May 27 is the American Memorial Day. As a nation we honor those who sacrificed their own lives in service to the country and also all those who served in our military and who have passed away. We remember those who on behalf of our nation died while making a heroic effort and those who sacrificed their lives for others. Approximately 1.3 million Americans have died in our country’s wars since the founding of the nation.
There are many Orthodox Christians among our nations war dead. As Orthodox we pray for them, that God will forgive them their sins and remember them in His Kingdom. If we read in our own tradition, we also encounter other ideas about remembrance and death. St Hesychios wrote:
Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from our body and hatred of sin. Indeed, it is a source of almost every virtue. We should therefore, if possible, use it as we use our own breathing. (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 5635-42)
For St Hesychios, even beyond remember those who have died, the remembrance of death itself serves a good spiritual purpose in our lives. When we remember that we all are going to die, we can be humbled into thanking God for life and in realizing so many pursuits in this life, which often so consume us, are not worth much on the ultimate scale. If we remember our own mortality, we might deal with the important issues of repenting, seeking forgiveness, forgiving, being compassionate to others. If we remember our own mortality, we might realize that so many things people and nations pursue – to the point they are willing to kill to get them – are not things of eternal value or with godly meaning. Strangely, remembering death might make us respect and value life all the more.
St. Peter Damaskos gives us other things to think about on memorial day:
I weep and grieve when I think of death and see man’s beauty, created by God in His own image, lying in the grave, ugly, abject, its physical form destroyed. What is this mystery that has befallen us? How have we been given over to corruption? How have we been yoked to death? Truly it is by God’s command, as it is written. Ah, what will I do at the moment of my death, when the demons encircle my unhappy soul, bearing the indictment of the sins I have committed, consciously or unconsciously, in word, act and thought, and demanding from me my defense?” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26863-67)
St Peter in remembering the dead thinks about death itself and why it is that we humans created in God’s beautiful image die and experience the ugliness of corruption and decay. Death reminds us of our own sins and sinfulness and the impending Judgment Day. So for him too, the remembrance of death should be life-changing! Knowing we will die and have to face God’s judgment means we should change how we live so that we make every effort to conform to God’s will.
We may also be saddened by the fact that while death occurs originally in Genesis because of sin, now we humans use death in an attempt to solve our problems on earth. War, capital punishment, abortion, murder, all are things we chose to do to attempt to accomplish our own wills. How did we come to this point? That is partly what St Peter asks.
Thus says the Lord: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)