On Remembrance of Death - A Sermon for the Sunday of St. John Climacus (2024)

On Remembrance of Death - A Sermon for the Sunday of St. John Climacus (2024) - Holy Cross Monastery

I think most, if not all of us, are familiar with St. John Climacus, and his eloquent, witty, and above all soul-saving teaching found in the Ladder, moderately balanced between stern spiritual sobriety and loving fatherly humor. This is the reason for his significance in the Church for both monks and laity, revealed by a whole Sunday during Great Lent being dedicated to him. Because of the shortness of time allotted to a Sunday sermon, I want to focus on just one aspect of his teaching.

St. John says: “Some say that prayer is better than the remembrance of death, but I praise two essences in one hypostasis” (Ladder 28:46). Prayer, amongst other things, is remembrance of God. So, St. John is essentially saying that the remembrance of death is inseparably united to the remembrance of God in one concrete reality and experience.

It is not coincidental that he uses Christological language to express this reality. Christ, as the Logos—that is, as the Wise Ordering-Principle—lies at the heart of all creation: through His creation He is known. Christ lies at the heart of the Church: every word, action, rite, and sacrament of the Church have Christ as their essence. Christ lies at the heart of our own heart: He has been implanted therein through Holy Baptism. Christ lies at the heart of our spiritual lives and spiritual practice: whether it is prayer, repentance, remembrance of death, love for others, struggling for virtue, or fighting the passions, Christ is our motivation, helper, and goal in all things.

Christ is the Chief Cornerstone upon which the ladder to heaven is founded. Christ is the ladder to heaven. Christ is found on every step of the ladder. Christ is our Helper upon the way. Christ awaits us at the summit of the ladder. But this summit is not reached in this life, but is only found after death, and most perfectly, after our Resurrection.

So, returning to St. John’s statement that remembrance of death and remembrance of God are inseparably united, let us think on this. Why do Christ and the Fathers teach us to think on death? Is Christianity some morbid preoccupation which sucks every ounce of earthly joy from our hearts? Should we be morose and depressed, all the while thinking and saying: “Who cares? Nothing matters. I’m going to die soon anyway, and so is everyone else.” It should be clear that such a philosophy does not befit a Christian. For in these words one can hear both the let-us-eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die nihilism, and its despairing counterpart. This is not what the Church teaches us.

Death is not the end of our life, but the seal of our earthly life. Death is not the limit of our existence, but it is the end of its first part. Death is not an obliteration, but an encounter with our own soul, the spirits both holy and fallen, and above all with Christ.

Just as the human nature of Christ introduces us to His divine nature, so remembrance of death brings us face to face with God. And just as His divine nature fully permeates His human nature, so prayer to Christ unfailingly instills us with remembrance of our departure from this life. If we would remember our departure from this life, we would be spared from all sin, as the wise Sirach states, whom St. John quotes at the end of his chapter on remembrance of death. How is this? Think!

If we truly take to heart that it is very possible—even if very young and healthy—that we might die before we leave this liturgy, then we will pray with all our heart. If we think upon the fact that many today have been taken by an untimely death due to some unknown cause, we will pray with all our heart at the time of our prayer rule. If we think that we might be taken by some accident at any moment, whether we are speaking with some person, or doing some task, or serving God in some other way, we will do it with all our heart, attention, and zeal.

This is not morbid preoccupation, but simple sobriety. Do we need to hear about another modern case of sudden death syndrome in perfectly healthy people to convince ourselves of this reality? Do we need to hear about the after-death experiences of a multitude of saints and others to realize that we so often waste the precious moments and breaths given to us, thinking ourselves physically immortal and accountable to no one, even to God?

If lust rises up in our bodily members or in our imagination, thoughts, and memory, let us remember death. Let us remember how every comely face, every perfectly proportioned physical member, every passing thrill of pleasure, and all the fire of carnal desire will cease with death, with the putrefaction of the body, the rotting smell of decaying flesh.

If anger flares up in us, for whatever reason—whether it is on account of being deprived of some pleasure or honor—let us remember death. Let us remember that the cause which incites us to anger will soon be gone. When our soul leaves our body, then bodily pleasure will not entice nor distract nor lead us to angrily fight for it. When our soul leaves our body, then worldly pride and honors will not matter. Then we will see the truth of things: that dishonor, rebukes, insults, and offenses brought our souls profit, while undeserved love, praises, nice words, and coddling brought our souls harm, though our egos basked in them as true life and comfort.

If vanity arises—whether we are more handsome or beautiful than others, more wise or strong, more loved, more educated, or practically-inclined, more naturally talented, or adept in business or worldly matters or even on account of supposedly being more spiritual than others—if we become vainglorious because of these things, let us remember death. Let us remember that both the poor, sick, and supposed rejects of this world are found equal to those who are rich, adorned with talents and worldly praise, and dwell in comfort—all are found equal in the grave, that is, in the end of their bodily life; but their souls are not found to be equal.

After death, it is not the case that the rich are more prosperous than the poor. Nor is it necessarily the case that the poor are more prosperous than the rich, just because of suffering. Rather, those who are more prosperous are the Abrahams, Davids, Jobs, and Lazarus’s of this life. That is, the rich men who were not puffed up because of riches, but who were hospitable, God-fearing, man-loving, and sacrificial; and the poor unhealthy men, who were not embittered because of their lesser earthly lot, but praised God in humility and patience, and thought themselves the offscouring of the earth—all these are found to be prosperous in soul after death.

Let us remember the end of our earthly lives. Let us remember death as a doorway into eternity. Let us think that this breath—this very breath which is inhaled and exhaled at this very moment—might be our last.

It is easier for those who are old and sick to remember death, for every pain reminds them of the coming loosening of their bodily members, when their soul will be torn from their body. It is easier for those who statistically have very few years left in life to remember death. Even so, I know some who are rather young and healthy who remember death more seriously than these others, and take it to heart more gravely, and constantly face the reality of the coming grave, and the meeting with God thereafter.

St. John testifies to the fact that true remembrance of death is undoubtedly a grace of God. For, he says, how else is it that we often see dead bodies at funerals and lowered into the grave, and remain insensible; while at other times, while we are amidst crowds and cheer, the sobering remembrance of death settles in our hearts and wakes us up?

But death is not the end! Death is the doorway to eternity. Death is the planting of our bodies, which will all unfailingly rise at the Resurrection to abide with our souls for ever in the unveiled presence of God.

Will we be ready for this awesome revelation? Will all our desire and zeal and thought be taken up in joyous rapture on That Day, on account of these powers of our soul being ever conditioned and made ready in this life to meet Christ, the Source and Goal of all these powers?

Standing in this sobriety which the remembrance of death brings us, let us do the only thing we can to be saved from the second death, the eternal death of our souls.

Let us remember God Who has become incarnate and conquered in our very own human nature both bodily and spiritual death. Let us pray to Him constantly, with humility, confessing our weakness and need in all honesty. St. John has many counsels for prayer. Let us end by remembering them:

Constantly wrestle with your thought, and whenever it wanders call it back to you. God does not require from us prayer completely free of distractions. Do not despond when your thoughts are robbed, but remain calm, and unceasingly recall your mind. Unbroken recollection is proper only to an angel (4:92).

The beginning of prayer consists in banishing the thoughts that come to us by a single thought the very moment that they appear; the middle stage consists in confining our minds to what is being said and thought; and its perfection is rapture in the Lord (28:19).

Do not be over-sophisticated in the words you use when praying, because the simple and unadorned lisping of children has often won the heart of their heavenly Father (28:9).

Do not attempt to talk much when you pray lest your mind be distracted in searching for words. One word of the publican propitiated God, and one cry of faith saved the thief. Verbosity in prayer often distracts the mind and leads to fantasy, whereas brevity makes for concentration (28:10).

Flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or earth (21:7).

Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath, and then you will know the value of stillness (27:61).

Try to lift up, or rather, to enclose your thought within the words of your prayer, and if in its infant state it wearies and falls, lift it up again. Instability is natural to the mind, but God is powerful to establish everything. If you persevere indefatigably in this labor, He who sets the bounds to the sea of the mind will visit you too, and during your prayer will say to the waves: Thus far shalt thou come and no further. Spirit cannot be bound; but where the Creator of the spirit is, everything obeys (28:17),

to the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!

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