Saint Theodora lived at Constantinople during the first half of the tenth century. She had been married, but was widowed early on and led a pious life, caring for the destitute and hopeless. Later, she became a nun and lived under the guidance of St Basil the New (March 26), living the monastic life in a solitary cell in her own home.
St Theodora died in great old age in the year 940. Gregory, a disciple of St Basil the New, asked his teacher to reveal to him the fate of the deceased nun. “Do you want this very much?” asked St Basil. “Yes, I do,” Gregory replied.
“You shall see her today, if you ask with faith, and if you believe that your request will be granted.”
Gregory was greatly surprised and he wondered how he would be able to see someone who had departed to eternal life. That same night, as Gregory was falling asleep, a youth of comely appearance came to him and said, “Get up. Father Basil summons you to visit Theodora. If you want to see her, then come along.”
Gregory immediately went to St Basil, but did not find him there. Those present said that St Basil had gone to visit the nun Theodora. They showed Gregory the path taken by St Basil. Gregory followed it until he found himself in a labyrinth. The narrow and difficult path led to a bolted gateway. Seeing through a crack that there was a courtyard beyond the gates, Gregory called out to a woman seated there. She explained that this courtyard belonged to Father Basil, who was wont to come there to visit his spiritual children.
“Open to me, for I am also a spiritual child of St Basil,” Gregory entreated. The servant girl, however, would not open the doors without Theodora’s permission. Gregory began to knock loudly on the doors. St Theodora heard it and let him through, exclaiming, “Here he is, the beloved son of my master, Basil!”
After greeting him, Theodora asked, “Brother Gregory, who has guided you here?” Then he related how through the prayer of St Basil he had the good fortune to behold her in the glory which she had attained by her ascetic life.
Gregory began to beg her to tell him, for his spiritual benefit, how she had parted from the body and come to this holy habitation. St Theodora replied, “Dear child Gregory, how can I tell you everything? After the point, in which I was with tribulation in fear and trembling, I have forgotten much, moreover, I saw such faces and heard such voices, as one would never see nor hear in one’s life.”
“I can say that death would have come upon me fiercely because of my unjust deeds, were it not for the prayers of our Father Basil. His prayers alone made my death easier.” After this St Theodora began to relate how a multitude of evil spirits suddenly appeared and accosted her before her end. They carried large books, in which were written all the sins of her whole life. They reviewed them impatiently, as though expecting the arrival of some sort of judge at any minute. Seeing all this, St Theodora felt such fear and terror, that finally she became exhausted. She glanced all around, hoping to see someone who would drive the devils away.
Finding herself in this tormenting situation, she then beheld two angels standing to the right of her. One was her Guardian Angel, the other she did not know. The evil spirits then withdrew farther off. An angel said, “Why do you, grim enemies of the race of man, seek to harass and torment the soul of the deceased? Do not rejoice, for she is not one of yours.” Then the shameless spirits began to recount everything that the saint had done from her youth, whether by word, or deed or thought. To all this they added much of their own invention, seeking to slander the saint.
Finally, Death came. It poured something into a bowl and offered it to the saint to drink, then taking a knife, it cut off her head. “Ah, my child,” continued St Theodora, “how bitter it was for me then, how bitter! At this moment Death snatched away my soul, which quickly separated from the body, just as a bird leaps off the fowler’s hand when he sets it free.” Radiant angels took the soul of St Theodora and began to lead it to Heaven, whereas her body was left to lie upon the earth like discarded clothing.
When the holy angels had the soul of the nun, the evil spirits returned saying, “We have a list of her many sins, answer for them.” Then the angels began to recount all the good deeds which the saint had done: her charity, her love of peace, her love for the temple of God, her patience, humility, fasting, and many other ascetic deeds which the nun had accomplished in life. They set her good deeds opposite her sins, which expiated them.
The evil spirits gnashed their teeth, wanting to abduct the holy soul and hurl it down into the abyss. Then suddenly, St Basil appeared in spirit and he said to the holy angels, “My protectors, this soul has rendered me many services, lessening the distress of my infirmity and old age. I have prayed concerning her to the Lord, and He bestowed this good thing.” With this St Basil gave the angels some sort of small chest, adding, “When you want the celestial trials to finish, take what is in this chest and give it to the wicked and evil spirits.” After giving them the chest, the saint disappeared.
Seeing all this, the evil spirits remained perplexed and speechless for a long time, and then suddenly, they howled, “Woe to us! In vain have we toiled, watching and following her, noting how and where she sinned.” Then they disappeared.
Then St Basil appeared again and brought with him many different vessels with fragrances, which he entrusted to the angels. Opening one vessel after the other, the angels poured out the fragrances upon St Theodora. She was filled with a spiritual sweetness and felt that she had changed and become very luminous. St Basil said, “My protectors! When you have done everything needful for her, and have brought her to the habitation prepared by the Lord for me, leave her there.” The holy angels took St Theodora and proceeded up to Heaven, rising up through the air.
Then suddenly, they encountered the First Trial, which is called the Trial of Idle and Nasty Words. The tormentors demanded an answer be given for every evil thing that Theodora had ever spoken about anyone, and they pointed out the indecorous laughter, mockery and crude songs. The saint had forgotten all this, since quite a long time had passed when she first began to lead a life pleasing to God. However, the angels defended her.
Then came the Trial of Lies. The evil spirits there were very nasty, stubborn and fierce. They furiously began to slander the saint, but the angels gave them something from the small chest and they passed by unhindered.
When Theodora reached the Third Trial, that of Judging and Slander, from among the evil spirits emerged one rather older, and it began to tell how the nun had slandered someone with vile words during her life. Much of what he said was false, but still it was amazing how the demons remembered things in detail and with exactness, things which the nun herself had forgotten.
The servants of the Fourth Trial, that of Gluttony and Drunkenness, were ready to devour the saint like ravenous wolves, recalling how she ate in the morning without praying to God, how she ate at lunch and supper without measure, and transgressed the fasts. Trying to snatch the nun from the hands of the angels, one of the evil spirits said, “Did you not promise the Lord God at holy Baptism to renounce Satan and all his works and everything that pertains to him? Having given such a vow, how could you have done the things which you have done?” And the devils even calculated all the cups of wine which Theodora had imbibed in her life. When she said, “Yes, this was so, and I remember that,” the angels again gave a portion from the small chest of St Basil, just as they had done at each of the trials, and went farther.
“Do the people on earth know what awaits them here and with what they will meet at the time of their death?” Theodora asked the angels. “Yes, they do know,” an angel replied, “but the pleasures and delights of life act so strongly upon them, and so occupy their attention, that they involuntarily forget what awaits them beyond the grave.”
“It is good for those who remember the Holy Scripture, or show charity, or do other good deeds, which can redeem them later from the eternal torments of Hell. But woe to those who live carelessly as though forever, thinking only of the sweets of the belly and their pride. If death should suddenly overtake them, they perish completely, since they have no good deeds in their defense. The souls of these people are fiercely tormented by the dark princes of these trials, they lead them off into the dark places of hell and will hold them until the Coming of Christ. So you would have suffered this too, Theodora, if you had not received the gift from St Basil, which saved you from all harm here.”
After the angel finished speaking, they came to the Fifth Trial, that of Laziness and Sloth, where sinners are tormented for all the hours of the day spent in idleness. Here the indolent are held, for they were too lazy to go to the Church of God on feastdays. Here the careless and the despondent are also tested, both the laity and the clergy, and each one shows a lack of attentiveness to his own soul. Many here are hurled off into the abyss. The angels made up for the insufficiencies of the nun with the gifts of St Basil, and proceeded farther.
The Sixth Trial was that of Theft, and they passed through freely. The Seventh Trial, that of Greed and Avarice, the angels managed to pass through unhindered because, by the mercy of God, St Theodora had always been satisfied with what God provided, and she distributed what she possessed to the needy.
The spirits of the Eighth Trial, that of Bribery, tormented those guilty of taking bribes and Flattery. They gnashed their teeth in malice when the angels moved on, for they had nothing against St Theodora.
So the angels proceeded freely through the Ninth Trial, that of Unrighteousness and Vanity; the Tenth Trial, that of Envy and Jealousy; and the Eleventh Trial, that of Pride.
Along the way they soon encountered the Twelfth Trial, that of Anger. The eldest of the spirits, full of anger and arrogance, commanded its servants to torment and torture the nun. The devils repeated all the words of the nun that she had spoken in anger. They even remembered how she had glared at her own children with anger, or strictly punished them. For all this the angels gave an answer, handing out things from the small chest.
Like robbers, the evil spirits of the Thirteenth Trial, that of Spitefulness, rushed out, but finding nothing in their records, they wailed bitterly. Then St Theodora made bold to ask one of the angels how the evil spirits know what evil things people do in life. The angel answered, “Every Christian receives a Guardian Angel at holy Baptism, who invisibly protects him from everything bad and urges him to everything good. He records all the good deeds done by this person. But on the other side, there is an evil angel keeping track of all the evil deeds people do, and writes them down in his book. He records all the sins which, as you have seen, accost people as they pass through these trials on their way to Heaven. These sins can deny a soul entry into Paradise, and lead directly into the abyss in which the evil spirits themselves dwell. And there these souls will dwell until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, if they have no good deeds which can snatch them from the devil’s clutches.
People who truly believe in the Holy Trinity, and who have received the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ the Savior, ascend directly to Heaven without any hindrance. And the holy angels of God are shown as their defenders, and the saints pleasing to God intercede for the salvation of souls of righteous people. Concerning the impious and heretics of evil doctrine, and those who accomplish nothing useful in their lives, no one looks after them and the angels can say nothing in their defense.”
The angels then reached the Fourteenth Trial, that of Thuggery, where all who have lashed out with anger, smiting someone on the cheek or using some other weapon, are tested. The angels passed freely through this trial, too.
Suddenly, they found themselves at the Fifteenth Trial, that of Sorcery and Necromancy (Conjuring), in the midst of beckoning demons. Here are located he viperous-mannered spirits, the purpose of whose existence is to lead people into temptation and corruption. Through the grace of Christ St Theodora soon bypassed this trial. But after this she asked whether it is for every sin which a man commits in life that he is tormented with at the trials, or if it is possible, even during life, to expiate the sin in order to be cleansed of it and not be tormented with it at the trials.
The angels told St Theodora that not all experience the trials in that way, but only those like her who did not make a heart-cleansing confession before death. “If I had confessed to my spiritual Father all my sins without shame or fear, and if I had received absolution from him,” said St Theodora, “then I should have gone through all these trials unhindered, and not one of my sins would have tormented me. But since I was not in the habit of confessing all my sins to my spiritual Father, they torment me for them here.”
“Of course, it helped me a good deal that I strove and desired to flee sin all my life. Whoever strives diligently for repentance, always receives forgiveness from God, and also unencumbered passage from this life to the blessed life beyond the grave. The evil spirits, which are here during these trials with their records, open them find nothing written, because the Holy Spirit will make invisible everything that is written. They know that everything written by them is wiped out, thanks to Confession, and they are deeply saddened.”
“If a person is still among the living, then they aspire to write down some other sort of sins. Truly great is the saving power of Confession! It saves one from much woe and distress, it provides the possibility to go through all the trials without hindrance and come to God. Some do not come to Confession in the expectation that there will be time for salvation, and for the remission of their sins. Others simply are ashamed to tell the priest their sins in Confession. Such people will be severely tested by these trials. There are also those who are ashamed to tell everything to one spiritual Father, and they prefer to tell one sin to one priest, and others to another, and so forth. For such a Confession they will be punished, and they will suffer not a little in passing from trial to trial.”
Imperceptibly they approached the Sixteenth Trial, that of Fornication. The tormentors were astonished that the saint had reached them without hindrance, and when they began to relate what she had done in life, they gave much false testimony, while providing names and places in their account. So it also happened with the servants of the Seventeenth Trial, that of Adultery. The Eighteenth Trial, that of Sodomy, was where all the sins of fornication against nature and of incest are punished, all the nasty, secretly done deeds of which, in the words of the Apostle, it is shameful even to speak. St Theodora passed quickly through these. The angels said to her, “You saw the dreadful and loathsome fornications of that trial. Know that it is a rare soul that passes by them freely. All the world is immersed in the evil of temptations and filth, nearly all people are lascivious, and “the imagination of man is intently bent on evil from his youth” (Gen. 8: 21). Few are those who have mortified the passions of the flesh, and there are few who would freely pass through these trials. A large number of those who arrive here perish. The forces of the fornication trials boast that they, more than all the other trials, fill up the fiery raging in Hell. Give thanks to God, Theodora, that you have bypassed these tormentors of lewdness through the prayers of your spiritual Father, St Basil. You shall see no greater terror.”
At the Nineteenth Trial, that of Idol-Worship and Every Heresy, there was nothing with which to torment St Theodora.
At the Twentieth and final Trial, that of Lack of Pity and Hardness of Heart, was recorded everything unmerciful, cruel, spiteful and hateful. The soul of a person not following the command of God to be merciful, is flung from here into Hell and kept there until the general resurrection. The servants of the fierce demon swooped down like a swarm of bees, but finding nothing concerning the nun, they went away.
The rejoicing angels then transported the saint through the gates of Heaven. When she entered into Heaven the water on the ground parted, and joined together again behind her. A triumphant host of angels met the saint and conducted her to the Throne of God. As they went, two divine clouds descended upon them. At an inexplicable height stood the Throne of God, so white that it illumined all present before it.
St Theodora continued her narrative, “Everything there is so wonderful that it is not possible either to comprehend or explain it; the mind is clouded with perplexity, and memory fails, and I forgot where I was.” She bowed down to the Unseen God and heard a Voice, commanding that she be shown all the souls of the righteous and of sinners, and after this to grant her repose in a place where St Basil would indicate.
When all this had been shown her, one of the angels said, “You know, Theodora, that in the world it is the custom for the living to remember the departed on the fortieth day after death. So, there on earth St Basil remembers you today.”
“And so,” Theodora continued, “my spiritual child Gregory, after the fortieth day from the separation of my soul from the body, I am now in this place, which was prepared for our Father St Basil.” After this she led him through the heavenly habitations, where Gregory encountered St Basil in the courtyard beyond the trapeza. Afterwards, St Theodora led him into the garden. Astonished at all the good things, Gregory wanted to find out about them. But St Theodora merely said that all this is not of the earth, but is attainable for those who endure many sorrows and misfortunes in the earthly life, yet keep the commands of the Lord and precisely fulfill them. When St Theodora said that life in Heaven is distinctly different from life on earth, Gregory involuntarily pinched himself, wanting to know whether he was still in the flesh. His spirit was joyful, his senses and thoughts pure. He wanted to return from the garden which the nun had shown him, and go to the courtyard.
When he returned, there was no one there in the trapeza. Bowing to St Theodora, Gregory started to return home, and at that very moment he awoke and began to wonder where he was and what he had heard and seen. He was afraid that it was all just a demonic delusion, and he went to his teacher. Then St Basil himself recounted everything that Gregory had seen, and asked him to write down everything he had seen and heard, for the benefit of others.
For similar after death experiences, see the Life of St Salvius (St Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VII, 1), and other examples in St Bede, HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH CHURCH AND PEOPLE, Book V, chs. 12-14).