Now…finally…we make it to one of the best examples to help bring clarity to our questions about what happens after we die. I have shared several warnings: warnings about those who were not dead for long and have limited knowledge of life after death, warnings that our preconceptions can cloud our reasoning in these matters, and warnings that we should not try to over-simplify such matters. All of those warnings still apply. We must be careful not to over-analyze any of these experiences.
With that said, the experience of Venerable Theodora of Constantinople is particularly useful to us. For one, she died (and stayed dead), her soul left her body, she traversed everything between here and place of her soul’s repose till the last day. The obvious question is how we know this story: she appeared to another spiritual child of her own spiritual father, who recorded it for our benefit.
The second reason her particular experience is so useful, and why the Lord would grant that she be enabled to reveal it to the living, is that she lived a holy life, yet was not in a habit of confessing regularly. That put her in a position, without delving too deeply into intricacies which we would not be able to fully explain, she was righteous enough to ascend to God, yet carried sins at the time of her death which could have barred her ascent to God.
The first point to draw from her experience is the first point she relates to her listener: “I can say that death would have come upon me fiercely because of my unjust deeds, were it not for the prayers of our [spiritual father,] Father Basil. His prayers alone made my death easier.”
Saint Theodora began to relate how a multitude of evil spirits suddenly appeared and accosted her before her end. They carried large books, in which were written all the sins of her whole life. They reviewed them impatiently, as though expecting the arrival of some sort of judge at any minute. Seeing all this, Saint Theodora felt such fear and terror, that finally she became exhausted. She glanced all around, hoping to see someone who would drive the devils away…Then the shameless spirits began to recount everything that the saint had done from her youth, whether by word, or deed or thought. To all this they added much of their own invention, seeking to slander the saint.
Her guardian angel and another angel indeed came to guide her. Not long after, her spiritual father also appeared—he is still among the living when he does this, and his appearing is most certainly not a normal feature of these after-death experiences, though the effect of his prayers, which you will soon see, is also the effect of our prayers for the reposed—and handed the angels a small chest instructing them to use what is in the chest when they have need. Translation: his prayers are “coins” to pay the “toll” when Theodora could not otherwise pass the trials and questioning of the demons. Here is an example, from her Life, of how the contents of the chest were used:
Then came the Trial of Lies. The evil spirits there were very nasty, stubborn, and fierce. They furiously began to slander the saint, but the angels gave them something from the small chest and they passed by unhindered.
In short, the prayers of the living on behalf of the dead are of particular importance in this time of transition from here to there. These prayers are also invaluable after the departed reach the place of their repose, but that is a slightly different topic.
Another general point to draw from this experience of Venerable Theodora will become clear when we read this:
When Theodora reached the Third Trial, that of Judging and Slander, [an evil spirit] began to tell how the nun had slandered someone with vile words during her life. Much of what he said was false, but still it was amazing how the demons remembered things in detail and with exactness, things which the nun herself had forgotten. [At the next trial, the spirits recalled] how she ate in the morning without praying to God, how she ate at lunch and supper without measure, and transgressed the fasts. Trying to snatch the nun from the hands of the angels, one of the evil spirits said, ‘Did you not promise the Lord God at holy Baptism to renounce Satan and all his works and everything that pertains to him? Having given such a vow, how could you have done the things which you have done?’ And the devils even calculated all the cups of wine which Theodora had imbibed in her life. … ‘Do the people on earth know what awaits them here and with what they will meet at the time of their death?’ Theodora asked the angels. ‘Yes, they do know,’ an angel replied, ‘but the pleasures and delights of life act so strongly upon them, and so occupy their attention, that they involuntarily forget what awaits them beyond the grave.’
It may be the case now, in today’s world, that many of us actually do not know what awaits us. This is a lesson we should draw from these accounts. It is a fearful thing. All the sins which Venerable Theodora had confessed were wiped clean from the demons’ lists. We need to confess regularly. It is also interesting that the demons kept count of every cup of wine, each non-fast-friendly food, each plate of “seconds”, which we often would not even think serious enough to take to Confession. We need to carefully assess our sins.
Careful, though. It is easy to apply these small tid-bits of information too literally and too drastically to ourselves, which itself can lead us to despair. Balance this seriousness toward sin with what Venerable Theodora later says: “Of course, it helped me a good deal that I strove and desired to flee sin all my life. Whoever strives diligently for repentance, always receives forgiveness from God.” There is great consolation in that statement. God is full of compassion: ”Whoever strives diligently for repentance, always receives forgiveness from God.”
Reading through the Life of Venerable Theodora can be very beneficial. The aim is not to “figure out” what happens after death. Rather, it is beneficial to read through the various trials, the specific sins recorded, and even the demons’ astonishment that Theodora had made it through as many trials as she had; all of these events help produce in us a very different point-of-view to our sins. It helps bring forth repentance. It helps us identify sins that we had not thought about.
In the end, we should take away two points: one, pray for the souls of the reposed, and two, remember that we all share the same end and allow that to turn you to repentance.