|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
Before we finish this chapter, I think we should look at the subject of the death of infants according to the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa. This subject as he develops it and as we shall present it in what follows, has a bearing on what has been said in this chapter about death and the separation of the soul from the body. On the one hand, it will be a summing up of the basic points in the teaching of the Fathers about the separation of the soul from the body which we have been discussing, and on the other hand, several further interesting aspects which concern us will be brought out.
There is a small treatise by St. Gregory of Nyssa entitled "Concerning infants snatched away prematurely", that is to say, taken from life before they had tasted the life for which they were born. The treatise was written for Governor Hierios of Cappadocia, who had asked St. Gregory of Nyssa what we ought to know about those who depart from life very early, whose death is joined with their birth [Gregory of Nyssa: On infants early deaths, NPNFns, vol. 5, p. 372-382.]
In setting out to elaborate this theme, St. Gregory of Nyssa takes the opportunity to praise the governor in fine words, calling him an "excellent" and "esteemed head". Beyond the expressions of polite address, it appears from the introduction that the Governor of Cappadocia had many qualities and gifts. He was distinguished by an indifference to material wealth as well as by an interest in men' s souls, which he held in the treasury of his love. In other words, he loved people and was not characterised by self-seeking.
Likewise it appears from the introduction to the text that at the time of writing this treatise St. Gregory of Nyssa was advanced in years. He likens himself to an old horse that is staying outside the racing stadium. However, he declares that he will strain his attention to answer the Governor's request.
Among Hieros' s other gifts was that he sought to be informed about the working of divine oekonomia (Providence) . He was asking why one person's life extends into old age while another' s is finished just as he is entering life.
The problem is really existential. St. Gregory puts it very beautifully. At his birth a human being enters on the scene of life, draws a breath of air, beginning the process of living with a cry of pain, pays the tribute of a tear to Nature, just tastes life's sorrows before any sweets have been his, and before his joints have consolidated, tender as he is, he dies, perhaps because he was left exposed as a newborn child, or because he has suffocated, or because some illness has suddenly put a stop to his life. Along with this fact, the question is also put as to whether the infant will be judged by the Judge like other people, whether it will receive a reward cooled by the dew of benediction, or whether it will be burned in the purifying fire. And this uncertainty arises because the child has done nothing in its life, neither bad nor good. For where there is no giving, there is no giving in return. Consequently, if there is no action and choice in infants, there is no reason for them to earn what we are hoping for. If the infant enters the Kingdom of Heaven in spite of this, then it is in a more advantageous position than those who have lived and struggled in their lives. If we think in this way, everyone is better off not to live long.
After having pinpointed the questions and problems, on to give an exhaustive answer. Of course he confesses from the start that these great topics belong to the unsearchable thoughts of God, and therefore he exclaims with the Apostle: "How rich and deep are the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgements, how undiscoverable his ways! Who has ever known the mind of the Lord?" (Rom. 11, 34-35). Nevertheless he proceeds to the matter in hand, because he believes in the divine grace which illumines all who have it. Without presenting his thoughts rhetorically in antithetical words, he proceeds to deal with the topic by a rational sequence.
The first point he makes is that human nature comes from God. Furthermore, the cause of the origin of all beings is in God and not in themselves. Uncreated nature, which is God's, surpasses every sense of dimension; it neither increases nor decreases, and indeed it is beyond any definition. By constrast, created nature is changeable, that is to say it increases and decreases. Human nature is composite, made up of heterogeneous elements, the noetic and the sensible, and it is a living image of the divine and transcendent power. Noetic nature belongs to the angelic and bodiless powers, which dwell in supramundane space, because that space is the most suitable for their bodiless nature. Here St. Gregory is speaking about the body which angels have, which he calls "a heavenly body subtle and light and ever-moving", because noetic nature is fine, pure, weightless and ever-moving. By contrast, sensible nature is not analogous to the noetic. Therefore in order that the earth might not be unfortunate and lack an inheritance from noetic nature, God created mankind, so that the noetic and the sensible might be united in his nature. In other words, man is a summing up of the whole creation, since he is composed of noetic and sensible.
The second point is that aim of the creation of man is that God should be glorified by noetic nature in the whole creation. Just as the body is maintained in life by the foods of the earth precisely because it is earthly, so there exists also an intelligible life by which our noetic nature is maintained. Just as the food going in and out of our body leaves a power in it, so also the noetic is given life by its participation in essential being.
Therefore the life suitable for noetic nature is participation in God. Each thing has its appropriate organ. The appropriate organ for the enjoyment of light is man's eye and not his finger or any other member of the human body. So it is that vision of God takes place through the noetic in man. Therefore life is participation and communion with God. And naturally this participation is knowledge of God at the depth at which the soul is able to contain it. Ignorance of God, of course, means non-participation in God.
Withdrawal from this life is a fall and ignorance. Since the fall of man, God has been working to cure the evil in us. It is evil to be withdrawn from God and to have no communion with Him, and the cure for this is to return into life again and attain communion with God. What is good then is to cure the noetic aspect of the soul, and of course whoever does not turn to the mystery of the Gospel word is ignorant of how to cure it.
What St. Gregory of Nyssa is pointing out here -and I think it is very important- is that the appropriate instrument for communing with God is the noetic part of the soul. It is through this that man participates in God and acquires knowledge of Him, which is life for him. But because the fall is man's alienation from life and his illness, which is also his death, the noetic part of his soul needs to be cured so that it may see the Light and attain participation with God.
Human nature was formed by God so that it might hope for this life and be brought towards it. This is the purpose for which man was created, to be united with God. Thus the enjoyment of this life and the fulfilment of man's purpose, which is theosis, is not a repayment and a reward, but a natural condition. And not to participate in God is not a punishment, but an illness of man's soul and of his whole being.
St. Gregory takes our eyes as an example. The capacity of our eyes to see is not a prize and a reward, but a natural condition of healthy eyes. And the inability to participate in vision is not a condemnation and the result of punishment, but a man's illness. Therefore the happy life is innate and proper "to those who have purified their senses". But those who have spiritually unclean eyes and do not know God do not participate in God. This is not a punishment, but a natural state of illness of the noetic part of their souls.
The third point, which is connected with the preceding ones, is that the good which is hoped for is by nature proper to the human race. And naturally this pleasure is, in one way, called a repayment. Enjoyment of this life is not a matter of justice, but a natural state of health of the soul. St. Gregory says this because of the way the question was put: How will the infant be judged or where he will be sent, since he did neither evil nor good in his life? St. Gregory says that the problem is not to be put in this way since it is not a matter of justice, but of a natural state of the health or illness of human nature.
This can be understood by the use of an example. Let us suppose that two men have an eye disease, and one of them submits to the cure and takes whatever medical science advises, even if it is disagreeable, while the other not only does not accept any advice from the doctor, but also lives intemperately. The first, for a natural reason, will enjoy his light, while the second, for a natural reason, will be deprived of his light.
This example shows clearly that it is proper to human nature to enjoy that life, while the illness of ignorance prevails in those who live according to the flesh. The person who cures and purifies his spiritual eyes and washes away the ignorance, which is the impurity of his soul's spiritual perception, attains this natural life. The other, since he evades purification and lives with illusory pleasures, making the illness difficult to cure, is estranged from the natural, lives a life contrary to nature and becomes a nonparticipant in this natural life which is communion with God.
If this is the natural course and natural ending of a man, in whom, according to his way of life, the eye of his soul is either cured or not, the case is somehow different with the infant. Since he has not had the illness in the first place and does not need to be purified and cured, he is living according to nature and therefore, as he is inexperienced in evil, he is not prevented by any illness of the soul from enjoying participation in the Light.
This teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa gives us the opportunity of underlining here that the soul of man is not impure at birth, but pure. Man from his birth experiences illumination of the nous. Therefore we see that even infants can have noetic prayer, corresponding of course to the images and representations of their age. When a person is created, his nous is in a state of illumination. We have observed many times that there are infants who pray, even in their sleep. A monk of the Holy Mountain says that when small children turn their attention in some direction and laugh without a reason, it means that they have seen their angel. What happens in the lives of saints, for whom it is altogether natural to be with the angels, happens in little children.
Therefore orthodox theology does not teach what theology in the West says, that man inherits the guilt of the ancestral sin. For we believe that at birth a person has a pure nous: his nous is illuminated, which is the natural state. The inheritance of ancestral sin, as we said in another place, lies in the fact that the body inherits corruptibility and mortality, which, with the passsage of time, and as the child grows and passions develop, darkens the noetic part of his soul. Indeed the developed passions linked with corruptibility and mortality and darkness of the environment darken the noetic part of the souls of children.
There is the problem of what happens at holy Baptism. That is to say, since infants have a pure nous which is in a state of illumination, and they have noetic prayer, then why do we baptise them?
The answer, as we see in the whole patristic tradition, is that by holy Baptism we are not getting rid of guilt from ancestral sin, but we are being grafted on to the Body of Christ, the Church, and are acquiring the power to conquer death. This is how we understand the baptism of babies. We baptise them so that they may become members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, that they may pass over death, overcome the garments of skin, decay and mortality. That is to say that as they grow, whenever the nous becomes darkened by passions and the darkness of the surroundings, they may have the ability to conquer death in Christ, to overcome the passions and to purify the noetic part of their souls once more.
If Baptism works in infants in this way, adults are prepared for Baptism by purification of the heart from passions. Then, through holy Chrism, illumination of the nous is received. Furthermore, through holy Baptism they become members of the Church and, being united with Christ and participating in the sacraments, they acquire the power to defeat death and attain deification. The deepest purpose of Baptism for both infants and adults is to attain deification, which is achieved only in Christ and in the Church.
Since this point is quite crucial, I may be permitted to quote the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa about the purity of the souls of infants: "Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul's eyes obscuring its measure of light, it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness that comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all". The infant's nous is pure, it has not been ill, it is distinguished by health and the natural state and therefore is not prevented at all from partaking of the divine Light.
St. Gregory of Nyssa always makes use of examples from the present life to explain the life which is to come. He states that there is an analogy between the present way of life and that of the future. Just as infants are suckled and fed with milk at first, but later are fed with other foods one after the other at the appropriate time, it is the same with the soul. It always takes part in life in the fitting order and sequence. This was said by the Apostle Paul, who first fed the Corinthians with milk and then gave solid food to those who reached the intelligible age.
There is a difference between the infant and the mature man in what pleases them. The man is pleased by his enterprises, by social recognition, by gifts and honours from others, by family life, by entertainments, shows, hunting, and so on, while the infant is pleased by milk, the nurse's embrace, and the gentle rocking which brings peaceful sleep.
The same is the case with spiritual age, in relation to spiritual blessings. Those who have nourished their souls with virtues in this life will in the future life enjoy divine comfort in proportion to the habit which they have acquired in this life. However, the soul which has not tasted virtue but is also not sickened with evil can also share the good to the depth to which it can contain the eternal blessings, empowered by the vision of Him Who is.
Thus infants, although inexperienced in evil, will share in divine knowledge, divine light, empowered by the vision of God, by divine grace; and naturally with the vision of God they will advance to more perfect knowledge. Actually God manifests Himself to all, "giving himself as much as the person in question accepts".
St. Gregory of Nyssa's thought is that the soul by its nature is led towards the good, towards participating in the divine Light. According to his receptivity a person receives divine grace and divine enrichment. This is independent of his physical age and the abundance or nonexistence of virtues. It is within this perspective that one should see a person's future state, and not compare the virtuous life of the mature person with the life of the infant and the immature person. He who undertakes such a comparison is himself immature, for he shows that he does not have theological arguments.
The fourth point which St. Gregory analyses is why God permits a baby to die at such an age. Having analysed previously that as far as participation in the divine Light is concerned, the number of years which we have lived does not play a great role, he now goes on to explain why God permits sudden departure from this life.
In answer to this question he says that no one can put the blame on God in cases where women murder their children because of illicit pregnancy. But as to the cases in which infants leave this world through some infirmity even though their parents have cared for them and prayed for them, we must look at them within God's Providence. For perfect providence is that which does not simply heal the sufferings which have taken place, but it protects the person from even tasting things which would happen in the future. Whoever knows the future, as is the case with God, will naturally prevent the baby from growing up, so that he will not be brought to a bad end. Thus in the latter cases it is precisely because He sees the infant's bad future that God does not permit him to live. God does this out of love and charity, without essentially depriving him of any of the future blessings, as we have seen.
In order to make this economy of God understandable, St. Gregory offers a beautiful and descriptive example. Let us suppose that there is a rich table with many appetizing foods. Let us go on to suppose that there is a supervisor who, on the one hand knows the qualities of each food - which one is harmful and unsuitable and which is suitable for eating - and on the other hand is very familiar with the temperament of each dinner guest. Let us still further suppose that this supervisor has absolute authority to permit one person to eat the food and prevent another, so that each one will eat what is suitable for his temperament and the sick person will therefore not be tormented nor the healthy one fall into loathing because of excess of food. If the supervisor should find out that one person had become drunk from much food and drink, or another was beginning to be drunk, he would get him out of that particular place. There is the case of a man who was put out of that place and turned against the supervisor, to accuse him of depriving him of the good things through envy. But if he were to look carefully at those who remained and suffered from sickness and headaches because of drunkenness, and expressed themselves with ugly words, then he would thank the supervisor for saving him from the pain of overeating.
This example matches human life. Human life is a table at which there are abundant foods. Life, however, is not sweet as honey, but also has various disagreeable foods such as salt and vinegar, which make human life difficult. Some foods arouse boasting, others make those who share them go into a frenzy, losing their heads, and in others they cause sickness. The supervisor of the table, who is God, takes away from that table promptly him who behaved properly in order not to be like those who suffer from excess of pleasure because of their gluttony.
In this way divine providence cures illnesses before they are yet manifest. Since God, with His prognostic power, knows that the newborn child will make bad use of the world when he grows up, He removes him from the banquet of life. The newborn child is detached from life so that he will not use his gluttony at the table of this life. On this point too we see the great love and philanthropy of God.
The fifth point, which results from the foregoing, is the question of why God makes a distinction in His choice, why he takes one away providentially, while he lets the other become so bad that we wish that he had never been born. Why is the baby taken from this life providentially while his father is left, who drinks at the banquet until his old age, strewing his evil dregs on himself as well as on his fellow-drinkers?
In answer to this question he says that what it means is a word "to the most grateful", to those who are thankful to God and, naturally, are well disposed. Besides, these are mysteries which man's reason cannot grasp, precisely because God's "reason" is different from man's reason.
St. Gregory maintains that what God arranges is not fortuitous and without reason. God is word, wisdom, virtue and truth, and He will not accept what is unrelated to virtue and truth. Thus sometimes, for reasons which we have mentioned, babies are snatched from life early, and sometimes God permits something different, because He has a better end in view.
It is also permitted and granted by God that evil people should remain in life so that some benefits may be derived. Referring to the Israelites, he says that God permitted Egypt to oppress them in order to teach the Israelite people, just as He also brought the Israelites out of Egypt so that they would not become like the Egyptians and acquire their customs. With poundings on the anvil even the hardest iron, which does not soften in fire, can take the form of a useful tool.
Another argument is dealt with as well. Some people maintain that not all people in this life have banished the fruits of wickedness, nor have the virtuous benefited from the sweating labours of virtue. To this St. Gregory of Nyssa replies that the virtuous will also rejoice in the next life, comparing their own blessings with the loss suffered by those condemned. This is said from the point of view that the comparison of opposites becomes "an addition of pleasure and an increase for the virtuous". To be sure, it does not mean that they rejoice at the condemnation of other men, but they thank God for their salvation, because they are experiencing the happiness of virtue in contrast to the unhappiness of sin and the passions.
Therefore infants are snatched away from life prematurely in order that they do not fall into more dreadful evils. If some live and become evil, this has other reasons which are in the Providence and wisdom of God. Nevertheless some benefits will come, since God does not do anything without a reason and a purpose.
The fact is that the infants who depart from life prematurely neither find themselves in a painful state nor become equal to those who have struggled to be purified by every virtue. They are in God's Providence. Anyway, the journey to God and participation in the uncreated Light is a natural state of the soul, and infants cannot be deprived of this, because by the power of divine grace they can attain deification.
Article published in English on: 15-9-2005.
Last update: 05-1-2024.