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(April 2017)

Longing for Paradise

Source: “The Veil,” a publication by the Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Monastery, Lake George, CO, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 16-18.

God created us to be eternal. He placed our forefathers Adam and Eve in a most glorious garden—the Garden of Eden—Paradise. This was meant to be our eternal home where we were provided with all things needful and where we were to be in constant communion with God.

We know what happened. Adam and Eve did not keep their eyes on God. They listened to the serpent and transgressed the one commandment they had been given, even though the Lord had told them that the consequence of such an action would be death.

We must understand that God is not the God of death, but the God of eternal life. It is our sinfulness that brought death into the world. We cannot simply blame this on Adam and Eve who sinned, for we continue to sin every day. God’s love for us is so great that He still wants us to dwell in Paradise. The fathers tell us that after the fall of Adam and Eve, that beautiful garden was lifted up from the earth and still awaits us.

Why do we not long for it?

Actually, we do, but we seek it in all the wrong places. We go through our lives seeking fulfillment, contentment, joy, beauty, peace. Often we find bits of those things, but they are transitory, passing with our earthly life. We are seeking that Paradise which we have lost, but we are very misguided.

The holy fathers tell us that when Adam fell, his nous was darkened. It is the nous that beholds paradise. Now, with that nous darkened, we tend to see only with our physical eyes, to experience everything with only our physical senses. That cloud which covers our spiritual senses has been lifted from time to time for some people so that they can behold what exists outside of our physical realm. These individuals have had brief glimpses of Paradise. Most notable of those who have had such experiences is St. Paul. He tells us this when he speaks of himself in the third person: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Cor 12:2-4).

The fathers of the Church later described what happened to St. Paul as a striking form of purification, illumination, and theosis. There have been volumes of books on this topic. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos is a modern day theologian/writer who examines this in nearly every one of the many books he has written and which are readily available in English and many other languages.

Briefly, our lives must be purified through constant repentance. Some, having attained such purification will experience illumination. The scales covering the eyes of his soul will fall away. Only then can such a person return to the original state of Adam in Paradise of being not only the image, but also the “likeness” of God—theosis.

St. Paul was not alone in having had such an experience. There are quite a number of saints who also had glimpses, visions of Paradise and also of the torments awaiting sinners. When faced with the threat or nearness of death, we have countless accounts of saints. Some were made aware of their overwhelming sinfulness and asked the Lord to grant them more time so that they could repent, fast and pray for forgiveness. This was granted to them and they indeed changed their lives and even became an example for many others seeking salvation. There are also numerous accounts of saints who, on seeing others confessing their faith, enduring torments and martyrdom rather than deny Christ, ran forward to the scaffold and torments themselves, proclaiming, “I am a Christian.” They did not fear death, but rather saw such a death as a path to life with Christ. They hastened toward it and embraced it.

Many, in our own times, who have sat at the bed of a loved one who is dying have seen the dying person suddenly have a change of countenance, even converse with a departed family member. They have not necessarily attained theosis, but they are are seeing what our physical eyes do not behold.

Over the past few decades there has been no lack of recorded experiences of people who have had out-of-body “death experiences.” Several of them speak of peace, light, colors never seen before, sweet singing, and beautiful gardens. In addition, they usually say that they did not want to come back to this life.

So why, when the Lord indicates that He will take us soon, usually through the onset of a disease, do we insist on fighting to remain in this life’? It is rarely for the sake of repentance, the only real purpose of our life and only valid reason to remain in it. We pray that we do not die, and often the Lord grants that request. Or, we should say, he grants it for a time. Eventually, no matter what, we will all die. It seems that when He wants to take us to Himself and we ask Him not to, we later come down with an even more devastating disease.
Yes, we want to remain in this life to be with our loved ones, to enjoy life’s sweetness—passing as they are. When we are ill we are more cognizant of our mortality and the fact that we have spent the majority of our lives in vain, chasing after things that are transitory instead of repenting of our sins and drawing closer to God. Unlike the very vocal Evangelicals, Pentecostals and others that surround us in a non-Orthodox country, we do not claim to be “saved.” We are aware that the Lord Jesus Christ has this precious gift of salvation which He wants to give us. We know that He has prepared a glorious wedding banquet for us, but we are also aware that we lack the proper wedding garment. (Mt 22:11). That garment is repentance and longing for God.

There is a longing for the beauty of Paradise, for being bathed in the light of Christ, and there is that awareness that we are unworthy. Still, the Lord, in His love for mankind, desires to bestow this upon us. He calls us to this eternal life. So why do we want to cling to this one?

The soul has only known life in the body and it is fearful to leave. While the soul glimpses the eternal beauty that exists and is waiting for it in Paradise, and even knows that it will be re-united with the body at the Second Coming of Christ, it is often still fearful. However, for the person who has repented and longs to be with the Lord, this separation can be peaceful. The soul of such a person can often cry out in the words of St. John the Evangelist, Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20).

We do not know when we will die. That is something that the Lord does not reveal to most until the time is very near. Sometimes, He does not reveal it at all and death comes suddenly—something that we pray will not happen to us. While we prepare for so many things in this life: education, career, family, vacations, retirement, even the distribution of our belongings after death, we still postpone preparing for our meeting with the Lord. We put off praying until “tomorrow.” We put off fasting until the next fasting period. We put off simply being quiet and near the Lord until another day. We put off truly repenting until we have done all the things we want to do—and perhaps should not be doing at all!

However, without fail, our earthly lives will end. For some it may be in old age, for others it could be suddenly, at a much younger age when worldly wisdom would be saying “he/she had so much to live for...”

The Lord is patient. He wants us to be “ripe” for the beauty He has prepared for us in Paradise. Let us long for it and not fight against it.