by St Theophan the RecluseOn preparation for battle with the enemies in the hour of death, and the four temptations
Although our whole life on earth is an unceasing warfare and we have to fight to the very end, the chief and most decisive battle awaits us in the hour of death. Who falls at that moment cannot rise again. Do not be surprised at that. For if the enemy dared to approach our Lord, Who was without sin, at the end of His days on earth, as the Lord Himself said:
"The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me" (John xiv. 30); what can prevent him from attacking us, sinful as we are, at the end of our life ? St. Basil the Great says in his commentary on the words of the 7th Psalm: 'Lest he tear my soul like a lion, rending it in pieces, while there is none to deliver' (Ps. vii. 2), that the most tireless fighters who have struggled unceasingly with the demons throughout their life, have avoided their nets and withstood their onslaughts, at the end of their life are subjected to an examination by the prince of this age, to see whether anything sinful remains in them; and those who show wounds, or the blots and imprints of sin are retained in his power, whereas those, who show nothing of this, freely pass him by and attain rest with Christ.
If this is so, it is impossible not to keep it in view and prepare oneself beforehand to meet that hour and to pass through it successfully. The whole of life should be a preparation for this. You will prove well prepared for that hour, if in the whole course of the temporal life allotted to you, you fight with courage against the enemies of your salvation. Having acquired during life the skill to overcome your enemies, you will easily gain the crown of victory in the hour of death.
Moreover, think often of death with attention, bringing to mind everything which must then happen. If you do this, that hour will not catch you unawares, and so will not frighten you, or will not frighten you too much, and your soul, not weakened by fear, will show itself more firm and strong to undertake the struggle and overcome the enemy.
Men of this world flee from the thought and memory of death, so as not to interrupt the pleasures and enjoyments of their senses, which are incompatible with memory of death. This makes their attachment to the blessings of the world continually grow and strengthen more and more, since they meet nothing opposed to it. But when the time comes to part with life and all the pleasures and things they love, they are cast into excessive turmoil, terror and torment.
To make this thought of death bear its full fruit, you must put yourself mentally in the place of a dying man and, in the pain and straitness of mortal agony, must vividly imagine the enemy temptations which may assail you, at the same time reproducing such thoughts and feelings as have the strength to repulse them.
I shall now describe to you the enemy's onslaughts possible at that moment, and ways of repulsing them, so that you should, while still alive, get used to rehearsing them in your mind, and be able to put them into practice when your hour of death comes. For this war and this battle comes but once, and, since it is inevitable, a man must learn how to meet it and engage in it with skill, lest he makes a mistake and suffers losses which cannot be repaired. The four chief and most dangerous temptations to which our enemies, the demons, usually subject us in the hour of death are: (1) wavering of faith, (2) despair, (3) vainglory, (4) various images assumed by the demons which appear to the dying.
TEMPTATION THROUGH WAVERING FAITH
As regards the first, when the evil enemy begins to sow in you thoughts of unbelief or, appearing in a visible shape, speaks to you against faith, do not enter into argument with him, but affirm within yourself faith in what he attacks, and say to him with holy indignation: Out of my sight, Satan, father of lies. I refuse to listen to you; with my whole soul I believe and have always believed in what my mother, the holy Church believes. And this is enough for me.' Admit no thoughts of unbelief, and stand firm, according to the Scriptures: ''If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place' (Ecclesiastes x. 4). Be vividly aware, and keep this awareness, that this is nothing but the guile of the devil who strives to confuse you in the last hour. If you cannot stand firm in your mind, keep alert in desire and feeling, do not let them incline towards the suggestion, even if it is served up under the cover of texts from the Scriptures, which the destroyer of souls introduces. For whatever text of the Scriptures he may remind you of, he does so with the aim of leading you to perdition by a distorted interpretation and perversion of the true words of God.
If this evil snake asks you: what does the Church teach? do not answer, and pay no attention to his words, ignoring him altogether. Aware that he is nothing but lies and deceit, and that he has begun talking to you to confound you with words, plunge deep into the contemplation of faith in your believing heart. Still, if you feel yourself firm in faith and strong in thought, and wish to confound the enemy, answer him that the holy Church believes in what alone is the truth. If he asks again: what is this truth? say that the truth is that in which he believes, namely, that by the cross, our Lord Christ has stricken his head and has abolished his power. Then cleave with the eye of your mind to the contemplation of the Lord, crucified for us, and pray to Him: '' O my God, Creator and Redeemer! hasten to my aid and do not let me be shaken, however little, in the truth of Thy holy faith. Since, through Thy loving-kindness, I was born in this truth, let me abide in it and so end my mortal life to the glory of Thy name.'
TEMPTATION THROUGH DESPAIR
The second temptation in the hour of death, by which the enemy strives finally to strike us down, is fear at the memory of the multitude of our sins. This fear cannot be avoided; but it is mitigated by belief in the redemption of our sins by the death on the cross of Christ our Saviour. The enemy obscures this faith and fans the fear of our sins, so as to stifle all hope of salvation and strike us down with hopelessness and despair. So, my brother, prepare yourself beforehand to repulse this attack, and resolve even now to grasp firmly in your hand our victorious standard - the cross of Christ, when you approach the gates of death. In other words keep firmly in your heart the faith in the redeeming power of our Lord's death on the cross. If, entering the gates of death, you actually experience attacks of hopelessness, hasten to realize, first of all, that they are works of the enemy, and not the natural results of the recollection of your sins. This recollection brings humility, contrition and heartfelt grief at having offended the just and merciful God; therefore, although it brings fear, this fear does not extinguish the hope of God's mercy, and being mixed with it, produces a daring trust in salvation, removing all sense of being cast out. If you know this, you will always recognise, as coming from the devil, every recollection of sins, which has the power to oppress and cast you into despair, extinguishing all hope of salvation and striking you down through fear of being cast out. Once aware of this it will not be difficult for you to have hope beyond hope, which will banish all despair.
Hope beyond hope plunges a man into contemplation of the Divine mercy, into whose infinite depths a man endowed with it casts the great multitude of his sins, with a firm conviction that God desires and seeks not our ruin but our salvation. The only sure foundation on which this conviction can gain strength at any time, and particularly at that time, is the boundless power of the death of our Lord and Saviour on the cross. Therefore, since we must always seek the protection of this cross, how much more must we do so then! Here is a fitting prayer to address to your Lord and God on entering the gates of death: O Lord! Many are the reasons for me to fear that, in Thy justice, Thou wilt condemn me and cast me out for my sins; but still greater is my daring hope of Thy forgiveness according to Thy infinite mercy in Christ Jesus, our Saviour and Redeemer. So I beseech Thee to spare me. Thy poor creature, in Thy infinite goodness, for though condemned by my sins, I am washed by the priceless blood of Thy Son and our God, to glorify Thee for ever. I give the whole of myself into Thy hands: deal with me in Thy mercy. Thou alone art Lord of my life.'
TEMPTATION BY VAINGLORY
The third temptation in the hour of death is through vainglory and self-appreciation, which moves a man to rely on himself and his own works. Therefore never, and especially in the hour of death, let your attention dwell on yourself and what is yours, giving way to satisfaction with yourself and your works, even if your progress in virtues were greater than that of all the saints. Let all your satisfaction be in God, and place your hope wholly on His mercy and the sufferings of our Lord and Saviour; belittle yourself in your own eyes to your last breath, if you wish to be saved. If some good deed of yours happens to come to your mind, think that it was the work of God in you and through you, instead of your own, and that it is entirely due to Him.
Take refuge in the protection of Divine mercy; yet do not allow yourself to expect it as a reward for the many and arduous struggles endured or for the victories you have gained. Stand always in saving fear and sincere conviction that all your efforts, struggles and endeavours would have remained vain and fruitless, if God had not taken them under the wing of His benevolence and had not helped them and worked in them. So put now your trust in this merciful benevolence.
If you follow this advice of mine, be sure that in the hour of death the enemies' attacks will fail and a free road will open before you, by which you will pass with joy from the earthly valley to the heavenly Jerusalem, the home you longed for.
TEMPTATION BY PHANTOMS
If our evil, cunning and tenacious enemy, who is never tired of tempting us, should attempt to seduce you in the hour of death by some phantoms, visions or transformations into an angel of light, stand firm in the consciousness of your poverty and utter nothingness. And say to him from a courageous and fearless heart: Return accursed one, to your darkness. I am unworthy of visions and revelations. Only one thing I need--the infinite compassion of my Lord Jesus Christ, and the prayers and intercessions of our Lady, the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary and of all the saints.' Even if certain clear signs make you think that you see true visions sent by God, do not be too quick in believing them, but rather hasten to plunge deeply into the realisation of your nothingness and unworthiness. Do not fear to offend God by this; for our humble feelings are never unpleasing to Him. If you have need of such visions. God knows how to prevent you from closing your eyes to them, and will forgive the reluctance of your belief that they come from Him. He Who sends grace to the humble, does not take it away for actions inspired by humility.
Such are the more usual weapons used by our enemy to attack us in our last mortal hour. But he also uses for the same purpose any other passion, which possessed the dying man during his life, and to which he is most addicted, and the enemy tries to provoke it, so that the man may leave this life in a passionate state, which would then decide his fate. This is why, beloved, we should be armed against our strongest passions before this great battle is upon us and, fighting against them with courage, should overcome them and cleanse ourselves of them, to make victory more easy at our last hour, which may come at any moment. In this connection the Lord says to all men: l fight against them until they be consumed' (I Sam. xv. 18).