“… human nature is created and so, is unavoidably mortal; with death man’s entire psychosomatic being comes to an end. All of his psychological and mental functions cease to function: his self-conscience, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, and desire. Man is no longer able to function through the parts of the body in order to speak, to call to memory, to distinguish, to desire, to reason, to be impassioned, and to see” -St. Anastasios of Sinai (Odigos, Migne P.G. 89, 36).
The first time I read the words of St. Anastasios, I felt like my life was falling between the cracks. To think of my self-consciousness, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, desire, etc., ceasing to function seemed pretty much like the end of existence. If I were to lack such things what or who would I be? Doesn’t the immortality of the soul promise the continuation of such things?
Time passes and many things begin to happen within self-awareness. I can begin to see that my memory is not so reliable. I understand that I remember the big things, and I’m not concerned with the small things – that I can’t remember why I originally came into a room doesn’t disturb me. What disturbs me comes more commonly from what I do remember. I like to tell stories. The point of an event has often seemed more important than the event itself. But careful reflection reveals to me that sometimes the stories are not quite accurate – and for the life of me – I cannot really tell whether the story that I remember and the event which occasioned it are the same thing. Worse still, I cannot recall the differences.
And what of desire and thought? They change from moment to moment. The desires that I carried to bed are never the ones with which I wake. Where is the center of the self? And what of eternal life?
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain– perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. (1Co 15:35-38)
There is a drive to distance ourselves from the body – for we recognize that the body’s dissolution in the earth will betray us. It will cease to be “me,” and become some other dust. And so we put our hope in the soul, though we cannot fathom what we mean. But it lingers as a repository for the future, the guarantee of my continued existence.
Of course, I am troubled when I watch the occasional dissolution of the brain in this life – a friend who has suffered a stroke – a family member with dementia – and I see that a small insult to the brain removes almost everything I imagined to be the person. So what is the job of the soul and how does it relate to the frailty of my flesh?
Apparently what I really want is something to which I can point and proclaim that its survival guarantees my survival. Some speak of the soul and its immortality in a manner that makes our identity itself inherently immortal. But though the Church teaches that the soul is immortal – it does not teach that the soul is immortal by nature. Like all that is not God, the soul is a created thing. As created, it comes from nothing. Its nature would be – nothing.
The answer to these perplexing questions can be found only in God.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ Who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-5)
Apparently, I am already dead. Thus I am concerning myself with the wrong thing. If, in Christ, I am already dead, then what and who is my life that is now “hidden with Christ in God?”
I stand in a strange position. The identity I know, the memories I wish to retain, my self-consciousness, reasoning, judgment, imagination and desires, apparently belong to a dead man, while there is a stranger bearing my name whose life is hidden with Christ in God.
The Cross is the destruction of the ego. The memories, an edited selection of events assembled to tell a “story of me,” are apparently insufficient for the construction of a life. At present they construct a simulacrum, an inferior and insubstantial version of the real thing. The same is true of the desires and imaginations, the faulty reasoning and mis-judgments. They are not the treasures of an identity to be preserved at all cost. It is not the disappearance of these ephemera that will be marked by a tombstone. They were only feeble noises and sterile protests that longed for true existence. That ego wanted to belong, to be loved. It judged itself as wrongly as it judged others. It imagined injuries where none existed and desired lives that were never to be. The truth, were I to admit it, is that I would not want an eternity as such an ego. Just the few short years I have borne with it have been torture enough.
Eternity cannot be anything to be desired if it does not come with freedom. The ephemeral ego is not freedom – it is an impossible past and historical embarrassment.
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (Joh 8:34-37).
But what about me? What will become of me? If the ego is lost what is saved? Who is this new life?
To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it. (Rev 2:17)
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God…(Col. 3:1).
For whoever desires to save his life (τὴν ψυχὴν = soul) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (τὴν ψυχὴν=soul) for My sake will save it. (Luke 9:24)
The hidden stone is the great treasure buried in a field, the which, if a man finds, he sells everything he has and buys it. So why do we labor for that which is perishing?
Addendum: The orientation of our life towards the past – the remembered self – is a sort of anxiety – a fear of death itself. The truth of our existence would seem to be in something that is yet to come – something towards which we are moving. Heaven is not the recovery of the past but “behold I make all things new.” It is rushing to meet us.”