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The Dead Marshes

July 2, 2010

This image to the left is a picture from WWI. These soldiers are carrying a fallen comrade through one of the many battlefield swamps on the Western Front. This kind of scene, burned into the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien, is the inspiration behind the Dead Marshes depicted in the Two Towers. In the fictional setting Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through on a hidden path through a huge swamp, full of the souls of warriors killed there centuries before. In the book, the swamp appears normal during the day, but at night the swamp begins to glow with a ghostly kind of candle light, from the spirits beneath the surface of the water. These spirits are apparently destined to stay trapped there.

All that is to preface a topic that still has me a bit perplexed. That topic is our prayers for the departed. Perhaps by the time I’m done typing this out, I’ll understand it a little better. Sometimes sharing a thing with others, helps me to understand it just a little better.

In my days as a Protestant, I believed that the instant you die, you are eternally judged, whether for heaven of hell. The final judgement is just the finale, where you are reunited with the body. This life is all you have, and you better get it right (belief in Jesus that is). Verses like, “Today is the day of salvation.” are the catalyst for trying to get someone to “make a decision for Christ” now. Salvation is signed, sealed and delivered in a single transaction.

The Orthodox do not follow this line of thinking. The understand of life after death, is that the state of a person while their soul is separated from the body by death, is a temporary one. In this state, a person is believed to be able to still experience repentance unto eternal life. In the verse, “For it is appointed unto a man once to die, and then the Judgement.” the Orthodox believe that that is a reference to the final judgement before the Great White Throne. Until that point, one’s fate is not “locked in”. This is where our prayers for the departed come in. How is this possible?

Like everything else within the Theology of the Church, it hinges on the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. I have mentioned the High Priestly prayer of John 17 before, in which Christ prays for our unity in Him, as the Church. We are connected to the Holy Trinity and one another. Also, having “trampled down death, by His death” Christ has made it possible for the “Church Militant” to be connected with the “Church Triumphant”. Death has not separated the Body of Christ. We are all one in Him, through the Holy Spirit. This is the same principle that applies to us asking the intercession of the Saints, with some obvious differences.

Since the Saints are obviously in the presence of God, we can ask for their intercessions. In the Holy Spirit, they know what to petition for. In the case of the departed, we don’t know exactly what to pray, but we can pray for God to forgive them any sins committed in this life, and simply conclude, “Lord, have mercy.” We can make these prayers to our infinite God, because He is not limited by time. What if a person died years ago? God is not subject to time, because He created it. We can pray in full confidence.

Here is the General Prayer for the Departed. I don’t think there is a need to comment, as it speaks for itself:   “Christ our eternal King and God, You have destroyed death and the devil by Your Cross and have restored man to life by Your Resurrection; give rest, Lord, to the soul of Your servant (name) who has fallen asleep, in Your Kingdom, where there is no pain, sorrow or suffering. In Your goodness and love for all men, pardon all the sins he (she) has committed in thought word or deed, for there is no man or woman who lives and sins not, You only are without sin. For You are the Resurrection, the Life, and Repose of Your servant (name), departed this life, O Christ our God; and to You do we send up glory with Your Eternal Father and Your All-holy, Good and Life-creating Spirit; both now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

The final end of all this, is that the practice is one born of love. We love those whom we pray for (or should), and we can continue to pray for them, even after this life is over. Here is a quote I stole from a friend, who stole it from  St John Chrysostom: “Such is the power of love: it embraces, and unites, and fastens together not only those who are present and near, and visible, but also those who are distant. And neither time, not separation in space, nor anything else of that kind, can break up and divide in pieces the affection of the soul.”

Let me also share how this has effected me. I have come to find some comfort in these prayers, and the idea that one can pray for those who have departed, Orthodox and Non-Orthodox. I have been praying for the souls of those whom I have encountered on various 911 calls. At the moment I see them, I make the sign of the cross and quietly pray, “Lord, have mercy on this departed soul.” When I get back to the station, I find time to pray the prayer I posted above. I have also been to the Third Day prayers for an Orthodox brother who passed last December. Those are some beautiful and moving prayers. The whole service helped me to understand a little better, the mysterious connection of the Body of Christ.

Let me share something personal. My father killed himself when I was 19. He was a man who displayed almost no Christian virtue anywhere, but at church. I can’t tell what his ultimate fate will be, but for years I have believed he was most likely doomed to hell, even though he named Christ as his Savior. I now find a new connection with my departed father by praying for him when I attend services. I light a candle for him, and ask our Gracious Lord to have mercy on his soul, to forgive his sins.

Like I said at the before, I don’t fully get it. But then again, can you really GET a mystery? While you can explain certain things about it, in the end you have to shrug you shoulders leave it to the wonder that is our Faith.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seraphima B. permalink
    July 14, 2010 1:59 pm

    Dear Brother in Christ,
    I started reading your blog because of a link through Ancient Faith Radio. You are mistaken about one aspect of the Faith regarding the dead. Once someone dies, there is no more opportunity for them to personally repent. Whatever state their soul was in when they died, that is the state they are in. However they do not lose the hope of salvation, because we, the faithful of the church here on earth, and the saints already in heaven, pray for them. (We may pray to one of the saints for their prayers on behalf of our dead also)

    Each of us, individually, must repent while we are still living in these bodies. However, the church prays for the dead, asking God’s mercy on the souls of the departed to forgive their sins. This is a beautiful and important task that we have as Orthodox Christians, to pray for the dead. We do not quantify the grace given to the dead, like some do, but we simply trust that God is eternally merciful and that we simply must pray and trust.

    There are many traditions/stories about various saints who prayed for their unbelieving or sinning loved ones, and were able to secure forgiveness for them through their prayers, almsgiving, and other ascetic practices.

    During our fasting periods, we not only abstain from certain foods, in order to train ourselves in spiritual discipline, but we also are encouraged to give alms (sacrificial giving to those in need). Almsgiving is available to us every day, as a way of enriching the spiritual state of our departed loved ones.

    Alms-giving; when one gives sacrificially, in the name of Christ, and without “sounding a trumpet”, but in humility and joy, then there is grace given to us and to the one whose memory we are remembering when making the sacrifice. Again, we do not quantify the grace given, we simply serve and trust.

    If you want further information, my priest is Fr. Daniel Griffith, the senior priest of the Antiochian Archdiocese. I learned this that I have share with you from him. His email is: frdanielg@gmail.com

  2. July 14, 2010 3:27 pm

    Thank you for that clarification, Seraphim. What you put in the comment, makes a lot more sense. I will copy that email, and get some insight from your priest. Thanks for the referral, and the comment. And thanks for the correction too.

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