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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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Here we approach the subject of the toll-houses.
It is not by chance, that the Lord's Prayer ends with the words: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us
from the Evil One.” Concerning this Evil One, in another of His discourses the Lord said to His disciples: “I beheld
Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Cast down from heaven, he became thus a resident of the lower
sphere, the prince of the power of the air, the prince of the legion of unclean spirits. “When the unclean spirit is gone
out of a man” but does not find rest for himself, he returns to the home from which he departed and, finding it unoccupied,
cleaned and put in order, “he goeth and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself,
and they enter in and dwell there, and the last state of that man is worse that the first. Even so shall it be also unto
this wicked generation” (Matt. 12:43, 45).
Was it only a generation? Concerning the bent-over woman who was healed on the Sabbath day, did not the
Lord reply. “Ought not this woman, being a daughter whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed
from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).
The Apostles in their instructions do not forget about our spiritual enemies. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“In past times ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the
spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Therefore, now “put on the whole armor of God,
that ye maybe able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11), “for the devil, as a roaring lion, seeketh
whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Being Christians, shall we call these quotations from the Scripture “mythology?”
Those warnings to previous generations found in the written word of God also relate to us. Therefore the hindrances
to salvation are the same. Some of them are due to our own carelessness, our own self-confidence, our lack
of concern, our egoism, to the passions of the body; others are in the temptations and the tempters who surround us:
in people, and in the invisible dark powers which surround us. This is why, in our daily personal prayers, we beg
God not to allow any “success of the evil one” (from the Morning Prayers), that is, that we be not allowed any success
in our deeds that might occur with the help of dark powers. In general, in our private prayers and also in public
Divine Worship, we never lose sight of the idea of being translated into a different life after death.
In the times of the Apostles and the first Christians, when Christians were more inspired, when the difference
between the pagan world and the world of Christians was much more distinct, when the suffering of the martyrs was
the light of Christianity, there was less concern to support the spirit of Christians by preaching alone. But the Gospel
is all encompassing! The demands of the Sermon on the Mount were meant not only for the Apostles! And therefore,
in the writings of the Apostles we already read not simple instructions, but also warnings about the future, when we
shall have to give an account.
“Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil ... that ye may be
able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 6: 11, 13). “For if we sin wilfully after that
we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking
for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands
of the living God” (Heb. 10:26-31). “On some have compassion, and others save with fear, pulling them out of the
fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened,
and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Sprit, and have tasted the good
word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance,
seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:4-6).
Thus it was in the Apostolic age. But when the Church, having received freedom, began to be filled with
masses of people, when the general inspiration of faith began to weaken, there was a more critical need for powerful
words, for denunciations, for calls to spiritual vigilance, to fear of God and fear for one's own fate. In the collection
of pastoral instructions of the most zealous archpastors we read stern homilies giving pictures of the future judgmentwhich awaits us after death. These homilies were intended to bring sinners to their senses, and evidently they were
given during periods of general Christian repentance before Great Lent. In them was the truth of God's righteousness,
the truth that nothing unclean would enter into the kingdom of sanctity, this truth was clothed in vivid, partly figurative,
close to earthly images which were known to everyone in daily life. The hierarchs of this period themselves
called these images of the judgment which follows immediately after death the “toll-houses.” The tables of the publicans,
the collectors of taxes and duties, were evidently points for letting one go on the road further into the central
part of the city. Of course, the word “toll-house” in itself does not indicate to us any particular religious significance.
In patristic language it signifies that short period after death when the Christian soul must account for its moral state.
St. Basil writes, “Let no one deceive himself with empty words, “for sudden destruction cometh upon them” (1
Thess. 5:3) and causes an overturning like a storm. A strict angel will come, he will forcibly lead out your soul,
bound by sins. Occupy yourself therefore with reflection on the last day... Imagine to yourself the confusion, the
shortness of breath, and the hour of death, the sentence of God drawing near, the angels hastening towards you, the
dreadful confusion of the soul tormented by its conscience, with its pitiful gaze upon what is happening, and finally,
the unavoidable translation into a distant place” (St. Basil the Great, quoted in “Essay in an Historical Exposition of
Orthodox Theology,” by Bishop Sylvester, Vol. 5, p.89).
St. Gregory the Theologian, who guided a large flock only for short periods, limits himself to general words,
saying that “each one is a sincere judge of himself, because of the judgment-seat awaiting him.”
There is a more striking picture found in St. John Chrysostom: “If, in setting out for any foreign country or city
we are in need of guides, then how much shall we need helpers and guides in order to pass unhindered past the elders,
the powers, the governors of the air, the persecutors, the chief collectors! For this reason, the soul, flying away
from the body, often ascends and descends, fears and trembles. The awareness of sins always torments us, all the
more at that hour when we shall have to be conducted to those trials and that frightful judgment place.” Continuing,
Chrysostom gives moral instructions for a Christian way of life. As for children who have died, he places in their
mouths the following words: “The holy angels peacefully separated us from our bodies, and having good guides, we
went without harm past the powers of the air. The evil spirits did not find in us what they were seeking; they did not
notice what they wished to put to shame; seeing an immaculate soul, they were ashamed; seeing an undefiled tongue,
they were silent. We passed by and put them to shame. The net was rent, and we were delivered. Blessed is God
Who did not give us as a prey to them” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 2, “On Remembering the Dead”).
The Orthodox Church depicts the Christian martyrs, male and female, as attaining the heavenly bridal chamber
just as freely as children and without harm. In the fifth century the depiction of the immediate judgment upon the
soul after its departure from the body, called the Particular Judgment, was even more closely joined to the depiction
of the toll-houses, as we see in St. Cyril of Alexandria's “Homily on the Departure of the Soul,” which sums up the
images of this kind in the Fathers of the Church which preceded him.
It is perfectly clear to anyone that purely earthly images are applied to a spiritual subject so that the image,
being impressed in the memory, might awaken a man's soul. “Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and
blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching.” At the same time, in these pictures the sinfulness that is present
in fallen man is revealed in its various types and forms, and this inspires man to analyze his own state of soul. In the
instructions of Orthodox ascetics the types and forms of sinfulness have a special stamp of their own; in the Lives of
Saints there is also a characteristic stamp.
Due to the availability of the Lives of Saints, the account of the toll-houses by the righteous Theodora, depicted
by her in detail by Saint Basil the New in his dream, has become especially well known. Dreams in general
express the state of soul of a given man, and in special cases are also authentic visions of the souls of the departed in
their earthly form. The account of Theodora has characteristics both of one and the other. The idea that good spirits,
our guardian angels, as well as the spirits of evil under heaven participate in the fate of man (after death) finds confirmation
in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus immediately after death was brought by angels to the
bosom of Abraham. In another parable the unrighteous man heard these words: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall
be required of thee” (Luke 12:20); evidently, the ones who “require” are none else than the same “spirits of wickedness
under the heavens.”
In accordance with simple logic and as also confirmed by the Word of God the soul immediately after its separation
from the body enters into a sphere where its further fate is defined. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but
after this the judgment,” we read in the Apostle Paul (Heb. 9:27). This is the Particular Judgment, which is independent
of the universal Last Judgment.
The teaching concerning the Particular Judgment of God enters into the sphere of Orthodox dogmatic theology.
As for the toll-houses, Russian writers of general systems of theology limit themselves to a rather stereotyped
note: “Concerning all the sensual, earthly images by which the Particular Judgment is presented in the form of thetoll-houses, although in their fundamental idea they are completely true, still they should be accepted in the way that
the angel instructed Saint Macarius of Alexandria, being only the weakest means of depicting heavenly things.” (See
Macarius, Metropolitan of Moscow, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Saint Petersburg, 1883, vol. 2, p. 538; also the
book of Bishop Sylvester, Rector of the Kiev Theological Academy. Archbishop Philaret of Chernigov, in his two
volume work on dogmatic theology, does not comment on this subject).
If one is to complain of the frightening character of the pictures of the toll-houses — are there not many such
pictures in the New Testament scriptures and in the words of the Lord Himself? Are we not frightened by the very
simplest question: “How camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?” (Mat. 22:12).
We respond to the discussion on the toll-houses, a topic which is secondary in the realm of our Orthodox
thought, because it gives an occasion to illuminate the essence of our Church life. Our Christian Church life of prayer
is uninterrupted mutual communion with the heavenly world. It is not simply an “invocation of the saints,” as it is
often called; it is an interaction in love. Through it the whole body of the Church, being united and strengthened in
its members and bonds, “increaseth with the increase of God” (Col. 2:19). Through the Church “we are come unto
the Heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the solemn assembly and the church of the
first-born, which are written in heaven, and the God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect”
(Heb, 12:22-23). Our prayerful interaction extends in all directions. It has been commanded us: “Pray for one another.”
We live according to the principle of Faith: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's” (Rom. 14:8). “Love
never faileth” (1 Cor. 13:8). “Love shall cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
For the soul there is no death. Life in Christ is a world of prayer. It penetrates the whole body of the Church,
unites every member of the Church with the Heavenly Father, the members of the earthly Church with themselves,
and the members of the earthly Church with the Heavenly Church. Prayers are the threads of the living fabric of the
Church body, for “the prayer of the righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). The twenty-four elders in heaven at
the throne of God fell down before the Lamb, each having harps and vials filled with incense, “which are the prayers
of saints” (Rev. 5:8); that is, they offered up prayer on earth to the heavenly throne.
Threats are necessary; they can and should warn us, restrain us from evil actions. The same Church instills in
us that the Lord is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy, and is grieved over the evil
doings of men, taking upon Himself our infirmities. In the Heavenly Church are also our intercessors, our helpers,
those who pray for us. The Most Pure Mother of God is our protection. Our very prayers are the prayers of saints,
written down by them, which came from their contrite hearts during the days of their earthly life. Those who pray can
feel this, and thus the saints themselves become closer to us. Such are our daily prayers; such also is the whole cycle
of the Church's Divine services of every day, of every week, and of the Feasts.
All this liturgical literature was not conceived as an academic exercise. The enemies of the air are powerless
against such help. But we must have faith, and our prayers must be fervent and sincere. There is more joy in heaven
over one who repents, than over others who need no repentance. How insistently the Church teaches us (in its litanies)
to spend “the rest of our life in peace and repentance,” and to die thus! It teaches us to call to remembrance our
Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed Lady Theotokos and all the saints, and then to commit ourselves and one another
unto Christ our God.
At the same time, with all this cloud of heavenly protectors, we are made glad by the special closeness to us
of our Guardian Angels. They are meek, they rejoice over us, and they also grieve over our falls. We are filled with
hope in them, in the state we will be in when our soul is separated from the body, when we must enter into a new life:
will it be light or in darkness, in joy or in sorrow? Therefore, every day we pray to our angels for the present day:
“Deliver us from every cunning of the opposing enemy.” In special canons of repentance we entreat them not to depart
from us now nor after our death: I see thee with my spiritual gaze, thou who remainest with me, my fellow converser,
Holy Angel, watching over, accompanying and remaining with me and ever offering to me what is for salvation.”
“When my humble soul shall be loosed from my body, may thou cover it, O my instructor, with thy bright and
most sacred wings.” “When the frightful sound of the trumpet will resurrect me unto judgment, stand near to me
then, quiet and joyful, and with the hope of salvation take away my fear.” “For thou art beauteous in virtue, and
sweet and joyous, a mind bright as the sun; brightly intercede for me with joyful countenance and radiant gaze when
I am to be taken from the earth.” “May I then behold thee standing at the right hand of my wretched soul, bright and
quiet, thou who intercedest and prayest for me, when my spirit shall be taken by force; may I behold thee banishing
those who seek me, my bitter enemies” (From the Canon to the Guardian Angel of John the Monk, in the Prayer
Book for Priests).
Thus, the Holy Church through the ranks of its builders: the Apostles, the great hierarchs, the holy ascetics,
having as its Chief Shepherd our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ, has created and gives us all means for our spiritual
perfection and the attainment of the eternal blessed life in God, overcoming our carelessness and light-mindednessby fear and by stern warnings, at the same time instilling in us a spirit of vigilance and bright hope, surrounding us
with holy, heavenly guides and helpers. In the Typicon of the Church's Divine service, we are given a direct path to
the attainment of the Kingdom of Glory.
Among the images of the Gospel the Church very often reminds us of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and one
week in the yearly cycle of Church services is entirely devoted to this remembrance, so that we might know the limitless
love of God and the fact that the sincere, contrite, tearful repentance of a believing man overcomes all the obstacles
and all the toll-houses on the path to the Heavenly Father.