Sunday, March 9, 2014

Macrina the Younger: Teacher and Philosopher (part 4)

In Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina continues to explain the key elements in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (see “part 3” below). Even though Hades in the parable is symbolic, the many figurative elements of the parable speak very important truths about the soul. God gives us a brief life in the flesh on earth but an eternal “out of the body” afterlife. The chasm in the parable represents the decisions human beings make in their earthly lives between good and evil. Those who choose evil dig for themselves the “yawning impassable abyss” that nothing can breach. Lazarus reclining in Abraham’s bosom, on the other hand, represents those who choose the virtuous life:

As then figuratively we call a particular circuit of the ocean a “bosom,” so does Scripture seem to me to express the idea of those measureless blessings above by the word “bosom,” meaning a place into which all virtuous voyagers of this life are, when they have put in from hence, brought to anchor in the waveless harbor of that gulf of blessings. Meanwhile the denial of these blessings which they witness becomes in the others a flame, which burns the soul and causes the craving for the refreshment of one drop out of that ocean of blessings wherein the saints are affluent; which nevertheless they do not get. If, too, you consider the “tongue,” and the “eye,” and the “finger,” and the other names of bodily organs, which occur in the conversation between those disembodied souls, you will be persuaded that this conjecture of ours about them chimes in with the opinion we have already stated about the soul. Look closely into the meaning of those words. . . . If one, then, thinks of those atoms in which each detail of the body potentially inheres, and surmises that Scripture means a “finger” and a “tongue” and an “eye” and the rest as existing, after dissolution, only in the sphere of the soul, one will not miss the probable truth.

The lesson of the parable, Macrina concludes, is that during their earthly lives, Christians should free themselves as much as possible from the attachments of this life “by virtuous conduct.” In an interesting aside, Macrina speculates that ghosts are sometimes seen around graves of recently buried bodies (cf. Plato’s discussion of the soul in which shadowy apparitions of the dead hover round their tombs). Like the rich man in the parable, if ghosts really occur in such instances:

an inordinate attachment of that particular soul to the life in the flesh is proved to have existed, causing it to be unwilling, even when expelled from the flesh, to fly clean away and to admit the complete change of its form into the impalpable; it remains near the frame even after the dissolution of the frame, and though now outside it, hovers regretfully over the place where its material is and continues to haunt it.

The rich man in the parable symbolizes those people who are inordinately attached to matters of the flesh, so he serves as a warning to those tempted in this way.


I had never read Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Saint Macrina, and this text was fascinating on many levels.

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