Above the gateway of an Orthodox Christian monastery on Mt. Athos is inscribed the epigram: “If You Die Before You Die Then You Won’t Die When You Die.” Here we find a basic confession of the spiritual life. It needs a bit of unpacking because taken literally the sentence makes no sense. It is more like a koan, designed to short-circuit our ordinary mind and drive it to a different way of understanding.
Moving to a different way of understanding is the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, which we translate, somewhat inadequately, as “repentance.” Metanoia literally means having a new mind or coming to a different way of thinking. This little slogan is designed to force us to think differently. It nudges us along towards some other kind of mind.
The mind we are encouraged to grow into is one in which words are taken less literally, and more symbolically and metaphorically. Indeed, the movement out of the literal interpretation and towards a broader and deeper way of seeing, is what the motto is trying to inspire. This growth enables us to perceive deeper truth than what can be described merely literally.
First, I want to look at how the saying uses the word “you.” We see that the word “you” means three different things. The “you” of “if you die” refers to the ego-centric, personality-driven, “fallen” self, what Paul calls the “flesh” (probably because it is so bound to our physical senses and reasoning), or the “old self.” This “you” is the normal, superficial, ordinary self of our everyday experience. It doesn’t know it, but this self is blind, lame, limited, deaf, and all but dead, conditioned and controlled by the structures of time, materiality, personality, habit, and social convention. Most humans live their entire lives unaware that there is any self other than this ego-self.
The second “you,” of “before you die,” refers to our physical organism, the biological entity that is our material-temporal body. Together with the ego-self, this is the “you” that most of us understand to be who we are. The “you” at the end of the saying once again refers us back to our physical bodies: “when you die.”
The saying also has a third “you.” This appears in the beginning of the second half: “then you won’t die.” Here, “you” refers to a deeper, higher, broader, more inclusive, universal, and integrated Self, of which we are normally largely unaware. The first stage of spiritual awakening is always the dawning awareness, or at least the suspicion, that we have this other Self. This other “you” is our essence-Self. The apostle Paul refers to it in Galatians as “Christ living in me.”
The grammar of the sentence does not make sense unless we postulate this third “you” beyond the normal way we think of ourselves. Even if we do wrap our heads around the idea that there is a part of us that can “die” before our physical bodies perish, that there remains a “you” that will not ever die is unintelligible unless we imagine yet a third way of talking about the self, one that is not limited to what we normally think. After the first half of the sentence, both earlier “yous,” the ego-self and the physical body, are said to have died. So we are given a choice of dismissing the sentence as nonsense, or entertaining the possibility of yet another “you,” another Self, within us.
Looking at that monastic motto, then, we see that it means:
If you die — If your ego-self dies
Before you die — prior to the death of your physical body,
Then you won’t die — then your essence-Self will not die
When you die. — when your physical body dies.
Briefly put, then: we must let go of our ego-self so that our essence-Self will emerge and remain. If our ego-self dies, our essence-Self will never die.
Of course, the darker side of this is that if our ego-self doesn’t die, and we remain identified with it, we never become conscious of our essence-Self at all. In other words, if we don’t die before we die, then we just… die.
In order to live forever, then, it is necessary to identify with something deeper and more real within us, which means acquiring a broader and higher perspective than that provided by our small, limited, conditioned ego-self. And the only way to discover this and verify it is to allow your ego-self to die, which is the process called repentance, or metanoia.