Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Fr. Lev Gillet. Talk at St. Basil's House

17 April 1980
Theme: Prayer, Spiritual life, Death   Place: Churches, religious bodies   Period: 1976-1980   Genre: Talk

In the writings of a Hebrew theologian of the 12th century who lived in Spain there is a passage in which he describes the prayers and the services of the temple. He speaks of the prayers of men as being incapable of rising above the ground, as it were, needing wings to reach the throne of the Most High. Speaking of the High Priest, the only one who knew the name of God, who knew how to read the tetragram, the four letters which we read as Jehovah,  Yahwey, and who possibly was read differently, this high priest, when the people sang, when the trumpet blew, bent over from his gallery and softly pronounced this name, and as though it was blood running through a body, spirit filling a body, these prayers suddenly became capable of rising to heaven and reaching the Lord.

In a way, for many years many have felt something similar in the presence, silent – obstinately silent very often – of Father Lev in our midst, not only at talks but in the general course of the life in the Fellowship. From time to time he spoke, regularly or not, he gave his meditations. But this, I think, was not what people valued most of all in him; it was his presence and the fact that, sitting in the midst of people who were gathered in God’s Name, for God’s sake, seeking eternal life, sitting there in our midst, he prayed. His presence gave a quality to the meetings which otherwise they might not have had. Some have known him for tens of years and some for a very short time, but we are all indebted to him in one way or another. Some have received advice from him which one of his friends defined as being as pure and as hard as diamond, uncompromising, shining with light, but hard. Some have been to him for confession and have experienced his silence. He could stand and listen and pray and say no word and give absolution and let you go. And yet something had happened, something much more important, much more significant than anything that could be conveyed by words. He had held a human soul, a human destiny, in the presence of God with a sense of solidarity, certain, convinced of the fact that the sins confessed, the agony of mind, the disasters of life which were presented to God in his presence were his own, because he knew how not to dissociate himself from the person in whose presence he was. I myself have not had experience of coming to confession to him, but I have known people who left his presence, or rather the Presence, which he could make so real, deeply shaken and profoundly changed, Some of us have known him for a very long time. I remember him nearly fifty years ago. I met him when I was seventeen or so. He was then prison chaplain in Paris, as black as his vest­ments: a black beard, black brows, wrapped in a sort of cloud of silence and recollection, very strange to many, very alien to many. On that day he was celebrating the evening service in the chapel of the Students’ Christian Association. He never was very sure of the way in which a service should develop, and I knew nothing about it, and so we felt perfectly at home on that evening, I could never spy any mistake of his, neither could he by any chance or stretch of imagination, notice or correct any mistake of mine. That made the service remarkably free, because neither of us was concerned or worried about the way in which the service should develop. One could pray because one knew that one did not know what to do next, but that things would happen, that one could pray to God, and that was enough. This was perhaps one of the remarkable things about Father Lev’s celebration: the fact that, thanks to his lack of technical skill – not because he could not acquire it, but he passed through it – he could pray unhindered unhampered in the services. He was in God’s presence and made this presence perceptible for those who had the privilege to pray.

He will be missed by many people who felt he was a friend to them, but I think in a way he will be missed by a much wider circle, people who knew that they could come and be placed before God when they had dropped out, without words, beyond his words when he spoke them. – In a way a loss and no loss. Someone said that the Church is a body which never decreases. When one of its warriors falls on the battlefield, from one who could be killed, destroyed, alienated, he has become one who is beyond death, can no longer be destroyed, can no longer be separated from the Lord the God Whom he had chosen to worship and to serve because God had chosen him and given Himself to him.

What is of the earth is now in the earth, what is of the world, the mind, the emotions, the searching, the storm, every­thing which has got the narrow dimensions of things earthly is now at rest in a tomb. It will become dust. What is left is a living soul disengaged from all limitations, free. Don’t we all know that we are like the waves of a sea that beats against the shores and falls down back. As long as we live on earth in our body within the limitations of the earth, of our fallen humanity, of our creaturely limitations, we can long and strive, we can call and long, and we still will remain unfulfilled until we can break through, and through the narrow gates of death enter into the vastness of eternity – death, the last enemy that will be overcome by the power of the Resurrection, communicated to all creatures by the final victory of Christ at the last day when He comes. A narrow gate for us, and yet the only gate out of these limitations, out of prison into perfect freedom, but not the gate which we think of, the dying out of our body, the separation of body and soul: a further gate. The first one, that that separ­ates body and soul, which is the condition of all living beings, cannot lead into that plenitude of eternal life, but Christ has spoken of Himself and said: ‘I am the Door’. He is the door; He is the gate. Through His death, through His Resurrection, through eternal life that is in Him, which He is, can we enter into that eternity which is God’s own life, which is our participation in the life of God Himself.

Everyone who dies in the Lord is blessed. The Book of Revelation says: ‘From now on blessed are all those who die in the Lord.’ How true. We have just sung the Resurrection and we are thinking of death, but we are thinking of death in a way in which it could not be thought of in ages preceding the coming of the Lord. Then death was a crushing of the life. It was a destruction. Death was victory over life, of all the powers that destroy. It was also an irremiable separation. Yes, people could remember, could love, and as long as they were alive at least the memory of one who had died survived. Then time passed, hearts grew cold, memories faded, and the greatest names, those who had been pro­nounced with greatest tenderness and love, were forgotten because there was no one to remember them on earth. God did, because He is the God of the living, not the God of the dead, but people died in the awareness that this was an end, if not the end. With the death of Christ, His descent into hell and the harrowing of hell, with His resurrection and ascension, something has happened to death already. We no longer think or speak, or should think and speak of death in the old terms. We can speak of a falling asleep the blessed rest of the great Sabbath when the Lord rested in the tomb, and our death and our burial is in the image of His. It is a rest, the rest of the body until the time comes when life con­quers death and God fills all things with eternity, with His life.

It is not untrue what we say, that death is no more. It is not untrue to say that life has conquered, because there is no separation now between God and those who die. Christ has filled even Hades with His presence, There is only joy, the joy of separation, of which Father Serge Bulgakov spoke once in a sermon on the Ascension, quoting the words of Christ: ‘If you loved me you would rejoice for me that I am departing from you, because I am going to the Father’. The joy of separation, a thing which we do not know apart from Christ and outside of Christ, a separation which is not a severance of our relationship. Did not Christ say: I shall not leave you orphans, alone; I shall send you a Comforter, the Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father.’ Christ returned to the Father so that the Spirit came upon His Church. But He Himself is present in it, real, alive, accessible, known within the experience of every Christian to a greater or lesser extent.

If the life of those who have left us have an abiding signific­ance for us, then we must learn to live where they are and to live by what has, in the end, after so much longing, so much toil, become their inheritance. With every person who dies we are freed from one fetter that binds us to the earth, keeps us prisoners. Every death of a loved person sets us free a little more. If we could truly love those whom we love, as much as we know how to, as much as we can, most of our life would by now be where they are, in the presence of the living God, in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Kingdom. We must learn this. If we loved the Lord Jesus Christ truly and deeply, this is where we would be. But to most of us, probably to all of us, Christ is not sufficiently real. But so many people are real. We know Christ through the Gospel. Some know Him more intimately. But how intimately and deeply we all know one another, and how powerfully we could be drawn from time into eternity, from limitations to the limitlessness, the vastness of God, if we loved faithfully, definitively, if our love did not grow dim with time. It so happens that when someone who is dear to us dies, for a while, if our love was deep, sensitive, we die together with him or her. So many things that occupied our mind, filled our time, occupied, dispersed, darkened our hearts, become irrelevant. Death makes a clean sweep of all those things which are too small, which cannot stand its test, which cannot be put side by side with death or with life. But it lasts as long as our heart is deeply stirred. The time is measured by the faithfulness of our love, by the constancy of our love. Some people have died once and for all in the death of Christ. Some people have died once and for all to all those things which were not the ultimate and great things, through the death of one person totally and profoundly loved. Most of us die for a time and then we come alive again, we return to earth and we become again small and scattered and mean and earthen. And again we are stirred up by another death, and again we fall back. Is that not sad? It is not a question of feeling that the death of a beloved person has darkened life, has emptied it of its, mean­ing, of its greatness – no, it doesn’t do this, because this experience of death, this dying to everything which is too small for death and too small for life, is not – to use the words of St Paul – shedding temporary life. It is clothing oneself with eternity. And this eternity does not destroy what is real, but dispels twilight, unreality, makes thing come to life, but the life that will know no end.

We spoke of that when I spoke of martyrdom, which was made possible not by an incredible courage in the face of danger, but by the certainty, a certainty experienced, lived, a certainty that life eternal is there.

Father Lev has died. He has died an old man, with a long, com­plex experience of life. He has been known and seen by some. He has been an undeciphered mystery to others. But we all have felt that at the deepest point of his being he was standing before God. Those of us who claim to have respected and loved him, who have learned something from him, cannot stay at this point. One must grow following his trail, in his footsteps, each person in his own way, indeed not imitating what he was, but learning to be where he was, in God’s presence and in the presence of people, in such a simultaneous way as to make God real and present for those who were in his presence, not only by his transparency – because he was not always transparent – but by the sense that at the heart of this indecipherable mystery which he was, he was standing in the presence of God.

My intention was to say only a few words about him, and I have spoken a great deal more than I intended, about or around his death. What I suggest now is that we keep quiet and try to remember him, try to be in his presence as we have been so often in church, at talks, at meditations, at conferences, in confession, in so many situations, and let us keep quiet in God’s presence, and then let us say a prayer for him, witnessing to God that he has not lived in vain, that he has left love behind, that he has opened a gate for us to enter into God’s kingdom, that he has shown a way. Let us then be quiet and then go in peace.

Listen to audio: no Watch video: no