|(From a discourse on the day of the Dormition of the Theotokos)
As man approaches death, eternity already begins to unfold before him; he already nears its borders. He still sees earthly objects, although dimly and hazily; he still hears earthly sounds, although indistinctly; he still experiences some human feelings, although they are mixed: but he is already facing another existence. He sees objects and manifestations that are unseen to others, he hears extraordinary sounds, he foresees that which cannot be known to us in a natural manner. A few minutes more – and man steps over the threshold of eternity. Suddenly the form of his existence changes, his soul sees himself in his body; now he sees distant objects not with his physical eyes, but directly with his mind, and that which he formerly could see only in his mind’s eye, he now sees directly with his eyes; he speaks not with the articulate sounds of speech, but mentally, and that which he formerly could only imagine in his mind, he now articulates; he does not touch objects with his hands, but with his senses and feelings, while the most delicate objects that were formerly elusive and intangible to him, he now embraces as though with his hands; he moves not with his feet, but with his willpower, and that which he could formerly approach only with great difficulty, very slowly, across vast expanses of place and time, he now reaches instantaneously, and physical barriers no longer exist for him.
Now he sees the past like the present, and the future is no longer concealed from him, and for him there is no more division of time and place, there are no hours, nor days, nor years, nor even centuries, there are no large or small distances – everything is fused together into a single moment that is eternity, an eternity which is never-ending and is always just beginning; everything is fused together in a single viewpoint, and this viewpoint is no longer subject to any change.
What does he see and feel? The unfolding eternity strikes him with indescribable terror; its boundlessness absorbs his finite being, and all his thoughts and feelings are lost in its infinity. He sees objects for which we have no names or concepts; he hears things which cannot be expressed by any voice or sound on earth; his experiences and feelings cannot be described by any of our words or in any of our languages. He sees light and darkness, but they are not the same as on earth: the light there is such, that in comparison our brightest sun would seem as a candle shining before the sun; the darkness there is such, that our darkest night would seem clear as day.
There man meets beings similar to himself, and recognizes in them other people who have departed from this world. But what a change! These are no longer earthly faces or earthly bodies; these are pure souls, fully developed, with all their inner traits clothing them in appearances that accord with these traits: by these appearances the souls recognize each other, while through strength of feeling they recognize those with whom they were intimate in this life.
Afterwards the soul meets beings who are also similar in nature, but at whose approach it feels their immeasurably greater power over it. Some of them come out of the depths of infinite darkness, and their entire being is darkness and evil; they think, act, live in endless evil; they themselves undergo indescribable suffering and are the cause of it in others; affliction and perdition characterize their every movement and action.
But this is still in the lower regions of the spiritual world, closest to our Earth, while further on the soul sees an endless sea of incomprehensible light, out of which appear other, even mightier, beings; their nature and life are total goodness, unimaginable perfection, indescribable love; their entire being is filled with extraordinary light which accompanies their every movement.
Thus, in this wondrous world, man’s spirit – totally unfettered and powered by its spiritual nature and the irresistible force of attraction of a kindred world, – flies, flies onward and onward to the place, or rather to the degree, to which his spiritual endowments can aspire, and there it becomes entirely transformed in an extraordinary manner. Is this the same spirit which lived in man on earth, a restrained spirit, bound by flesh, barely noticeable under the body’s mass, totally servile and enslaved to it, so that it seemingly could not even live or develop without the body?
Is this the same frail spirit which frequently and easily fell under the burden of sensuality and all the conditions of life on earth? Is this, finally, the same spirit in which goodness was for the most part only a seed, while evil was deeply hidden, so that the spirit was conscious neither of the one, nor of the other, and everything was so mixed up within him that goodness was often overcome by evil, and evil was often to be glimpsed behind the good? What has happened to him now? Now everything – both the good and the bad – is quickly unfolding with unbridled force; his thoughts, feelings, moral nature, passions and aspirations of the will are all developing to an extreme measure; he himself can neither stop, nor change, nor overcome them; the boundlessness of eternity is drawing them along to infinity; his failings and weaknesses turn into infinite evil, his afflictions and spiritual ills turn into endless suffering.
Can you imagine the horrors of such a condition? Your soul, not a bad one here on earth, but suppressing and concealing evil within it, over there will become infinitely evil; your bad feelings, restrained here somewhat, over there will turn into madness if you do not expunge them on earth; if here you are somehow in control of yourself, over there you will not be able to do anything for yourself: everything that is within you will go with you over there, and will develop to the point of infinity. What will you become then? O, then you will recognize yourself much better than here. There will be no help from anywhere or anyone then, and your evil will carry you by the force of its own gravity towards the place where eternal endless evil lives – into the company of dark and evil spirits. And you will not be able to stop along this path or go back, and to the ages of ages you will suffer and suffer – from what? From the madness of your own evil, which will not give you any hope for the better, nor any peace within yourself; you will also suffer from that evil environment which will be stronger than you, which will eternally surround you and torture you without end…
And what about the good soul – what will happen to it? Goodness will also unfold in all its fullness and force; it will develop with all the freedom it did not have here, will reveal all its inner worth, for the most part hidden, unknown and unvalued in this world, all its inner light, entirely obscured in this world, all its bliss, unrecognized and suppressed in this world by the multitude of life’s sorrows. And so this soul will rush on, compelled by the force of its natural lofty aspirations to the upper regions of that world, where in endless light lives the Source and the Prototype of all good, into the company of the purest beings of light, and the soul itself will become a similarly pure, light, rapturous being. Infinite love will unite it with God, the angels and kindred souls. Now it will forever stand firm in its goodness, and no evil – either internal or external – will be able to shake it, or change it, or damage its state of bliss…
Bishop John of Smolensk (1869)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia,” No. 15, 1999.)