Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

Ephesians 6:18

Today, by God’s grace, is the 9 year anniversary of the beginning of the Prayer Team. What began as a series intended for only Lent of 2015, with the goal of getting 30 people to join, now numbers well over 4,000 people. I am thankful for your support, encouragement and most especially your prayers. May God continue to bless this ministry and all who partake in it.

Since so many people are uncomfortable talking about the end of life, it comes as no surprise that many people do not understand Orthodox practices surrounding the end of life. The first misconception to clarify is that the Orthodox Church does not have “last rites.” In the Catholic Church, there is a custom of “last rites” which includes confession, a last Communion called “Viaticum” and anointing with oil, called “extreme unction.” Because many Catholics, like many Orthodox, wait until someone has lost consciousness to call a priest, oftentimes the last rites just consist of anointing and a prayer, as confession and Communion are no longer possible. (Interview with Fr. Len Plazewski, Pastor of Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, Tampa, FL, January 29, 2024).

In the Orthodox Church, the sacraments of Holy Communion, Holy Unction and confession are available to everyone at all times of life, and especially when someone is very ill. We encourage those who are sick to avail themselves of these sacraments at any time, not just when circumstances become dire.

There are two prayers in the Orthodox Prayer Book used by the priests, which is called the “Efhologion”, which has several prayers related to illness. An English version (there are several actually) of the Mikron Efhologion and Agiasmatarion, The Priest’s Service Book, was translated and produced by Fr. Evagoras Constantinides in 1989 (Melissa Printing Company, Thessaloniki, Greece). There are prayers for those who are sick, a prayer for any illness, and prayers before and after an operation. These may be used throughout life, as there is need. And the intention or petition of these prayers is for healing.

There are two specific prayers that deal with the end of life, when healing is not possible. The first prayer is “For Those Suffering from Old Age or Incurable Illness.” This prayer makes reference to “a Christian, painless, blameless and peaceful end in faith and endurance,” as well as “spiritual joy in the recollection of his/her good works.,” It asks the Lord to “lead him/her to repentance and confession of his/her trespasses; so that he/she may stand blameless before Your Son and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the day of His second coming.” (p. 190-191)

The second prayer is called “Prayer at the Separation of the Soul from the Body.” This prayer can be offered when death is imminent. It asks for the Lord to “bring about, in repose, the parting of the soul of your servant (Name) from his/her body.” It literally asks God to end the person’s life and take their soul from their body.

How are these prayers used in a practical way? First, there is no requirement that either of them be offered. If a person passes away and never had the prayer of the separation of soul and body offered over them, they didn’t miss out on something essential for salvation. The prayer, in essence, wasn’t needed. Second, when making a pastoral visit at the end of a person’s life, I explain to the family, and to the patient, if they are conscious, the difference between the two prayers. One asks for strength as life ebbs away, and the other asks for life to end. And I make sure before I offer a prayer, that this is indeed the prayer that is wanted. I wouldn’t want to ask God to end a person’s life if people were not okay with that. Third, the prayer of separation of soul and body is offered only when death is imminent. For instance, just before life support is disconnected, or when vital signs indicate a person is actively dying.

It is really important to understand that there is no “need” for a priest to race to a hospital to get a prayer in before someone passes away. Yes, many times I do rush to the hospital, and in the case where the person has already passed away, a Trisagion (memorial) service is offered, as the soul has already separated from the body. Also, there is no “need” for Holy Communion right at the end of life. If it is possible to offer someone Holy Communion, that is a blessing. If we have lived a Christian life, and have availed ourselves of the sacraments throughout life, receiving Holy Communion one more time at the end is not required.

It is important to understand that we have prayers that can be offered at the end of life, but there are no required rituals. The prayers are there to aid us and those who are dying. They are meant to provide comfort and reassurance and speak either to strength in the final days, or for death to occur quickly and peacefully at a time when it is obvious medically that a person is dying.

I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my supplications. Because He inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call on Him as long as I live. The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I beseech Thee, save my life!” Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, He saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my consternation, “men are all a vain hope.” What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. Psalm 116:1-13

There are no last requirements, only last prayers that may (but do not have to) be offered as one passes away from this life and prepares to enter into eternal life.