16 November 2009

The Passage of the Soul in Modern Theologians

Continued from this post.

In his illuminating essay, ‘Our Warfare is Not Against Flesh and Blood: On the Question of the “Toll-Houses”’ (Selected Essays [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996], pp. 232-41), the great Jordanville theologian and product of the pre-Revolutionary Kiev Theological Academy, Fr Michael Pomazansky, quotes a passage from St John Chrysostom’s Homily 2, ‘On Remembering the Dead’:

If, in setting out for any foreign country or city we are in need of guides, then how much shall we need helpers and guides in order to pass unhindered past the elders, the powers, the governors of the air, the persecutors, the chief
collectors! For this reason, the soul, flying away from the body, often ascends and descends, fears and trembles. The awareness of sins always torments us, all the more at that hour when we shall have to be conducted to those trials and that frightful judgement place. (pp. 236-7)

More recently, one of the most well-known authors on the subject of these aerial demons is St Ignatius (Brianchaninov). Concerning St Ignatius, Met. Kallistos (Ware) writes (Foreword, On the Prayer of Jesus, trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore] [Boston: New Seeds, 2006], p. xvi):

St Ignatius Brianchaninov was a prolific author, and the standard edition of his collected works, published at St Petersburg in 1885-1886, runs to five substantial volumes. Most of his writings are concerned with the monastic life, but he also wrote on the state of the soul after death, upholding the traditional Orthodox teaching on the twenty ‘toll-houses’.

In a footnote on this passage about what he calls ‘the traditional Orthodox teaching’, Met. Kallistos adds:

For a good discussion of St Ignatius’s teaching of this subject, see Fr Seraphim (Rose), The Soul After Death: Contemporary ‘After-Death’ Experiences in the Light of the Orthodox Teaching on the Afterlife, 5th ed. (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), pp. 64-87, 250-52. As Fr Seraphim rightly observes, and as St Ignatius also believed, Patristic references to the ‘toll-houses’ are not to be interpreted in a crudely materialistic sense; proper allowance has to be made for the use of symbolic language. (pp. 142-3, n. 10)

Of course, despite this recommendation from one of the most respected of Orthodox bishops and theologians, there are still Orthodox who consider the toll-houses, and specifically Fr Seraphim’s presentation of this patristic teaching, ‘nonsense’ (see for example, the comment thread here). Others, while not going that far, find Fr Seraphim’s book a bit too dark and frightening, though of course, Fr Pomazansky observes, ‘If one is to complain of the frightening character of the pictures of the toll-houses—are there not many such pictures in the New Testament scriptures and in the words of the Lord Himself? Are we not frightened by the very simplest question: How camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? (Mt 22:12)’ (p. 239).

Still, for such people, Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) has enthusiastically recommended (though not without a few rather minor criticisms), the book Life After Death, by the popular Greek theologian, Met. Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998). In his review in Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, Vol. 1, Nos. 3/4 (The Entry into Jerusalem 1999), pp. 139-43 (published under the editorship of now Met. Jonah of the OCA), Fr Alexander writes:

In the last section, we are provided with, among other things, a valuable treatment of the demonic ‘tollbooths’ to which I referred above. The Metropolitan is inclined to take his widespread patristic image a little less literally than the works I complained about [including Fr Seraphim’s]. He sees it rather as an image, taken from the world of late antiquity, where tax-men functioned in effect as state-sanctioned Mafiosi, and a ‘tollhouse’ or tax station served as a natural image of unjust oppression (pp. 62 ff.). This is not to say that he accords the image no reality whatever, but that he is careful to not its symbolic force. It served to point toward, not describe, the trial that awaits the soul immediately upon dying, particularly if it enters death unprepared and without sufficient repentance. (pp. 141-2)

In light of the fact that, as Met. Kallistos notes, Fr Seraphim too acknowledges the non-literal nature of the ‘toll-house’ imagery (‘It is obvious to all but the youngest children that the name of “toll-house” is not to be taken literally’, qtd. in Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim Rose: His Life & Works [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003], p. 897), one wonders if Fr Alexander (as much as I love him!) may not have read Fr Seraphim’s book recently enough to have an entirely accurate impression of it. The sense one gets from his opening paragraph on p. 139 is that Fr Alexander is recollecting a 30-plus-year-old reading, one that took place before his own views were so strongly influenced by the life and teaching of the Holy Mountain.

At any rate, Fr Alexander urges us to read Met. Hierotheos’s book, ‘and be introduced to the sober, wholesome, and finally glorious teaching of the saints’ (p. 143). Following this advice, we see that His Eminence writes, concerning ‘the taxing of souls’:

We find this topic in the whole biblico-patristic tradition and it corresponds to a reality which we need to look at in order to prepare ourselves for the dreadful hour of death. What follows is written not in order to arouse anxiety, but to prompt repentance, which has joy as its result. For he who has the gift of the Holy Spirit and is united with Christ avoids the terrible presence and activity of the customs demons.

According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the soul at its departure from the body, as well as when it is preparing to leave, senses the presence of the demons who are called customs demons, and is possessed with fear because of having to pass through customs. (p. 62)

Later, as if responding specifically to some of the more ridiculous criticisms of Fr Seraphim’s book, Met. Hierotheos writes:

Of course there are some who maintain that such notions as customs houses and aerial spirits have come into Christianity from Gnostic theories and pagan myths which prevailed during that period.

There is no doubt that such views can be found in many Gnostic texts, in pagan ideas which are found in Egyptian and Chaldean myths. However it must be emphasised that many Fathers adopted the teaching about the customs houses, but they cleared it of idolatrous and Gnostic frames of reference and placed it in the ecclesiastical atmosphere. . . .

. . .

. . . It is true that ancient traditions and heretical views spoke of ‘rulers of the astral sphere’, about ‘gates of an astral journey’, about ‘aerial spirits’, and so forth. We find several of these phrases in the Bible and in patristic texts. As we have mentioned in this chapter, many Fathers of the Church speak of customs houses and aerial spirits, but they have given them different content and different meaning. (pp. 77-8)

Of course, although Fr Alexander writes that Met. Hierotheos’s book ‘bears the marks of a man schooled in the ascetic and mystical tradition of the Church and someone who is an active pastor of souls’ (p. 140), His Eminence is, after all, only a popular theologian. Yet, perhaps the greatest Saint of the twentieth century, St John (Maximovitch) the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, has also decisively upheld the teaching on the toll-houses. In a homily entitled ‘Life After Death’ (or here), St John writes:

At this time (the third day [after death]), it [the soul] passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins, to which they themselves had tempted it. According to various revelations there are twenty such obstacles, the so-called ‘toll-houses’, at each of which one or another form of sin is tested; after passing through one the soul comes upon the next one, and only after successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue its path without being immediately cast into gehenna.

Of course, I will just mention that the most detailed and systematic traditional account of the toll-houses is that in the Life of St Basil the New, who died in 944, according to St Nicholas (Velimirović) in the Prologue (The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 331). St Nicholas writes, ‘The elder Theodora was his novice, the same Theodora who appeared after her death to Gregory, another of Basil’s novices, and described to him the twenty toll-houses through which every soul must pass’ (p. 331). I will not post from it here, since, as the ROCOR Synod points out, ‘no one can dogmatically establish the existence of the toll-houses precisely in accordance with the form described in the dream (of Gregory recounted in the life) of Basil the New’, but one can read the story as it appears in Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave by Archimandrite Panteleimon of Jordanville here (there is a whole book in Russian on this here).

In conclusion, Fr Pomazansky cites the statement of Met. Macarius of Moscow:

Concerning all the sensual, earthly images by which the Particular Judgement is presented in the form of the toll-houses, although in their fundamental idea they are completely true, still they should be accepted in the way that the angel instructed St Macarius of Alexandria, being only the weakest means of depicting heavenly things. (qtd. p. 238)

But Fr Pomazansky’s translator immediately adds in a footnote:

However, Met. Macarius does speak quite in detail on the subject of the toll-houses, devoting ten pages of his second volume to it (pp. 528-538), and giving extensive quotes from Ss Cyril of Alexandria, Ephraim the Syrian, Athanasius the Great, Macarius the Great, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor, and a number of other sources, including many texts from the Divine service books, and concluding that ‘such an uninterrupted, constant, and universal usage in the Church on the teaching of the toll-houses, especially among the teachers of the fourth century, indisputably testifies that it was handed down to them from the teachers of the preceding centuries and is founded on apostolic tradition’ (p. 535). (pp. 238-9, n. 2)


123 said...

‘It is obvious to all but the youngest children that the name of “toll-house” is not to be taken literally’.

I was always amazed at the critique put forward by many regarding Fr. Seraphim and his 'gnostic', 'purgatorial' teaching of the toll-houses. It always seemed people were reacting to a fourth hand account overheard at coffee hour regarding what Fr. Seraphim wrote. The critique him for saying the toll-houses are to be taken literally, when he quite clearly says they are not to be taken literally. There's an extended passage in The Soul After Death that qualifies the entire book, which most critics seem to have never read. (I keep meaning to copy it out and have it available online and for myself, but...).

I was also always amazed at how unoffended I was by The Soul After Death. If anyone should have been offended and put off by the purgatorial overtones of Fr. Seraphim's 'nonsense' it should have been this (then) rabid Lutheran of the solidly Confessional sort.

Thanks for this.

Aaron Taylor said...

You're quite welcome, Christopher. I'm always glad to hear that there are folks out there as baffled by the criticisms of Fr Seraphim as I am!

123 said...

It was always (and is) one of my favorite books by Fr. Seraphim. I re-read it pretty regularly.

The criticism always seemed to be a lot more about things unsaid: being anti-ROCOR was all the rage then outside of ROCOR and being pro-HTM was all the rage inside ROCOR. Fr. Seraphim didn't fit neatly into any of those camps (which is why he will be canonized and most of 'them' will not).

Calling Fr. Seraphim's teachings "Gnostic" or "Catholic" seems to be a lot like yelling 'fascist' at any and all Republicans or 'socialist' or 'communist' at any and all Democrats - or 'fascist', 'Nazi', 'socialist' and 'communist' at Obama, which betrays an alarming degree of historical illiteracy (much like the Jewish-American school teacher in the Bronx who told me straight-faced that WWII was a 'war of religion').

Michael said...

Thank you for this. I have read some rather unkind things written about Father Seraphim because of the tollhouses. I haven't read his writings on them although I do have The Soul After Death - sadly one of the many unread books gracing my bookcase. However, these unkind things do not resonate with me as being consistent with the Father Seraphim that I love. I look forward to reading this fully, and then perhaps starting on what he actually wrote.

Doctor Cornelius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doctor Cornelius said...

It's interesting how this post (like the last one) manages to vindicate Fr Seraphim without making that its explicit purpose. Very sly!

Aaron Taylor said...

Michael> Thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear that you have been able ignore the ridiculous things you've read about Fr Seraphim's teaching.

By the way, where are you in the UK? One of my best friends is a Greek priest in London, and a secretary to Archbishop Gregorios.

Dr Cornelius> Why thank you! I was hoping someone would notice!

David Robles said...

My understanding of this subject is very practical. Aware that I must one day give an account 'for what I have done in the body, good or bad', I simply prepare, by going to confession often. I use the description of the sins of each 'toll-house',to examine myself. My father in Christ, Fr Nicholas, taught me to do this and gave me a list of each toll house and the sins in it. This practice is not a morbid thing to me. Instead it is comforting to know that I am doing now, all I can possibly do to not be surprised then. May the Lord have mercy on my soul, through your prayers!

Pintradex said...

Excellent post! On another note, never underestimate the ability of "insufficiently catechised Protestant converts to constitute a legitimate controversy."

Aaron Taylor said...

David> I'm afraid my prayers will likely avail you nothing, but you have them nevertheless!

Justin> Thank you, sir. I do not deny the ability of insufficiently catechised Protestant converts to raise a ruckus and waste a lot of people's time having to defend traditional Orthodox teaching, I simply refuse to dignify such ruckuses and wastes of time by calling them 'controversies'! ;-) Seriously though, calling the toll-houses 'controversial' perpetuates the idea that they may or may not be part of the Church's traditional teaching, when in fact they most definitely are.

Daniel said...

You have convinced me Aaron. Hvala

Aaron Taylor said...

Maximus> Do you mean that you were previously unconvinced, and that my post has actually changed your mind? Because that almost never happens!

Aaron Taylor said...

Oh yeah, molim!

Daniel said...

Yes, I definitely appreciate a well balanced presentation of this controversy. Have not heard it much of anywhere else.

Isaac said...

Wonderful to see this teaching defended in such a way. When will people like certain retired bishops and deans emeritus learn that this is neither morbid nor to be taken in a childishly carnal sense, but is in fact a teaching expounded upon from ancient times by the saints?

There's a great podcast on Postcards from Greece that discusses "Fr. Seraphim in Greece" and it mentions that The Soul After Death is not controversial at all. Thank God for "old world Orthodoxy" to sober and awaken what our mutual friend labels "militant Americanist Orthodoxy."

123 said...

It should be noted that the retired bishop and the dean emeritus are both cradle Orthodox, Serbian and Russian, respectively. That is, "militant Americanist Orthodoxy" was originally a cradle phenomenon; converts didn't bring it to Orthodoxy, they came to an Orthodoxy with this already in place. So, ethnic and cradle status is not a reliable antidote to innovationism and modernism.

Aaron Taylor said...

Point well taken, Christopher!

G Sanchez said...

As I was reading these two posts, I was reminded of the daily canons to the Theotokos which are to be read at Compline during (most of) the liturgical year and in accordance with the weekly tone. (In other words, there are 56 such canons in the Octoechos.) Anyway, anyone who has these canons, in either the Octoechos from SJKP or in the individual volume of canons from the same publisher, will likely have noticed that recurrent theme of the soul's departure from the body and the beseeching of the Mother of God to aid it against demonic attacks and, beyond that, for intercession at the Last Judgment.

To say these canons fit with the "theme" of Compline--the final prayer service of the day before we depart for sleep (an "image" of our repose)--would be an understatement. I cannot recall any other extended work of Orthodox hymnography which takes death, demons, and judgment as its theme more than the Canons to the Theotokos. There are, of course, the many penitent stichera in the Octoechos and the daily "themes" centering on the Angels, John the Baptist, the Cross, the Apostles, St. Nicholas, and the Holy Martyrs, but the canons are unrelenting and, indeed, disconcerting in both their seriousness and fervency.

I suppose this brings me to a larger "point" which is simply ignorance of the Church's hymnography is ignorance of the Church. The best theological education I received (and continue to struggle to receive) came when my dear wife allowed me to invest in a full liturgical library. I think many Orthodox would be startled to see how the themes of humility, penitence, and rembrance of death are integral parts of Orthodox hymnography and are not just "seasonal elements" of Great Lent. Monastics, of course, know this and their lives are shaped by it every single day. While I make no claim to having been shaped in any way by what I have read and prayed with for a number of years, I cannot stress enough how important these works have been to providing instruction these last few years. Perhaps some day Orthodoxy in America will be at the point where all of these works will be readily available to all the faithful.

123 said...

It is obvious that you are fixated on the Protestant obsession with 'understanding' and 'knowledge'. There is no need for a liturgical library; all that is needed is prayer in a fittingly traditional and prayerful setting led by those that understand the real, original prayers of the Church. There is grace enough in such an environment without understanding anything is read.

The first sentence is a paraphrase from an Abbess in our heartland, via a Bishop of her jurisdiction. The good Bishop's suggestion was that we all serve in Mandarin so we could all have the benefits of not understanding and simply praying.

G Sanchez said...


If that's true, my Wills & Trusts lecture for the bar exam was the most prayerful environment I'd ever been in. I couldn't follow a damn thing that was being said.

Chris Jones said...


I was intrigued to see your reference to my old teacher, Fr Golitzin. I followed the link and read your post on Fr Golitzin (with which I entirely agree); I made a lengthier comment there.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks, Chris (Jones)!