This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, February 8, 2016

If You Die Before You Die Then You Won’t Die When You Die.

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. 


blueskyheart said...

This is talking about initiation. As in, initiation into the mysteries of the spiritual realities, beyond the limits of the mind and body. This (at least partly) is what happens after death. We 'fall apart' so to speak. The physical and mental aspects of us dissolve back into the Earth and its atmosphere, leaving our Spirit is free to rise into the spiritual worlds.
An initiate is someone who has already done this, without actually dying. They have been through what most people only experience after death, but they have done it while their body is still alive.
So it is as if they have died without dying.

The initiate is still living and participating in this world but from a different standpoint of consciousness. They don't 'believe' the limits of their body and mind, they see beyond, they experience a greater reality.

Then when they do physically die, there is hardly anything to let go of, as they have already 'died'. So it's as if they don't die. They drop their body like a worn out coat and pass through the threshold into after-death spaces, as easily as walking from one room to another.

Unknown said...

Athonites seeking emptiness. I don't see any spirituality in that.

Gabriel said...

You missed the point. It's talking about baptism. Baptism saves us from Hell.

Baptism is a sort of "death." But it's a death that leads to eternal life for the baptized, in Jesus Christ.

"If you die..." (are baptized)
"...before you die..." (before your physical death)
"then you won't die..." (you won't go to Hell)
"...when you die." (at your physical death).

I.e. If you get baptized before you die, you won't go to Hell when you die, you will have eternal life in Jesus Christ!