This thread began with a question regarding whether there is any “cult of Fr. Seraphim (Rose)” and the answer is that there is not, though Abp Lazar likes to speak of some kind of “toll house cult” (I don’t recall him referring to a “Fr. Seraphim cult”). In any case, neither such cult exists but rather the word “cult” is employed in a seemingly aggressive attempt to demonize those with whom the accuser disagrees.
I suppose as we see how quickly a question about Fr. Seraphim results in a debate about the toll houses, we can see one possible reason why Fr. Seraphim has not yet been canonized (the subject of another recent post). It is strange, however, that this whole “controversy” seems limited to America. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. John the Wonderworker, St. Justin Popovic and many others spoke about the toll houses in great detail and this did not seem to result in any controversy in Serbia, Russia, or elsewhere. I have never heard that the canonization of any of these saints was delayed because of concerns over the toll house teaching described by these saints. I’m not suggesting that Fr. Seraphim’s canonization should be “sped up” (as if my suggesting this would make any difference anyway), I am just pointing this out because I think it is significant that this controversy over the toll houses seems limited to contemporary America (and perhaps one hieromonk in New Zealand).
After reading some of these posts, I did just want to make a few comments on the toll house teaching. When I read various criticisms of this, I often wonder whether those criticizing Fr. Seraphim on account of the toll house teaching have ever read his book “The Soul After Death”, or whether they have read it carefully. When the toll house teaching comes up, the critics claim that Fr. Seraphim bases this teaching on the story of Theodora’s passage through the toll-houses which is recorded in the Life of St. Basil the New. The critics then point out everything that they think is wrong with this Life. Among the problematic aspects of this Life, it is claimed, man is supposedly judged by demons rather than by God, a Roman Catholic idea of “merits of the saints” is employed whereby the “merits” of St. Basil are used to compensate for the deficiencies in Theodora. Another criticism of the toll house teaching in general is that it is something “amorphous”, that the accounts are “contradictory”, or “too literal”. In this thread, for the first time I saw the toll house teaching attacked for suggesting that non-Orthodox will not be saved. I have never heard an Orthodox Christian claim that it was a heresy to believe that salvation is only to be found in the Church.
It is surprising when one claims that Fr. Seraphim’s book “The Soul After Death” is based on the Life of St. Basil the New because Fr. Seraphim hardly spends any time on this work. Regarding this Life, Fr. Seraphim states:
Fr. Seraphim, The Soul After Death, p. 75
The Orthodox Lives of Saints contain numerous accounts – some of them very vivid – of how the soul passes through the toll-houses after death. The most detailed account is to be found in the Life of St. Basil the New (March 26), which describes the passage through the toll-houses of Blessed Theodora, as related by her in a vision to a fellow disciple of the Saint, Gregory. In this account twenty specific toll-houses are mentioned, with the kinds of sins tested in each set forth. Bishop Ignatius [Brianchaninov] quotes this account at some lenth… This account already exists in an English translation, however (Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave, pp. 69-87), and it contains nothing significant that is not to be found in other Orthodox sources on the toll-houses, so we shall omit it here in order to give some of these other sources.
Some of these other sources Fr. Seraphim uses include the Life of St. Anthony the Great (+356) by St. Athanasius the Great, the writings of St. Ephraim the Syrian (+373), an Homily of St. John Chrysostom (+407) on Patience and Gratitude that is appointed to be read on the seventh Saturday of Pascha and at funeral services, the Homily on Sobriety of St. Hesychius of Jerusalem (5th century) contained in the Philokalia, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s (+444) Homily on the Departure of the Soul which is always included in editions of the Slavonic Psalter (soon to be published in English by Jordanville), Homilies 5 and 17 of St. Isaiah the Recluse (6th century) contained in the Philokalia, the Fourth Book of “the Dialogues” of St. Gregory the Diologist (+604) and his Homilies on the Gospel; as well as the Lives of St. Eustratius the Great Martyr (4th century, Dec. 13), St. Niphon of Constantia in Cyprus (4th century, Dec. 23), St. Macarius the Great (4th century, Jan. 19), St. Symeon the fool for Christ of Emesa (6th century, July 21), Patriarch St. John the Merciful of Alexandria (7th century, Dec. 19), St. Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain (7th century, March 14), St. Columba (+597), St. Boniface (8th century), etc.
So, Fr. Seraphim basically passes over the Life of St. Basil the New, though he does return to address the criticism that St. Basil’s “merits” are used to make up for Theodora’s debts following Roman Catholic teaching. If someone actually were to read the story of Theodora’s passage, they would see that it is the prayers of St. Basil that help her through the toll houses and not any “excess good deeds” or “excess merits” that St. Basil (who is still alive on earth in the story) can donate to cover Theodora’s debts. Regarding this subject, Fr. Seraphim rightly states:
Fr. Seraphim (Rose), The Soul After Death, p. 185:
The “bag of gold” with which the angels “paid the debts” of Blessed Theodora at the toll-houses has often been misunderstood by critics of the Orthodox teaching; it is sometimes mistakenly compared to the Latin notion of the “excess merits” of saints. Again, such critics are too literal-minded in their reading of Orthodox texts. Nothing else is referred to here than the prayers of the Church for the reposed, in particular the prayers of a holy man and spiritual father. The form in which this is described – it should hardly be necessary to say – is metaphorical.
That the “payment” offered to cover the debts of Theodora refers to prayers offered on her behalf rather than to any “excess merits of the saints” is very clear from the story itself. For instance, the story states:
St. Theodora’s Journey through the Aerial Toll-Houses
“Having said this, [St. Basil] took something out that appeared like a little bag of gold and gave it to the angels with the words: ‘Here is the treasure of prayers before the Lord for this soul! As you pass through the torments of the air and the evil spirits begin to torment her, pay her debts with this.’”
Now, in general, for those who often misunderstand the teaching on the toll-houses, it is extremely important to read the section in Fr. Seraphim’s book entitled “How to Understand the Toll-Houses.” In this section, Fr. Seraphim states:
Fr. Seraphim (Rose), The Soul After Death, p. 66:
Perhaps no aspect of Orthodox eschatology has been so misunderstood as this phenomenon of the aerial toll-houses… The modern rationalistic over-emphasis on the “literal” meaning of texts and a “realistic” or this-worldly understanding of the events described in Scripture and in the Lives of Saints – have tended to obscure or even blot out entirely the spiritual meanings and spiritual experiences which are often primary in Orthodox sources….
Before presenting further Bishop Ignatius’ [Brianchaninov] teaching on the aerial toll-houses, let us make note of the cautions of two Orthodox thinkers, one modern and one ancient, for those who enter upon the investigation of other-worldly reality.
In the 19th century, Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow, in his discussion of the state of souls after death, writes: “One must note that, just as in general in the depictions of the objects of the spiritual world for us who are clothed In flesh, certain features that are more or less sensuous and anthropomorphic are unavoidable – so in particular these features are unavoidably present also in the detailed teaching of the toll-houses which the human soul passes through after the separation from the body. And therefore one must firmly remember the instruction which the angel made to St. Macarius of Alexandria when he had just begun telling him of the toll-houses: ‘Accept earthly things here as the weakest kind of depiction of heavenly things.’ One must picture the toll-houses not in a sense that is crude and sensuous, but – as far as possible for us – in a spiritual sense, and not be tied down to details which, in the various writers and various accounts of the Church herself, are presented in various ways, even though the basic idea of the toll-houses is one and the same.
The last sentence of the above paragraph is extremely important. Many claim that the toll house teaching originated with the Life of St. Basil the New because the word “toll-house” was not employed by all of the earlier Fathers who described the same basic reality – that the soul after its separation from the body goes through a final trial whereby the demons seek to accuse the soul of various sins and hinder its ascent . Because not every source which refers to this final trial provides the same degree of detail, it is important to understand what the common teaching of the toll-houses is. It is important to understand what all of the accounts have in common which can be called the “teaching of the Church on the toll-houses”. Regarding this, Fr. Seraphim states:
Fr. Seraphim (Rose), The Soul After Death, pp.68-69:
…for now it is sufficient for us to be aware that we must have a cautious and sober approach to all experiences of the other world. No one aware of Orthodox teaching would say that the toll-houses are not “real,” are not actually experienced by the soul after death. But we must keep in mind that these experiences occur not in our crudely material world; that both time and space, while obviously present, are quite different from our earthly concepts of time and space; and that accounts of these experiences in earthly language invariably fall short of the reality. Anyone who is at home in the kind of Orthodox literature which describes after-death reality will normally know how to distinguish between the spiritual realities described there and the incidental details which may sometimes be expressed in symbolic or imaginative language. Thus, of course, there are no visible “houses” or “booths” in the air where “taxes” are collected, and where there is mention of “scrolls” or writing implements whereby sins are recorded, or “scales” by which virtues are weighed, or “gold” by which “debts” are paid – in all such cases we may properly understand these images to be figurative or interpretive devices used to express the spiritual reality which the soul faces at that time. Whether the soul actually sees these images at the time, due to its lifelong habit of seeing spiritual reality only through bodily forms, or later can remember the experience only by use of such images, or simply finds it impossible to express what it has experienced in any other way – this is all a very secondary question which does not seem to have been important to the Holy Fathers and writers of saints’ lives who have recorded such experiences. What is certain is that there is a testing by demons, who appear in a frightful but human form, accuse the newly-departed of sins and literally try to seize the subtle body of the soul, which is grasped firmly by angels; and all this occurs in the air above us and can be seen by those whose eyes are open to spiritual reality.
Further in the text when Fr. Seraphim quotes St. John the Wonderworker from his Homily on Life After Death, Fr. Seraphim states that “it should be kept in mind that this description of the first two days of death constitutes a general rule which by no means covers all cases. In fact, most of the examples quoted from Orthodox literature in the course of this book do not fit this rule”…(p.182). He also states, “The description of the first two days (and of the succeeding days as well) is by no means any kind of dogma; it is merely a ‘model’ which indeed sets forth the most common order of the soul’s experiences after death. “ (p. 183)
Based on what has been quoted above from Fr. Seraphim, I do not at all think he would disagree with Met Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos who summarized the teaching in this way:
Met Hierotheos (Vlachos) on The Taxing of Souls, from Life After Death:
The things that we have said so far show just what those customs houses are that are spoken of in the patristic texts. On the one hand, they are the passions of the soul which, because of the non-existence of the body, cannot be satisfied, and therefore stifle the soul. On the other hand, they are the evil demons which have gained mastery over passionate people, and it is natural that after the soul's departure they have greater mastery over them. The righteous people, who during their lives have purified their souls and bodies from passions of the soul and body and have been clothed in the pledge of the Spirit and united with God, escape the power of the customs houses, since the demons have no power over them. The souls of the righteous are led, free and undistracted, towards God, with whom they are united.
So the whole problem is not to be afraid of the customs demons, but as long as we live, to cure our soul and our whole being of passions, to partake of the uncreated grace of God, so that the departure of our soul from our body may be a matter of joy and delight.
For those interested in the question of “Gnostic influence”, Met Hierotheos goes on to say in the same section of his book:
Met Hierotheos (Vlachos) on The Taxing of Souls, from Life After Death:
Of course there are some who maintain that such notions as customs houses and aerial spirits have come into Christianity from Gnostic theories and pagan myths which prevailed during that period.
There is no doubt that such views can be found in many Gnostic texts, in pagan ideas which are found in Egyptian and Chaldaean myths. However it must be emphasised that many Fathers adopted the teaching about customs houses, but they cleared it of idolatrous and Gnostic frames of reference and placed it in the ecclesiastical atmosphere. The holy Fathers were not afraid to do such creative work.
It is a fact that the Fathers were working creatively and productively when they took many views and theories from the pagan world, but gave them an ecclesiastical content. It is well known that the Fathers took the teaching about the immortality of the soul, about the ecstasy of man and the dispassion of the soul and body, the teaching about the tripartite soul and many other things from the ancient philosophies, as well as from ancient traditions, but clearly they gave them another content and a different perspective. We cannot discard the teaching about the immortality of the soul just because the ancient philosophers spoke of it. We must look at the content which the holy Fathers gave to it.
Therefore what happened to other topics happened also to the subject of the customs houses. It is true that ancient traditions and heretical views spoke of "rulers of the astral sphere", about "gates of an astral journey", about "aerial spirits", and so forth. We find several of these phrases in the Bible and in patristic texts. As we have mentioned in this chapter, many Fathers of the Church speak of customs houses and aerial spirits, but they have given them different content and different meanings.
In the beginning of chapter 10 of his book, Fr. Seraphim said that the book was “too limited in compass to present the entire Orthodox teaching on the other world and life after death” since his attempt was “the more limited one of presenting enough of this teaching to answer the questions raised by today’s ‘after-death’ experiences, and of pointing readers to the Orthodox texts which contain this teaching.” With this admission, I would highly recommend Met Hierotheos’ book “Life After Death” precisely as a more comprehensive book addressing the Orthodox teaching on these subjects.