On the angels’ help for people in life and in passing through the tollhouses
That the angels act as intercessors (“those angelic spirits in their boundless love defended and supported me”—see Conversation 2, Part 3) is something we find in Holy Scripture, where it is written: Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? (Heb. 1:14)—that is, their very function consists in helping us struggle against the demons. And if we become the offenders of the defenseless, unfortunate, and “little ones” (Mt. 18:60), then Christ warns us that their special status of being God’s close ones can be used against us: Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels (that is, those who we might disdain, insult, or persecute.—Archpriest O. S.) do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven (Matt. 18:10)—it follows that they can intercede for those whom they protect.
Without a doubt, the angels watch after the paths of each of us, are not removed from our problems, and experience great joy if we step upon the path of repentance and correction. It has been said, There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:10); they are the ones who bear our prayers before the throne of God, as it is written: And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand (Rev. 8:3-4). The phrase, “with the prayers of the saints” witnesses to the fact that the prayers of a living or reposed saint reach the Son of God not without the help of the angels, and the Son of God, as the only Intercessor one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5), intercedes for us before His Heavenly Father.
When the angel conversed with Tobit, he said to him, Now therefore, when thou didst pray, and Sara thy daughter in law, I did bring the remembrance of your prayers before the Holy One: and when thou didst bury the dead, I was with thee likewise… I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One (Tob. 12:12, 15). If the angels decide marital questions, as we can see from this text, bless the burial of the rootless and bear up prayers “before the Holy One”, then even more likely would they accompany souls ascending from earth to Heaven, through the aerial tollhouses.
The angels intercede also for whole cities, for example in the case of Jerusalem, about which we read in the prophet Zachariah: Then the angel of the Lord answered and said, O Lord Almighty, how long wilt thou have no mercy on Jerusalem, and the cities of Juda, which thou has disregarded these seventy years? And the Lord Almighty answered the angel that spoke with me good words and consolatory sayings (Zach. 1:12-3).
As a rule, in the description of the tollhouses two angels accompany the soul, and possibly one of these angels is the heavenly being given to us at our Baptism, our guardian angel; the other is the saint whose name we bear, our Patron Angel (saint).
The expectation of death and the aerial tollhouses should not cast the Orthodox Christian into despondency. For such a constant remembrance of death and the tollhouses can be crowned by the joy of passing through them and a successful ascent to the Heavenly Kingdom. St. Isaiah the Hermit said, “Have death before yours eyes every day and caringly contemplate how you will have to leave your body, pass by the powers of darkness that meet us in the air, and stand without stumbling before God, spreading your gaze also to the terrible day of His Last Judgment and reward of each person for his deeds, words, and thoughts.”1 It is said, Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession (Heb. 4:13-14). Believing in the One “that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession,” for we confess Him not only as having “for us men and for our salvation came down from the Heavens,” but also “for us men and for our salvation” “ascended” in the body “to Heaven,” having provided those who believe in Him with ease in passing through the aerial tollhouses. St. Isaiah the Hermit likewise writes: “What joy do you think the soul will have, who completes his work after having begun working for God successfully? At his departure from this world his work will make it so that the angels will rejoice with him, seeing that he is freed from the powers of darkness. For when the soul leaves the body, the angels travel with it; all the powers of darkness come out to meet it, wishing to seize it and search out anything in it that belongs to them. Then the angels war with them, and the works done by the soul protect it like a wall and guard it from them so that they would not touch it. When its deeds take the victory, then the angels (going) before him sing until he stands before God in joy. In that hour he forgets about all the affairs of this world and about all of his labors.”2
So, what is the teaching of the tollhouses—a theological fantasy or something in agreement with the teachings of the holy fathers? Now many who have come to the faith as neophytes, and not only the neophytes, have placed the teaching on the tollhouses under suspicion. They say that this is an apocryphal teaching that has no basis in Holy Scripture or Tradition. However, not long ago in St. Petersburg a five-volume collection of the works of Bishop Sylvester was published, in which the tollhouses are discussed in a positive sense. The two-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology of St. Macarius (Bulgakov) has been reprinted several times, and the tollhouses are discussed positively in it also. The books of St. Justin (Popovich) contain dogmatic teachings on the tollhouses. And only a handful of reformist theologians in our country [Russia] try to modernize the Church’s teaching under the influence of Western rationalist theologians who confess a “suicidal soteriology.”
Testimony on the tollhouses in the lives of the saints
In the lives of such saints as Great Martyr Catherine (commemorated November 24/December 7), Holy Hierarch Niphont of Cyprus (December 23/January 5), St. Symeon the Fool-for-Christ of Emessa (July 24/August 3), Holy Hierarch John the Merciful (November 12/25), and St. Macarius the Great (January 19/February 1) there is testimony about the aerial tollhouses, and we will take a look at some of it. It is particularly important for us to see the differences in descriptions of the tollhouses; they can be connected with our not resembling each other. And what someone might see as different or even contradictory, we the faithful accept as mutually supplementary diversity.
In the Life of our Venerable Father Macarius of Egypt we find the following testimony:
Walking in the desert one day, Abba Macarius found the skull of a dead man, lying on the ground. As he was moving it with my stick, the skull spoke to him. He said to it, “Who are you?” The skull replied, “I was high priest of the idols and of the pagans who dwelt in this place; but you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torments, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.” The elder said to him, “What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?” He said to him, “As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of the fire, from the feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face, but the face of one is fixed to the back of another. Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face a little. Such is our respite.” The elder in tears said, “Alas the day when that man was born!” He said to the skull, “Are there punishments which are more painful than this?” The skull said to him, “There is a more grievous punishment down below us.” The elder said, “Who are the people down there?” The skull said to him: “We have received a little mercy since we did not know God, but those who know God and denied Him are down below us.” Then, picking up the skull, the elder buried it...3
When St. Macarius’s soul was taken up by the Cherubim to heaven, certain of the fathers saw with their mental eyes how the aerial demons stood at a distance and wailed, “Oh, what glory you have attained, Macarius!” The saint answered the demons, “I am afraid, for I see nothing good that I have done.” Then the demons, who were yet higher along the path of Macarius’s soul and wailed, “Truly you have escaped our hands, Macarius!” But he said, No I haven’t but I must yet escape them.” And when the saint was at the gates of Paradise, the demons shouted with great wailing, “You have escaped us!” Then St. Macarius answered the demons with a loud voice, “Yes! Protected by the power of my Christ, I have escaped your punishments.”4
In these two excerpts, two fragments catch our attention.
The first: “There is a more grievous punishment down below us…We have received a little mercy since we did not know God, but those who know God and denied Him and did not follow His commandments are down below us.” Here we see the principle divine justice: The believer, who should have lived in the glory of Paradise but because of his carelessness ended up in hell, receives a greater punishment. It is written, And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:47-48).
And the second fragment: “But he [Macarius] said, No I haven’t but I must yet escape them.” And when the saint was at the gates of Paradise, the demons shouted with great wailing, “You have escaped us!” Then St. Macarius answered the demons with a loud voice, “Yes! Protected by the power of my Christ, I have escaped your punishments.” Here we see that St. Macarius was not sure of himself until the very end and at each tollhouse he answers the demons who acknowledged their defeat, “No, but I have yet to escape.” His hope is founded entirely upon faith in Christ and not at all upon his virtues. Having passed through all the tollhouses he exclaims, “Yes! Protected by the power of my Christ, I have escaped your punishments.” This is the authentic Christian position, for it is said, So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy (Rom. 9:16)—the great ascetic laborer recognizes this and obtains the gift of salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here is what is written in the “Life of our holy father Symeon the fool-for-Christ, and John, his co-faster:
I do not know anything I have done that would be worthy of heavenly reward, for what reward could a fool deprived of all reason receive except my Master according to His grace give it me for free? But I beg you, brother, never to disdain or criticize any of the poor, especially the monks; for your love knows that many of them are purified by suffering and shine like the sun before God. Thus also among the simple folk living in the villages and working the land, leading their lives in kindness and righteousness, who do not revile or offend anyone, but eat their bread in the sweat of their brow, are many great saints—for I have seen them come to the city and receive the Body and Blood of Christ and shine like pure gold. Everything I tell you, my lord, do not think that I am speaking from some sort of vainglory, but your love has forced me not to hide from you the laziness of my accursed life. Know that the Lord will soon take you from here. Thus, take care of your soul to the best of your strength, in order to have the possibility to pass without delay through the realm of aerial spirits and escape the fierce hands of the prince of darkness. My Lord God knows that I sorrow much and have great fear until I have passed through these terrible places, where all human deeds and words are sorted out in detail. Therefore I beg you, my child and brother John, to always try to be merciful, for in that terrible hour mercy can help us more than all the other virtues, as it is written, Blessed is the man that hath understanding for the poor man and the pauper; in an evil day the Lord will deliver him (Ps. 40:1). Observe this also: Do not approach the divine services having anger against anyone, that your sins would not offend the coming of the Holy Spirit.”5
St. Symeon, like St. Macarius, does not think of his merits as something that will help him pass through the aerial tollhouses, in fact he doesn’t even see any merits in himself, and therefore says, “I do not know anything I have done that would be worthy of heavenly reward, for what reward could a fool deprived of all reason receive except my Master according to His grace give it me for free?” Through the words, “except my Master according to His grace give it me for free,” he rightly confesses the faith of the Gospel. For salvation is given precisely “for free”. It is said, For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24); and, And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work (Rom. 11:6); and Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began (2 Tim. 1:8-9).
Neither does St. Symeon does not deny salvation for simple folk. He writes: “Thus also among the simple folk living in the villages and working the land, leading their lives in kindness and righteousness, who do not revile or offend anyone, but eat their bread in the sweat of their brow, are many great saints—for I have seen them come to the city and receive the Body and Blood of Christ and then shine like pure gold.” That is, the power of the Blood of the Son of God, in Symeon’s understanding, is the source of salvation. What we call ascesis (as I often speak of it) is none other than the movement of a grateful soul to meet God with the desire to thank Him for the gift of salvation by grace; but the ascetic understands that an eternity would not suffice to give thanks to the Lord for the gift of salvation.
The danger of passing through the tollhouses he sees in the lack of detailed confession; after all, the tollhouses are a place “where all human deeds and words are sorted out in detail.” That is, confession cannot be just a formality. As in Old Testament times a clean person was the one whom the priests had looked over entirely: And the priest shall look on him again the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague be somewhat dark, and the plague spread not in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean (Lev. 13:6). The task of the one confessing is to “look on” himself entirely, having confessed, and “if the plague be somewhat dark and the plague spread not in the skin,” if the sinful tendency (“plague”) is localized and does not spread (if the sin is not repeated), then the correction is complete, the confession and penance have brought the desired result. Whether this has happened to the full extent or not is what worries St. Symeon in his expectation of passing through the aerial tollhouses.
“The Life of our holy father Nephon, Bishop of Cyprus”:
Once when he was praying and had his gaze turned to Heaven, a divine light shone in front of him. At the same time a white-clad angel, dressed as a deacon, appeared. He was holding a gold censer and censed first in the direction of Heaven and then Nephon. Suddenly the gates of Heaven opened and the angels of God ascended and descended like bees, transporting the souls of people who had died. The evil spirits of the air were struggling to grab them and throw them down, but the angels resisted violently, whipping them and saving the souls.
Astonished, the saint saw a soul being taken up to heaven. But as soon as they approached the tollbooth of immorality, its leader started to shake and become wild. “What right do you have,” he was shouting, “to take that soul which belongs to us?”
And the angels answered him: “Prove to us what authority you have over this man.”
“Up until his death,” the demon said, “he was wallowing voluntarily in all kinds of indecencies. And not only this, but he also judged others. What crimes more horrible than these do you want?”
“Yes,” the angels admitted, “he was a slave to these passions, but he cut them off before he died.”
“No! It’s not the way you’re telling me,” the demon squealed. “He died unrepentant. To his last breath he violated the law without ever confessing his sins. He was and still is mine.”
Then one of the angels said: “We are not about to believe you, who are entirely wallowing in falsehood. Let’s call his angel. He will tell us the whole truth.”
They called him, because he was still guarding the body until its internment. As soon as he came, they asked him: “Tell us, brother, did this soul repent for its sins or did it die with them? Tell us the whole truth.”
Then the angel answered: “I am neither human nor an impudent spirit to tell lies, but before God I assure you: “It’s true that this soul has sinned much, but from the time he became ill, even before he took a turn for the worse, he thought of death. Then he began to cry and confess his sins to God. Continually he would raise his hands toward the Most High asking for mercy. If God has forgiven him, then He knows why, for He has the authority. Glory to His righteous judgment!”
As soon as the angels heard this, they laughed at the devil. Thus the humble soul was liberated from the snares of its enemies.
In a little while the saint saw another soul being carried up. It belonged to a blasphemous and hard man. The demons were accusing him much, reminding him one-by-one of the improper words and grave curses he used to say to the people when he was alive.
The angels said in rebuttal that he had a few rights to salvation. Many times, for example, even thou he was thinking of doing something bad, he would immediately repent, reproaching and degrading himself. Often he would sigh bitterly and sometimes he would tear. Once in a while he would even give a little charity to the poor. Having this in mind, the angels of light claimed that God would have mercy on that soul. Angered, the demons then said: “From his youth he did things that were not right for a Christian: He polluted himself with different sins and, indeed, sodomitic ones. Where shall we place his curses and anger? And what’s worse, he even committed murder. If therefore he must be saved, then take the whole world and all the sinners of the earth and save them gratis; because we are laboring and getting upset in vain!”
“Keep in mind, wretches, that he cut all his youthful sins and God forgave him. And if sometimes he did something, he cleansed it with repentance. What do you want then, wild beasts? That his soul be condemned? Impossible, since God forgives the sins people confess tearfully and humbly and do not repeat their sins. Anything that becomes visible is light. The righteous Judge punishes only those sins they take with them.
Thus the angels defeated the spirits of wickedness and entered into the gate of Heaven. Therefore, that creature of God was also liberated from the claws of the demons, and He Who saves freely, granted him salvation.
Again the blessed one saw them lifting still another soul that was very devout and God-fearing. She spent all her life in purity, modesty, and a great deal of charity. She showed love toward all. The dragons of the air threatened her, gnashing their teeth. And that poor thing, terrified by their wildness, shriveled up in the bosom of the angels of God, while the angels descending to take up other souls kissed her with love.
When that holy soul ascended into heaven, a large number of good spirits gathered around her, embracing and kissing her tenderly, and saying joyfully: “Glory to Go Who delivered this soul from the dreadful dragon!”
It was a delight to see them. The heavenly powers always do this: they rejoice and celebrate for each Christian who is saved. When they reached the throne of Grace, they brought her to the feet of the Lord Jesus, and he permitted her to worship His Father and to be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Later He turned her over to Michael, the lord of the covenant, to guide her to eternal rest, as indeed it happened.
Down further, however, the servant of God saw the demons dragging a soul to the infernal regions. It was the soul of some servant who had hung himself. Behind him followed his guardian angel weeping bitterly for his loss. In the midst of his tears he was saying: “Ah, the foxy demons who make people do such evil! There, this servant’s master, obeying the demons, would become angry, hit him terribly, and let him starve to death. And this poor soul became desperate, took the rope and hung himself, offering his life wholly a sacrifice to satan. Ah, alas! The Almighty gave him to me to guard after his baptism, and the filthy dragon snatched him from me suddenly and devoured him! How will I appear to my Lord in this grieving and bitter state? But also, how will I face my Maker, sorrowful for the loss of this soul?”
While he was painfully saying this, another angel appeared from heaven. “Our Father, the Lord of hosts,” he told him, “commands you to go to Rome, where this very moment the son of a soldier is being baptized. Take charge of him and guard him through the Holy Spirit given to him at baptism. And I shall punish the master of this servant and teach him not to become angry nor hit his servants nor let them starve to death.”
The angel said this on behalf of God and ascended into heaven, while the former set out for Rome according to the divine command.
That instant Nephon saw them bringing up a soul with a lot of commotion. Multitudes of demons were making noise and were attempting to snatch the unfortunate soul. It was the soul of a clergyman who had constantly angered God by fornication, sorcery, and theft. He even committed murders! He would lie in wait in the street at night and kill the passers by. Then he would take their clothes and sell them to feed his jesters! He died suddenly, without repentance.
Therefore, as that wretched soul was ascending, it didn’t make it through the fourth station: the dragon stretched out his hands with impudence, snatched it from the angels and cast it down to earth. The demons took it then, lowered it into the abyss and turned it over to the prince of darkness, so that it might remain captive there along with similar sinful souls, until the day of the common resurrection.6
In this Life, the angels, arguing with the tax collector demons, expressing their mistrust of them, answer, “It’s true that this soul has sinned much, but from the time he became ill, even before he took a turn for the worse, he thought of death. Then he began to cry and confess his sins to God. Continually he would raise his hands toward the Most High asking for mercy. If God has forgiven him, then He knows why, for He has the authority. Glory to His righteous judgment!” Truly, it is written like that: What is more than these is toil and travail (Ps. 89:10). A healthy person can allow himself to be careless, but the sick man seeks salvation from the Lord. That is how it was for that soul—“From the time he became ill … he began to cry and confess his sins to God,” and this ensured that soul of eternal blessedness in Paradise.
In another case, defending the “blasphemous and hard man,” who “polluted himself with different sins and, indeed, sodomitic ones… even committed murder,” the angels answered the demons, “Many times, for example, even though he was thinking of doing something bad, he would immediately repent, reproaching and degrading himself. Often he would sigh bitterly and sometimes he would weep. Once in a while he would even give a little charity to the poor. Having this in mind, the angels of light claimed that God would have mercy on that soul.” Here we see that the advantage of this soul lay in the fact that despite the seriousness of his sins, not only did he “sigh bitterly and weep,” but also gave charity to the poor—that is, he managed to bring forth fruits of repentance in time. Thus, the angels expressed the general relationship to the repentant and to those who neglect confession: “God forgives the sins people confess tearfully and humbly and do not repeat their sins… The righteous Judge punishes only those sins they take with them.”
The next case (after the case of the righteous soul) would be the more serious and hopeless: “Down further, however, the servant of God saw the demons dragging a soul to the infernal regions. It was the soul of some servant who had hung himself.” Here by the act of suicide the wretched man wiped out any chance to change something in his life for the better. St. Isidore of Pelusium teaches about suicide: “Will the one who has forcefully separated his soul from the body be forgiven? Ancient peoples considered such ones cursed and inglorious even after death; they even cut off the hands of suicides and buried them separately and at a distance from the body, deeming them unworthy to receive the honor of burial with the body, since they served in the murder. If the hand after death was punished by people, then what mercy will the soul that moved the hand receive?”7
However, without a doubt, the master who drove his slave to suicide will go to hell after him. It is written, And if a man smite his man-servant or his maid-servant, with a rod, and the party die under his hands, he shall be surely punished.8 But if the servant continue to live a day or two, let not the master be punished;9 for he is his money.10 (Ex. 21:20).
The last case is the worst: That instant Nephon saw them bringing up a soul with a lot of commotion. Multitudes of demons were making noise and were attempting to snatch the unfortunate soul. It was the soul of a clergyman who had constantly angered God by fornication, sorcery, and theft. He even committed murders!... He died suddenly, without repentance. Therefore, as that wretched soul was ascending, it didn’t make it through the fourth station: the dragon stretched out his hands with impudence, snatched it from the angels and cast it down to earth. The demons took it then, lowered it into the abyss and turned it over to the prince of darkness…” For his disdain for the sacrament of Confession this ungodly soul died without repentance.
Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology writes, “This uninterrupted, constant, and ubiquitous use in the Church of the teaching on the tollhouses, especially among the teachers of the fourth century, indisputably testifies to the fact that it was handed down to them from the teachers of the previous ages and is based on apostolic tradition.”11
In speaking of the difficulties of textual understanding of the tollhouses, Metropolitan Macarius wrote, “We should, nevertheless, note that in generally depicting subjects of the spiritual world, for us, clothed in flesh, there are inevitable boundaries, more or less sensual and man-like; like for example, they unavoidably enter into a detailed teaching on the tollhouses through which the human soul passes after its separation from the body. Then, one must firmly remember the teaching that the angel gave to St. Macarius of Alexandria, having only just begin his talk on the tollhouses: ‘Accept earthly things as the weakest depiction of the heavenly.’ One must imagine the tollhouses not in the coarse or sensual sense; but to the extent that is possible for us, imagine them in the spiritual sense and not be attached to the particulars about which various authors write in different stories, or stories by the Church itself, in which the unity of the main thinking on the tollhouses appear different.”12
Next: Why did some holy fathers believe in the apocatostasis and other false ideas on the afterlife?