Throughout May and June we will be having a series of reflections shared by Michael Petrow. Michael is a scholar of Origen, who was a brilliant early Christian theologian from the second century. Even though Origen’s name has been tarnished with the label of heresy, his writing has had as much impact on Christianity as Augustine and Aquinas. In this series (every Wednesday for the next couple months) Michael is going to share with us some of Origen’s timeless wisdom and relate it to our complicated modern day lives.
Michael is also a spiritual director and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!
Is death a friend or an enemy? What does it mean to fight death? What does it mean to befriend it? Having lost a friend so young recently, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn back to these words, as Origen describes how all souls and all things continue to transform:
We must not think, however, that [perfection] will happen all of a sudden, but gradually and by degrees, during the lapse of infinite and immeasurable ages, seeing the improvement and correction will be realized slowly and separately in each individual person. Some will take the lead and hasten with swifter speed to the highest goal, others will follow them at a close interval, while others will be left far behind; and so the process will go on through the innumerable ranks of those who are making progress and becoming reconciled to God from their state of enmity, until it reaches even the last enemy, who is called death, in order that he, too, may be destroyed and remain an enemy no longer. (First Principles III:VI:5)
There is SO much to unpack here, and while I may ramble a bit, what I’d like us to consider is this one very simple statement: Origen quotes 1 Cor 15:26 “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” However he seems to indicate that the “destruction” of the last enemy will come about when death is “reconciled” and thus “an enemy no longer.”
Now, some have taken this to mean that Origen is referring to “the devil” in code, telling us—with a bit of a wink—that even Satan will be “saved” at some point. (This idea ALSO got him in A LOT of trouble. Thus some of his ardent defenders will claim he doesn’t actually believe this. I disagree. He alludes to it in too many places in his writings.
In Origen’s world EVERYTHING serves the divine purpose and therefore everything belongs and everything is getting transformed in the final apokatastis. Acknowledging that he probably believes exactly that, let’s here take the man at his word for a minute, even as we leave room for him to give us a wink.
Assuming he IS talking about death, but assuming he is saying that death’s “destruction” comes when death becomes an ally and not an enemy, it begs the question: How does death become a friend? Because this is Origen we are reading, and nothing is ever quite what it seems, and because he is ever asking us to stretch our perception, I have to wonder: Is death made an ally because death itself is transformed? Or is it rather our understanding of death that is transformed?
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I can’t help but wonder if what he is saying, is that in the final apokatastasis, we will finally see how death is a part of the divine order and rhythm (the LOGOS), and we will no longer experience death as an enemy, even as we are infused with life and love. What do you think? Maybe? What would it mean to live that way right now?
I grew up being taught that death was the enemy. And whether this was the result of religion affecting medicine or medicine affecting religion, it seemed the ultimate goal of living was to avoid death at all costs, including even at the cost of actually living your life. All medical decisions bottom lined at extending life, sometimes long past anything that anyone would rationally choose.
All religious teaching avoided the topic of death, except to proclaim our victory over it to the point that it became taboo. The historian Philipe Aries wrote a great deal about how in the last century death became “forbidden” in our culture. We don’t ever see it—it’s hidden in hospitals and funeral homes. We don’t ever talk about it—it makes people uncomfortable.
The result being that we know no longer no how to die. Despite the fact that philosophers and prophets for millennia have been warning us that if we do not know how to die, we will not know how to live. Now this is changing in the medical world thankfully, and we have the holy field of hospice to thank for much of this.
It is also changing in our culture. I’d even go so far as to say that the great genius of the Harry Potter novels—the great myth of this generation—is their message about love and death. (Remember this line from The Deathly Hallows: “And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”…?)
Yet I have heard many a pastor or priest teach that every death is a violation of God’s plan. Further many a poet counsels us to rage against the dying of the light. And I worry that this leaves us ill equipped for life’s ending, and too many end up “cramming for our final exams” as life nears its end.
I must admit that I had many a conversation about death with my mother (who also turned me onto the Harry Potter books by the way), and I was deeply grateful that we had explored this terrain when it came time for me to make her life support decisions at the young age of 31. But I am increasingly aware how rare that is.
So I’m curious: What were you taught about death in your religious upbringing? What do you think about Origen’s statements above? And what do you think it means to befriend death? What does it mean to fight it? How ought we to live? How ought we to discuss this with out loved ones?
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