On the Soul and Resurrection (Gregory of Nyssa)

St Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and Resurrection. ed. Catherine Roth. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993.

The problem: The soul is either material or immaterial.  If material, it is dissolved with the body. If immaterial, it cannot be contained in the elements of the universe (Roth 15). And if everything has elements, and the soul does not, then the soul cannot be anywhere.

To what degree was Gregory a Platonist?  Let’s ignore the question and highlight just one part: While Plato said the body was a prison, Gregory changes body for “flesh” (sarx), giving it a more biblical feel.

Goal:  To provide Gregory comfort in Basil’s death

The proper view of the soul promotes virtue (Cross Reference to Schaff edition, Nyssa 431).

Nyssa anticipates Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles:  (x)(y)[(x=y)—>(P)(Px<–>Py)]. In other words, if the soul is something other than these elements, then it isn’t identical with them.

The God-World Relation

God encompasses all things (432).  Indeed, there is a “universal harmony” allowing for “measured intervals.” In fact, “man is a little world in himself and contains all the elements which go to complete the universe” (433).

What is the Soul?

“The soul is an essence created, and living, and intellectual, transmitting from itself to an organized and sentient body the power of living” (433).

Nyssa and his interlocutor bring up analogies between soul, mind, and God (436ff). He does not identify the three but says “one thing is like another.” Prototype and Image.  Despite his reputation, Nyssa rejects the Platonic metaphor of the chariot, choosing rather the “divine axiom that there is no excellence in the soul which is not a property as well of the Divine nature.  For he who declares the soul to be God’s likeness asserts that anything foreign to HIm is outside the limits of the soul (439).

The Condition of the Soul After Death

Hades is the transition to the Unseen world. Macrina is quick to point out that when we say a soul is “in” Hades we do not mean so spatially. In discussing how the soul will be reunited with the body (e.g., the elements), Gregory suggests that the soul is “stationed like a guard over its own” (Roth 68).  That might explain the phenomenon of ghosts, but it doesn’t do justice to the souls being in Abraham’s bosom. Gregory (or Macrina) is aware of that challenge and points out that whatever else is true in the parable, it can’t be about corporeal bodies (since the body is in the tomb).  The gulf, then, is not a physical chasm, but a “barrier which prevents incompatible things from coming together” (70).  It couldn’t be a physical chasm for the obvious fact that a bodiless spirit could easily fly across it!

The Purification of the Soul

Gregory notes that souls that are too attached to fleshly desires retain the form of the flesh after their passing. This might explain the idea of why ghosts resemble their former lives (76).

Macrina divides the souls faculties accordingly: the godlike power is that of contemplation (77).  Indeed, “the accurate likeness of the Divine consists in our soul’s imitation of the superior Nature” (78).

Why is Purification Painful?

It’s painful to remove physical attachments from the soul.  But the nature of virtue should spur us onward.  Gregory notes that “all freedom is one in nature” and “Virtue has no master. Therefore, everything free will be in virtue, for that which is free also has no master” (86).

Transmigration of Souls

Gregory has to cut reincarnation off at the pass, since it seems his Platonic dialogue is moving in that direction. Macrina points out that by going to lower matter in order to be raised up, reincarnation has to have matter purifying the soul.

The Origin of the Soul

Gregory holds to creationism as opposed to traducianism (98).

On Fasting and Feasting (Basil the Great)

Basil the Great.  On Fasting and Feasting. Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013.

This is not the name of a book Basil wrote. It is a collection of sermons delivered on various feast days.  It is nothing like a systematic treatise on fasting, but it can be a good spur for the Christian life.  We really don’t know how to feast because we don’t know how to fast. We consider McDonald’s to be a good meal.

Birth of Christ

This sermon establishes the pattern that as Christ’s flesh participates in divinity, so our own flesh must be prepared.  The incarnation is the foundation for fasting. Basil repeats the standard line that the mode of eternal generation is ineffable (Basil 27). The closest analogy is fire to iron.  He does seem to anticipate something like the extra-calvinisticum when he notes “Heaven was not deprived of what it contained, and the earth received the heavenly one within its own embraces” (30).  As Christ’s flesh shares in divinity, “it does not impart its own weaknesses to the divinity.”

The body of the Holy Virgin is “the workshop for this divine economy.”  Nice turn of phrase.

On Baptism

Any time is an acceptable time for baptism (41). Basil uses the language of baptism saving.  We shouldn’t try to weaken that.  What we should not miss, however, is that baptism allows us to participate in redemptive history.

We also see hints of a baptismal service in the ancient church: “You may find yourself (as unbaptized) able neither to lift your hands to heaven, stand upright, give proper bodily worship for the ritual, learn properly, confess clearly, join with God, nor renounce the devil” (49).

Learn good habits: “prayer as a night-watchman, fasting as the servant at the door, psalmody as your soul-guide” (52).

First Homily on Fasting

True fasting should loose the bonds of iniquity (injustice). One of the reasons we shouldn’t look sad during a fast is because we shouldn’t “look gloomy while [we] are being healed” (55). Fasting, when done properly, can kill (or at least expose) the root of a sin in the soul. Basil takes the command to “anoint your head” as a reference to the chrismic mysteries and oil. This allows us, he suggests, to “share in Christ” (56).

In terms of physical and temporal health, Basil notes that “eating lightly” is healthier for the body (57), Of course, they would have been eating actual food and not today’s food-like products.

The saints received fasting as a paternal inheritance.

Basil gives Noah the benefit of the doubt on the wine incident.  Noah didn’t know how to partake moderately.  Developing this point, fasting allows us to view food (and wine) properly. To the degree that we moderns do fast, we break our fast, not by small amounts of lean meat and a little wine, but by McDonalds.

“Fasting begets prophets and strengthens mighty men” (61). It is quite simply a training regimen.

A man who truly fasts will not lend money at interest (64).

A man who does not heed “the life-giving doctrines will have his mind waste away” (67).

Passions disturb the mind, but fasting weakens the passions.

Second Homily on Fasting

Thesis: “The more you deny the flesh, the more you render your soul radiant” (73-74).

The church uses the feast days to train the body to rhythms of fasting and feasting.  These rhythms keep the soul ready to fight spiritual warfare.  Indeed, “going without food to eliminate intemperance, they foster a kind of receptivity, re-education, and fresh start of the redevelopment of the nutritive faculty [perhaps we don’t need to adopt this aspect of ancient medicine]” (79).

There are aspects of Basil’s counsel that we probably couldn’t adopt today: church feast calendar, etc.  Much of what he says, though, is worth considering and neatly unites both body and soul.

St Basil: On Social Justice

The book is a collection of homilies St Basil wrote during the famine that hit Cappadocia.  The book exhibits his sheer rhetorical power.  One almost wept with pity in his homily on those who lend at interest.  One problem, though:  The book is titled “On Social Justice,” which connotes blue-haired Antifa warriors on Tumblr.  And the editor never really defines justice except pointing to a term St Basil used a lot:  epanison.  Normally translated “distribution,” it actually means “restore the balance.”  I suppose that’s as good a definition as any.

To the Rich

What is the use of wealth?  “When wealth is scattered as the Lord intends, it naturally returns; but when it is gathered, it naturally dispurses” (Basil 44).

I will tear down my barns

Main idea: sow righteousness (63). “Do not make common need a means of private gain.” “If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor” (68).  “You are guilty of injustice to as many as you could have aided but did not” (70).

In Time of Famine and Drought

Main idea: Our needs are not provided for (per the drought) because we do not share with others (76).

Lessons for today

One of the difficulties in applying this is the contrast between Basil’s time and ours. The editor glowingly says “These could have been written yesterday.”  Well, only superficially.  Here is why I think that.  There was no middle class during Basil’s time.  The agrarian world was the norm and if there were drought and famine, it was a crisis. Things have changed somewhat to mitigate those disasters.

Secondly, his powerful prose targets the rich–those who l live like the Kardashians.  It doesn’t target the plumber today who is struggling to pay his bills. Yes, he is absolutely right that those who squander their wealth on crap deserve scorn and we shouldn’t live beyond what is necessary.  Ah, but 1600 years later how does one determine what is necessary?  I think there are answers, to be sure, but they are far more difficult.

But fear not:  this is a process. This is where the hard questions of ethics begin, not end.  For starters, just don’t spend money like a thot and you will be okay. Basil always gives brilliant psychological insights on the tentacles of wealth.  Sanctification is a process.