“Keep death before your eyes daily, and be concerned about how you will leave this body, pass the powers of darkness that will meet you in the air, and encounter God without hindrance, foreseeing the day of His Judgement and reward for all our deeds, words and thoughts. Everything lies naked and exposed to the One with whom we have to reckon.”
—St. Abba Isaiah of Scetis
An allusion to the aerial toll-house is likewise found in the Canon to the Guardian Angel: “At the dread hour of my death, forsake me not, Ο my good guardian, but drive away the dark demons who will seek to terrify my trembling soul; defend me from their pursuit when I must perforce pass through the aerial toll-houses, that, preserved unharmed by thee, I may attain unto the paradise I desire.”95
Various other liturgical texts also contain such an allusion, like this excerpt from the canon of the Mother of God sung during the feast of St John Chrysostom: “Grant me to pass untroubled through the host of noetic satraps and the tyrannic battalion of the lower air in the hour of my departure.”96
We can likewise cite these prayers from the Canon of Supplication to the Most-Holy Theotokos at the Parting of the Soul from the Body, which is meant to prepare the dying person for the trials he will encounter after his death: “Count me worthy to pass, unhindered, by the persecutor, the prince of the air, the tyrant, him that stands guard in the dread pathways, and the false accusation of these, as I depart from earth;”97 “do thou count me worthy to escape the hordes of bodiless barbarians, and rise through the aerial depths and enter into Heaven, that I may glorify thee unto the ages, Ο holy Theotokos.”98
The teaching on the heavenly custom houses or aerial toll-houses has recently occasioned certain criticisms.99 The latter remain, however, limited and ill-founded.100 As we have seen, this teaching is widely attested from Christianity’s origins down to our own time by a great variety of patristic, hagiographic and liturgical texts. These criticisms are, however, a warning against possible shifts in its understanding and use, and invites us to give the following clarifications.
1) This teaching is not an article of faith, having been the object on the Church’s part of no dogmatic definition.101 It is rather a theolegoumenon, a personal belief. On this point the faithful might very well adopt a certain hesitancy, seeing that life beyond the grave remains a mystery here-below. They can also adhere to an ‘abridged’ conception that renounces seeing intermediate stages between the moment of death, when the soul is separated from the body, and the latter’s appearing before Christ at the Last Judgment. There is in the Church, concerning the soul’s destiny after death, not one Tradition, but traditions which, although diverse, are not necessarily irreconcilable and can be equally admissible from the moment that they are not in contradiction with points upon which the Church has given a dogmatic definition (which is the case, as we will see in the following chapters, for certain later stages of post-mortem destiny).
2) This teaching on the aerial toll-houses should not be taken literally and in its materiality, as those who accept it have stressed moreover. St. Theophan the Recluse notes that this teaching expresses the reality, but this does not mean that the reality is exactly as described in the texts that mention it.102 We have here a symbolic expression, under a sensible and material form accessible to all, of a spiritual reality which, in our present condition, eludes our experience and, therefore, our full comprehension.103 As can be observed, the different accounts do not agree on the number and nature of toll-house stations, and the sins and passions cited vary from one account to another: this is because they reflect the inner state, the frame of reference and the experience proper to each author. Therefore we should consider the details of the accounts at a certain remove, not reading and understanding them literally, but always taking their symbolic nature into account and above all seeking out their spiritual significance. St. Macarius of Moscow clarifies this: “One must picture the toll-houses not in a sense that is crude and sensuous, but — as far as possible for us — in a spiritual sense, and not be tied down to details which, in the various writers and various accounts of the Church herself, are presented in various ways, even though the basic idea of the toll-houses is one and the same.”104
Overall, the teaching on the toll-houses and tax-collectors expresses the fact that each person, after his death, will have to render a very precise account of all the sins he has committed in his life and all the passions that reside in him, and of which he has not repented. This will have to be done not only in Christ’s presence, but also, beforehand, in the presence of the angels and demons, the latter accusing him and the former coming to his defense.
In this respect the teaching on the aerial toll-houses has a dual pedagogical function: a) to make a person attentive to the importance of each action, not only for his present life but for his future one; b) to incite a person to repentance. It should be observed that certain confessors in the Orthodox Church have a custom of offering to the faithful the account of St Theodora to help them make their examination of conscience, for the chief sins and passions affecting man are mentioned there.
3) This teaching should not be confused, as some have done, with the Latin conception of Purgatory: nowhere does this involve a gradual purification in passing through the different toll-houses. In the account of the Blessed Theodora found in the Life of St Basil the Young, the toll-houses are often called ‘torments’, but this is because of the harassment of the demons and the torments their interrogations provoke in the soul.
4) Neither should it be confused with the western conception of the merits through which a person might gain (or pay for) paradise. Good works and the virtues surely assume, in all the accounts we have presented, an important place. It is not however only thanks to one’s own virtues that a person can escape the Powers of the air which, at the various stages of his ascension, attempt to stop him: it is absolutely indispensable to have at the same time help, aid and assistance from Christ. St. Symeon the New Theologian, who addresses this prayer to God, is well aware of this: “You fill me with all blessings, Ο my God; but all of these will not help me if You will not give me the grace to overcome without confusion the gates of death. If the prince of darkness, when he should come, should not see Your glory surrounding me and be not completely rendered powerless, he with his darkness be not dissipated by Your inaccessible light and if all the opposing powers with him be not put to flight, seeing the sign of Your stamp on me… of what use to me are all these which are now taking place in me?”105 A similar teaching is found in St. Hesychios: “If the soul has Christ with it, it will not be disgraced by its enemies even at death, when it rises to heavens entrance; but then, as now, it will boldly confront them.”106 This is why the Church, in the services preceding death, as a preparation, but also in the services following death, especially the one on the third day, asks for Christ’s help in supporting the soul of the deceased in its voyage in the hereafter through the heavenly toll-houses, until it has attained ‘a place of rest’.
5) This teaching should not as a result let anyone suppose that, after death, demons would have total power over them. Many of the accounts cited make it quite clear in any case that the demons have no power over the just, and only have power over sinners to the extent that the latter have freely abandoned themselves to their works (acquiring in this way a certain intimacy with them) and have remained unrepentant.
6) The accounts presented here have without any doubt an edifying function: they wish to make the faithful more sensitive to the fact that a reckoning will be demanded of them for each action, whether good or bad, and therefore stress the spiritual importance, for their eternal future, of each act committed here-below. They make the faithful responsible by stressing the fact that every person suffers the consequences of his own faults, his soul tending toward the condition for which it has shown the greatest affinity during its life. This is a way to say that man has to assume the logical consequences of his own acts not only here-below but even hereafter.
7) These accounts often insist, moreover, on the role played by repentance in breaking a persons ties with the evil actions committed and the passions able to affect him in this world. But, without any doubt, they leave another truth in the background: the fact that Christ can forgive the dying person for the evil done in his life if he shows repentance. We should recall here the episode of the repentant thief who asks Christ: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” to which Christ replies: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:40-43).
This does not authorize a person to behave however he chooses, thinking he can, at the very moment of his death, count on Christ’s forgiveness. The teaching on the ‘heavenly custom-houses’ is an additional invitation to man to be prepared beforehand for the judgment to come ma post-mortem life, to purify himself through asceticism, to struggle against his passions by striving, with the aid of grace, to eliminate them completely, to do penance for all past faults so to be found just, without anything in him the Enemy can claim for his own, and so that he can say with Christ to whom he will be united and likened: “The ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in me” (John 14:30).
We can see in this passage of the letter of St Paul to the Ephesians (without it being excluded that this counsel is applied also and first of all to the spiritual life here-below) an invitation to prepare oneself for the encounter, after death, with demons who will demand a settling of accounts with the soul: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 6:11-13).107
St. John Chrysostom reminds us: “Then we will need many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, a great intercession from angels on the journey through the spaces of the air. If when traveling in a foreign land or a strange city we are in need of a guide, how much more necessary for us are guides and helpers to guide us past the invisible dignities and powers and world-rulers of this air, who are called persecutors and publicans and tax-collectors.”108
In the account of Blessed Theodora found in the Life of St. Basil the Young, the role of the latter s intercession and prayers is strongly emphasized (through the symbol of the bag of gold containing his prayers) and presented as decisive in securing for the saint a passage without obstacle through the different aerial toll-houses.