Friday, 12 September 2014

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite On The Attributes of the Soul and the Body

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite

Why the Senses Were Created and Why Man Is a Macrocosmos in a Microcosmos

You must remember, dear reader, that God first created the invisible world and then the visible, “in order to reveal a greater wisdom and the manifold purposes of nature,” as St. Gregory the Theologian noted.1 God also created last of all man with an invisible soul and a visible body. He, therefore, has created man to be a cosmos, a world unto himself, but not a microcosmos within the greater one, as the philosopher Democritos declared and as other philosophers have upheld. Such philosophers considered man to be a microcosmos, minimizing and restricting his value and perfection within this visible world. God, on the contrary, has placed man to be a sort of macrocosmos—a “greater world” within the small one. He is indeed a greater world by virtue of the multitude of powers that he possesses, especially the powers of reason, of spirit, and of will, which this great and visible world does not have. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian again stated that “God has placed this second cosmos (i.e., man) to be upon earth as a great world within the small one. Even when man is compared with the invisible world of the angels, again he is and is called a “great world,” while the invisible world is by comparison small. Man includes in his world both the visible and the invisible, while the angelic world does not include the elements of the visible world. St. Gregory Palamas2 has noted that this cosmos (i.e., man) adorns both of these worlds, the visible and the invisible. Nemesios has also concluded that man as cosmos draws the two ends of the upper and the lower world together and thus reveals that the Creator of both is one. 

The Body Is Like a Royal Palace and the Soul as a King Who Dwells Therein

In order to have greater understanding of this matter, let me use the following example: The body is likened to a royal palace built by the superb architectural skill of an omniscient Creator. This palace includes the “upper room” which is the head, the innermost chamber which is the heart; the messengers which are the thoughts; the passageways which are the tubelike nerves; and the doors of this palace are the five senses. The soul (or rather the Soul, for a soul that is purified becomes all Soul, according to St. Kallistos), must be understood as a sort of king who is upheld by the three more general powers, that of the spirit, of the Soul, and of the will. This “king” is found in all the parts of the body. St. John Damascene stated that the soul is found in the whole body as fire is found in the whole of a red-hot iron. He wrote that “the whole soul is joined to the whole body and not a part to a part; nor is the soul contained by the body, but rather it contains the body as fire contains iron.”3 Now, in an extraordinary manner, this king has the brain as the organ of his mental activity; his power to reason and to will and in fact his very essence is found in the heart, as we shall see in the chapters ahead. This king also possesses a map, the compass of his imagination, to write down all that enters his Soul from outside through the portals of the senses. 

The Soul Before and After Holy Baptism

Have you envisioned these matters with your imagination? Notice now, as some have said, how this king, that is the Soul, is simple, pure, integral, and rational light according to its nature, just as soon as it is poured into the body with its perfect organization. Before Holy Baptism, the Soul, being covered by the darkness of original sin, does not see clearly. But after Holy Baptism the Soul becomes all light, reflecting the supernatural light of divine grace. As St. John Chrysostom said, the Soul shines brighter than the rays of the sun, as long as it remains above the darkness of willful sinfulness. For this is how that good and eloquent tongue has interpreted that apostolic word: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18). Interpreting this passage, St. Chrysostom wrote: What is the reflection of the Lord’s glory and the transformation into his likeness? This was more clearly indicated whenever he revealed the grace of the miracles. And yet this is no more difficult to see now for one who has eyes of faith. For no sooner are we baptized than the soul shines brighter than the sun, being purified by the Holy Spirit. And not only do we see the glory of God but we also receive from it a certain splendor just as a clear piece of silver in the rays of the sun reflects those very rays it receives. But what a pity! It is only right to sigh here bitterly! For this glory which is ineffable and awesome remains within us only one or two days.4 For we extinguish it, being led astray by the winter of worldly cares, the dense clouds of which block out its rays. For the cares pertaining to living are indeed a heavy winter and even more sullen than winter.5 

The Natural Attributes of the Soul and of the Body. The Body Is Ruled by the Soul

The natural and essential attribute of the Soul, because it is Soul, is to be always preoccupied with the spiritual matters related to it: because it is immaterial with the immaterial; because it is immortal with the immortal. In one word, the Soul is to be preoccupied with what is truly good and to have only these good things for nourishment, growth, and pleasure. By contrast, the natural attribute of the body, because it is body, is to be inclined always to the bodily things: because it is physical to the physical; because it is material to the material. And in one word, the body is inclined to what is only pseudo-good and has these things for nourishment, growth, life, and pleasure. This is why St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “In human nature pleasure has a dual character. In the soul it is activated by dispassion and in the body by passion. The one which our free will chooses will dominate over the other.”6 Even though the body, inasmuch as it is a body, is naturally inclined to the pleasure derived from physical things, it is nevertheless led, governed, and controlled by the Soul when reason is whole and complete. For according to St. John Damascene, the difference between a rational and an irrational soul is this: The irrational soul is led and ruled by the body and the senses, while the rational soul leads and rules the body and the senses. It has been thus determined by God for the rational to rule over the irrational, and the better to rule over the worse, and to subdue the latter’s instinctive moves. This is why when the body has a desire, it does not directly rush into action to satisfy the desire, but is obstructed by the hegemonious Soul. These are the words of St. John Damascene: “The irrational creatures are not autonomous; they do not lead but rather are led by nature. This is why they do not object to physical desire, but rush to action just as soon as they feel desirous. Man however being rational leads nature rather than being led by it. Thus when he would desire something, he has the authority either to overrule that desire or to follow it. “7 

The Initial Purpose of the Senses

Because this Soul of ours is enclosed within the “palace” of the body, as if in a dark prison, God has chosen to create the five senses of the body to serve as so many openings to the world around us. I am talking about the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, and the common sense of touch, through which the Soul can generally receive unto itself primarily spiritual nurture and pleasure. And first of all the Soul can come to sense and to understand this visible creation around us, as well as the Holy Scriptures. Second, through this sense perception the Soul is guided through rational thought to acquire wisdom, goodness, power, grace, truth, sweetness, and all the other activities and perfections of the Creator that can be discerned in creation and in the Bible. Third, the Soul can move with the wings of thought to go beyond these activities and perfections to the knowledge and vision of God himself, the Creator of the world, the giver of Sacred Scripture and the possessor of such perfections. And as for creation the wise Solomon said: “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5). St. Paul also spoke about this: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). St. Peter too had this to say about the Sacred Scriptures: “No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pt 1:21). St. Paul too said: “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 2:13).

Would you like now to test what I have said with two of the senses?

Through the Vision of Creation the Soul Rises to the Knowledge and the Love of the Creator

The eyes, for example, are lifted up to look at the sky. The image of the sky is impressed upon the so-called retina of the eyes. And as soon as this image appears there, the message is received in a flash by the express carriers of the spirits that transmit it with incredible speed through the channels of the nerves to the brain, which is the source of the entire nervous system. And as soon as the contact is made there, the Soul is immediately aroused to see the sky. After this perception the Soul, by exercising its rational thought, can wonder at the order, the size, the beauty, the light, and all the other attributes of the sky. And in all of these, the contemplative man can see the wisdom, the creativity, the power, and the beauty of him who created it. He can thus reason and say: If the sky which is created is so beautiful, so full of light, how much more beautiful and more luminous is the Creator of the sky? On this point St. Dionysios said: “For essentially the effects are present, standing clearly before their causes.”8 And so the Soul climbs as high as it possibly can to the knowledge of the Creator, and with this knowledge the Soul excites the heart and the will to love this Creator.

St. Basil encouraged us to think such thoughts and through them to rise from the visible to the invisible and from the ephemeral to the eternal. He wrote: “If these ephemeral things are so wonderful, how much more are the eternal? And if the visible are so good, how much more good are the invisible? If the magnitude of heaven goes beyond the ability of human reason to measure, which Soul can discern the nature of divine things? If the physical sun that is subject to corruption is so beneficial, so great, so quick to move and establish the orderly seasons, and if one does not tire looking upon it, how much more beautiful is the Sun of Righteousness? And if it is a loss even for a blind man not to see the sun, how much greater is the loss for the sinner who is deprived of the true light?”9 This is why the wise Theodore of Jerusalem also said: “To meditate upon the nature of created beings is a most purifying experience, one that delivers us from any violent feeling against them and any deception pertaining to them. It is also most effective in leading us back to the origin of all things, namely, from the good and marvelous and great to the best and most marvelous and greatest. Or, rather, the experience of meditating on the nature of created things offers us an insight into what is actually beyond beauty, beyond marvel and beyond size.”10 Even Solomon, criticizing the Greeks who were idolaters, wrote: “If they were pleased by the beauty of created things and took them to be gods, let them also know how much better than these is their ruler. For indeed the originator of beauty created them. If then they were impressed by the power and energy of created beings, let them also understand through these how much greater is He who has created them” (Wis 13:3-4). 

The Soul Can Rise through the Holy Scriptures to Know and to Love Him Who Spoke the Scriptures

And now let us consider the ears. Certain words from Holy Scripture are spoken. The words strike the air and cause a wave motion. As the air waves are raised one after the other, they fall upon the ear and its cone. From there they enter the auditory canal of the ear and strike the eardrum. When the eardrum is struck the air in the chamber behind the ear drum is set in motion and this in turn disturbs all the parts of the so-called cochlea of the ear. The acoustic nerve which has its source in the brain is also struck, and thus the Soul is aroused to hear the words spoken. After this initial hearing, the Soul begins to distinguish the grace, the truth, the wisdom, and the other virtues of that spoken message. And so meditation follows. If the words, which are effects and energies, are so true and so wise and so graceful, how much more true and wise and graceful is God, who spoke and produced these words? As Aristotle said: “For every reason that makes a thing great, there is another reason that makes another thing greater.” Through this manner then the Soul climbs up to the knowledge of God, who both inspired and spoke the Holy Scriptures. Similar to this analogy of knowledge, the Soul also fires the will to love God, for as Theodore of Jerusalem again wrote: “The degree of knowledge determines the degree of will.”11 The Soul can work in a similar manner through the sense of smell, the sense of taste, and the sense of touch.

In a word then, the Soul can through the senses use all created things and all of Holy Scriptures as certain steps to rise from the sensory to the rational, from the effects to the causes, and from the images and types to the depicted original prototypes. And so it is, for, according to Dionysios Areopagite, “The visible things are types and images of the invisible, the perceptible of the intelligible, and the divisible and variable of the indivisible and unified. Even the very creation of the visible world has revealed the invisible things of God.”12 Through such a method the Soul rises from the created things to the Creator, and from the Sacred Scriptures to him who spoke them. In all of its activities and in all of its perceptions, the Soul seems to be saying those words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Is 2:3).

This then is the reason why and the purpose for which God created the portals of the senses: That the Soul may be, as St. Gregory the Theologian said, “an overseer of the visible creation and an initiant of the mysteries of the invisible world.”13 The Soul can, through the senses, see the Creator in the creation, as the sun is seen reflected in the water. Theodore of Jerusalem philosophized: “Sense perception is needed because through it we can understand the Creator by observing the created. We see Him in creation as we see the sun in the waters, since images of the first cause of all are to be found in created things, according to their capacity to reflect it.”14 In short then, this is the reason for the senses: so that the Soul may proceed through them to its rational food, to its sumptuous fare, to its delight.

In this analogy let us be reminded of those animals who “carry-their-own-house,” such as snails, turtles, and others like them who go out of themselves to seek their natural food. But here again Theodore of Jerusalem reSouled us: “This then is the real struggle. To watch over ourselves vigilantly so that we may always delight in the spiritual things, stretching both our Soul and our appetite toward them. We must never be distracted by sense perception to look upon something and to admire it only as a thing in itself.”15 

It is Wrong and Unnatural to Look upon Nature, to Read the Scriptures and Not to Rise to the Knowledge and Love of God

Now there are of course those who do not use the senses and the subsequent meditation on creation and Holy Scripture to rise through them to the knowledge and love of God, who both spoke the Scriptures and created the world. On the contrary, such people use this sense perception simply for human aggrandizement, for the marvel and mere pleasure of the corruptible beauty in creatures, and for other bodily purposes. Or, at least, they simply remain on the level of the limited purposes of the creatures and of the Scriptures. They thus neglect to proceed further, to rise to the catholic and comprehensive view of things, to God’s wisdom through which all things are known and in which all the reasons for each creature are to be found, according to St. Maximos. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth. . . . When he established the heavens, I was there” (Prv 3:19, 27). St. Basil the Great too had something to say on this point: “There are indeed certain reasons why the primordial wisdom of God was laid as a foundation to nature at the time of creation.”16 Now, those who do not rise—through the reason endowed in nature and in the Holy Scriptures—to the hypostatic Logos of God, those who do not love Him “through whom all things were made” (Jn 1:3), as most of the worldly philosophers do not, all of these people act contrary to the Creator’s purpose in nature and in Holy Scripture. And according to the wise and most insightful Kallistos, the thought of such people has lost its natural tendency and has become unnatural. This has occurred because they use the means as ends in themselves, and the causes as results, and they love the gifts more than the Giver and the creatures more than the Creator, as St. Augustine has said.17 Since creation was not created for itself, but for the vision and glory of its Creator, it is not proper that it should be seen and admired for its own sake, but rather for the sake of its Creator. It is the same with the mirror which one does not look at for its own sake, but for the sake of the one reflected in it.

We may add, finally, that the secondary goal and purpose for the creation of the senses is so that the material body may be able to enjoy through them material nourishment, growth, and life. Truly, I do not know what to marvel at most: the “palace” that is so intricately constructed or the “king” who dwells therein. But of these two, I must certainly marvel most at the master artist and Creator who with infinite wisdom not only created both of them, but also united the Soul and the body in such perfect harmony.

—St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite


Homily on the Nativity and on Pascha.

Homily 1, On the Presentation of the Theotokos.

Treatise on the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, ch. 1.

The saint made this remark because in his time most persons were still being baptized as adults, and many of them fell into deliberate sins shortly after their baptism.

Homily 7, On 2 Corinthians.

Homily 10, On the Song of Songs.

Treatise on the Orthodox Faith, Book 2, ch. 44.

Divine Names, ch. 2.

Homily 6 on the Hexaemeron.

Philokalia, p. 283.



Epistle to Titus.

Homily on Pascha, p. 286.



Encheiridion, ch. 26.

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