Can you imagine a person practically fulfilling God’s commandment in Matthew 19:21“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor… and come, follow Me.”? Many people choose to follow St. Anthony’s footsteps, not wanting any of the world’s riches, and prefer to dedicate their life to God, living in communion with Him, through continuous prayer. In return, “God is not unjust to forget (their) work and labor of love which (they) have shown toward His name” (Hebrews 6:10), so He rewards them with some special gifts, either healing of the sick, visions, prophesying, or some other gift.
Yesterday, I met an 86 year old Coptic Orthodox monk, who has been living in St. Anthony‘s monastery by the Red Sea for more than 60 years. Apparently, just like St. Paul, he has been given the blessing to see both heaven and hades, and give us a brief account of what he saw.
“In My Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) was how he started his account; “Mansions don’t mean houses”, he said, “they are degrees or levels; they are all in the presence of God, and are all wearing white, but the brightness of their white clothes represents the labor and good deeds of each of the people during their life on earth. The degrees of white start from white, as the regular white we know on earth, to a degree of white that is so bright that it looks like a robe of light”. The monk then asked us what we thought the good deeds were, we guessed, but then he referred to the last verse of the first chapter of St. James epistle, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27). This verse simply summarizes the two kinds of deeds one must do on earth to be in a higher degree in heaven; the first is serving and giving to people who are in need represented by orphans and widows, and the second is laboring in our warfare against sin. We tried to get more details about what he saw, but he wouldn’t tell us, and would keep on saying, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
We changed the topic asking him about hades, he said “I’ve never heard such moaning, or felt such misery; it is indescribable. Extremely large amounts of people in despair, regretting every moment they spent in life away from God.” The word that hit me was “Extremely large amounts of people” are in hades, this got me thinking of Jesus’ words, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (7:13-14) and “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24)
A person asked the monk that living in a manner that pleases God is not easy and fighting against sin is very difficult, the monk gave a shocking reply, “Entering Heaven is not easy!” Grace and deeds go hand in hand, it is a journey where God and man work together to reach there; the gates of heaven were opened by Jesus’ crucifixion, but through our deeds we earn our entry. Since we both know that we as humans are sinners, God gave us the gift of starting over through repentance and confession, so we can sing with Micah “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; When I fall, I will arise” (Micah 7:8), yet we know we are sinners, and however much we repent “(we) acknowledge (our) transgressions, and (our) sin(s) (are) always before (us)“ (Psalm 51:3) that’s why we cry unto Him in all our prayers, “according to our mercy, O God, and not according to our sins.”
I pray we may all enter into Heaven, enjoy the everlasting presence of the Lord, and join and be one with all the saints who have loved and served the Lord since the beginning of time.
NOTE: Monks are usually very humble, practicing humility and meekness, so they would never reveal their gifts in public. In contrast to televangelists, gifted monks would cast out demons, or heal sick people in hidden church corners without audiences not to seek attention or honor and suffer vain-glory. In order to get such accounts from older monks, younger monks usually try tricking them to reveal the secrets which they hold, like the above mentioned account.