In the wake of last night’s Canto VII blog post, I’m up this morning thinking about the shades — Dante’s term for souls after death. What if we lived as if we really believed in the communion of saints, which Christianity teaches? That is, what if we behaved as if separation from our ancestors who have passed into the afterlife was only a temporal illusion, and that they really did carry on, and were part of our lives in more than just our memories?
How would that change things? How would it change the way we thought about our lives and how to live them. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead.” Do the dead get a vote, so to speak? Should they? How should we think about community and its meaning if we consider the dead to be bound to ourselves in some real way? More importantly, should we try to help them with our prayers, and ask them to help us with their intercessions?
In his wonderful book about Orthodox spirituality The Mountain of Silence, Kyriacos Markides quotes his pseudonymous Virgil, a real-life Athonite monk he’s named Father Maximos, telling this great story from Russia. It supposedly took place before the 1917 revolution:
“There was a priest who had a problem with alcohol. He would often go to church drunk, scandalizing the faithful. The parishioners sent a delegation to the local bishop, imploring him to intervene and do something about it. The bishop accepted their requests and reprimanded the alcoholic priest.
“Unfortunately, the poor old fellow had no control over his addiction. So the bishop finally told him, `Look, Father, since you are unable to quit drinking, then you must quit being a priest. From this moment on you are no longer authorized to administer the sacraments.’ The bishop defrocked the alcoholic priest. Feeling guilty, the priest accepted the verdict and humbly walked out.
“During the night,” Father Maximos continued, “while the bishop was alone in his room in prayer, he had an extraordinary vision. He saw thousands of people in an open field threatening to harm him. When he returned to his normal state he was shocked and wondered what the significance of such a vision could be. Was it perhaps some kind of fantasy, a hallucination? He calmed down and then went back to his prayer. But he reexperienced the same vision. In it he saw people screaming and demanding that he bring back the priest.
“The following day the bishop summoned the defrocked priest to his office. He asked him `What’s going on with you? What did you do?’ `What did I do, my bishop?’ the poor man muttered with confusion. `We just talked about it yesterday.’ `But you must have done something else,’ the bishop insisted and asked him to report in minute detail how he spent his days as a priest. `You know, your Eminence,’ he said, `because of this problem with alcohol I felt great remorse and guilt. So, in order to compensate for my problem I made it a habit of going to the cemetery every single day to conduct memorial services for the dead. I prayed for their souls since I could do nothing for mine. That’s all I did.’
“The bishop realized that the people in his vision were the souls of the departed who demanded the return of that priest so that he might continue his prayers for them. That Russian priest knew none of the people buried there.”