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St. Gregory of Nyssa.jpgIn his Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection(written in 380), [St.] Gregory [of Nyssa] stages yet another confrontation between Athens and Jerusalem, casting his dying sister Makrina in the role of biblical exegete, while he himself raises stereotypically Greek objections to the doctrines of immortality and resurrection. After discoursing on the necessity of eternal life for the proper fulfillment of human virtue, Makrina gathers up some of the anthropological threads from the De hominis opificio, and argues that the relationship between nous and body is so intimate that, even after death, the soul remains sympathetically linked to the physical remains of its former partner, down to the tiniest atoms and particles. Though tragically severed from the body, the soul continues to exist in a dimension without spatial extension, and can thus abide even with the most widely dispersed of its bodily fragments and somehow remain whole.

Based on an etymological derivation of Hades (αδης) from the word άειδές, Macrina insists that Hades is not a physical place, but rather a state or condition of the soul. She consequendy rejects what she considers to be an outdated cosmology in which Hades provides the subterranean foundation upon which earth and heaven are respectively stacked. Makrina also has much to say about purification after death, which, she says, will be proportionate to one’s attachment to the flesh. The “purifying fire” with which all flesh will be salted (cf. Mark 9:49) will be relative to the combustible material — the moral “fuel” — supplied by each soul (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13) (§6-7). To prove her point, she has recourse to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), as well as to various analogies, including that of a dead body pinned under a house that has collapsed in an earthquake: “Not only are such bodies weighed down by fallen debris, but they are also pierced by spits and stakes which are found in the pile. Whatever these bodies are likely to endure when they are dragged out by their relatives (they will be mangled and torn, lacerated by the debris and the nails, and by the force of those who pull them out) — some such experience I think will happen to the soul, when the power of divine love for mankind draws its own out from the irrational and immaterial debris”. In sum, the general direction of Gregory’s thought is a movement away from the Platonic dualism of mind and body (evident in his early works) in the direction of a more Christian understanding of the human person as a unitive conjunction of the two. The Greek preference for the noetic over the sensible is brought into balance by the New Testament belief in the resurrection of the body. The recapitulation of the noetic and the sensible [sensory] in the human person — body and soul — constitutes a harmony of opposites, a unification of creation within the human microcosm, in order for the cosmos as a whole to be united to God. The body is no longer that into which the soul is exiled. Instead, exile means being away from the body.

—Nicholas Constas (Hieromonk Maximos Simonopetrites, Mount Athos)

Excertped from:“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature