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St Gregory of Nyssa On the Early Deaths of Infants, Complete

Translated by W. Moore and H. A. Wilson

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In the same way do you, a precious life to me, watch the Divine economy; leaving those objects which unceasingly occupy the minds of the crowd, wealth, I mean, and luxury [1537] and vainglory--things which like sunbeams flashing in their faces dazzle the unthinking--you will not pass without inquiry the seemingly most trivial questions in the world; for you do most carefully scrutinize the inequalities in human lives; not only with regard to wealth and penury, and the differences of position and descent (for you know that they are as nothing, and that they owe their existence not to any intrinsic reality, but to the foolish estimate of those who are struck with nonentities, as if they were actual things; and that if one were only to abstract from somebody who glitters with glory the blind adoration [1538] of those who gaze at him, nothing would be left him after all the inflated pride which elates him, even though the whole mass of the world's riches were buried in his cellars), but it is one of your anxieties to know, amongst the other intentions of each detail of the Divine government, wherefore it is that, while the life of one is lengthened into old age, another has only so far a portion of it as to breathe the air with one gasp, and die. If nothing in this world happens without God, but all is linked to the Divine will, and if the Deity is skilful and prudential, then it follows necessarily that there is some plan in these things bearing the mark of His wisdom, and at the same time of His providential care. A blind unmeaning occurrence can never be the work of God; for it is the property of God, as the Scripture says [1539] , to "make all things in wisdom." What wisdom, then, can we trace in the following? A human being enters on the scene of life, draws in the air, beginning the process of living with a cry of pain, pays the tribute of a tear to Nature [1540] , just tastes life's sorrows, before any of its sweets have been his, before his feelings have gained any strength; still loose in all his joints, tender, pulpy, unset; in a word, before he is even human (if the gift of reason is man's peculiarity, and he has never had it in him), such an one, with no advantage over the embryo in the womb except that he has seen the air, so short-lived, dies and goes to pieces again; being either exposed or suffocated, or else of his own accord ceasing to live from weakness. What are we to think about him? How are we to feel about such deaths? Will a soul such as that behold its Judge? Will it stand with the rest before the tribunal? Will it undergo its trial for deeds done in life? Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire, or refreshed with the dew of blessing [1541] ? But I do not see how we can imagine that, in the case of such a soul. The word "retribution" implies that something must have been previously given; but he who has not lived at all has been deprived of the material from which to give anything. There being, then, no retribution, there is neither good nor evil left to expect. "Retribution" purports to be the paying back of one of these two qualities; but that which is to be found neither in the category of good nor that of bad is in no category at all; for this antithesis between good and bad is an opposition that admits no middle; and neither will come to him who has not made a beginning with either of them. What therefore falls under neither of these heads may be said not even to have existed.

[1537] Reading truphen. The Paris Edit. has tuphon.

[1538] ten muesin.

[1539] Ps. civ. 24.

[1540] eleitourgese to dakruon

[1541] There is introduced at these words in the text of the Paris Edition the following "Explicatio," in Greek. "Here it is manifest that the father means by the purging fire' the torments and agonies suffered by those who having sinned have not completed a worthy and adequate repentance, according to the Gospel parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. For it is clear that he is thinking of this parable when he says, either purged in fire' (i.e. the Rich Man), or refreshed with the dew of blessing' (i.e. Lazarus). But that sentence of the Judgment, They shall go, these into everlasting punishment, but the just into life everlasting,' has no place as yet in these sufferings." In other words, the commentator sees here the doctrine of Purgatory, as held by the Roman Church. And when we compare the other passages in Gregory about the "cleansing fire," especially that De Animâ et Resurrectione, 247 B, we shall see that he contemplates the judgment ("the incorruptible tribunal") as coming not only after the Resurrection, but also after the chastising process. Not till the Judgment will the moral value of each life be revealed; the chastising is a purely natural process. But then the belief in a Judgment coming after everything rather contradicts the Universalism with which he has been charged, for what necessity would there be for it, if the chastising was successful in every instance? With regard to the nature of this "fire," it is spiritual or material with him according to the context. The invisible natures will be punished with the one, the visible (i.e. the World) with the other: although this destruction is not always preserved by him. See E. Moeller (on Gregory's Doctrine on Human Nature), p. 100.

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