We pray at every service of the Church for a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, and peaceful. At times, the Lord grants us to witness such an end. I’m sure all of us can recall the death of someone who was faithful to God, whether we personally knew them well or not. I think of my grandmother, who raised her children and her children’s children, who gave me the rudiments of Christian culture, who prayed for me before I ever knew to pray. I think of Mother Theophania, the nun who lived by my parish in Indianapolis, and who helped guide me to monastic life. I think of our own Schema-monk John, who was vouchsafed to return to the monastery on his deathbed and end his life in repentance. I think of our recently departed Metropolitan Hilarion, whose soul slipped quietly from this world in the space of a single heartbeat. When I reflect on their deaths, I see evident tokens of God’s providence and favor in the circumstances of their passing from this life, in the circumstances of their funerals and burials. Each one is different and unique in its own way, but I can point to elements from each and say, “Yes, that is a good end, a blessed end. When my time comes, I can only hope to go like that.”
Death is inherently something tragic, a consequence of sin. For those it leaves behind, reeling from the loss of a loved one, it can be grievously bitter. And so when we commemorate the departed at every Pannykhida, we also pray that the living may be given the consolation of Christ. When we are dealing with a Christian ending, the sorrow of parting must always be swallowed up by hope—hope that the beloved is now with the Lord, and that someday, we too will be together with them in the presence of our loving Savior.
Mother Theophania reposed in the evening of June 2nd, 2017. It was a couple of months before I received the tonsure to the riassa. She was the person most responsible for getting me to the monastery, but I never got the chance to visit her and see her as a monastic. She passed from this world right as we were beginning Vespers for the Soul Saturday that precedes Pentecost. The prayers of the whole universal Church accompanied her newly-departed soul on its journey to the Lord. At my old parish, the Liturgy for Pentecost took place with her open casket in the middle of the church. The parish had the custom of taking a group photo on Pentecost, so that year, everyone stood around Mother’s casket. Those who saw her later told me that she looked joyful and radiant in her repose, a slight smile on her face.
A few months later, I made my first family visit, and went to her grave several times. Once, as I was praying for her and reflecting on her role in my life, I was struck with sadness that this person who had spent countless hours talking to me about spiritual life, who took my naïve convert zeal and nurtured it into a sincere desire for monastic life, that she was now gone, that she couldn’t see me as a monk, that I couldn’t talk to her about spiritual things anymore. I gave myself over to the emotion and began to shed tears. But my tears were cut short. In that moment, in my mind’s ear, I distinctly heard her say, knowingly, almost chidingly, “Why are you so sad?”
While I was on that family visit, I tried to get at least one good photo to remember her by, but no one seemed to have any, or they just forgot to send them to me when I got back to the monastery. The only one I ever found was a tiny, pixelated image from the parish website. But it was enough. In that photo, she has a tremendous, jubilant smile. Though in life, she sometimes struggled with depression, it is the perfect image of her to have imprinted in my mind forever.
The other thing that stands out prominently in my memory of Mother Theophania is her deep, almost boundless, devotion to the Mother of God. The two of them had a special connection. For one, they had the same birthday—Mother Theophania was born on the Old Calendar feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. When I knew her, Mother was in an unusual situation for a nun, living in an apartment near the parish, without a convent, without an abbess. So the Mother of God was her personal abbess. She took all of her problems to her, she commended all of her activities to her, she relied completely on her for all her earthly and spiritual needs. Sometimes, she scarcely knew how she would be able to pay her rent for the month, but the Mother of God always provided. She had to seek part-time employment, which wasn’t easy because, besides having to wear a habit all the time, she had a whole plethora of health problems, she couldn’t see well, and so she couldn’t drive. But the Mother of God always sent her something when she needed it. Her apartment was often a total disaster, full of clutter, old books, papers, and knick-knacks lying around everywhere. She was so disorganized and over-extended that it seemed obvious the only way she managed to keep everything together is because the Mother of God was constantly looking out for her, taking care of her like her own dear child. And that’s exactly the kind of relationship Mother Theophania had with her—completely natural, warm, familiar, childlike and trusting. And as in life, her trust and devotion was not disappointed, so too in her passing, the Mother of God didn’t let her down, but granted her the blessed, peaceful Christian end for which we all pray.
If we can look at the lives of our dear ones who were faithful and observe the hand of God in the circumstances of their death, if our grief at losing them can be conquered by Paschal joy and hope of the Resurrection, then the special joy of the present feast should seem quite natural to us. Today is the second Pascha, when we receive assurance and confirmation in our hope for our personal resurrection, and of those we love. As the hymns of the Church tell us, the Mother of God is the first-fruits of our nature; in receiving her immaculate soul and body into the heavenly kingdom even before the general resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us all an inviolable pledge that He will do the same for all of us in our time, if we only strive to imitate the faith, purity, and love of His mother.
But we also have cause to rejoice today because we know that now, as she dwells in her heavenly abode, the Mother of God is even closer to us than she was when dwelling on earth. We hear this in the testament of so many saints, including St. Seraphim, how they would not leave their spiritual children orphaned in death, but instead, freed from the constraints of this earthly world, would be even more capable of hearing their prayerful cries and ministering to their needs. We see this aspiration fulfilled to the utmost with the Mother of God. Her purity and sinlessness are beyond our human comprehension, and so too is the heavenly glory she has received from her Son. But one thing is absolutely clear, both from the traditional accounts of the Dormition and from the constant experience of the Church throughout the ages—Jesus listens to His mother.
All of the blessed circumstances of her own death, she received as an answer to her own specific requests. It was at her bidding that the Lord miraculously gathered the Apostles from all over the world to her deathbed. When Christ appeared in glory with the angels to receive His mother’s soul, one of the earliest accounts of the Dormition tells us that the Apostles asked the Theotokos to give a parting blessing to world she was leaving behind. After praying twice that those who call on the name of her Son would receive mercy, she uttered this final, poignant prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Who art all-powerful in heaven and on earth, in this appeal I implore Thy holy name: in every time and place where there is made mention of my name, make that place holy, and glorify them that glorify Thee through my name, accepting from such persons all their offerings, and all their supplications, and all their prayers.” And Christ immediately confirmed her request with these words: “Let thy heart rejoice and be glad; for every grace and every gift has been given to thee from My Father in heaven, and from Me, and from the Holy Spirit. Every soul that calls upon thy name shall not be ashamed, but shall find mercy, and comfort, and support, and confidence, both in the world that now is, and in that which is to come, in the presence of my Father in the heavens.”
So let us take heart and rejoice at these words of our Savior. We know they are true because they are borne out by the experience of the faithful in every generation. Let us strive to imitate their ardent and unshakeable devotion to the Mother of God, so that we might be able to experience fully the joy of the present feast; and so that, aided by the intercessions of the Theotokos, we too might attain to that blessed Christian ending—painless, blameless, and peaceful—for which we so often pray. Amen.
 “The Falling Asleep of Mary,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1994), p. 590.