In Russian Icons of the Last Judgment dating from the 16th centuries onward, there appears at the bottom a naked man bound to a great pillar. Neither in Gehenna nor in Paradise, this man is known as the “Charitable Fornicator” (милостивый блудник)
His story is found in Russian prologues (i.e. synaxaria) under August 12, with the title “A word about the fornicator whose alms-giving spared him torment, but was not granted paradise” (Слово о некоем блуднице, иже милостыню творя, а блуда не остася). It describes a man who lived in Constantinople during the reign of Emporer Leo the Istaurian (8th Century), famed for his charity, but also for his unrepentant adultery. When he died, there was much debate throughout the city as to his fate. The Patriarch, St. Germanus, instructed people to pray for God’s revelation, rather than trying to reason by themselves as to the Divine judgments. To a certain hermit God granted a vision of the young man, chained to a pillar beyond the fires of Hell, but deprived of the Heavenly Realm. The man thus became known as the charitable, or gracious, fornicator. It is much later that the man appears in Russian Icons, just as described in the prologues, and often with an angel explaining this judgment of God.
Though just a small detail in Icons of the Last Judgment, the charitable fornicator is still instructive and even influential in Russian thought. Christ’s Second Coming is depicted as a great dividing of Good and Evil, yet the young man chained to a pillar reminds us that, now, the “weeds grow amid the wheat”. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn discovered whilst in the Soviet Gulags:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
What Solzhenitsyn discovered in the 20th century was shown hundreds of years earlier in Orthodox Iconography. Yet what is it to be “spared torments but deprived of Paradise”? St. John Chrysostom writes:
Many foolish people desire only to be delivered from Gehenna, but I think that he who is deprived of the Kingdom of Heaven should weep not so much over the torments of Gehenna as over being deprived of the good things of Heaven. For this alone is the cruelest of all punishments
– Homily 1 to Theodore
We are clearly meant to see the young man tied to the column as similar to our own, current, state: kind, perhaps, yet still bound by some other sins. Yet St. John tells us that such an ambiguous nature does not lead to an ambiguous judgment – to be deprived of paradise is punishment in itself, and this is usually reflected in the countenance of the shackled sinner.
“Be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” Christ tells us; by ourselves this is impossible, yet with God all things are possible. Not only possible, but necessary, as no matter what our good deeds, if they are not accompanied by true healing, if we are still bound by certain passions, then we may find ourselves shut out from Paradise come Judgment Day.
Never heard of this until now. Thank you so much!