In fact, the Holy Synod of ROCOR blessed the publication of materials affirming the teaching of the toll-houses after 1980 (see Protopresbyter Vassily Boshchanovskiy's "Lessons in Dogmatic Theology" in Issue 5-6 of the ROCOR Synod’s official publication “Church Life”, published Sept. - Nov. of 2001
And what does Fr Boshchanovskiy affirm about the nature of the toll houses - that they are an "illustrative metaphor."
I would not entertain the concept that any "illustrative metaphor" is a dogma of the Orthodox Church. I do not imagine that you have been catechised that there any parts of our dogmative faith which are "illustrative metaphors"?
The toll-house teaching was found in practically every work of Dogmatic Theology in Pre-Revolutionary Russia, just as it is found in the work on Dogmatic Theology by Fr Michael Pomazansky..
Fr Michael Pomazansky's understanding is simply that the toll houses are a metaphor for the subtle processes which take place within the soul at the time of death by which the Partial Judgment takes place and the soul comes to understand its true spiritual condition and fate. He wrote:"Let us take this earthly side of the symbolism [of the toll houses] into the spiritual understanding. Theodora is the soul of man; the angels - its virtues; the demons - its sins. Both are in the soul of a man and perhaps after death are found, as it were, on the scales of a balance. Is this image inconsistent with our religious concepts? Talking about the "balance" we imitate the symbolism contained in our hymns: "Thy Cross is found as the measure between the two thieves; for the one was brought down to hades by the weight of his blasphemy, but the other was lightened of his sins unto the knowledge of theology: O Christ God, glory to Thee" (Troparion of the 9th Hour)."
The Apostle Paul, teaching his disciple the Apostle Timothy, "how one ought to conduct himself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God" (1Tim 3:15), writes to him in the second epistle: "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some do honour, and some do dishonour (or base usage)" (2Tim 2:20). The Apostle has in mind the people in the Church when he speaks of vessels, but we have the right of employing his thought in a simpler and more literal, yet still a broader, sense.
The history of the Orthodox Christian Church, continuing from the Apostles, has now come to the end of its second millennium of existence. Throughout the process of her broad and many-sided growth, the Church has diligently preserved only the truths of the faith, the dogma of faith. Upon their foundation the tree of the Church developed in all directions, nourished by the grace of the Spirit of God. The wealth of its spiritual contents on its own increased, and at the same time its material contents also grew, and often the one would give place to the other. Much was acquired simply for preservation; other things have been carried away by the river of time into the realm of the forgotten, and now on certain rare occasions, something may float to the surface, thanks to the efforts and searches of special investigators and researchers. The Church herself regards everything conservatively and patiently (indulgently), and it has no persons who are assigned to the task of separating the valuable from that which is not so valuable. It has been forced only at certain times to uproot the tares from the field of wheat, both in the spiritual and in the material sense. From such a conservative attitude, the Church does not suffer any harm. It happens sometimes that something which seemed of little value later turns out to be both beneficial and important. The Church, as it were, says, those losses suffered as a result of the persecutions of the Church and of Christianity, wars and the destructive elements of nature are sufficient. If we are to speak of literature (written works), the Church rejects only that which is an evilly-intended forgery or a heretical concoction.
Let us speak a bit concerning genuine Church literature. Of course, all the various forms of literature are not of the same value; among them there is a gradation of value passing from sanctity all the way to simple usefulness.
Here, approximately, are these gradations:
1. The Four Gospels. They are kept in the altar of the Temple on the Holy Table. Before readings from them we hear: "Wisdom, Aright!"
2. The Epistles and Paremia (primarily from the Old Testament). The exclamation: "Wisdom!", but one may sit while listening.
3. The various service books.
These forms of literature are the legacy of the Temple.
4. Patristic literature.
5. Lives of saints.
These, while they are used for reading in the church services, are primarily for private reading (in monasteries - in the refectory).
6. Theological science, academic theology and various theological literature.
7. Ecclesiastical and historical sciences, practical textbooks and reference manuals.
8. Pious accounts, edifying parables. This is simply morally edifying reading in an easy form that is accessible to all.
We ask to be excused for such a lengthy introduction. Let us now pass on to the questions concerning prayer for the dead in the article in question.
One must agree with the author of the letter, The article has essential weaknesses.
We are talking about the Church's commemoration of the dead. Part of the material in the article is concerned with the teaching of the Church, dogmatic theology; but another part with pious accounts and, finally, with Church and popular customs. In the article there is no distinction made concerning the dignity of the material presented, and thus matters which do not concern the dogma of the Church are dogmatized. Let us point out what we have in view:
We find an appropriate example of this in the footnotes of the author. There is no need to discuss the prayerful or liturgical meaning of "kolyva", as an offering for the dead. For it is simply an expression of the desire to treat those who participated in the prayers for the dead, thank them for their love, as the Apostle says: "all is good and there is nothing worthy of condemnation that is done with the word of God and prayer". Even more so, there is no use in explaining the "meaning" of wheat in the kolyva or what the honey and sugar in it "mean" or "symbolize" But of course, these thoughts were all placed in a footnote.
In accordance with ancient views, it is accepted to offer special prayers on the third and fortieth days; these days, these very numbers in the Scriptures, in general, represent something sacred. But the Church does not teach that commemoration on these days, as on the ninth day, is "indispensable". "Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man." The days are not the important point.
In such points of the article as the quantity of commemorations, of their ritual forms (candles, prosphora), the skeptical reader could even read in the material interests of the clergy or the parish church; people are given to such criticism.
"The Church established" we read here. But in fact only one thing is necessary and required from the believer. Other things are offered and regulated by the Church for good order and benefit. A third category is permitted as a good intention or custom which has arises among the people of the Church, and these are given their proper forms for the Church.
In connection with this, there arises a question which the author of the letter himself does not pose, but which is essential.
Do the dead need prayers from us? Can the sins of a man be removed by the prayers of other men? The answer is simple. We know that the Church is, in all its depth "a bond of love", where there is One for all - Christ. Therefore in His Body, the Church, one must pray for all and all for each one. This idea is expressed in our services, especially in the prayers of the priest. We pray for those close to us as a duty of love regardless of whether our brother or sister needs our prayers or even wants them.
Much regarding prayers for the dead can appear illogical. We note that the more devoted a person was, the more prayers are offered for his repose. The Church is, as it were, indifferent to great sinners and apostates. Why is this? And in general, do the dead need our prayers? God Himself is merciful and loves mankind, and would He not forgive the dead person without our praying for him? The answer is given in the Gospel and the Epistles of the Apostles. In them there are given three axioms of Christianity. Death does not exist. Pray for one another. Love never ceases. (Rom. 14; James 5; 1Cor 13). "Acquire friends," the Saviour commanded, "so that when you are in poverty, they might receive you into eternal dwelling places." In the parable of our Lord concerning the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man had no one to pray for him when he died and to care for his brothers on the earth. Why? He had not acquired love toward himself on earth.
To forgive sins - this is only within God's will and God's power. "Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps 50). And yet we pray for them, for their repose. Why? First of all, we ask for mercy from God, and secondly, for the sake of that grace-filled fire which burned and warmed, to a greater or lesser degree, the reposed, that this fire be maintained, sustained through the change into another form of being; that the fear of God and contrition not be overcome by the fear of one's own unworthiness, of one's own sins. In the prayers of one's own brothers on earth and even more so in the prayers of the saints of the heavenly Church, love is at work, it is the necessary sustenance for the dead person, and therefore the Church not only prays for him itself but constantly calls upon the saints in heaven entreating prayers for all the reposed members of the Church.
Let us now go on to the material in the article which specifically called forth the concern of the author of the letter. We think it possible that this concern expresses also the concern of others. We allow the thought that our Eastern, traditional Church in the sphere of religious psychology is not so strict in the demand for being logical as the Western, which is brought up in a more rationalistic direction. However, allow us to state our understanding of the matter.
We mentioned at the beginning "pious accounts" which are in the article. Our Eastern, pious readers from ancient times have loved to read anthologies of brief, easy stories from the lives of the ascetics, the desert fathers, concerning their journeys, their struggles, their meetings with one another, their conversations, their relation to the desert around them, and to the humble and at the same time miraculous revelations in their lives and acts. Up to the most recent times, such anthologies have been popular, such as "The Spiritual Meadow", the "Lasiac History". These little stories often contain in their naive simplicity much that is allegorical and moral instruction. They are not historical material, and therefore it is not so important as to who is named in the account or whom specifically it concerned. And there is no insult to a person if he is named by mistake.
For example, the account of the conversation of St. Macarius with the skull he found. This conversation attracts attention because of its originality. The skull says that is was formerly that of a pagan priest. But what is its meaning? In the way of life of the person whose brain once worked in the skull? Hardly. "Macarius listened and placed the skull on the earth and buried it." Did Macarius not think to pray for that man? To make the sign of the cross over him? Or to sympathize with him? Why? Because this is hopeless. And this would have been sinful even. But he does not throw his discovery on the ground, but buries it; in this way he expressed his respect for the man. And this is edifying. But what about the conversation? It is an allegory, a parable. But it also might be the spiritual insight of a holy person. Do the Holy Scriptures not offer us examples of such spiritual insight?
A separate question and perhaps even a protest was evoked from the author of the letter by the account of the dream of Blessed Theodora concerning the toll houses, in the life of St. Basil the New. What is this dream needed for, when it introduces into the heavenly sphere concepts and actions which are purely earthly - the image of toll houses or custom stations in heaven, images of arguments for the soul between angels and demons? Let us reply that all this is expressed as a dream, the dream of the disciple of Basil the New, and it is given as an account of what the disciple saw in this dream. Our dreams are also in the form of real and earthly images. And at the same time our dreams can be allegorical. They can express our emotional state, our imagination, and often our illness both of body and soul, dressing them in the form of living beings.
In this instance the dream is recounted just as it was. We might allow that the narrator of the life of St. Basil the New put it into a certain order, put the sins of people into a certain scheme, as this is generally accepted among ascetic writers. But regardless, it is thanks to this full scheme of the falls and weaknesses of men that the account attracted such attention and became so popular among persons seeking moral perfection. But of course this dream is allegorical and is made up of a series of symbols. We are earthly, and we cannot speak of heavenly things with any other language than our earthly tongue; we do not know the tongues of angels. In the Psalms we address the Ruler of All: "Incline Thine ear' stretch forth Thy right hand; draw out Thy sword; chastise and defend with Thy high arm." The Metropolitan of Moscow, Makary, reminds us that we should understand such accounts in as lofty (spiritual) a manner as possible. We can only accept his advice.
Let us take this earthly side of the symbolism into the spiritual understanding. Theodora is the soul of man; the angels - its virtues; the demons - its sins. Both are in the soul of a man and perhaps after death are found, as it were, on the scales of a balance. Is this image inconsistent with our religious concepts? Talking about the "balance" we imitate the symbolism contained in our hymns: "Thy Cross is found as the measure between the two thieves; for the one was brought down to hades by the weight of his blasphemy, but the other was lightened of his sins unto the knowledge of theology: O Christ God, glory to Thee" (Troparion of the 9th Hour).