When we hear that someone has died, don’t we tend to think of this as a tragic calamity? Saint Gregory of Nyssa teaches that seeing death in this way is foolish because it is a denial of the reality of a beginning of a new life. This view results from an attachment to the ever-changing beauty of the world. We expect all we know as good to continue, and when something we see as beautiful is destroyed we suffer and grieve. When we face the loss of a loved one, we are overtaken by our sense of loss. We are unable to embrace a greater reality consisting of a greater unchangeable divine beauty. To overcome viewing death as a loss, we must understand the nature true beauty and good that is unchangeable. We must recognize that our grief and suffering is caused by our attachments and passions that cause us to hold on tightly to things of this world. But what is this true beauty and good that is unchanging?
According to Saint Gregory, true beauty and good are naturally beautiful in and of themselves at all times, regardless of any utilitarian purpose. They are divine, not of this world. However, many people accept only what is good for their their present physical life and their desires. This kind of good is ever-changing leading to sadness and grief when it is taken away. When we die, we must realize that all worldly beauty vanishes, everything we value, all we see as beautiful and good. To overcome this cause of suffering, we must separate from these attachments and instead become attached to what is good at all times, what is divine. We must be freed from the limitations caused by our earthly passions.
Our soul is immaterial and does not die with the body. The body is earthly and when it dies, nature causes it to disintegrate and return to the earth. Saint Gregory views the soul as pure and free and not defined by earthly passions. It migrates toward this unchangeable good nourished only by divine knowledge. When it separates from the body in death, it is no longer influenced by sensible pleasures that delude our judgment of good. This immortal life of the soul is not inflated with pride, weighed down by humiliations, enraged by self-confidence, trampled down by fear, moved with anger, or confused by fear. Therefore, knowing the nature of this new life of our liberated soul, how can we be sad because of death? Only if we are unaware of our true nature, the eternal beauty of the divine life of the soul.
Wen someone dies, think about how they have been relieved of everything that causes suffering and hardship. When the soul separates from the body, we no longer experience anguish. We now possess a nature that no one can see or understand. Our soul, immaterial, without form, spiritual, and incorporeal, partakes of spiritual and immaterial existence once it has shaken off corporeality. Being made in the image of God, which is all good, when we die we are coming closer to the source of our existence. We have removed our fleshy garment, which saint Gregory calls an ugly mask.
Death brings a new kind of life. It’s like we have grown out of the stage of childhood and fully matured. Our sense of smell recognizes the odor of Christ. All our senses are transformed and united with what is good. This life of struggle is a road to our future hope and resembles a budding tree about to produce first the flower and then the fruit. This current life is but the seed of what is to come. Nature relentlessly advances towards death. The final goal of our journey is restoration to our original state or likeness of God.
Our future form will not be the same as it’s present form. We are continually in a process of change from birth. Our new form will not be subject to the conditions of our material corporeal state. All evil will be rejected, and we will be one with Him, with His grace radiating throughout. “As a result, each person will show kindness to his neighbor, rejoice to see his neighbors beauty, and sadness will cease to exist because will reveal it own deformed state.” This will be the ultimate expression of the unchanging divine beauty, where death is not a tragedy, but rather a gateway to an eternal life of unending joy.
“Concerning Those Who Are Asleep,” by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, trans, John Saniddopoulos