A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXVII.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXVII. August 22, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“As a man comes naked out of his mother’s womb, so the soul comes naked out of the body.”[1] A soul can emerge from the body in different ways; some come out “pure and luminous,” while others are spotted due to “faults,” and finally, some come out “black” due to their “many sins.”[2] “Thus the soul that is intelligent and enjoys the love of God reflects and meditates on the evils that follow death, and leads a devout life in order not to be entangled with them and so condemned.”[3] Those who do not have any faith, however, are foolish, and commit all kinds of evil acts, “ignoring what is to come.”[4] How we live in life affects what will happen to us in death; those who lived a soft and easy life, giving in to the desires of the body and so have not toiled and suffered for spiritual perfection, will find they have acted foolishly. They have made their soul “ill.”[5]

“Just as when you leave the womb you no longer remember what pertains to the womb, so when you leave the body you no longer remember what pertains to the body.”[6] What happens to us after we leave the womb is like what can happen to us when our soul leaves the body: just as we grew in strength and vitality, so our soul, if pure, is capable of growing “in strength and incorruptibility” in its heavenly existence.[7]

“Just as the body has to be born when it has completed its time in the womb, so the soul has to leave the body when it has completed in the body the time assigned to it by God.”[8] And just as the body cannot attain its perfection if it came out crippled and weak from the womb, “so a soul cannot be saved or united with God if it leaves the body without attaining to knowledge of God through a virtuous way of life.”[9]

A body which unites itself to the soul “comes from the darkness of the womb into the light.”[10] However, for the soul, when it is united to the body, “is bound up in the body’s darkness.”[11] Thus the body must be treated as an enemy to the soul, needing to be put into subjection through discipline.[12] “For over-indulgence in foods and delicacies excites the passions of vice in men, whereas restraint of the belly humbles these passions and saves the soul.”[13]

Because of the contamination of sin in the world, death entered creation and has made it that every living thing will die. Death is the inevitable conclusion of life. Everyone who is born will one day die.[14] It is for this reason easy for us to understand why many simplify the cause of death and say, with the Buddhists, that it is birth, or even more simply, life itself. One has to have life in order to die. When birth is the focal point, it is because birth allows us to come to know the person involved, it is what places the person in a world of relationships so that we can know them as someone who will die.

Christianity saw something new happened with death because of the death and resurrection of Christ. While we will all die, death is now a time of transformation. We come into the world, we live in it, we prepare for death, and then when we die, what we did in life will become the foundation of our eternal life. Death is now the point at which our temporal life becomes eternal, and what we have accomplished and made of ourselves in life has eternal significance. What we have accomplished in life, the kind of person who we have allowed ourselves to be, is the condition in which eternity meets us. It takes who we are and what we have done as a kind of seed, and that seed is then allowed to grow and reveal the eternal personality contained within it.  What we do in life will affect the creation of that seed; the better we prepare ourselves for eternity, the better that seed will be and the better our eternal life will be. In death, what we have sown becomes manifested. The rain of God’s grace combined with the light of the Sun of Righteousness will meet that seed, and as we are raised from the dead, they will establish what has been sown and give it eternal standing:

And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15: 37-44 RSV).

Since death is what brings is into eternity, it is a kind of second birth. This explains why it is easy to compare our birth into eternity with our first, temporal, worldly birth. Being born into the world allows us to establish ourselves and to prepare ourselves for eternity. One can say, however, as long as we are in temporality, we are spiritual embryos. The body which we will have in eternity is with us, even now; it is the same body, but it is under development. Just as the body in the womb differs greatly in quality and ability with the body outside of the womb, so our body now differs drastically from the quality and ability it will have in eternity. What our body will be like in eternity, the spiritual qualities which will be contained within it, the spiritual glory which will beautify it, is, at least in part, in our hands.

Many patristic sources describe how our temporal body was produced by our soul, acting upon the matter in order to produce a material image of the soul. While we might not remember our life in the womb and so do not remember how our soul was active in the production of its body, we are now active in the world, in the womb for eternity, and we can and do have the chance now to properly create ourselves, to produce the kind of body we want in eternity. Temporal existence must be understood as good because it has a real connection to eternity. We are developing in the womb of eternity, and our actions in the world will have an effect on the production of our glorified body. And, similar to the life in the womb, one can say that those who rise in full glory will find the sorrows of this world as being nothing, so easily “forgotten,” that there will be more tears, but only eternal beatitude:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:1-4 RSV).

The modality of our generation in time also shows why we will die. It is a fallen, imperfect generation which leads to an imperfect, impermanent existence in the world. Nonetheless, because life is good, God nonetheless took possession of the process of birth in the incarnation, allowing it to be transformed even has he took on death and made it a vehicle for our salvation. Christ, while truly born a real human birth, nonetheless was conceived in a way outside of the normal parameters of human generation, allowing him to take on life and death in a new way and to make sure that death itself can become the means of a second, eternal birth. St Maximus the Confessor understood the way we were conceived was connected with a cycle of pleasure and pain, where inordinate use of the passions for some transitory pleasure leads to suffering and death, and those caught up and conceived in the trajectory of that cycle find themselves caught in it as well, so that the trajectory of our existence is deathward:

After the fall the generation of every man was by nature impassioned and preceded by pleasure. From this rule no one was exempt. On the contrary, as if discharging a natural debt, all underwent sufferings and the death that comes from them. None could find the way to freedom, for all were under the tyranny of ill-gotten pleasure, and so subject to justly deserved suffering and the still more justly deserved death which they engender. [15]

Our existence is bound to all kinds of natural laws. What we do has an effect. Everything we do connects us with the force of entropy. As we accomplish various acts of pleasure, we generate entropic forces, some actions having more entropic effect than others. The build up of entropy affects not just us, but all those which find themselves in any way connected to it. Entropy seeps through creation, affecting all who come in contact with it; the pleasure involved in our generation includes entropic forces, so that though we slowly grow and develop, we are creating, alongside our growth, a growth of entropic forces, and these forces will eventually be so great that they will overcome us and bring about our death. Due to entropy, our death is certain. But, for Jesus, there was a kind of reversal of the natural laws; his birth itself was an infusion of law into the chaos of creation, and his death was the point in which entropy itself was touched and became a tool for eternity. The divine invaded the world and took the entropic forces within it and transformed them, using the forces of chaos in the world as the means of generating and creating a new, eternal, order. Thus, though Jesus is fully human, born a human, his humanity was born without the contamination of entropy and so not ruled by it;  he was, of course, able to associate with it, work with it, live with it, but he did so by absorbing entropy, and making it his own as a tool for our recreation. In him, entropy is reversed, and death leads to eternal life:

That is why the Logos of God, being by nature fully God, became fully man, with a nature constituted like ours of a soul endowed with intellect and a body capable of suffering; only in His case this nature was without sin, because His birth in time from a woman was not preceded by the slightest trace of that pleasure arising from the primal disobedience. In His love He deliberately accepted the painful death which, because of pleasure, terminates human life, so that by suffering unjustly He might abolish the pleasure-provoked and unjust origin by which this life is dominated. For, unlike that of everyone else, the Lord’s death was not the payment of a debt incurred because of pleasure, but was on the contrary a challenge thrown down to pleasure; and so through His death He utterly destroys the justly deserved death which ends human life.[16]

Death has been taken on by Jesus so that its nature and function has changed. It is founded upon sin. The corruption of sin, a corruption of the very fabric of being, led to death.  It is a punishment, but there are many kinds of punishment. The original nature of death was retributive justice. Through Jesus, death is still a punishment which we face due to our sin (collective and personal), but it is now capable of being a purification, a punishment aimed at correction instead of mere retribution. But to take on the correcting nature of death, we must live our life preparing, the best we can for it, to be open to it while still keeping life precious. We live in the world, of the world, through the world, as people touched by the other side of death, bringing grace into the world to help begin the process of its transfiguration. We live in the world, subjecting ourselves to purification through self-discipline, making sure we establish in our life the seed for spiritual glory. Even before the advent of Christ, one could, and many did, live their life with the hope that their lives here and now meant something in eternity so that people disciplined themselves and prepared themselves for what would happen at death. We still find many holding such a pre-Christian value of death, seeking to prepare themselves for death, to prepare for the best outcome of death; this, for example, is a common theme in Buddhist texts, represented here in words of Tsong-kha-pa:

As previously mentioned, there are four errors that impede your taking full advantage of your life: [conceiving (1) the impure to be pure, (2) suffering to be happiness, (3) the impermanent to be permanent, and (4) the selfless to have a self]. Initially, it is merely the conception of the impermanent to be permanent that is the avenue of much injury. This conception is twofold: coarse and subtle. Of these two, in the case of your coarse impermanence, which is your death, the avenue of injury is the very thought, ‘I will not die.’ Everyone that has the idea that death will come later, at the end. However, with each passing day people think, ‘I will not die today; I will not die today,’ clinging to this thought until the moment of death. If you are obstructed by such an attitude and do not bring its remedy to mind, you will continue to think you will remain in this life.

Then, as long as you have this attitude, you will continually think only of how to achieve happiness and to evade suffering in this life alone, thinking, ‘I need this and that.’ You will not engage in religious practice because you do not think about things of great importance, such as future lives, liberation, and omniscience.[17]

While the Christian understanding of the future life, of liberation, differs from the Buddhist, nonetheless the point Tsong-kha-pa makes here is important: remembrance of death prevents us from sloth; it makes sure we consider all our actions done in life in light of the after-life. It is not that we cannot enjoy the world now, but we must not be attached to it and ignore the temporal nature of our current existence. Those who ignore death, or see nothing after death, are blinded by the temporal mode of our existence, and will be affected by the consequences of their lack of spiritual vision. Any who look at death as a point of transformation, as an opportunity to create a better life (be it temporal or eternal), reflect upon many of the same principles and can offer each other observations and ideas to help make sure we are mindful of death so that we live the best life possible as a preparation for death. We do not have to agree upon the nature of death or what happens after death to have a common understanding of its transformative nature and so share a common vision and hope which can be expressed with one another. It is recognized by many religious traditions how foolish it is to ignore death and to come to it unprepared. One who is wise will prepare for it, while the foolish will live merely in the world of pleasure, unwilling to look at the consequences of their actions.

As long as we are blinded by the world as it is, we live in the body, blindly subjecting ourselves to the passions without revolt. We must open ourselves up beyond the darkness of desire, to remove the shackles of ignorance put in place by the ego, and let ourselves receive the grace of God so as to be united with him and live in the here in now in the now-and-not-yet experience of eternity. We can live in God, and experience the kingdom of heaven already alive within us, in anticipation with the eschatology union with God that is to occur after death. The fallen world and all its passions will try to subdue us, and indeed, because we have not entirely put off the fallen modality of sin behind us, we will still suffer much sorrow and grief, even though we also experience the presence of God in our lives. The darkness of the embryonic spiritual life we have today slowly recedes in the light of God’s grace as we grow and move closer and closer to our full spiritual maturity. If we struggle for it, we can attain it, thanks to God’s grace. If we give up, our eternal existence will suffer as a result. We must struggle for as long as we have life, and we must struggle to preserve and protect that life knowing it is, in itself, a time of grace, a time of opportunity, a time of establishing ourselves so we can be all we can be in eternity. Even though some might have shorter or longer time in this world, it is not the length of time, but the quality of the time, and how we have handled it, which will determine who we are in eternity.

 

We have a very difficult, and indeed unusual, passage here. There are sentiments in it which one would expert from St. Anthony, however unusual they might appear to us today. The call to discipline the body so that the soul can come out pure and pristine, of course, is a basic idea in monasticism. St. Athanasius presented Anthony with holding such a view:

For,’ said he, ‘the fibre of the soul is then sound when the pleasures of the body are diminished.’ And he had come to this truly wonderful conclusion, ‘that progress in virtue, and retirement from the world for the sake of it, ought not to be measured by time, but by desire and fixity of purpos. He at least gave no thought to the past, but day by day, as if he were at the beginning of his discipline, applied greater pares for advancement, often repeating to himself the saying of Paul ‘Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before.’ He was also mindful of the words spoken by the prophet Elias, ‘the Lord liveth before whose presence I stand to-day.’ For he observed that in saying ‘to-day’ the prophet did not compute the time that had gone by: but daily as though ever commencing he eagerly endeavoured to make himself fit to appear before God, being pure in heart and ever ready to submit to His counsel, and to Him alone.[18]

While we can interpret passages which discuss the soul as forgetting what happened in the body once it leaves it in a non-literal and so orthodox manner, such passages appear to look at death and birth within the norms of reincarnation and the forgetfulness which is said to happen at such a rebirth. Would Anthony held such a view, or written it down?  Perhaps, if we accept his life and work was influenced by the theology of Origen, who appears willing to consider the possibility of reincarnation.[19] Such a view and understanding was held by many in the ancient world. Evagrian theology, which comes out of the monastic experience, and is also seen as the continuation and refinement of Origenist thought with monastic spirituality, suggests the possibility of reincarnation. If this is so, we would expect a kind of “forgetting” in order to explain why we do not remember past lives. It is, nonetheless, quite contentious to suggest such a view would have been held by Anthony. Yet, Anthony seems associated with Origenism and there is even a very slight hint of this issue creeping into his letters, such as when he writes in the second letter:

But in the case of those rational natures in which the covenant grew could, and their intellectual perception died, so that they were no longer able to know themselves according to their first condition, concerning them I say that they became altogether irrational, and worshiped the creation rather than the Creator.[20]

William Harmless, S.J.,  uses this passage to indicate Anthony’s association with Origenism:

Origen had hypothesized that before the beginning of the material universe, there was an original unity of preexistent minds, and that the original Fall occurred when these preexistent minds ‘cooled’ (psycho) in their fervor and fell into ‘souls’ (psyche). The Letters seem to presume this Origenist terminology and perspective…[21]

But there is a problem here. While we can see and understand that life before birth has been forgotten, we do not see claims that the soul will forget the body after death. At best, we have texts in the Evagrian corpus, such as this one from the Praktikos, which suggest memory will be unimportant, but not that there will be no memory of the past: “The soul which  has apatheia is not simply the one which is disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well.”[22]

Thus, this kind of language and terminology, which would make sense in a full-scale reincarnational scheme based such as in the writings of Plato,  does not find the same force and measure as we find in here in other texts which relate to Anthony. The soul leaving the body generally is understood as possessing and remembering what is done in the body and will once again possesses it in eternity so that together they can share in rewards earned from life. This, again, is what we find in other Anthonite texts. So this makes at least some of what is contained in these passages suspicious. If it is from the hand of Anthony or one of his disciples, the best suggestion is to consider either the text as paradoxical requiring a non-literal reading (which often happens in spiritual texts), or that it is some sort of note which does not properly reflect the beliefs of Anthony but the sources he was looking into while formulating his greater argument.  But, to be sure, we must register these texts as being among those which question Anthony’s association with the work as a whole.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#111).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#111).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#111).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#111).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#115).

[6] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#112).

[7] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#113).

[8] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#114).

[9] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346-7 (#116).

[10] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#117).

[11] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#117).

[12] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#117).

[13] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#117).

[14] Or, we can say, everyone who is given life will one day die, so that we include all those whose existence in the world only existed in the womb.

[15] St Maximos the Confessor, “Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice,” in The Philokalia: the Complete Text. Volume II. Trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 245.

[16] ibid., 245.

[17] Tsong-kha-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path To Enlightenment. 5rans. The Lamrin Chenmo Translation Committee. ed. Joshua W.C. Cutler and Guy Newland (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), 145.

[18] St. Athanasius, Life of Antony, 198.

[19] See for example On First Principles bk I c8.

[20] Chitty, The Letters of Saint Antony,  6 [Letter II].

[21] Harmless, Desert Christians, 79.

[22] Evagrius, The Praktikos, 34.

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