15 November 2009

The Passage of the Soul in a Few Patristic Sources

In a post on the Holy Passion-bearers Boris and Gleb some time ago, I quoted an interesting prayer uttered by St Boris before his murder, a prayer that has come down to us in the so-called ‘Lesson on the Life and Murder of the Blessed Passion-Sufferers Boris and Gleb’ (The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’, trans. Paul Hollingsworth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], pp. 3-32), which Paul Hollingsworth dates between 1075 and 1085 (p. xxxv). According to the ‘Lesson’, St Boris prays:

My Lord, Jesus Christ, hear me this hour and vouchsafe me to share of the company of Thy saints. For, O Lord, even as once this day Zechariah was slaughtered before Thine altar, so now also am I slaughtered before Thee, O Lord. O Lord, Lord, remember not my former transgressions, but save my soul, so that the deceitful counsel of my adversaries may not block its way, and let Thy bright angels receive it. Because, O Lord, Thou art my Savior, do Thou forgive them that do these things, for Thou art the true God, and to Thee is glory forever. Amen. (p. 16)

Now, in an ordinary martyrdom, where those who put the Martyr to death often tried to persuade him to make some sacrifice to the pagan gods in order to spare his life, one might read the words ‘that the deceitful counsel of my adversaries may not block its way’ and think that they referred to the pagan questioners, blocking the way of the Martyr’s soul with their temptations. In the context of this story, however, the killers are determined on murdering St Boris no matter what he does or says, and the only voices calling for him to save himself are his own friends and retainers, who argue that he should fight for his life. Furthermore, when we note the petition which immediately follows this one in the prayer, ‘let Thy bright angels receive it’, it seems to me that there can be little doubt that when he refers to ‘my adversaries’ St Boris means the demons, and when he asks that they ‘may not block its way’, he is referring to possible attempts to hinder the passage of his soul to heaven.

Of course, there should be no surprise that he would ask such a thing. The writings of the Fathers and the Lives of the Saints are filled with references to such attempts by demons to hinder souls, and the opposing attempts by the angels of God to assist them. Merely in order to demonstrate that this is so, I would like to quote just a few of them.

First of all, as one example of this teaching, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad in its decision to forbid a certain former deacon from lecturing on the subject has classically cited Ode IV, troparia 4 of the canon chanted at the departing of the soul from the body—‘The prince of the air, the oppressor, the tyrant who standeth on the dread paths, the relentless accountant thereof, do thou vouchsafe me who am departing from the earth to pass [O Theotokos].’ Similarly, in the Prayer to the Most-Holy Theotokos from Compline, St Paul of the Evergetis Monastery (11th c.) refers in passing to this teaching when he begs the Theotokos ‘in the hour of my departure, to care for my wretched soul and drive far from it the dark countenances of evil demons’ (A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: HTM, 1995], p. 26).

Furthermore, St Paul gathered several quite substantial passages from hagiographic and patristic writings on this subject in his 11th-c. collection, The Evergetinos, under Hypothesis X, ‘The soul, after its departure from the body, undergoes testing in the air by evil spirits which encounter it and attempt to impede its ascent’ (The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Vol. 1, trans. Archbishop Chrysostomos, et al. [Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008], p. 85). First among the passages under this Hypothesis is one from the Life of St Anthony by St Athanasius the Great (pp. 85-6), which can be found on pp. 78-9 of Robert Cregg’s translation (The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Cregg [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980]). St Athanasius writes:

. . . While he was standing there, he looked on himself, as though he had left his body, and his soul was taken into the air by several beings. After this, he saw a number of fearful and ugly creatures standing in front of him in the air, trying to keep him from passsing.

Those who were guiding his soul began to wrangle with these frightening creatures, who were asking for an account of the soul which they were accompanying and whether it was responsible to them for some debt. . . .

. . .

He was stunned when he reflected on how many temptations we must combat and what trials one must endure to pass by the air-borne demons. And he thought that this must be the meaning of the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘According to the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2).

For this power alone belongs to the Enemy of our souls, that is, to war against us and try to impede those souls ascending into Heaven. (Evergetinos, p. 85)

St Paul also includes another passage from St Athanasius relating a vision St Anthony had of many other souls being similarly confronted by demons in the air (p. 86; p. 80 in Cregg). He then has a story from the Gerontikon (the Sayings of the Desert Fathers) about two monks who see, ‘The Angels of God coming to fetch me and my brother and to lead us into Heaven. As we were going up, we were met by hostile powers, countless in number and of fearful form. Though they bothered us a great deal, they nonetheless had no success against us’ (p. 87). This is followed by a passage from St Isaiah the Solitary, where he writes, ‘. . . [W]hen the soul of man departs from the body, the Angels go along with it. However, all of the powers of darkness then hasten to meet it and seek to take hold of it, thereby to examine it carefully and learn whether or not it was engaged in any of their own works’ (p. 87). Finally, it is interesting to note that the last passage included by St Paul (on pp. 88-9) is the one saying associated with Abba Theophilus the Archbishop where he seems to be teaching rather than learning something (Theophilus 4). I shall quote the key lines from Benedicta Ward’s translation, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 81:

What fear, what trembling, what uneasiness will there be for us when our soul is separated from the body. Then indeed the force and strength of the adverse powers come against us, the rulers of darkness, those who command the world of evil, the principalities, the powers, the spirits of evil. They accuse our souls as in a lawsuit, bringing before it all the sins it has committed, whether deliberately or through ignorance, from its youth until the time when it has been taken away. . . . On the other hand, the divine powers stand on the opposite side, and they present the good deeds of the soul.

Τo turn to a source not included in the Evergetinos, St Macarius the Great, in perfect agreement with all of the foregoing, teaches in Homily 43.9 (St Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, trans. Fr George A. Maloney [NY: Paulist, 1992], p. 222):

Like the tax collectors who sit along the narrow streets and snatch at the passers-by and extort from them, so also the demons watch carefully and grab hold of souls. And when they pass out of the body, if they are not completely purified, they are not permitted to go up into the mansions of Heaven there to meet their Master. For they are driven down by the demons of the air. But if, while they still live in the flesh, they shall, because of their hard toil and much struggle, obtain from the Lord on high grace, they, along with those who through virtuous living are at rest, shall go to the Lord, as he promised.

Continued here.


Gabriel said...

Another interesting note is that despite the accusation of the toll-houses and demonic attacks at the departure of the soul from the body being a late Western interpolation to the prayers of the Russian Church, the pre-Nikonian texts of the Canon to our Lord Jesus Christ contains a closing prayer asking to be saved from the toll-houses and demonic attacks after death. The "post-Nikonian" version of this canon, a translation of which is in the Jordanville Prayer Book, does not have this prayer. If this idea is a "Western interpolation," it's far earlier than some suppose given its presence in the Old Ritualist books.

aaronandbrighid said...

Gabriel> Thank you for pointing this out. We wouldn't want to accept anything the Old Believers teach, would we?

Gabriel said...



Actually, it leads me to wonder where the prayer at the end of the canon came from. I doubt anyone has written on it (at least in English). There's been a number of interesting studies done of Old Ritualist liturgical texts witnessing to Greek texts of far older vintage than those currently in use in the GOC. But the matter is complicated by the fact that there is no monolithic "Old Rite" textual tradition. I have a number of Slavonic Old Rite books published by the Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy (Russian Old-Orthodox Church) and their texts depart in a number of points from the Slavonic published in the Old Orthodox Prayer Book. But, to make matters more interesting, there are convergences between both Old Rite texts and the Velikij Chasoslov I own which was published for the Ruthenian Catholics in the 1940s. It seems even (some of) the Uniates have an older textual tradition than what's currently used in the mainline ROC.

Some of this is beside the point, though I think it's clear now that the old "theories" about everything which seemed, at first blush, "alien to Orthodoxy" can't be blamed on "the West." I also think there is a better argument that the toll-house teaching originated outside of Russis since, theologically speaking, there seems to be limited evidence the Russian Church "developed" much on its own. (I do, however, subscribe to some of the recent revisionism to Fr. Georges Florvsky's claim that the Russian Church was stilted for most of its history; I think the aesthetic and iconic tradition within the ROC--particularly during the late medieval period--testifies to a much more dynamic ecclesial existence than what he was willing to grant.)

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, you said it right there: 'aesthetic and iconic tradition'. Fr Florovsky was paying almost exclusive attention to written texts.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Of course the toll house concept didn't originate with the Russians. It's found in the Desert Fathers, and as Aaron noted, it shows in the Evergetinos, drawing on Greek texts going all the way back to the early fifth century, at least. That's really a non-issue. Who said the Russians invented it?

What always got me was how some people (especially Protestant converts, for whatever reason) would just dismiss the entire toll house concept as un-Orthodox, totally ignoring the evidence. It was as though they knew better than any number of Saints!

All this toll house talk makes me think of chocolate chip cookies!

非凡 said...

I'm appreciate your writing skill.Please keep on working hard.^^

Samn! said...

A good study on Byzantine views of life immediately after death can be found in the 2001 issue of Dumbarton Oaks Papers, which are all online. The paper, entitled "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature" can be found at--


aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for reminding me of that article, Samn! I've seen it, even saved it to my hard drive, but I still haven't read it!

SubDn. Lucas said...

Kevin: "What always got me was how some people (especially Protestant converts, for whatever reason) would just dismiss the entire toll house concept as un-Orthodox, totally ignoring the evidence."

I have found this to be a disconcertingly-consistent line in any number of areas where concerned parties don't agree with an aspect of the received tradition. My interests are largely liturgical, and it is shocking how many traditions are simply dismissed as 'late un-Orthodox developments'. Who bothers to follow up on such an assertion and investigate its veracity? Not your average layperson or catechumen, and they have thenceforth an aversion to those aspects of the received tradition.

I began, and subsequently set aside, a distance-education course of study, the first term of which was filled with books that made scores of these assertions. Happily, I had already encountered such objections before and knew them to be spurious. How many of the students, though, who work through these materials have any idea that they're being grossly mislead? Ultimately, they're immunized against any evidence to the contrary, which is dismissed as 'fundamentalist' or some variation on that theme.

the sinner,
SubDn. Lucas

leitourgeia said...

I generally don't have an opinion on toll-houses one way or the other. If the teaching is accurate, it really won't matter what my opinion is. I also believe that Fr. Seraphim interceded to heal my mother of a heart malady a few years ago, so it's fair to say I don't have a particular issue with him, either.

That said, it is clear that toll-houses are attested to in hagiographies and Synaxarion/Prologue readings -- and to some extent that might be part of the problem. I think for some those sources are going to seem like questionable teaching authorities on matters that go beyond the specific matter of the sanctity of the saint, and might be more appropriately thought of as belonging to the realm of "folk piety" rather than "Orthodox doctrine". I am not persuaded that this is an issue of "Eastern-Rite Protestantism" or modern scholarship so much as a problem with communicating how we understand hagiographic sources to function catechetically. Some of this might also relate to how the Synaxarion is treated liturgically in contemporary practice -- that is to say, do our churches read it during services, for the most part? Probably not. Is it any wonder, then, that there's confusion over how these accounts are to be received?

I think part of the controversy can be located in the person of Fr. Seraphim, too. Fr. Seraphim is the polar opposite of those who endeavor to make Orthodox Christianity safe for public consumption in the United States, and whatever else one might say about him, he walked his talk, making him a compelling prophetic figure. The ROCOR-vs.-the-world dynamic is certainly at play, but also so might be the "long haired dude living in a shack in California vs. clean shaven guy wearing a jacket and collar on the East Coast" dynamic.


aaronandbrighid said...

Richard> I think you're right about hagiographies, but of course for some it seems that anything that goes beyond an 'intellectually respectable' Orthodoxy is going to seem questionable no matter the source. But yes, there does seem to be a remarkably un-Orthodox idea afloat that the Lives of the Saints in particular can be accepted willy-nilly. It should be clear from this blog that I am convinced we have to approach the hagiographical tradition with as much reverence and piety as we approach the liturgical tradition or the theological writings of the Fathers. As Fr Justin (Popovich) writes, 'the Lives of the Saints are actually applied dogmatics, for in them all the holy eternal dogmatic truths are experienced in all their life-creating and creative energies.' Furthermore, because theological doctrine is founded on the Church's experience of God in history, one might say such doctrine is founded on Saints' Lives. Certainly, it can in no way be separated from them. Scripture itself is not a theological treatise but, for the most part, a narrative of Saints' Lives. Indeed, Fr Justin refers to hagiography as 'a certain kind of continuation of the "Acts of the Apostles"', and the Lives of the Saints as a 'continuation of all life-creating Divine energies in the Church of Christ from ages to ages and from generation to generation [which] indeed constitutes living Holy Tradition.' This is certainly not 'folk piety', if by that expression we mean something 'popular' and 'unofficial' which somehow exists outside of the Church's whole Tradition.

As for the place of hagiography in the liturgical tradition, one would think that if people only paid attention to the hymnographical texts of the Menaion, and particularly the canon, this might not be such a problem. But perhaps the Synaxarion readings would indeed help to communicate the proper place of hagiography more clearly. Maybe we should try to begin a movement to restore Synaxarion readings to parish life!

Good point too about Fr Seraphim's particular lack of respectability. No wonder he seems to be so much more popular with counter-cultural young people (like I was when I discovered the Church!). He's like the Che Guevara of Orthodoxy!

leitourgeia said...

Well, at my parish, we added Synaxarion readings (using the Prologue of Ochrid, which has certain pluses and minuses) coming on two years ago. The way the priest wanted it implemented was to read immediately before Vespers, and then right before the katabasia during Matins. Our parish is somewhat governed by the clock, so typically only the first reading is done during Matins, but we do what we can. We don't do anything during the Divine Liturgy yet. Again, it's that whole "if something makes the Liturgy two minutes longer the priest hears about it" problem.


Gabriel said...


What jurisdiction is your parish? ROCOR, I presume?

The Old Rite Church of the Nativity still maintains the tradition of including readings during the All Night Vigil, though I'm not sure if they are from the Synaxarion (except when appointed during Great Lent). Someone might correct me. The priest at my parish uses the Prologue of St. Nikolai at the end of Vespers, which is nice. It helps tie together the hymnography (which, if you're not aware of the Saint's life, can be a little opaque at times).

As for the Liturgy, with the exception of people cutting things out of it, I've seldom seen anyone try to add anything in. There is at least some notion out there that you're not supposed to play (too much) with the ordo of the Liturgy. If that view were consistently applied, I'd probably defend it more. Still, I think the instructional focus of the Liturgy should be centered on either the Epistle or Gospel for that day. Too rarely, however, do clergy try and "link" the readings to the Saint being commemorated, especially if it is one who is assigned his own readings for that day.

leitourgeia said...


The parish I attend is Antiochian.

There is a Romanian women's monastery about five hours north of here where they read from Synaxarion during the priest's communion in the Liturgy. I'm not sure if that's "their thing" or if that's common, but it's nice.