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Reflections on Many Things:
Sin, Death, Hell, Confession, Longevity and Feminism.

(Catechism after the Liturgy on the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, 28 May 2006)

What is sin?

One way of understanding what sin is, is to find the origin of the word. It is connected with the words ‘asunder’ and ‘sundry’. ‘To put asunder’ means to separate and ‘sundries’ are separate items. This can be verified by looking at the German word for sin, which has the same origin as the English word, this is ‘Sünde’. In other words, ‘sin’ is what separates us from God, and therefore also from God’s creation, from our neighbour and all the created world.

It can therefore be said that sin, or separation, is the opposite of Love, for Love is what unites us to God and to God’s creation. And the greatest dogmas of the Church are precisely about Love, overcoming separation. Thus, the Dogma of the Trinity is about the Love of Three Persons, Which is so great that They form One, so overcoming separation. The Dogma of the Incarnation is also about the overcoming of separation - the separation of human nature from Divine nature. Thus, when Christ ascends to Heaven, He takes with Himself sinless human nature, so joining human nature back to divine nature.

As regards sin, there are many types of sin: for instance, conscious sin, unconscious sin, sin in thought, sin in word and sin in deed. There is also the sin known as ‘mortal sin’. This is sin which is not repented for. It is known as mortal sin, because if it is not repented for, then it will lead to the death of the soul. In the Gospel, this is also called the ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 12, 31-2), for in its pride such sin resists the forgiveness of the Holy Spirit.

This explains how sin is connected with death and why the Apostle Paul says that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6, 23). Death came into the world through sin. It was through sin that Adam and Eve became mortal, losing their immortality. As a result of their sin they died, and as a result of death they went down to Hades, the prison of the underworld, where all human souls were bound after death. This lasted until they were freed, if they accepted it, by the descent of Christ into Hades, after His crucifixion, and His ‘harrowing of hell’. Since that time, we have come to call Hades ‘hell’. We begin to see the link between hell and sin.

For, since sin is the separation of the soul from God, sin leads to death (the absence of God) and captivity in hell. We understand then that ‘hell’ is in fact an unnatural state of the absence of God. Like heaven, hell can begin in this world. Some people talk about their personal choice of hell, a ‘personal hell’ (perhaps of being bound to alcohol or other drugs), they talk of having ‘a hell of a time’. But hell, the absence of God, can also be a collective choice. Thus, in history, we talk of ‘the Soviet hell’ or ‘the Nazi hell’. This was when a ruling majority of whole nations rejected God and so became possessed by the absence of God – that is, the state of hell. Such personal or collective hells are always the result of persistent and continued sin. Freedom from hell comes only with repentance, the rejection of sin and the acceptance of God.

Nowadays there are few words so politically incorrect as ‘sin’. If someone is reported by the media to have said that ‘the practice of homosexuality is a sin’, then gasps of astonishment and waves of insulted feeling arise among secular people. However, I will say it, just as I will also say: ‘The practice of heterosexuality outside marriage is a sin’. And I will also add that ‘theft and murder are sins’. Even this latter statement may be politically incorrect to some. They will make out that theft and murder are the results of ‘deprived childhoods’ or ‘social inequalities’. It is in fact quite extraordinary to see to just what extent modern society justifies itself, that is, makes excuses for sin (sin, remember, is separation from God).

All of this self-justification is happening today at a time when we are surrounded by sin. In this country last year, 180,000 children were murdered through the sin of abortion. In France it was 220,000. In supposedly Roman Catholic Austria, it is said that there were more abortions than live births. In post-Soviet Russia the figure was at least 2,000,000, perhaps higher still. In China, Pakistan and India, the figure was, it seems, even more horrific, and there they have a widespread custom of murdering babies who are girls. Boys are preferred, as economically ‘more useful’. As a result there is a considerable population imbalance there, with a shortage of females. In all, I have read that throughout the world last year some 60,000,000 children were murdered in this way, through abortion.

If some do not think that abortion is murder, then what about last century’s two World Wars, with their 60-70,000,000 murders, what about the continual famines in Africa and elsewhere? In Africa, every minute, children die of hunger, yet in Western countries every minute people die of obesity. In Africa they die of too little food, in the West they die of too much food. There is no shortage of food in the world, but there is a shortage of Love. And remember what we said above – sin is the opposite of Love.

I am not necessarily saying that there is more sin today than in the past (though no doubt that could be argued). But what I would say is that today sin is often not recognized as sin, rather it is justified. And that is disturbing, because it means that it is not repented for, that it is mortal, that it is killing souls. And that is exactly the opposite of what we always pray for in the Church, for ‘salvation’ (that is, from sin and so spiritual death and hell), for ‘the salvation of our souls’, for help from ‘the Saviour’.

What do we do about sin? The answer is of course repentance. One of the first things we do here is to go to confession. Here is another extraordinary thing. At this moment, in this country, there is a small Orthodox group called the Sourozh Diocese, which is in turmoil partly because the priests there allow people to go to communion without confession. This is unacceptable to Orthodox. Their practice of abolishing confession came from the Roman Catholics. I understand for example that among Roman Catholics one confession a year, with communion at every single mass, is normal practice. This is often justified by reference to something called ‘modern man’. Apparently, ‘modern man’ does not ‘need’ confession as much as ‘non-modern man’. This, of course, is nonsense. Man is man and sin is sin and nothing changes. In the Orthodox Church (I mean everywhere, apart from two or three places like the Sourozh Diocese, which appear to be losing their Orthodoxy), we have the practice of confession before communion. Why?

Since sin is separation from God, how can we take communion without confession? For communion is God coming inside us. We cannot be distant from God, when we are so near to God that He comes inside us. What may happen if we take communion without preparation, without, through repentance and confession, first expelling the sin that has separated us from God and asking forgiveness for our weaknesses? The Apostle Paul explained that since God is a consuming fire, communion taken unworthily will burn us, rendering us fit only for ‘damnation’, and making us ‘weak and sickly’ (1 Cor. 11, 29-30). You see, this happened not only with ‘modern man’, but also some 1950 years ago, when ‘non-modern man’ did the same as perhaps today. Yes, confession is a separate sacrament from communion, but rather like baptism and chrismation, the two are connected.

This reminds me of the (true) story of a certain person, who went to confession without preparation. He said to the priest. ‘I have done nothing special, just the same sins as everyone else’. The priest told him that he had already committed two great sins. The first was to have lied, ‘that he had done nothing special’, the second was to have slandered the rest of humanity.

Yes, it is true, we may all sometimes feel at confession that we have not done any great sin. But our ‘small sins’ can be likened to a pile of little pebbles and the trouble is that, since we tend to sin almost as we breathe, many little sins are like a pile of, say, 10,000 pebbles, so forming a huge rock, which becomes a terrible weight on our souls, in fact a ‘depression’. This is why after we have been to confession, we feel as though ‘a great weight has been lifted from us’, we feel ‘relief’.

I would now like to come to another consideration concerning sin, which is sin and our longevity, how long we live. Fairly often, it seems, we hear of a really good person who has died young. Indeed, there is actually a popular saying: ‘Only the good die young’. I do not wish to state that this saying is always true, but we can surely think of instances when it is true, and equally cases where other people, who do not seem to be very nice, live very long lives. Why should this be? Where is the ‘justice’?

Quite simply, this is because if someone is in a state of goodness, a state of grace even, then God may well protect them from the world by removing them from it. Thus, there are children and young people who die young, because if they lived longer they would fall into sin. Their death is a release from a fall into temptation. Therefore, those who possess a certain purity of spirit may be taken away from this world. Here is divine justice. And conversely, it is also true that God leaves people like us to live longer. Why? Because we still need to repent. This could explain why people nowadays live longer than previously. Usually, people explain our increased life expectancy by pointing to advances in medicine and technology. But perhaps there is a spiritual reason for it – that we now live longer, because in fact we need longer to repent.

In this connection, I would like to direct your attention to another modern myth, that, ‘years ago people died young, on average at about the age of 45’. This too is nonsense. Take a walk around any village churchyard here in Suffolk. You will notice the dates on the gravestones: ‘Aged 60’; Aged ‘73’; ‘Aged ‘91’ etc. In fact, 100 or 200 years ago, the average age of death was about 70 – not so far off from what it is today. The low statistical average of modern folklore comes about because at that time so many small children died. Once you had reached the age of about eight, the chances were that you would live a more or less normal lifespan, the Biblical 70 or 80, as St David mentions in Psalm 89. For example in my own family, my father was one of eight children. Four children died below the age of three, one of my aunts died aged 54, my father died aged 85 and I still have two aunts alive, one aged 81, the other 94. The average age of death comes out very low, but the average age of the four who survived childhood is very high.

And here I would like to come to another question about longevity. Why at the time of the Biblical Patriarchs did people live so long? For example, Adam lived to 930, Jared to 962, Methusaleh, famously, to 969, Noah to 950, Shem to 600. After them, that is, after the Flood, lifespans, though still long, decreased significantly. Thus, Abraham lived only to 175, Isaac to 180, Jacob to 147, Joseph to 110. Why?

This can only be because the effects of the Fall intensified as time went on. This also explains why the many children of Adam and Eve (and there were obviously far more in their long lifetimes than the mere two, Cain and Abel, mentioned in Genesis, for example, daughters) were able to marry one another. Today physical and mental defects would result and in any case God has since implanted in us a natural disgust and repulsion even at the idea of incestuous unions. At that time, this was not the case. At that time, the consequences of ‘Adam’s sin’ (here is another example of political correctness – for it was also ‘Eve’s sin’) did not evolve all at once, but developed over time, especially after the Flood. Thus, although lack of longevity may be a sign of poor hygiene and lack of medical technology, above all it may also be a sign of the presence of sin.

Finally, there is one more question about longevity. Why is it that women outlive men? If you go to Orthodox countries, still today in the villages at least, you will see widows, often dressed in black, wearing headscarves, in fact, similar to nuns, and indeed some convents are supplied with widows. It is true that you can also see a few widowers and some of these become monks. But they are far fewer. The Church Tradition is that the elderly do not remarry and the fact is that for every ten widows there is probably only one widower. For death does not ‘part’ married couples (as the Anglican wedding services wrongly proclaims – ‘till death us do part’), we are married to eternity. And women outlive men.

As regards the answer to this question, there are of course many anecdotes. For example: women live longer, because men take such good care of them; men live less long because women do not take good care of them…On the other hand, I have heard women saying that if they live longer, it is because they are so much stronger than mere feeble men…However, let us be serious. To try and answer the question why women live longer, we should first answer the question, why live long at all? Why does God give us the years that He does give us? Could it simply be so that we can repent and pray for ourselves and pray for others?

Here, I have a thought concerning a particular feminine charisma, that of intercession. I can think of Orthodox families who themselves rarely set foot in church, but they always send their granny to church, ‘to pray for us’, to light a candle for us’. Without wishing to endorse such behaviour, I think there is something here that says something about the deeper nature of womankind. Let me explain.

Just recently, regarding the all-male Church Council in San Francisco, some women said that they should have been able to attend. After all, this was not a Council of Bishops, but a Council of clergy and laity. So why were women not allowed to attend as laypeople? After all, they are half of the Church. Well, I think women did attend – but in a different way. Just as the Mother of God did not attend the first Church Council in Jerusalem (Acts 1), but only the Apostles, yet the Apostles must have been influenced by the Mother of God. For how could they not have been influenced by the Mother of the Crucified, Resurrected and Ascended Christ-God? And in that sense, though her influence, She did most definitely attend that Council.

In the same way, every delegate at the Council in San Francisco had a mother, a wife, a sister, daughter. And therefore all that they said had been influenced by women. I know for myself that after I had completed my talk last November, I asked my wife and my daughters to read it through and make suggestions. They did, and I made changes to it. Thus they were present through me. As regards San Francisco, I can give another concrete instance. While the all-important Council Resolution was being debated at the Council, there was a woman upstairs at St John’s shrine in the Cathedral, constantly reading and rereading the Akathist to St John. Who knows, perhaps it was her intercession that had a greater influence on the outcome of the Council than all the men debating downstairs? And I do not say this by chance. Where, after all, was the Mother of God during the Council of Jerusalem? I believe that She too was ‘upstairs’, interceding with Her Son for the right decision to be made by the Apostles ‘below’. Women, in this way, are above men and do not have to descend to the level of men.

What I am saying is that perhaps the real feminine charisma is one of intercession. That would be why the only Feast of the Intercession is the Feast of the Intercession of the Mother God (1 October). And who but the Myrrh-bearing Women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection? It was St Mary Magdalene, not the disciples, who said: ‘I have seen the Lord’. In other words, it was women, not men, who were granted to discover first the greatest event in the history of mankind, the Resurrection, and this too was through their intercessions.

When some ask why women do not attend Church Councils, I tend to sense a superficial 60s feminism. This cannot satisfy the Orthodox soul. Perhaps the real reason is something to do with the charisma of women, the things that they can do better than men, or simply the things that they can do and men cannot do at all. And my suggestion is that all this is connected with the reason why God grants a longer lifespan to women than to men, because of a woman’s power of intercession. Here there is perhaps scope for those interested to develop these thoughts further. In so doing they may help develop a true Orthodox feminism, away from superficial Western humanism, including, in other words, the understanding of sin and repentance.


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