Great Ascetic instructs his readers to “reflect on the dreadful reckoning that is to come, how the harsh keepers of the toll homes will bring before as one by one the actions, words and thoughts which they suggested but which we accepted and made our own.”

The Russian theologian and bishop Saint Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807-1867) wrote (Collected Works, vol 3): “Just as the resurrection of the Christian soul from the death of sin is accomplished during its earthly wandering, precisely so is mystically accomplished, here on earth, its testing by the aerial powers, its captivity by them or deliverance from them; at the journey through the air (after death) this freedom or captivity is only made manifest.”

Turning to modern cultural debates and about death, judgment and hell, he drew on images in Jacob’s Ladder, a 1990 American film written starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña and Danny Aiello. The story centres on a Vietnam War veteran, Jacob Singer, whose experiences both prior to and during the war result in strange flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him in his everyday life.

The German mystic Meister Eckhart is paraphrased in Jacob’s Ladder:

The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.

He found in this a reflection of a saying of Saint Antony Great in the Philokalia: “to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying the sun hides itself from the blind.”

Angels carved in wood on the prayer desk I used when I was preaching in the chapel in Sidney Sussex College last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Later in the afternoon, both Razvan Polumb, Assistant Lecturer and Development Officer of the Institute, and Deacon Dragos Herescu, Assistant Lecturer and Secretary of the Institute, spoke about ‘Romanian Angels.’

Razvan Polumb, who spoke about “The Angels, ‘the Interval’ and Communion in Totalitarian Contexts,” drew on the experiences of Romanian society in the years up to the 1990s, and drew on two seminal Romanian books: Andrei Plesu’s On Angels, which was a best-selling phenomenon in Romania in 2003; and Sorin Dumitrescu’s Seven mornings with Father Staniloae, which was based on conversations with Father Dumitru Staniloae.

For Staniloae, the angels are also in communion with each other, existing in communion. Although they are superior to humans, they make themselves the servants of humans, and are an intermediary plane between humans and God, drawing us upwards towards God.

Angels on the walls of Suceviţa Monastery, one of the painted monasteries in Bucovina

Deacon Dragos Herescu spoke about Angels, Modernity and Secularisation. He looked at Secularisation and the attitude to religious practice, belief and angels in today’s society.

He challenged the images of “baby-faced angels” which are traditional and have become the popular image in secular society today, and the way in which angels have become a popular theme in New Age thinking and writing, where they are there to make people feel good, without taking on the “whole baggage” of Christian theology.

He asked whether belief in angels could be a barometer for secularisation while also providing reassurance in an insecure world.

He talked too of the relationship Romanian people and angels, illustrated with images of angels on the walls of Suceviţa Monastery (1586). It is one of the painted monasteries in Bucovina, painted on the front sides and having the greatest number of religious images in Romania.

But he also spoke of the misuse of angels in the pre-World War II far-right Romanian movement that called itself the Legion of the Archangel Michael, and looked analytically at religious beliefs and practices in Romania today.

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