The Legend of the Tollhouses
by Jennifer Doane Upton
In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a tradition regarding the “aerial tollhouses” which the soul encounters after death. Though it does not have the force of dogma, it is recounted by such Church Fathers as St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius the Great and St. Ephraim the Syrian. (The Orthodox Church maintains a certain dogmatic silence on matters such as eschatology, since these realities cannot be fully expressed in human language.)
In the late 20th century it was Fr. Seraphim Rose who, in his book The Soul After Death, re-introduced the tradition of the tollhouses to the English-speaking world—though he is a suspect figure to many Orthodox Christians in the West due to his counterculture background. According to this tradition, the soul after death encounters realms in the “air”—the psychic plane—that are ruled by demons, who tempt it according to various sins, particularly those it had a special affinity for during life. If it passes through those realms without yielding to temptation, it ascends to Paradise. If not, it may reside in Hell for a period, to be purged of those sins. The damned do not encounter the tollhouses, however, but go to Hell directly. Seraphim Rose quotes the following passages from Eastern Orthodox fathers and saints with regard to this tradition:
St. Athanasius the Great, describing a visionary experience of St. Anthony:
At the approach of the ninth hour, after beginning to pray before eating food, [he] was suddenly seized by the Spirit and raised up by the angels into the heights. The aerial demons opposed his progress: the angels, disputing with them, demanded that the reasons of their opposition be set forth, because Anthony has no sins at all. The demons strove to set forth the sins committed by him from his very birth; but the angels closed the mouths of the slanderers, telling them that they should not count the sins from his birth which had already been blotted out by the grace of Christ; but let them present—if they have any— the sins he committed after he entered into monasticism and dedicated himself to God. In their accusation the demons uttered many brazen lies; but since their slanders were wanting in proof, a free path was opened for Anthony. Immediately he came to himself and saw that he was standing in the same place where he had stood up for prayer. Forgetting about food, he spent the whole night in tears and groaning, reflecting on the multitude of man’s enemies, on the battle against such an army, on the difficulty of the path to heaven through the air, and on the words of the Apostle, who said: Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of the air (Eph 6:12; Eph. 2:2). The Apostle, knowing that the aerial powers are seeking only one thing, are concerned over it with all fervor, exert themselves to deprive us of a free passage to heaven, exhorts: Take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day (Eph. 6:13), that the adversary may be put to shame, having no evil thing to say of us (Titus 2:8).
St. John Chrysostom, describing the hour of death:
Then we will need many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, a greater intercession from angels on the journey through the spaces of the air. If when traveling in a strange land or a strange city we are in need of a guide, how much more necessary for us are guides and helpers to guide us past the invisible dignities and powers and world-rulers of this air, who are called persecutors and publicans and tax-collectors.
St. Macarius the Great:
When you hear that there are rivers of dragons, and mouths of lions, and the dark powers under the heavens, and fire that burns and crackles in the members, you think nothing of it, not knowing that unless you receive the earnest of the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 1:22), they hold your soul as it departs from the body, and do not suffer you to rise to heaven.
St. Ephraim the Syrian:
When the fearful hosts come, when the divine takers-away command the soul to be translated from the body, when they draw us away by force and lead us away to the unavoidable judgment place—then, seeing them, the poor man…comes all into a shaking as if from an earthquake, in all in trembling… The divine takers-away, having taken the soul, ascend in the air where stand the chiefs, the authorities and world-rulers of the opposing powers. These are our accusers, the fearful publicans, registrars, tax-collectors; they meet it on the way, register, examine, and count out the sins and debts of this man—the sins of youth and old age, voluntary and involuntary, committed in deed, word and thought. Great is the fear here, great the trembling of the poor soul, indescribable the want which it suffers then from the incalculable multitudes of its enemies surrounding it there in myriads, slandering it so as not to allow it to ascend to heaven, to dwell in the light of the living, to enter the land of life. But the holy angels, taking the soul, lead it away.
St. John Damascene, from the Divine Liturgy:
O Virgin, in the hour of death rescue me from the hands of the demons, and the judgment, and the accusation, and the frightful testing, and the bitter toll-houses, and the fierce prince, and the eternal condemnation, O Mother of God.
St. Cyril of Alexandria:
What fear and trembling await you, O soul, in the day of death! You will see frightful, wild, cruel, unmerciful and shameless demons, like dark Ethiopians, standing before you. The very sight of them is worse than any torment. The soul, seeing them, becomes agitated, is disturbed, hastens to the angels of God. The holy angels hold the soul; passing with them through the air and rising, it encounters the toll-houses which guard the path from earth to heaven, detaining the soul and hindering it from ascending further. Each toll-house tests the sins corresponding to it; each sin, each passion has its tax-collectors and testers.
The reality which the Orthodox tradition of the tollhouses unveils is not fundamentally other than the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. According Bishop Kallistos Ware, we don’t change ontologically simply through death, and so if our love still needs to be perfected, this happens in the afterlife. This is the truth behind both Purgatory and the legend of the tollhouses.
Many Orthodox however, unwilling or unable to take a symbolic leap, are appalled by the idea of the tollhouses, which they consider to be rank superstition—an attitude due in part to the tendency of many modern Orthodox to define themselves primarily as “not Roman Catholic”, making them highly suspicious of any doctrine that resembles the Catholic Purgatory. Also, the contemporary “Protestantizing” of Eastern Orthodoxy, in North America at least, makes many Orthodox wary of any doctrine of after-death purgation, though such traditions are as much Orthodox as Catholic. Kallistos Ware, for one, de-emphasizes the difference between the Eastern and Western concepts. (Whether or not Hell and Purgatory are two different “places”, there is obviously a great difference between posthumous suffering accompanied by hope, and such suffering when it is totally without hope; this is the crux of the matter.) And a third reason for Orthodox suspicion of this tradition among many Orthodox Christians is the mistaken idea that the concept of aerial tollhouses implies that the soul, if it fails to pass these obstacles, might actually be damned. Such a doctrine would certainly go a long way toward denying the efficacy of Christ’s Atonement. But as we have seen, Orthodox tradition associates the tollhouses with the purgation of the saved, not the punishment of the lost.
It is only believing Christians who encounter the tollhouses after death. The unbeliever gave up his soul long before his death. He saw no value in his Spirit; therefore when the Evil One offered him worldly gain in return for his giving evil something like a spiritual valuation, he accepted the bargain without hesitation. And so, at the moment of his death, this man has nothing in his soul which can ascend even as far as the psychic realm, the only place where choice can be made, the only realm in which evil could possibly tempt him. Consequently he falls below the earth, below the human state, into the infra-psychic realm, where he finally sees all those demonic worlds which he was mercifully forbidden to see during his terrestrial life.
The believing Christian, however, has kept the Spirit alive in his soul to a greater or a lesser degree, and that Spirit longs to ascend homeward to Paradise. The Spirit flies away toward Paradise, its one true love, with seeming unconcern for the soul it carries in its wake. The soul which had the single life-task of conforming itself to that Spirit, has nonetheless spent a lifetime trying to hold on to its worldly attachments and to the passions which seemed to give this world such richness and stability.
At the moment of death, however, this world is gone. If the soul is pure, the Spirit enfolds the soul within itself, and becomes like a golden arrow which delivers the soul in an instant to its true home.
The soul with worldly attachments, however, is left hanging in the air as it were. It can’t follow with simplicity the Spirit in its ascent. The soul’s passions keep reaching for a world that is no longer there. And the demons, who can move about with greater suppleness in the psychic realm (which the soul has just now entered) than they could in the physical one, offer themselves to the soul in lieu of the world it has lost. Here, if the soul does not listen to the angels which have been sent to it as helpers, it will not see that the demons are in fact offering it nothing, but are instead trying to take away its eternal life. It is now more than ever that the soul needs to understand the ways of the Spirit. In life it far too often followed the ways of this world because that is all it could see through its passional vision. Had it only raised its vision higher it would have seen the comings and goings of the Spirit creating a multitude of paths, which fall like a golden web upon everything the soul had taken to be merely “this world.” It is here, in a world of higher vision, that the awakened soul wishes it had willed to followed the Spirit long ago.