The Death of Infants (Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos)

NOTE: At St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY, Fr. Germanos tells a story to various groups of pilgrims about a young couple from Montreal who lost their baby. Though it brought them much grief, the death brought some of the relatives who lived lives very far from the Church, closer to God and back to the Church. One of the couple’s father was very impious, a blasphemer, against the Church, etc. The funeral moved him in such a way that it brought him to compunction and repentance and he went to confession. From that point, he started changing his life, going to church regularly, etc. Now, apparently, the young couple praises God for the death of their baby for all the good that has come out of it.

According to the UNICEF, “The global under-five mortality rate has declined by nearly half (49 per cent) since 1990, dropping from 90 to 46 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013.” Meanwhile, the US leads Western nations in child homicide rates, while millions of children around the world are threatened with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including murder, rape and bullying, a new UNICEF report revealed: http://files.unicef.org/publications/files/Hidden_in_plain_sight_statistical_analysis_EN_3_Sept_2014.pdf

st-gregory-of-nyssa-1

 

There is a small treatise by St. Gregory of Nyssa entitled Concerning infants snatched away prematurely, that is to say, taken from life before they had tasted the life for which they were born. The treatise was written for Governor Hierios of Cappadocia, who had asked St. Gregory of Nyssa what we ought to know about those who depart from life very early, whose death is joined with their birth  [Gregory of Nyssa: On infants early deaths, NPNFns, vol. 5, p. 372-382.]…

14,000 Infants slain by Herod at Bethlehem.
14,000 Infants slain by Herod at Bethlehem.

Without presenting his thoughts rhetorically in antithetical words, he proceeds to deal with the topic by a rational sequence…

The fourth point which St. Gregory analyses is why God permits a baby to die at such an age. Having analysed previously that as far as participation in the divine Light is concerned, the number of years which we have lived does not play a great role, he now goes on to explain why God permits sudden departure from this life.

Holy Maccabee Children & Sts. Eleazar & Solomone
Holy Maccabee Children & Sts. Eleazar & Solomone

In answer to this question he says that no one can put the blame on God in cases where women murder their children because of illicit pregnancy. But as to the cases in which infants leave this world through some infirmity even though their parents have cared for them and prayed for them, we must look at them within God’s Providence. For perfect providence is that which does not simply heal the sufferings which have taken place, but it protects the person from even tasting things which would happen in the future. Whoever knows the future, as is the case with God, will naturally prevent the baby from growing up, so that he will not be brought to a bad end. Thus in the latter cases it is precisely because He sees the infant’s bad future that God does not permit him to live. God does this out of love and charity, without essentially depriving him of any of the future blessings, as we have seen.

St. Gabriel the Child-Martyr of Poland
St. Gabriel the Child-Martyr of Poland

In order to make this economy of God understandable, St. Gregory offers a beautiful and descriptive example. Let us suppose that there is a rich table with many appetizing foods. Let us go on to suppose that there is a supervisor who, on the one hand knows the qualities of each food – which one is harmful and unsuitable and which is suitable for eating – and on the other hand is very familiar with the temperament of each dinner guest. Let us still further suppose that this supervisor has absolute authority to permit one person to eat the food and prevent another, so that each one will eat what is suitable for his temperament and the sick person will therefore not be tormented nor the healthy one fall into loathing because of excess of food. If the supervisor should find out that one person had become drunk from much food and drink, or another was beginning to be drunk, he would get him out of that particular place. There is the case of a man who was put out of that place and turned against the supervisor, to accuse him of depriving him of the good things through envy. But if he were to look carefully at those who remained and suffered from sickness and headaches because of drunkenness, and expressed themselves with ugly words, then he would thank the supervisor for saving him from the pain of overeating.

Royal Child Martyr Tsarevich Alexis
Royal Child Martyr Tsarevich Alexis

This example matches human life. Human life is a table at which there are abundant foods. Life, however, is not sweet as honey, but also has various disagreeable foods such as salt and vinegar, which make human life difficult. Some foods arouse boasting, others make those who share them go into a frenzy, losing their heads, and in others they cause sickness. The supervisor of the table, who is God, takes away from that table promptly him who behaved properly in order not to be like those who suffer from excess of pleasure because of their gluttony.

St Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope and Love

In this way divine providence cures illnesses before they are yet manifest. Since God, with His prognostic power, knows that the newborn child will make bad use of the world when he grows up, He removes him from the banquet of life. The newborn child is detached from life so that he will not use his gluttony at the table of this life. On this point too we see the great love and philanthropy of God.

Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Rachel weeping for
her children, and would not be
comforted, because they are not.

The fifth point, which results from the foregoing, is the question of why God makes a distinction in His choice, why he takes one away providentially, while he lets the other become so bad that we wish that he had never been born. Why is the baby taken from this life providentially while his father is left, who drinks at the banquet until his old age, strewing his evil dregs on himself as well as on his fellow-drinkers?

In answer to this question he says that what it means is a word “to the most grateful”, to those who are thankful to God and, naturally, are well disposed. Besides, these are mysteries which man’s reason cannot grasp, precisely because God’s “reason” is different from man’s reason.

Holy New Martyrs of China
Holy New Martyrs of China

St. Gregory maintains that what God arranges is not fortuitous and without reason. God is word, wisdom, virtue and truth, and He will not accept what is unrelated to virtue and truth. Thus sometimes, for reasons which we have mentioned, babies are snatched from life early, and sometimes God permits something different, because He has a better end in view.

It is also permitted and granted by God that evil people should remain in life so that some benefits may be derived. Referring to the Israelites, he says that God permitted Egypt to oppress them in order to teach the Israelite people, just as He also brought the Israelites out of Egypt so that they would not become like the Egyptians and acquire their customs. With poundings on the anvil even the hardest iron, which does not soften in fire, can take the form of a useful tool.

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Another argument is dealt with as well. Some people maintain that not all people in this life have banished the fruits of wickedness, nor have the virtuous benefited from the sweating labours of virtue. To this St. Gregory of Nyssa replies that the virtuous will also rejoice in the next life, comparing their own blessings with the loss suffered by those condemned. This is said from the point of view that the comparison of opposites becomes “an addition of pleasure and an increase for the virtuous”. To be sure, it does not mean that they rejoice at the condemnation of other men, but they thank God for their salvation, because they are experiencing the happiness of virtue in contrast to the unhappiness of sin and the passions.

Therefore infants are snatched away from life prema­turely in order that they do not fall into more dreadful evils. If some live and become evil, this has other reasons which are in the Providence and wisdom of God. Nevertheless some benefits will come, since God does not do anything without a reason and a purpose.

The Children

The fact is that the infants who depart from life prematurely neither find themselves in a painful state nor become equal to those who have struggled to be purified by every virtue. They are in God’s Providence. Anyway, the journey to God and participation in the uncreated Light is a natural state of the soul, and infants cannot be deprived of this, because by the power of divine grace they can attain deification.

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