The Awakening of the Heart through Mindfulness of Death
MAN AND HIS DESTINY were in the Mind of the Triune God ‘before the world began’ (2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:2; cf. Rom. 8:29). At a particular moment which man’s limited powers cannot discern, the pre-eternal God decided to create man according to His image and likeness. He made him in a personal and direct way and endowed him with an incredible mind and a wondrous heart that is capable of embracing not only the whole of creation, both ‘seen and unseen’, ‘visible and invisible’, as the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil says, but even the very eternity of God. Man is the true lord of the kingdom of the world, the crown of the whole creation.
From the outset, God endowed man’s nature with His own qualities, with every virtue, and with a strong affinity for His Spirit. Man delighted in the good presence of his Creator. His mind could lift itself to God and see His Face, and this vision quickened his heart, which was enlarged with indescribably powerful sensations of unending gratefulness and divine love. Man was so charmed by the greatness of this state that he reached the point of forgetting that he had been created from nothing, and he surrendered to the temptation of disobedience. He wanted to become god, not by means of God’s love and in submission to the divine command, but by means of his own independence and rebelliousness. And at that moment, his dreadful fall took place, as the Scriptures relate, and this was a universal misfortune.
Man’s mind then cleaved to created things and its vision was obscured. Though its lifting towards God had been lightning-quick, it was now heavy-laden with the sensations of his body His heart was deprived of the Lord’s visitation and all that accompanies this wonderful Presence. He was turned into stone. His mind gradually lost the memory of the supernatural experiences of grace, these being immaterial by nature. Finally, he was bound to the visible world, no longer able to go beyond the immediate reality surrounding him. So did man become unmindful of his Maker, delivering himself up to sin and to its wages of corruption and death.
In this grievous state of forgetfulness of God, man feels an emptiness which cannot be satisfied and a nightmarish insecurity; he tastes of the constriction of death and his soul is oppressed by torment. The passions multiply, filling his being with every kind of vice, and craftily extinguishing all traces of even the memory of God. Man thus becomes incapable of loving, and this inevitably leads him into ever greater estrangement from God and his neighbour, and therefore from the primary purpose of his having been created.
Separated from God Who is the source of Life, man can only withdraw into himself. He is deprived of divine strength and is unable to seek salvation. Gradually he is left desolate and dissolute. Faced by the inexorable threat of his annihilation, man’s spirit is seized by the fear of death. He becomes sick with selfishness and enters upon a contentious struggle for personal survival.
When man banishes God and his neighbour from his heart, he loses his sovereignty over God’s creation, bestowed on him by virtue of his likeness to God. In other words, he fails in what he has been designed for — to oversee the world with justice and, being enlarged by the spirit of prophecy, to bring all creation to God. He becomes accustomed to living with a deadened spirit, because the hostile power of the wicked one holds his nature fast.
However, God’s call is irrevocable and ‘steadfast’ (cf. Rom.11:29). Furthermore, death is an illegitimate enemy, for the will of God, the basis of man’s original issuing forth, has foreordained that man should live eternally ‘in immortality’ (Wisd. 2:23). Death must therefore be destroyed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26), for which reason the Son of God Himself came into the world to blot it out and to ‘destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). Man’s mortality is therefore a phenomenon that runs counter to his nature in that it opposes that for which he has been designed. This is precisely why the human soul is restless: if life leads only to death, then nothing can ever be meaningful.
However, God, Who abides unto the ages and has no pleasure in the death of the sinner, does all He can that ‘the wicked might turn from his way and live’ (Ezek. 33:11). He summons the dissolute from the blindness of their desolation, intensifying by His grace the cruel spectacle of mortality which entered the whole creation through man’s fall into sin. God increases the threat of death by keeping before man’s eyes this terrible spectacle. He opens the eyes of the soul that it might behold the mark of corruption and mortality on every created thing. Man then hears the groaning of a universe which has delivered itself up to vanity from which there is no escape. The soul is then granted the grace of perceiving the dark veil of death, corruption, and despair which envelop mankind and all life on earth. This spiritual phenomenon, unknown to modern psychology, is called ‘mindfulness of death’ in Orthodox ascetic terminology It has nothing to do with the psychological awareness that we shall die some day; it is more like a deep knowledge, accompanied by a wondrous sensibility of the heart, which perceives clearly ‘the futility of any and every acquisition on earth’,1 and that ‘all is vanity’ (Eccles. 1:2).
This sensibility is produced by the grace of mindfulness of death and in its most acute form all history and world events seem like a mirage, a wicked mockery of man in that true life in God has no part in them, and the dominion of death is everywhere. But when man is enlightened and sees his spiritual state, he also knows that he is bereft of God’s living eternity He is convinced that when he dies, everything that his consciousness has embraced until then — even God — will cease to be. Man has a deep sense that he was made to live eternally with his Creator, and now he sees that the pre-eternal divine Will remains unfulfilled.
The threat of death, seen as perpetual oblivion, in which the light of consciousness is extinguished, begets horror in the soul and this leads to an unbearable inner suffering. But at this point, man suddenly awakes out of his age-old stupor, for God’s eternity summons him from every side. He is as yet unable to face it directly, and there is no suitable place in himself in which to receive it. Nevertheless, his spirit demands eternal life and nothing less can give him rest. He suffers deeply with an intensity that cannot be borne within the limits of human strength. (Many people have this experience before becoming monks and nuns, and that is why they feel the monastic life as an urgency in their spirit. It is not something that they consider carefully and then choose to do; they feel that either they do it, or they die.) But it is then that the most significant marvel in human life can begin: man’s spiritual centre, the heart, is revealed.
The disturbing, searing vision of God’s absence from creation, now detaches the mind’s attention from all created things and earthly ambitions, and calls it back to itself, that is, to the heart. Mindfulness of death is evidently stronger than any passionate attachment, and the mind is now free to descend into the heart and unite with it. This discovery of the heart is the beginning of man’s salvation.
When this wonderful grace of the remembrance of death takes up its abode in the deep heart, it draws the mind towards it, and thoughts corresponding to this powerful and awesome experience are born ‘from within’. Such thoughts are expressed as follows: ‘Everything I know, everything I love, everything that gives me life and inspires me — absolutely everything, even God Himself — will die if I cease to exist.2 Similarly: ‘In me, with me, all that forms part of my consciousness will die: people close to me, their sufferings and love, the whole historical progress, the universe in general, the sun, the stars, endless space; even the Creator of the world Himself — He, too, will die in me. In short, all life will be engulfed in the darkness of oblivion.’3 Above all, man is then granted understanding of the futility and vanity of all created things, when they are far from the grace of God. Simultaneously, he is given a deep sense of his inner desolation — the gulf which separates him from God.
Both these disclosures are operations of grace and are extremely beneficial in that they make man aware of his absolute need for salvation. The first, the sense of futility, is accompanied by blessed despair, ‘charismatic despair’, as Fr. Sophrony used to say and this liberates the mind from its attachments to the created things in which it tends to wallow. The second disclosure, the sense of his fallen state, inspires his soul with a holy fear of eternal perdition. Eternity then emerges in its negative aspect: man may have met God, but he is still deprived of life in Him. These strange and strong feelings of despair and fear have the salutary effect of humbling his spirit, and bringing the attention of the mind into the heart, the place where God’s truth and man’s beguilement are revealed. Man can now choose to live according to the will of God. Besides his new and humble fear of God, man also enters into a measure of self-knowledge. If he now embraces the Gospel revelation of Christ as true Being, as He Who Is, as the eternal Victor over death and the Source of Life, he attracts the grace of the Holy Spirit, which unites his mind with his heart, restoring the unity of the faculties of his soul.
This unification of the soul’s faculties is the first stage in a man’s healing, for he can at last turn to God in prayer, be confident that the sufferings of his spirit will be favourably resolved, and that, in the meantime, God has the power to console him.
But apart from his own tragedy, God ‘instructs’ man, through mindfulness of death, in the universal aspect of the fall. He begins to see that his sufferings are identical to the sufferings of all humanity The state of his inner desolation reflects the fallen creation as a whole. He sees, though in a negative way that he is at the centre of the whole creation which declares nothing but endless vanity Because he now knows that his being is not limited to his ‘self, he begins to love, and this is the prelude to this ultimate regeneration. He now receives strength, by the grace of God, to intercede for the salvation of the whole world, which leads him into authentic spiritual contemplation of heaven and earth declaring the glory of God and the salvation of man.
Mindfulness of death is therefore a gift of God which assists man in finding his heart, which is the beginning of the healing of his person, the purpose of which is to labour for the restoration of true communion within the whole race of Adam. The paradox is this: that mindfulness of death liberates man from the fear of death, and leads him to see all things from the perspective of the love of God. Where death had been a consequence of sin, it is now the Gospel of Life, for it causes eternity to take its rightful place above all earthly things in such an absolute and definite way, that even if the enemy were to offer centuries of earthly bliss and success, the believer now prefers the marks of the Cross through which true joy and eternal salvation are come to the world.
Mindfulness of death unveils divine eternity, but only in its negative aspect. This perception is not, however, psychological but spiritual, and the knowledge it affords is also spiritual, for it simultaneously brings man to twofold vision of the whole truth about himself and his sinfulness. The heart becomes a two-dimensional battleground: on the one hand, man is assured of the existence of the One true God and of His power to save, and on the other, he awakens to a dreadful knowledge of his nothingness, and an indescribable fear of the very possibility of eternal perdition.
Above all, this revelation of eternity, even in its negative aspect, is an encounter between man and the living God. To a certain extent, he draws near to the end of time. Although he feels that his own death, because of his kinship with all of creation, threatens to annihilate all life, at the same time, he accepts the summons to rise up to an infinitely higher form of existence.4 As he abides in remembrance of death, man perceives in spirit the hell of God’s absence. In his desperate desire to resolve this situation, he finds he must detach himself from every passionate involvement with the visible world, and he then single-mindedly casts himself upon God in such fashion as will overcome the passions and, indeed, the very instinct for temporal survival. Self-denial of this kind, inspired by mindfulness of death, creates the best possible environment for ardent prayer to regenerate the entire man, attaching his spirit to the eternal God.
However, an even more astonishing effect of mindfulness of death is a heightened consciousness of the uniqueness of the human person. When man identifies his own personal death with the annihilation of all the life and experience that his consciousness has hitherto embraced, as the end of the history of the world, as well as God’s relationship with His creation, then the fact that he has been made in the image of God and that his purpose is to be the centre of the whole of God’s creation is confirmed beyond doubt. Although the pain of such an experience bears a rather negative character, it nevertheless unites man indissolubly with the fate of his fellows who are one with him by nature, and begets in him a depth of compassion for them, as his salvation now depends on theirs. Such spiritual perception brings man’s heart to life, and restores him to communion with the whole race of Adam. When his inner enlightenment attains a certain fullness, and his heart is enlarged and strengthened by divine grace, then the positive experience of love transforms him, for he is now able to embrace all creation and offer it to God in fervent prayer. Then is he led ‘into all the truth’ (John 16:13) of the love of God, and is made worthy of becoming a true person in the likeness of the New Adam — Christ — in Whose Person ‘all things … in heaven, and on earth’ (Eph. 1:10) are gathered together in one.
Death entered man’s life as a curse and grew like a weed because of sin. Christ, however, by His sinless and unjust death transformed the curse into a blessing, and offered man new life in abundance (cf. John 10:10). Mindfulness of death introduces man to the greatest wonder this mortal world has ever known. It discloses our own hell, declares and invites us to partake of eternal life. Whoever hearkens and believes, receives that grace which rekindles his heart and brings it back to life. This awakening of the heart is the first step towards the blessed land of everlasting salvation.
—Elder Zacharias of Essex, England
1. Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him As He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1988; repr. ed. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006), p. 106.
2. Idem, On Prayer, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery ofSt. John the Baptist, 1996; repr. ed. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), p. 41.
3. Op. cit., p. 12.
4. Ibid., pp. 12,15.