Sunday, March 30, 2014

Death and the toll-houses-The Toll-Houses and Purgatory

Moreover, in His mercy God often “tips the balance” in favour of the sinner when the demons appear to have won the case. Thus in the Life of St. Niphon, Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, we read: “With his clairvoyant eyes the Saint saw also the souls of men after their departure from the body. Once, standing at prayer in the church of St. Anastasia, he raised his eyes to heaven and saw the heavens opened and many angels, of whom some were descending to earth, and others were ascending bearing to heaven many human souls. And he saw two angels ascending, carrying someone’s soul. And when they came near the toll-house of fornication, the demonic taxcollectors
came out and said with anger: ‘This is our soul; how do you dare to carry him past us?’ The angels replied: ‘What kind of sign do you have on this soul, that you consider it yours?’ The demons said: ‘It defiled itself before death with sin, not only natural ones but even unnatural ones; besides that, it judged its neighbour and died without repentance. What do you say to that?’
‘We will not believe,’ said the angels, ‘either you or your father the devil, until
we ask the guardian angel of this soul.’ And when they asked him, he said: ‘It
is true that this soul sinned much, but when it got sick it began to weep and
confess its sin before God; and if God has forgiven it, He knows why: He has
the authority. Glory be to His righteous judgement!’ Then the angels, having
put the demons to shame, entered the heavenly gates with that soul. Then the
blessed one saw the angels carrying yet another soul, and the demons ran out
to them and cried out: ‘Why are you carrying souls without knowing them?
For example, you are carrying this one, who is a lover of money, a bearer of
malice, and an outlaw.’ The angels replied: ‘We well know that it did all these
things, but it wept and lamented, confessed its sins, and gave alms; for this
God has forgiven it.’ But the demons began to say: ‘If even this soul is worthy
of God’s mercy, then take and carry away the sinners from the whole world.
Why should we be labouring?’ To this the angels replied: ‘All sinners who
confess their sins with humility and tears receive forgiveness by God’s mercy;
but he who dies without repentance is judged by God.’” (The Orthodox Word, May-June, 1980, pp. 139-140)
 
This shows, on the one hand, that the demons are essentially powerless,
and on the other, that such authority as they possess over souls is ceded to
them by the souls themselves when they willingly follow their enticements.
For the Lord said: “He who sins is the servant of sin” (John 8.34), and
therefore of him who is the origin and instigator of sin, the devil. If the
demons have power even in this life over those who willingly follow their
suggestions, what reason have we for believing that these souls do not
continue in bondage after their departure from the body? However, if we
resist sin and the devil in this life, they will have no power over us in the next.
For, as St. Anthony says: “If the demons had no power even over the swine,
much less have they any over men formed in the image of God. So then we
ought to fear God only, and despise the demons, and be in no fear of them.” (St. Athanasius, The Life of Saint Anthony)
 
The Toll-Houses and Purgatory
But if the judgement of souls after death is not in any real sense a
judgement by the devil, as opposed to God, much less is it a purging of souls
in the papist sense. At most, the fear experienced on passing through the tollhouses
can to some extent purify the soul. That this is admitted by the
Orthodox Church is shown by the following reply of St. Mark of Ephesus to
the Roman cardinals on purgatory: “At the beginning of your report you
speak thus: ‘If those who truly repent have departed this life in love (towards
God) before they were able to give satisfaction by means of worthy fruits for
their transgressions or offences, their souls are cleansed after death by means
of purgatorial sufferings; but for the easing (or ‘deliverance’) of them from
these sufferings they are aided by the help which is shown them on the part
of the faithful who are alive, as for example: prayers, Liturgies, almsgiving,
and other works of piety.’
 
“To this we answer the following: of the fact that those reposed in faith are
without doubt helped by the Liturgies and prayers and almsgiving performed
for them, and that this custom has been in force since antiquity, there is the
testimony of many and various utterances of the Teachers, both Latin and
Greek, spoken and written at various times and in various places. But that
souls are delivered thanks to a certain purgatorial suffering and temporal fire
which possesses such (a purgatorial) power and has the character of a help –
this we do not find either in the Scriptures or in the prayers and hymns for the
dead, for in the words of the Teachers. But we have received that even the
souls which are held in hell and are already given over to eternal torments,
whether in actual fact and experience or in hopeless expectation of such, can
be aided and given a certain small help, although not in the sense of
completely loosing them from torment or giving hope for a final deliverance.
And this is shown from the words of the great Macarius the Egyptian ascetic
who, finding a skull in the desert, was instructed by it concerning this by the
action of Divine power. And Basil the Great, in the prayers read at Pentecost
writes literally the following: ‘Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast,
art graciously pleased to accept propitiatory prayers for those who are
imprisoned in hell, granting us a great hope of improvement for those who
are imprisoned from the defilements which have imprisoned them, and that
Thou wilt send down Thy consolation’ (Third Kneeling Prayer at Vespers).
“But if souls have departed this life in faith and love, while nevertheless
carrying away with themselves certain faults, whether small ones over which
they have not repented at all, or great ones for which – even though they have
repented over them – they did not undertake to show fruits of repentance:
such souls, we believe, must be cleansed from this kind of sins, but not by
means of some purgatorial fire or a definite punishment in some place (for
this, as we have said, has not at all been handed down to us). But some must
be cleansed in the very departure from the body, thanks only to fear, as St.
Gregory the Dialogist literally shows; while others must be cleansed after the
departure from the body, either while remaining in the same earthly place,
before they come to worship God and are honoured with the lot of the blessed,
or – if their sins were more serious and bind them for a longer duration – they
are kept in hell, but not in order to remain forever in fire and torment, but as
it were in prison and confinement under guard.
 
“All such ones, we affirm, are helped by the prayers and Liturgies
performed for them, with the cooperation of the Divine goodness and love for
mankind. This Divine cooperation immediately disdains and remits some sins,
those committed out of human weakness, as Dionysius the Great (the
Areopagite) says in Reflections on the Mystery of those Reposed in the Faith (in The
Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, VII, 7); while other sins, after a certain time, by
righteous judgements it either likewise releases and forgives – and that
completely – or lightens the responsibility for them until that final Judgement.
And therefore we see not necessity whatever for any other punishment or for
a cleansing fire; for some are cleansed by fear, while others are devoured by
the gnawings of conscience with more torment than any fire, and still others
are cleansed by the very terror before the Divine glory and the uncertainty as
to what the future will be. And that this is much more tormenting and
punishing than anything else, experience itself shows…” (St. Mark of Ephesus, “First Homily on Purgatorial Fire”, The Orthodox Word, March-April, 1978)

Thus while St. Mark rejected the idea of a purging by fire as the cardinals
understood it, he definitely accepted the notion of a purging by fear and the
gnawings of conscience. Now the experience of the soul after death which
Orthodox writers describe by means of the toll-house metaphor is certainly an
experience which includes fear and the gnawings of conscience. We may
therefore conclude that there is nothing heretical in the notion of the tollhouses
– provided we remember that it is a metaphor and not a literal

description of events.

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