My beloved brothers and sisters in Our Risen Lord, God, and SaviorJesus Christ.
THE SOUL AFTER DEATH: CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE OF HEAVEN
TRUE CHRISTIAN experience of heaven always bear one and the same stamp of other-worldly experience. Those who have beheld heaven have not merely traveled to a different place; THEY HAVE ALSO ENTERED INTO A WHOLE DIFFERENT SPIRITUAL STATE. We who have not experienced this personally must be satisfied with the description of certain outward features which, taken together, distinguish these experiences rather clearly from all of the experiences of the AERIAL REALM.
Numerous Lives of Saints contain description of souls entering heaven, as seen from the earth. In the Life of Saint Anthony the Great, we read: "Another time, Anthony was sitting in the mountain, and looking up he saw one carried on high, and a joyful band meeting him. Filled with wonder, he pronounced them a band of the Blessed and prayed to learn what this might be. And straightway came a voice to him, saying ‘This is the soul of Ammon, the monk of Nitria, who led an ascetic life down to his old age.
Abba (Father) Serapion thus described the death of Saint Mark of Thrace: "Looking up, I beheld the soul of the Saint already being delivered from the bonds of the body. It was covered by Angelic hands with a bright white garment and raised up by them to heaven. I beheld the serial path to heaven and the opened heavens. Then I saw the hordes of demons standing on this path and heard an Angelic voice addressed to the demons: ‘Son of darkness! Flee and hide yourselves from the face of the light of righteousness!’ The holy soul of Mark was detained in the air for about one hour. Then a voice was heard from heaven, saying to the Angels: ‘Take and bring here him who put the demons to shame.’ When the soul of the Saint had passed without any harm to itself through the hordes of demons and had already drawn near o the opened heaven, I saw as it were the likeness of a hand stretched out from heaven receiving the immaculate soul. Then this vision was hidden from my eyes, and I saw nothing more" (Lives of Saint, April 5).
From these accounts we may already see THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE TRUE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE OF HEAVEN: IT IS AN ASCENT; THE SOUL IS CONDUCTED BY ANGELS; IT IS GREETED BY AND JOIN THE COMPANY OF THE INHABITANTS OF HEAVEN.
Experiences of heaven are of various kinds. Sometimes a soul is conducted to heaven before death to be shown its wonders or the place prepared there for the soul. Thus, Saint Maura, after resisting the two false visions of the fallen spirits during her martyrdom (described as an example of the temptations that can occur at the hour of death), described the God-given experience that followed: "I also beheld a third man, very comely of appearance; his face shone like the sun. He took me by the hand, led me up to heaven, and showed me a throne covered with white garments, and a crown, most beautiful in appearance. Amazed at such beauty, I asked the man that had led me up to heaven: ‘Whose is this my lord?’ He told me: ‘This is the reward for your struggle… But now return to your body. In the morning at the sixth hour, the Angels of God will come to take your soul up to heaven.’
There is also the experience of beholding heaven in vision from afar, as when the First Martyr Saint Stefanos (Stephen) "BEHELD THE HEAVENS OPENED, AND THE SON OF MAN STANDING ON THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD" [Acts 7:56]. Here, however, we shall study only the specific experience that is most comparable to today’s "after-death" experiences: the ascent to heaven, either at death or in a Divinely-granted experience, whether "in" or "out" of the body.
Characteristics of the True Experience of Heaven
Let us now summarize the main characteristics of these true experiences of heaven and see how they differ from the experiences of the aerial world as described.
1) The True experiences of heaven invariably occur at the END OF A PROCESS OF ASCENT.
2) The soul is ALWAYS conducted to heaven by an Angel or Angels, and never "wonders" into it or goes of its own will or motive power. This is surely one of the most striking differences between GENUINE EXPERIENCES OF HEAVEN and the contemporary experience of Pentecostals and others who describe "after-death" experiences of "paradise" and "heaven": the latter is virtually identical with secular and even atheist experiences of "paradise." Saint John Chrysostom, in interpreting Luke 16:19-31, writes: "Lazarus then was conducted away by Angels, but the soul of the other (the rich man) was taken by certain frightful powers who, it may be, were sent fro this, ‘FOR THE SOUL BY ITSELF CANNOT DEPART TO THAT LIFE’ BECAUSE THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE. If we, in going from city to city, have need of a guide, how much more will the soul be in need of guides when it is torn away from the body and presented for the future life?"
This point, indeed, may be taken as one of the touchstones of the AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE OF HEAVEN. In contemporary experiences, the soul is most frequently offered a choice to remain in "paradise" or go back to earth; while THE GENUINE EXPERIENCE OF HEAVEN OCCURS NOT BY THE CHOICE OF MAN BUT ONLY AT THE COMMAND OF GOD, FULFILLED BY HIS ANGELS. The common "out-of-body" experience of "paradise" in our days has no need of a guide because it take place RIGHT HERE, in the air above us, still IN THIS WORLD, while THE PRESENCE OF THE GUIDING ANGELS IS NECESSARY IF THE EXPERIENCE TAKES PLACE OUTSIDE THIS WORLD, IN A DIFFERENT KIND OF REALITY, WHERE THE SOUL CANNOT GO BY ITSELF. (This is not to say the demons cannot masquerade as "guiding angels" also, but they seldom do so in today’s experiences.)
The experience OCCURS IN BRIGHT LIGHT AND IS ACCOMPANIED BY MANIFEST SIGNS OF DIVINE GRACE, IN PARTICULAR A WONDERFUL FRAGRANCE. Such signs, it is true, sometimes are present in today’s "after-death" experiences also, but there is A FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM THAT CAN SCARCELY BE OVER EMPHASIZED. Today’s experiences are SUPERFICIAL, EVEN SENSUOUS; there is nothing to distinguish them from the similar experiences of unbelievers save the Christian imagery which the observer sees (or adds to) the experience; these are no more than the NATURAL EXPERIENCE OF PLEASURE IN THE "OUTER-BODY" STATE WITH A THIN "Christian" covering. (Perhaps, also, in some of them the FALLEN SPIRITS are already adding their DECEPTIONS TO ENTICE THE OBSERVER FURTHER INTO PRIDE AND CONFIRM HIS SUPERFICIAL IDEA OF CHRISTIANITY, but here there is no need to determine this.) In the TRUE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCES, O THE OTHER HAND, TEH DEPTH OF THE EXPERIENCE IS CONFIRMED BY TRULY MIRACULOUS OCCURANCES: Saint Salvius was so "nourished" by the fragrance taht he needed no food or drink for over three days, and the fragrance vanished and his tongue became sore and swollen only the moment that he revealed his experience; Saint Andrew was gone for two weeks…
"…The True experience of heaven is accompanied BY A FEELING OF SUCH AWE AND FEAR BEFORE TEH GREATNESS OF GOD, AND A FEELING OF SUCH UNWORTHINESS TO BE BEHOLDING IT, AS ARE SELDOM FOUIND EVN AMNG ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS TODAY, let alone those OUTSIDE THE CHURCH OF CHRIST. [Source: The Soul After Death by Fr. Seraphim Rose]
(To be continued: Next, A Note on Visions of Hell)
"Glory Be To GOD
– Saint John Chrysostomos
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With sincere agape in the Glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God
+ Father George