On the Death of the Saints

Wis 3:1 But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them.

Abba Sisoes ca. 4th-5th cent.

It was said of Abba Sisoes that when he was at the point of death, while the Fathers were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, ‘Look, Abba Anthony is coming.’ A little later he said, ‘Look, the choir of prophets is coming.’ Again his countenance shone with brightness and he said, ‘Look, the choir of apostles is coming.’ His countenance increased in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men ask him, ‘With whom are you speaking, Father?’ He said, ‘Look, the angels are coming to fetch me, and I am begging them to let me do a little penance.’ The old man said to him, ‘You have no need to do penance, Father.’ But the old man said to him, ‘Truly, I do not think I have even made a beginning yet.’ Now they all knew that he was perfect. Once more his countenance suddenly became like the sun and they were all filled with fear. He said to them, ‘Look, the Lord is coming and He’s saying, “Bring me the vessel from the desert.”’ Then there was as a flash of lightning and all the house was filled with a sweet odour. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: Sisoes, Saying 14)

St.Gregory the Dialogist ca. 540-604

Neither must I forget that which the reverent Abbot Stephen (who not long since died in this city, and whom you knew very well) told me to have happened in the same province of Nursia. For he said that a Priest dwelt in that country, who in the fear of God governed the church committed to his charge: and although, after he had taken orders, he did still love his old wife as his sister, yet did he avoid her as his enemy: and never would he permit her to come near him upon any occasion, abstaining wholly from all intercourse of familiarity. For this is a thing proper to holy men, oftentimes to deprive themselves of those things which be lawful, to the end they may remain the more free from such as be unlawful: and therefore this man, not to fall into any sin, utterly refused all necessary and requisite service at her hands.

When this reverent man had long lived in this world, the fortieth year after he was made priest, by a great and vehement ague [he] was brought to the last cast: his old wife, beholding him so far spent, and to lie as though he had been dead, put her head near unto him, to see whether he did breathe or no: which he perceiving, having yet a little life left, enforced himself to speak as well as he could, and in great fervour of spirit brake out into these words: “Get thee away, woman: a little fire is yet left, away with the straw.” After she was gone, his strength somewhat increasing, he began with great joy to cry out: “Welcome, my Lords, welcome, my Lords: why have you vouchsafed to visit me, your unworthy servant? I come, I come: I thank you, I thank you”: and when he did often repeat these and the like words, his friends that were present asked him to whom he spake, to whom with a kind of admiration he answered: “What? do you not here behold the holy Apostles? Do you not see the chief of them, St. Peter and St. Paul?” And so, turning himself again towards them, he said: “Behold I come, behold I come”: and in speaking those words, he gave up his happy ghost. And that he did indeed verily behold the holy Apostles, he testified by that his departure with them. And thus it doth often fall out, by the sweet providence of God, that good men at their death do behold his Saints going before them, and leading as it were the way, to the end they should not be afraid at the pangs thereof; and that whiles their souls do see the Saints in heaven, they may be discharged from the prison of this body, without all fear and grief. (Dialogues Bk. IV.11)

Comments

  1. I am not understanding how the priest, that St. Gregory tells the story about, is considered holy for his treatment of his wife. It seems to focus on the abandonment of his marital vows as a tool for holiness. Loving your wife as a sister is not a valid method to keep the vows of holy marriage. You must love all Christian women as if they were your sister, but it requires no oath. How can the denial of marital relations, seemingly one sided here, be the sign of righteousness? Is there more to the story? Is he swept away by passions if he lies with his wife? Does he forget about God while caring for her? Either there is missing data here or it rings odd to me. Maybe you can help me understand this story.

  2. Hello Toby,

    The points you make are correct but I don’t think you should assume that this priest withheld his conjugal duties from his wife against her will, St. Gregory calls her “old”. The Lives of the Saints are actually full of young married couples who mutually agreed to live celibately and serve the Lord with a singleness of mind so there is definitely a historical precedent for this. Ancient Christians were much more ascetical and willing to sacrifice even what is lawful than we are today so it does seem strange to us in our present cultural context. St. Gregory does not think that sexual relations in marriage is inherently wrong because he says: “For this is a thing proper to holy men, oftentimes to deprive themselves of those things which be lawful, to the end they may remain the more free from such as be unlawful…” I do believe that your desire to protect the Mystery of Holy Matrimony is a good one.

    One other thing to be aware of (a whole other can o’ worms) is that in the West a tradition arose for those who serve at the altar to abstain from sexual relations altogether. Canon 3 of the Council of Trullo implies this: “…now whereas they of the most holy Roman Church purpose to keep the rule of exact perfection, but those who are under the throne of this heaven-protected and royal city keep that of kindness and consideration, so blending both together as our fathers have done, and as the love of God requires, that neither gentleness fall into licence, nor severity into harshness…” Canon 13 from the same council also addresses the abuse of withholding relations against the unwilling wife under a pretense of piety:

    Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence, as the Gospel says: “What God has joined together let no man put asunder;” and the Apostle says, “Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled;” and again, “Are you bound to a wife? Seek not to be loosed.” But we know, as they who assembled at Carthage (with a care for the honest life of the clergy) said, that subdeacons, who handle the Holy Mysteries, and deacons, and presbyters should abstain from their consorts according to their own course [of ministration]. So that what has been handed down through the Apostles and preserved by ancient custom, we too likewise maintain, knowing that there is a time for all things and especially for fasting and prayer. For it is meet that they who assist at the divine altar should be absolutely continent when they are handling holy things, in order that they may be able to obtain from God what they ask in sincerity.

    If therefore anyone shall have dared, contrary to the Apostolic Canons, to deprive any of those who are in holy orders, presbyter, or deacon, or subdeacon of cohabitation and intercourse with his lawful wife, let him be deposed. In like manner also if any presbyter or deacon on pretence of piety has dismissed his wife, let him be excluded from communion; and if he persevere in this let him be deposed.

    With all that said, I assume that the holy priest’s abstinence was a mutual decision and not out of a belief that marital sex is inherently wrong. Many saints even went so far as to flee from friends and all conversation so that nothing would distract them from their goal. Some have to do that, some don’t. I give the saints the benefit of the doubt. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Thank you for the thorough response. I apologize if I come of confrontational, but I am still working through the pollution and muck after being evangelical for 40 years.

  4. It’s no problem at all. We all need to unlearn what we were taught. It didn’t come across confrontational at all. One thing I attempt to do when I see something that seems odd to me is to let the Church’s teaching be “normal” and I hold my own opinion suspect. Any idiosynchratic view held by a saint is to be questioned but it takes time to truly “feel” which teachings are unique and which ones are common to many.

    We also must remember that many (most) saints lived in a culture very different from our own. I always extend them the benefit of the doubt and I hold myself to be in error before I assume they are. Most times the troubling issue evaporates with deeper study. We have to develop a trust in the Church, which is actually trust in Christ’s sustaining power. Thanks for interacting with us brother. Keep us honest!

  5. The world is often doing things to keep us from growing into the framework of God and distractions are at an all time high. So upon the bed of death, to see the saints coming to you, is an enormous relief to know that you have overcome the wickedness of the world. Unless they are judging you then that’s another story, but I just get chills thinking of these men and women who are so connected to God that at their death just before they go, are able to enter the rest and joy of our Lord.

Speak Your Mind