Overcoming Death

Metropolitan Kallinikos of Edessa

     One of the expressions used today with regard to spiritual and theological issues is “overcoming death”. It is obvious that death dominates human existence and man’s salvation means overcoming death. The concept is analysed in various ways, but these analyses are mostly theoretical. We set out to explain various theo­logical issues without them touching us on the existential level and without “conscious perception and assurance”, as the neptic Fathers of the Church say.
     We are capable of holding forth for hours, or writing page after page, on the subject of “overcoming death”, but we are completely powerless to face death when it approaches us. We tremble at the thought of it. Fear and dismay come upon us. Similarly, we talk about the inner resurrection without experiencing it.
The holy Fathers protested because they saw heretics theologising completely outside the Orthodox Tradition. St Gregory the Theologian inveighs against “self-ordained theologians”. He writes characteristically, “When I see the talkativeness of our age, and those who become wise in the course of a single day, and the self-ordained theologians, who think that wanting to be wise is enough to make them so, then I long for the highest philosophy and seek the most deserted place…”
     I can testify that the ever-memorable Metropolitan Kallinikos of Edessa, whose spiritual child I had the honour of being, lived the overcoming of death in practice. In his company I experienced what it means to overcome death, how a human being can defeat death.
     I am not sure if I can describe his experience, but I shall attempt by means of what I saw and heard to describe this state, which is not actually a state but life. Although we often use the word “state” in such contexts, this is a mistake, because the word implies something static, whereas the spiritual life is movement and life; it is constantly growing. Christians are always changing for the better. We shall look at the experience of overcoming death in various aspects of the ever-blessed Elder’s life.

1. Death that Brings Life

     Overcoming death actually means living Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. Imitating Christ means passing through what Christ passed through and experienced. There is, however, a difference. First Christ was born of the Most Holy Mother of God and afterwards He died and rose again. We Christians die first through holy Baptism, then we are resurrected, and in this way we are born according to God. St Nicholas Cabasilas expounds this view in his writings. Death is overcome by the experience of the Cross.
     Christians are crucified in holy Baptism but also throughout their subsequent life, and everything takes place against the background of the Cross. Christian life is actually the life and voice of the person crucified like Christ. Death that brings life is the distinguishing feature and the substance of Christian life. The crucified man can speak and express himself in an Orthodox way. Christians experience what Christ experienced: “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over Him” (Rom. 6:9). The same Apostle writes to the Corinthians, “For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:11-12). The mystery of Christ’s death and life is at work within us. We are deadened by sin and we live the resurrection in Christ. The experience of the Cross is the experience of the Passion of Christ; and death is overcome by the light of the Resurrection shining upon the Cross.
     Metropolitan Kallinikos of Edessa of blessed memory lived this blessed life in its entirety. He was crucified and resurrected. This was also how he understood his ministry as a Bishop. Blessed is the man who shepherds Christians while living the death that brings life. He will go beyond logical arguments and human means and offer life. People nowadays do not suffer from a lack of words and perfect systems, but they lack the life-giving Cross and the dead who live. You could say that the ever-blessed Metropolitan was a moving life-giving tomb. That was why few people could understand him. Most people prefer those who live merely on the biological level.
     Characteristically, in his addresses at both his Ordination as Bishop and his Enthronement he vividly described this Orthodox way of life, death that brings life. He said,
    “I hear the Lord saying, ‘The good shepherd giveth His life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). I see the first Bishops of the Church, the holy Apostles, who laid down their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, exhausting themselves for the flock and dying as Martyrs. I see the Holy Fathers fighting with wild beasts for the Faith and suffering unprecedented persecutions. I see Bishops being hung and beheaded for the sake of their flock. What am I saying? I see the Author of our Faith Himself crucified.
     The lot of the Bishop, therefore, is not a throne but a cross. The Bishop goes up first to Golgotha. The cross is the symbol of every Christian, particularly the Bishop. ‘He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after Me, is not worthy of Me’ (Matt. 10:38).
     I must therefore resolve that, ‘I have not come to be ministered unto, but to minister’ (cf. Mark 10:45). Our holy Church has not sent me here to be served but to serve; not to make my life easy, but to make things easier for others; not to take, but to give; not to make demands but to share. Sacrifice should distinguish my life as a Bishop.”
     These words are highly significant. The awareness that the Bishop does not ascend a throne but a cross is genuinely Orthodox. The value of these words becomes even clearer if we take account of the fact that they were spoken at the ceremony of his Enthronement as Metropolitan, in an admittedly splendid atmosphere, when the Bishop takes on the pastoral care of the flock and finally contracts a marriage with the bride of the local Church. While everyone was celebrating the event, he was thinking about death and the Cross; he realised he was entering a tomb. He saw that this ascent could lead to the gallows, as happened with many martyred Bishops.
     For this reason he stated briefly but eloquently at his ordination,
“O wretched man that I am! How can I bear the burden? How can I emerge victorious? How can I accomplish this exalted mission? Fathers inspired by the Spirit, vessels of the All-Holy Spirit, trembled before the dignity of the Episcopate, reflected on the obligations of the office of Bishop and departed for the desert. What can I, the least of men, say?”
     It was not just the thoughts of blessed Kallinikos that centred on the Cross, but the manner in which he formulated them. He was austere, manly and steadfast. He was not verbose or sentimental. He was rich in his frugality and strong in his weakness.
     The Metropolitan of blessed memory lived his entire life on the Cross. From there he called me too to savour this blessed experience of the Cross. This Cross was not the tree of shame and disgrace but the tree of triumph and glory. Someone crucified on the Cross never dies. He lives the Resurrection within what seems to be death.
     St Mark the Ascetic writes that we ought not to look for perfection in human virtues because the perfect man is not found in them: “His perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ”. Someone is not perfect when he has many human deeds to display but when he has the power and fortitude to be crucified, to be continuously crucified and to live the mystery of the Cross of Christ. What is more, St Mark the Ascetic says that this perfection is secret, hidden within the Cross of Christ. This is the mystery of the death that brings life. The blessed Elder made his flock radiant with the light of that life.
     Christ urged us to follow Him to Golgotha. “Let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). St John Chrysostom, commenting on these words, says that “Let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily” refers to “reproachful death; and that not once, nor twice, but throughout all our lives we ought to [die such a death]. ‘Bear about this death continually’, says the Scripture, ‘and day by day be ready for slaughter.’” As for the words, “Follow Me”, they signify, “Walking in Christ’s footsteps”.
     I believe that the blessed Elder put these words into practice. He lived exactly as Christ lived but also had the desire to be crucified for Christ, hence his ardent words about the life of the Martyrs. I often heard him commemorating the Martyrs in Church with great spiritual delight and strength in his soul and voice. I particularly recall his sermons on St Stephen the Protomartyr, especially on the phrase, “When he had said this, he fell asleep”. With tears in his eyes he would ask, “Where did he fall asleep? Perhaps in a luxurious bed? Perhaps…? No. He fell asleep on the stones with peace in his heart and love towards his enemies.”

He not only spoke about these things: he lived them. “The path of God is a daily cross,” as St Isaac the Syrian says.

2. Love from the Life-giving Tomb

     Love is the peaceful atmosphere of the Cross. Love is the radiance of the Cross. He who is crucified, who is freed from the passions, really loves and has true life within him. This love is an expression of the resurrection that comes from voluntary crucifixion. We often think that the end of life is zero. But the opposite happens. Just as in mathematics there are other numbers below zero: -1, -2 and so on, so below the Cross there is another life. And it can be said with certainty that this life below the zero of human failure is the true life. We should realise that this love comes directly from eternity, from Hades that received the risen Christ, Who transmits the eternal light.
     The blessed Elder also transmitted this love. It was a crucified and risen love, not merely sentimental but purely spiritual. The love that comes out of the life-giving tomb is authentic. At this moment I recall two characteristic features of his crucified love.
Firstly, it was noble. The ever-blessed Elder possessed nobility of love. A man of noble birth does not need to resort to strategies in order to gain authority, and does not fear in case he loses it, because it is securely in his possession, and it is the same with noble love. It is afraid of nothing. When someone has been put to death and is dead, he is afraid of no one. Everyone respects him. Even those who do not respect him and steal from him instead, those who commit sacrilege, receive a blessing. They say that a Turk who took the sock of St George the New Martyr became rich.
     The man possessed of nobility of love fears nobody and blesses everybody. Light illuminates everything. No darkness can conceal it. The light of the sun can penetrate the clouds and create illumination and joy. The same happens with the person who is voluntarily crucified. Noble love fears no one. It is not miserly. It gives unstintingly. It respects the freedom of all human beings. It enlightens them without burning them. Even if it burns them, it produces gold: the other person is changed for the better. Noble love seeks no recompense. It does not know how to wait but it knows how to offer. Noble love does not simply offer in return, but makes the first move towards the other person. Love takes human failure and makes it glory. It turns Hell into Paradise. Noble love resembles the love of Christ. “God espoused unto Himself the nature which had played the harlot”, says St John Chrysostom.
     Christ showed noble love by taking human nature that had prostituted itself. Noble love is not legalistic but therapeutic. As Christ, according to St John Chrysostom, “came as a Physician, not as a Judge”, so the man who possesses this noble love heals. He loves even when he is hated. Noble love develops a keen sense of honour. It does not hold sway through coercion and laws but by developing a sense of self-respect. Such love overcomes death. The blessed and venerable Elder had this noble love. He possessed nobility of love. He was born to love. He was an expert on the subject of love. For that reason he easily forgot and forgave.
     The other distinguishing feature of love is that it tempers human intelligence. In other words, someone who truly loves does not want to see mistakes, pass judgments or understand things. He does not want his rational faculty to work at high speed. I often ascertained this fact in the life of the blessed Elder. I knew that he had many gifts on the human level. He was highly intelligent. He was capable, if he so wished, of passing correct judgment on things, of perceiving the other person’s basic problems, of rebuking his hypocrisy or falsehood. But his love was greater and tempered his natural abilities. Thus on many occasions he did not want to understand certain simple things which, as an intelligent person, he could easily grasp. I realise, however, that this is true intelligence. Worldly intelligence is different from intelligence according to God. The intelligent person loves, even if he is not loved. He wages war on worldly evil with love and forgetfulness of wrongs.
     It is usually easy for an intelligent person to discern other people’s characteristics and analyse their personalities. He can remember things they did all his life long. The person who truly loves, however, cannot discern someone else’s wrongdoing or treachery or hostility, but erases everything bad that his brother has done and remembers his good points. He goes even further. He not only overlooks the bad elements, but regards the unpleasant aspects of his brother’s character as good! He transfers his natural gift of intelligence to another level and uses it to gain God’s mercy. By means of love he changes all laws into spiritual laws. He sees and hears with other faculties of perception.
     Real love does even more. It does not attempt to display itself to others. Godly intelligence makes the person who loves conceal himself all the time. He puts into practice what St John Climacus says, “Do not wish to assure everyone in words of your love for them, but rather ask God to show them your love without words.” The person who truly loves asks God Himself to reveal this love “without words”. What the worldly person regards as stupidity is intelligence according to God.
     I saw these two distinguishing features combined in the personality of the ever-memorable Elder. He had genuine love that knew how to feel pain, to suffer, to be perceptive, to forget, to transcend natural intelligence, to put someone to death while at the same time bringing him to life. Thus he lived like an angel on earth, because “Whoever loves God lives an angelic life on earth.” For that reason he had boldness before God. Abba Pambo said to Abba Theodore, “Theodore, Go, Be merciful to everyone. Mercy has found boldness before God.” He had such love towards God and man that he was found worthy to cast a demon out of a young man.

3. The Sweet Smell of Freedom

     We also see death being overcome by the experience of freedom. The ever-memorable Elder had inner freedom and respected the freedom of others. Just as God, although He deified human nature and gave the Church the potential to save human beings, does not force their free will, because salvation without freedom is worthless, so the man of God acts in the same way. He respects the other person’s freedom.
Man’s freedom is closely connected with Christ’s death. After the Resurrection, Christ came and went “when the doors were shut” and appeared to those who were expecting Him and wanted Him. Also, after His Resurrection He gave people freedom. Thus St Nicholas Cabasilas writes that, “It was when He ascended the Cross and died and rose again that the freedom of mankind came about, that the form and the beauty were created and the new members were prepared.” Freedom is an outcome of the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.
     True freedom depends on knowing God, putting the commandments into practice and being aware of Christ’s mercy. “The law of freedom is studied by means of true knowledge, it is understood through the practice of the commandments, and is fulfilled through the mercy of Christ”, says St Mark the Ascetic.
     The blessed Elder had such freedom. He did not restrict his spiritual children. He did not subject them to himself. He often gave me the following instruction: “If I happen to fall out with someone, you must not break off the good relationship you have with him on account of your high regard for me. There is no need for you to do the same as me.”
     I also recall that often when I returned from the Holy Mountain he wanted to hear about conversations I had had with sanctified men. In fact, he suggested that I should make contact with saintly people and put their counsels into practice. Although I was his spiritual child, he did not keep me to himself. He set me free and showed me other ways of life as well. This is a great spiritual gift, because we usually observe Elders in the grip of passions attempting, directly or indirectly, to belittle those with a high reputation, in order to keep their spiritual children with them. The blessed Metropolitan did not act like that: it would not have occurred to him. Quite the opposite; he was pleased to show me how to make contact with other people.
     I clearly saw that he did not regard himself as an Elder. He was not aware of having spiritual children. Although many were nourished by his teaching, and particularly by his transfigured being, he did not give the impression of wanting to have spiritual children. I was the person closest to him and counted myself fortunate to have such an Elder. But as he did not regard himself as my Elder, he never imposed himself on me. He developed my sense of honour. He had a way of transfusing his desires without coercion. I believe that this sort of pastoral guidance constitutes a cross. Such pastoral guidance can only be offered by someone who lives the death that brings life and who experiences the overcoming of death.

4. Remembrance of Death and Resurrection

     He often talked about death. He was waiting for it. It was not simply that he had a feeling that eventually the hour would come for him to die. He experienced it as though it were happening every moment. The Second Coming of Christ and the formidable Judgment were constantly present before his eyes. This is clear from the speech he gave at his Enthronement as Metropolitan. I have seldom heard a speech on such an occasion in which the Bishop refers to the Second Coming and to the fact that he will be called to account by Christ, the Chief Shepherd. The Kingdom of God may be mentioned, but not being called to account.
     He said in the midst of the joyful atmosphere of the Enthronement: “I am thinking about the great and splendid day. I am thinking about that Day, on which the Lord, the Chief Shepherd, will seek the souls of my flock. I am thinking that I shall stand trembling and naked before the judgment-seat of Christ, the Judge of the World.” These are very great words, if we consider when they were written.
     The Enthronement speech is written after the Bishop’s ordination, while he is waiting for the magnificent day of the Enthronement. The atmosphere is usually very cheerful. The people’s acclamations, congratulatory telegrams, speeches full of praise, articles in the press and so on, create a joyful atmosphere, which tends to obliterate the awareness of the dread judgment-seat of Christ. Yet he was thinking, “I shall stand trembling and naked before the judgment-seat of Christ”, to account for the souls of his flock. This is really an astounding statement.
     He not only experienced and spoke about death; he also spoke about overcoming it. He constantly referred to Christ’s Resurrection. I followed many addresses that he gave at funerals which had this wonderful element. When he spoke about the abolition of death and the possibility of resurrection, he was completely on fire and sweet words poured from his mouth. He always reflected that on every occasion that Christ encountered death, He did away with it. He resurrected human beings and finally He abolished it through His own Resurrection. The ever-memorable Elder’s sermons at funerals were very consoling. He did not use those poor, trite words that are often heard at funeral services, but spoke words that sprang from his life.
     When he visited the homes of the bereaved, it was obvious that, without overlooking the tragedy of death, he imparted the awareness of another life. He did not adopt a sad expression solely to show he was sharing in the grief. He was not cheerful simply to offer an opportunity to overcome sorrow. Instead, he had a wonderful combination of joy and sorrow. He achieved this because he himself breathed within his own grave; he lived in a life-giving tomb; he had overcome death.
     This overcoming of death was apparent in how he faced illness. It should be noted that the Metropolitan of blessed memory encountered death as a true Christian. He approached death “as a lamb to the slaughter”, without protest, without complaining against God.
     He confessed regularly during the period of his illness, he took Holy Communion, he wrote his Will, and so on. He knew that he was not going to live, and he praised God continuously. He prayed using the words “Thy will be done.” He did not ask what the doctors said. He was not interested in such things. He was mainly concerned to get ready to meet Christ. He tried to keep his nous pure so as to give a good answer to Christ the Chief Shepherd.
    The blessed Metropolitan Kallinikos of Edessa had a whole genuine life within him, the life of Christ. He waged an unceasing battle in his soul against the devil. He strove for victory and he was victorious. He expressed these struggles outwardly, not as personal experiences, but in the form of teaching. If destructive questions asking “why” arose within him, he found a successful way of dealing with them. This struggle is obvious from his spoken addresses. He did not speak based on what he had read; he actually spoke about himself, without attempting to define or psychoanalyse. That is why his message went straight to the heart of those listening.
     They used to say that his words were full of power and flowed like Edessa’s waterfall. Some people regarded that as an exaggeration, but it was not at all so. Apart from the fact that his words were often forcefully expressed and delivered, they were also very powerful. His speech was usually simple, but it was a grand torrent of words that penetrated to the heart. This shows the greatness of his words. He communicated directly with Christians. His words were penetrating because he spoke from his own inner experience.
     In the book that I wrote about the ever-memorable Metropolitan, I present two of his spoken addresses that had been recorded on tape. They were delivered without any preparation. The first time he uttered the phrase that he used during the course of his illness, “I am completely worn out”, was in an address to the Christians of Edessa, speaking in the first person plural: “How completely worn out our souls are.” These are significant words beyond the grasp of most people. Just as few can understand Christ’s words, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”, so few can understand these words of the blessed Elder, “I am completely worn out”. This is self-emptying. It is an expression of self-emptying and of glory. His whole life is concealed within this phrase. And because he said these words with hope in God and was resorting to God’s mercy, they demonstrate the overcoming of death. The nearer people come to God the more they perceive themselves as dust and ashes. I see the struggles of a whole life of sixty-five years in this extraordinary statement. It shows the great value of self-accusation.
     I do not see glory anywhere except in pain, self-accusation and self-emptying. God chooses “things which are not, to bring to nought things that are” (1 Cor. 1:28). Would that there were many such “things which are not” to bring to nothing the things that are, which disrupt society. Christians are searching for Shepherds who belong among the “things which are not” but who actually are in Christ.
Today as I write these lines (1986) two years have passed since his decease. It is his birthday, the day of his birth. He was carried in the womb for sixty-five years in preparation for his birth, and on this day, 7th August, he was born into another world. He emerged from the womb of this present life and entered that life which he had perceived while still in the womb. The womb of the Church is a life-giving tomb. Two years have passed and they could not expunge his memory. I believe many years will go by without him being forgotten, because he lives in the Church, and the Church, as the Body of Christ, is eternal. It never dies.
     There are natural events, like the sunrise, that you never tire of observing. The more you look at them, the more you feel they are new. If that is the case with natural things, how much more so with the creations of God’s grace, the fruits of the All-Holy Spirit! The Cross of Christ is a sacred subject constantly hymned by the Fathers of the Church. You receive grace and blessing as you look at it. You make the sign of the Cross and all the powers of the enemy take flight. You are nailed to the Cross and are saved. It is a magnet that draws millions of people and accompanies them to glory.
     The blessed Elder was voluntarily crucified. That is why looking at him brings inspiration. You are filled. You do not grow tired. Words do not stop. You are refreshed and not sated. You are glad to sing his praise without ceasing. Your tongue delights to speak about him. You are at peace when you think about him. A sun rises through him. He is holy, as even the demons admit. He shines brightly. He has overcome death. In his presence, throughout his life and during his illness, I saw what is meant by death that brings life, what overcoming death entails.
     His struggles were rewarded. They say on the Holy Mountain that after the struggles of an entire ascetic life, many monks are found worthy at the end of their lives of seeing the Most Holy Mother of God. This happened to the ever-blessed Kallinikos, because in essence he was a monk of the Holy Mountain. The Most Holy Mother of God appeared to him and blessed him. Thus God set His seal. He certified the authenticity of his life. Death no longer exists. Life and living theology prevail.

extract from the book The Science of Spiritual Medicine


Since 1982 the nuns of the Birth of the Theotokos Monastery have been publishing the books of Metropolitan Hierotheos, the founder and spiritual father of the community, and distributing them throughout the world.


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