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The Grey Havens

May 23, 2010

I’m sure any of you who are fans of Tolkien’s books and saw the Lord Of The Rings movies, noticed that Gandalf’s description to Pippin of “the after-life” is taken right out of the scene at the end of the trilogy, when the boat carrying Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and company reaches the shores of Valinor. At first I thought it was kind of cheesy, but after thinking about it, I suppose the scene from the final chapter of Return of the King could be seen as a metaphor for death.

In my formerly held Evangelical Protestant faith I obviously believed that there is conscious life after death. Whether you ended up in heaven or not was determined in this life. Once you were dead, game over, destiny decided. If you were saved, good for you. If not, well… not so much. While I understood that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32) I thought the outcome was pretty cut and dry. I was in denial at the time, but truth be told I had a kinda heartless point of view on the matter. I was never as blatantly calloused as those Seinfeld scenes: “Well, you wanna go get some coffee?” “Sure.” but you get the idea. In my mind, once a person was gone, that was it until we meet again (maybe), so there was nothing more to be done than remember the person occasionally.

You can imagine that I was a little surprised to learn that the Orthodox offer prayers for the dead. Really the proper Orthodox term is the departed, or those departed this life. At first, I thought this was a kind of crazy superstition or at worst, necromancy of some sort. I came to realize that the Orthodox take the prayer of John 17 to mean that the oneness in Christ includes those who have departed. Not only do we ask for the intercession of Saints that are in the presence of Christ, but we can pray for those who are departed. Not that we try to “communicate with the dead”, but simply acknowledge a real oneness in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is also an understanding of the grace and mercy of God, that it is not limited to those in this life and therefore does not end with this life. We who “alive and remain” (1Thess 4:17) can pray for God’s mercy on those who have died. I am still very much learning this part of Orthodoxy, but I find the idea of appealing to the grace and mercy of our Lord on behalf of the departed very comforting.

I might have mentioned it before, but the first time I tried putting this into practice was on the side of a steep cliff, stuffing a body into a bag several hours after a fatal motorcycle crash. I did not know what the proper prayers for the dead are, but I felt a kind of inner compulsion to pray over this unknown individual. I made the sign of the cross, asked Christ to grant him rest in His kingdom, and asked the Theotokos to pray for Christ’s mercy for this person. Strangely it did not feel as awkward as did veneration, the first few dozen times I did it. It actually felt quite natural and comforting.

Since that time I have prayed for several people that I have seen on calls. I will discretely make the sign of the Cross and pray, “Lord, have mercy.” under my breath. I try to avoid anything conspicuous since I am there in an official capacity for an emergency, representing the fire department. When I get back to the station, I try to take a few minutes to pray the Prayer For The Dead before my portable prayer corner I keep near my bed.

In fact, this post was prompted by two deaths in as many days on the shift I am currently working. First was a young man in his 20’s who crashed a motorcycle on a mountain road, then went about 70′ over the side. His friends had tried to do CPR for several minutes, but did not realize his injuries were too great. Tragically, he had survived 2 tours in Iraq only to die at home. Second was a 5 year old boy killed in a boat accident that should have never happened. The boy was probably dead instantly, but we give them the benefit of the doubt at that age. Not knowing anything about these two, I don’t know their standing in Christ. One thing I do know, Christ is merciful and the lover of mankind. So though I am faced with a real tragedy two days in a row, I can take comfort in the one who saves and has trampled down death by His death, ascended into heaven and (this being the feast day of Pentecost) has sent down the Comforter. So I can pray for the repose of these two, that Christ would grant them rest with all the saints.

When one of the parishioners from St Peter’s recently reposed, we did the third day prayers. It was my first experience of such an event. I was deeply moved for the parish, because they had lost someone close (I being a newcomer), but it was also moving to participate in those prayers. My work schedule did not allow me to make the funeral or 40th day prayers. I was pleasantly surprised to find out I will be given a full Orthodox burial, as a catechumen. (YESSSSSS!)

One other note I would like to share. I mentioned the death of my dad nearly 18 years ago, which was a preceded by years of trouble. I had come to hate my dad for the years shame I lived with. What I thought was an event long since dealt with, was something that kept building under the surface. For years I have periodically had very violent confrontations with my dad in my dreams. Since coming to this wonderful gift we have of praying for the departed, I have begun to light a candle for and pray for my dad on a nearly weekly basis. It hard to carry anger for someone that you pray for. I think of the prayer that says, “Lord, bless my enemies. Even I bless and do not curse them…” I feel a kind of ache in my heart as I say the prayers, but one of compassion, not anger.

So I stand forever changed by this practice of praying for the departed. I find that I allow the calls to touch me a little more. While this can be dangerous if mot handled carefully, I think allows me to show a little more compassion. Not only that, but I can pray with conviction. How can I do that if I keep my heart impenetrable? Thank God for this practical participation in the mystery of our salvation.

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