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St Gregory of Nyssa On the Soul and the Resurrection, Complete

Translated by W. Moore and H. A. Wilson

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Basil, great amongst the saints, had departed from this life to God; and the impulse to mourn for him was shared by all the churches. But his sister the Teacher was still living; and so I journeyed to her [1747] , yearning for an interchange of sympathy over the loss of her brother. My soul was right sorrow-stricken by this grievous blow, and I sought for one who could feel it equally, to mingle my tears with. But when we were in each other's presence the sight of the Teacher awakened all my pain; for she too was lying in a state of prostration even unto death. Well, she gave in to me for a little while, like a skilful driver, in the ungovernable violence of my grief; and then she tried to check me by speaking, and to correct with the curb of her reasonings the disorder of my soul. She quoted the Apostle's words about the duty of not being "grieved for them that sleep"; because only "men without hope" have such feelings. With a heart still fermenting with my pain, I asked--

[1748] How can that ever be practised by mankind? There is such an instinctive and deep-seated abhorrence of death in all! Those who look on a death-bed can hardly bear the sight; and those whom death approaches recoil from him all they can. Why, even the law that controls us puts death highest on the list of crimes, and highest on the list of punishments. By what device, then, can we bring ourselves to regard as nothing a departure from life even in the case of a stranger, not to mention that of relations, when so be they cease to live? We see before us the whole course of human life aiming at this one thing, viz. how we may continue in this life; indeed it is for this that houses have been invented by us to live in; in order that our bodies may not be prostrated in their environment [1749] by cold or heat. Agriculture, again, what is it but the providing of our sustenance? In fact all thought about how we are to go on living is occasioned by the fear of dying. Why is medicine so honoured amongst men? Because it is thought to carry on the combat with death to a certain extent by its methods. Why do we have corslets, and long shields, and greaves, and helmets, and all the defensive armour, and inclosures of fortifications, and iron-barred gates, except that we fear to die? Death then being naturally so terrible to us, how can it be easy for a survivor to obey this command to remain unmoved over friends departed?

Why, what is the especial pain you feel, asked the Teacher, in the mere necessity itself of dying? This common talk of unthinking persons is no sufficient accusation.

[1747] Gregory himself tells us, in his life of S. Macrina, that he went to see her after the Council of Antioch. (This and Basil's death occurred in the year 379: so that this Dialogue was probably composed in 380.) "The interval during which the circumstances of our times of trials prevented any visits had been long." He goes on to say (p. 189 B.); "And that she might cause me no depression of spirits, she somehow subdued the noise and concealed the difficulty of her breathing, and assumed perfect cheerfulness: she not only started pleasant topics herself, but suggested them as well by the questions which she asked. The conversation led naturally to the mention of our great Basil. While my very soul sank and my countenance was saddened and fell, she herself was so far from going with me into the depths of mourning, that she made the mention of that saintly name all opportunity for the most sublime philosophy. Examining human nature in a scientific way, disclosing the divine plan that underlies all afflictions, and dealing, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit, with all the questions relating to a future life, she maintained such a discourse that my soul seemed to be lifted along with her words almost beyond the compass of humanity, and, as I followed her argument, to be placed within the sanctuary of heaven." Again (p. 190 B): "And if my tract would not thereby be extended to an endless length, I would have reported everything in its order; i.e. how her argument lifted her as she went into the philosophy both of the soul, and of the causes of our life in the flesh, and of the final cause of Man and his mortality, and of death and the return thence into life again. In all of it her reasoning continued clear and consecutive: it flowed on so easily and naturally that it was like the water from some spring falling unimpeded downwards."

[1748] Two grounds are here given why this practice of grief for the departed is difficult to give up. One lies in the natural abhorrence of death, showing itself in two ways, viz. in our grief over others dying, and in recoiling from our own death, expressed by two evenly balanced sentences, oute ton horonton...hois te an...; in the latter a second oute might have been expected; but such an anacoluthon is frequent in dialogue. Oehler is wrong in giving to the second te an intensive force, i.e. "much more." The other ground lies in the attitude of the law towards death.

[1749] Reading periechonti: the same word is used below, "as long as the breath within was held in by the enveloping substance"(see p. 432, note 8). Here it means "the air": as in Marcus Antoninus, Lib. iv. 39.

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