Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 26, 2008

Finding Life in Mindfulness of Death

I know I speak the obvious in suggesting that reading the freshly published “The Hidden Man of the Heart” by Archimandrite Zacharias (Mount Thabor Publishing) is a real inspiration. The deep sincerity and simplicity of his message is measured in language that resonates as akin to prayer. Yet he packs so much into each short passage that having listened once to these lectures on CD some time back, I found it difficult to absorb all he was saying without visual re-enforcement. Perhaps the Orthodox thing to do would be to order the icon, but as for me, I ordered the book. And now with it before me, it still witnesses to far more than the cold type in which it is set, and reading it is almost as if to hear it voiced again.

I found myself rushing ahead to find one of my favorite vignettes and found it quickly in the second chapter:

“I remember accompanying a priest who went to see someone who was dying and had all sorts of tubes sticking out of him. That person took off his oxygen mask and said to the priest, ‘I want to live one more week so I can go and say, “Thank you” to the elder who saved my daughter’s life.’ And the priest said to him, ‘What are you worrying about? It is so much better up there! That is why nobody ever comes back.’ The priest spoke with such simplicity and conviction that I would have liked to go up there myself that very moment.”

Turning back to the first chapter in “The Awakening of the Heart Through Mindfulness of Death“, I was quickly stoked on underlining “the good parts”, but before long, realized I’d underlined nearly the whole chapter. I guess some of us are ever the freshman.  But the account given so clearly articulates a road from mere “belief” to the Orthodox faith that it will at once seem familiar to many and perhaps voice something others have struggled to understand much less explain.

While some will elide right by this thinking, “Oh, that again!”, for me it still resonates as one of the gifts of this faith for which I had little preparation. Yes, there are “altar calls” elsewhere where one witnesses to conversion, but this seems something different, something experienced rather than “thought” or “realized”, and something less dramatic and less pressured. Equally, it comes of its own… not necessarily unbidden, though there is that, too. And rather than ushering in peace, it can prove fundamentally unsettling and instill a spiritual restlessness of sorts.

I do not expect that there is any claim to exclusivity of these experiences to the Orthodox Church as some may come to the Orthodox faith through an experience of this sort outside it and others choose to remain outside it even so, but it does seem as if the account given here presumes an Orthodox believer. No matter, what for me was especially striking was the understanding of the formation that follows experiences of this nature as through Archimandrite Zacharias (and I would suppose elsewhere as well within the Tradition also) the Church offers affirmation and articulation that provides a structured understanding and vocabulary that at last fills in the opened gap.

And of course, one of the gifts discovered in Orthodox saints seems their amazing economy of  speech in describing their experiences. For no matter the temptation to think, “Oh… that’s just what I went through, too”, the directness of their language speaks to a depth of difference, relationship and authenticity that convey a sense of authority that shrinks our egos back into place and measure something of how far from these examples we really stand. And so I am not surprised to see the tremendous lucidity of Archimandrite Zacharias’s writing as his spiritual GPS plots a fine course through the waypoints to describe the progressive emergence of the mindfulness of death:

“He (God) opens the eyes of the soul that it might behold the mark of corruption and mortality of every created thing. Man then hears the groaning of a universe which has delivered itself up to vanity from which there is no escape. The soul is then granted the grace of perceiving the dark veil of death, corruption, and despair which envelop mankind and all life on earth. This spiritual phenomenon, unknown to modern psychology, is called ‘mindfulness of death’ in Orthodox ascetic terminology. It has nothing to do with the psychological awarenes that we shall die some day; it is more like a deep knowledge, accompanied by a wondrous sensibility of the heart, which perceives clearly, ‘the futility of any and every acquisition on earth’, and that ‘all is vanity’ (Eccles, 1:2).”

Later he continues that this mindfulness will progressively lead to a second gift, the fear of God:

“Mindfulness of death is an encounter with God’s living eternity; and it strikes the whole man decisvely because it manifest the hell of God’s absence from his heart, reveals his spiritual poverty and the barrenness of his mind. This painful experience engenders the fear of God, which begins to surround the heart and alter his way of thinking. Just as mindfulness of death is not a psychological emotion, neither is the divine fear by which it is followed: both are spiritual states and gifts of grace.”

No doubt many will hear this today and think of it in precisely the psychological (negative) way we are cautioned against. This is the base point of our culture.  Okay, so we’re simply suffering from depression or a midlife crisis.. but we’re also blessed with a spiritual awakening, and an affirmation of all that is wholly positive and uplifting. No matter that it forces us to address the negative in our lives.. no matter how deep or how close to the surface it may lie… we still see this as positive. For this is the basis where at last a place and moment is found to lift one’s eyes in genuine thanks, free oneself from petty-mindedness and learn disciplines to do differently. In short, this is simply to suggest there is great joy in recognizing the grant of a precious gift – even if it is only a starting point.

“The paradox is this: that mindfulness of death liberates man from the fear of death, and leads him to see all things from the perspective of the love of God. Where death had been a consequence of sin, it is now the Gospel of Life, for it causes eternity to take its rightful place above all earthly things in such an absolute and definite way, that even if the enemy were to offer centuries of earthly bliss and success, the believer now prefers the marks of the Cross through which true joy and eternal salvation are come to the world.”


  1. I’ve listened to part of a lecture by Archimandrite Zacharias on this subject and it was quite good. I think, however, I would have preferred it in book form to ponder a bit slowly.

  2. Good stuff! sigh… another ding in the credit card coming soon, I think.

  3. James, you have a nice blog. I appreciate your being a reader and commentor on mine. Thanks also for putting me on your sidebar.

    It seems like every day, I am hearing (podcasts) or reading someone refer to one or more of the triumvirate of St. Silouan, St. Sophrony (Sahkarov) and Elder Zacharias. I think maybe someOne may be hinting that I need to read their works.

    Alas, every time I finish one book, I discover two or three more that I need to read.

    May the Lord bless you.

  4. For what it is worth, Fr. Zacharias prefers not to be called ‘elder’ or ‘geronda.’ Nor do his friends Fr. Raphael and Fr. Seraphim.

  5. Thanks for stopping by.

    One wonders how much busier the good monks illuminating manuscripts might have been had they invented the credit card before the printing press! I’d bet they’d have been forced to “grow” some Holy elders a little more rapidly than in the past… or there’d be some really really tired folks out there trying to convert this country! So we’re blessed on that score…. only it’s just kind of hard to get the nose out of the book sometimes… and actually get back to the living experiments of applying it I think we’re supposed to be doing.

    Maybe someone will write that one book… and like the “one word”… it’ll do the trick. Haven’t seen it yet… but FWIW, these opening chapters… they’re pretty doggone close to the “That’s it!” moment…. least they seem to do it for me.

  6. Have you seen this video?

    Come by and visit +


  7. Thank you for passing along this noted reference. I have not had the opportunity to watch the video yet, but I very much look forward to it. I have visited your site as well, and look forward to spending more time, there, too.

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