The Monk Who Never Judged Anyone and Died Joyfully

Coming up on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we might feel a stirring of some of those fears we have, deep down, of that Judgment Day. But there is a trick. We actually have a large amount of control over how we are judged.

Christ says, Judge not, and you will not be judged. And, he adds elsewhere, with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. Meaning, if I am incredibly lenient with my judgment of others, the Lord will also be incredibly lenient with me. There is a beautiful entry of an unnamed monk in the Prologue of Ochrid:

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Is “Heaven Is for Real”, for real?

Not too many years ago a book, Heaven Is for Real, came out about a three-year-old boy dying, going to heaven, and coming back to life. It certainly generated quite a lot of interest and has been widely read (and viewed, after being adapted into a movie). The story, retold by the boy’s father from what he gathered in conversations with his son, has received mixed reception. From my own perspective, it seems most folks are ready to receive it as a genuine experience, especially with some excellent proofs, like the boy seeing his mother and father in separate hospital rooms as he was dying on the surgical table, talking to a miscarried sister that his parents had never told him about, and recognizing a mid-life photo of his grandfather. (The soul looking on the situation of its own body immediately after death, is a very common thread…even in the story of a friend of my own.) A few folks, however, are quite vocal about their denouncements of the boy’s experience in heaven, mainly based on a comparison of his story with what we find in the Scriptures.

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“Do the People on Earth Know What Awaits Them?”

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.

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What Happens? No Nice, Tidy Answer.

One of the first aspects of these after-death experiences that jumps out to the reader is how different they are from each other. How could they all be true, if they are so different? I am going to assume that all of those experiences passed down to us by saints are trustworthy, and yet, even among those, there are many differences.

I find one point enlightening when it comes to these differences: St. Bede passes down three such stories to us, and those three are far from identical experiences. Bede is ok with the differences, and I would think that means we, too, can be ok with these differences. The validity of these experiences does not lie in their similarity, nor were they passed down with such an intention. The differences in St. Bede’s stories seem to be the main reason he recorded them.

We need to keep something in mind, something similar to the angel’s response to one of the individuals in St. Bede’s accounts (Book V, Ch. XII): “I began to think that this perhaps might be hell, of whose intolerable flames I had often heard talk”, but the angel replies, “Do not believe so, for this is not the hell you imagine.” We all come to this topic with a lifetime-worth of presuppositions. We have heard sermons at church; we have heard eulogies at funerals; (and most influentially) we have soaked up the cultural understanding around us. There are many influences in all our lives that make us imagine a particular heaven or hell after death.

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