The state of the soul according to St Severus

This post continues to explore the teachings of the Orthodox Fathers about the intermediate state of the soul after death. We have already seen that all of the Fathers of the first few centuries were unanimous in their belief that the souls of the departed continued in existence apart from the body, and were conscious and aware of their circumstances.

In this post we will consider the teachings of St Severus of Antioch. He is, together with St Athanasius and St Cyril, one of the most important of all of the Fathers of the Oriental Orthodox communion, and his views should be considered as having great authority indeed. He lived as a monk in Palestine towards the end of the 5th century, and was consecrated Patriarch of Antioch in 512 AD. He is famous for his theological writings in defence of the Orthodox Faith, as well as his hymns, sermons, letters and liturgies. Many of these have been preserved to our own time. In 518 AD he was forced into exile, and spent the rest of his life living in various monasteries in Egypt. Even while in exile he continued to be the most important leader and theologian of the anti-Chalcedonian movement. He finally departed this life in 538 AD.

This particular study will use the collections of St Severus’ letters which have been translated into English, and which represent only a small proportion of those he is known to have written in his lifetime. We should remember that we are seeking to understand St Severus’ teaching about the intermediate state of the soul, so we are enquiring especially about the continuing existence, or lack of a continuing existence of the soul apart from the body, and also the conscious or unconscious state of the soul in this condition.

This brief consideration will examine a selection of passages from the letters of St Severus and will discuss each one in turn to allow us to build up a coherent and authoritative understanding of his views.

The first passage is taken from Letter 34 in the Patrologia Orientalis translation. It says,

The saintly presbyter John has removed and gone to the place of light of the righteous, and to the rest above in which those who have so lived abide, expecting the day of the perfect and full promise, and not without us to be made perfect, as Paul who was initiated into the deep and ineffable things of the foreknowledge of God somewhere says. XXXIV

This passage is concerned with the death of the priest John, about whom he now writes to his correspondent. We see that John ‘has removed and gone to the place of light’. What can this mean. Certainly his body was buried in the ground, but we are to understand that John himself persists as an individual and is to be considered as being in some other place. This is a place of light and rest. Could it be that John has already experienced the promise of the resurrection of the body and is in the eternal state already? The passage does not allow us to say this. On the contrary, we are taught that John is still ‘expecting the day of the perfect and full promise’ and will not enter into the final state before or without St Severus and the fulness of the Church.

Therefore we can see that John is considered as being in some intermediate state, and is in this state without his body which is in the grave. He must be present in this place of rest and expectation as soul without body, since this is the component of a human person which is not subject to the grave.

A second passage from this same letter says,

And for the rest we pray that by the saintly prayers of those who have made a good departure hence we may be saved, and as far as possible be kept unharmed, and not wander from the faith of these men, and may be raised to them in memory. XXXIV

Here we may see that St Severus does not only consider that John, and those other faithful souls who have departed, are in a place of rest, but he believes that they pray for those who remain to struggle on earth. This would seem to require some measure of consciousness in the souls of those who are in the place of rest and expectation. St Severus does not elaborate on how they may be aware of our needs, but he is certain that they are conscious to the extent that they pray for our salvation and that, as far as possible, we may be kept from harm. Strictly speaking this passage does not allow us to say that St Severus considered the departed as hearing our own prayers, but it certainly requires the continuing and conscious existence of the faithful departed, separated from their bodies.

In another letter, St Severus addresses the departure of another priest. In Letter 60 he writes,

When I learned that the presbyter and archimandrite Beronician of saintly memory had departed and migrated to the heavenly mansions, partly from outside report, and partly from his revered letter, which at his decease he left for me as a blessing, which is truly full of all spiritual blessing, then I was distressed and my heart gave me bitter pain; and not only did I lament for his decease, but I also lifted the eyes of my mind together with my body upwards, and lifted up my voice to him, as to one who hears and perceives; for indeed he does even perceive the truth, «My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof». LX

What can we learn from this passage? We understand that the priest has gone to the heavenly mansions, and this must be understood as that same place of rest and expectation of which St Severus spoke in the previous letter. But here we learn in very clear language that it is to be believed that the soul of this Beronician ‘hears and perceives’ as St Severus phrases it. And it is for this reason that St Severus describes himself lifting up his voice to Beronician, with the expectation that he would be heard. We are not given any firm explanation of how he might hear, except for the suggestion that he is now in a state where ‘indeed he does even perceive the truth’.

To perceive and to hear both require a consciousness, and of course a continuing existence in this intermediate state.

St Severus is even more explicit in his views in Letter 117, where he says,

But they are conscious of services and prayers, and especially those that are made over the bloodless sacrifice on behalf of their life; and assuredly some consolation results to them in proportion to the measure of each man’s character. And they are conscious too of alms given to the poor on their behalf; for they also are a rational sacrifice as Paul teaches this and says, «To give alms and to impart forget not; for such sacrifices please God». For that those who have fallen asleep in Christ are conscious of these things the ritual also which was handed down to the churches from of old by the apostles and from the beginning to the present day clearly witnesses; for the deacon makes proclamation to those who are standing while the bloodless sacrifice is being offered that they are to make supplication on behalf of those who have fallen asleep, and on behalf of those on whose behalf they are making commemorations and alms. But it is not lawful for us to say that any of the things enjoined in the holy churches is useless or vain. CXVII

It is interesting, from a liturgical point of view, that the instruction of the deacon to the people, which St Severus mentions, was already of such great antiquity as to be considered Apostolic in his own times. This passage is completely clear and unmistakeable in its substance. Those who have departed this life are conscious of our services and prayers on their behalf. We need not ask how, since this veiled in mystery, but it is clear that they are aware in some manner, according to the teaching of St Severus. He will not allow it to be said that they are not conscious and aware, since he believes that this would require us to say that the liturgical texts have always been compromised by beliefs which are ‘useless or vain’.

St Severus uses the liturgical texts themselves to show that our prayers and offerings have value because the souls of the departed benefit from them. And he could not be any more forceful in insisting that they are conscious in the state of rest and expectation without the body.

These passages have all been related to the souls of the faithful in their place of rest, but St Severus also speaks in Letter 107 about the passage of the departed soul after death. He says,

Since, when the soul is separated from the body after the release from this world, the angelic and good hosts and a company of evil demons meet it, in order that, according to the quality of the deeds which it has performed bad or good, either the one or the other may convey it to the proper regions to be kept till the last day, on which, we shall all rise, either to judgment or to eternal life, or shall be brought to the unending flame of the fire, … by means of these things those who are being instructed may learn that that the soul has a contest after the release from this world, and that we must by means of good deeds prepare ourselves in order that angelic help may come to us when the demons gnash their teeth enviously and bitterly at us. CVII

We see here that it is to be understood that the soul does indeed exist apart from the body after death. The angels and demons come to meet it, and it is escorted by either one host or the other to a place of waiting until the resurrection at the last day. If the soul did not continue to exist apart from the body then there would be no soul to be met ‘when the soul is separated from the body’. Indeed the soul could not be said to be separated, it would simply cease to exist when life expired from the body. But this is not what St Severus teaches. Without concentrating in detail on the issue of the soul meeting the angelic and demonic hosts, it is clear that what is required is a soul which has a continuing existence apart from the body. We see also that all of these souls, both of the righteous and the wicked are ‘kept till the last day’, and it is only on this last day that the souls will be reunited with their bodies. Nor can we say that the soul immediately experiences this last day at the moment of death, since in all these passages from St Severus’ letters we have seen that the souls are in a place where the righteous at least experience rest and expectation, while the wicked a certain dread, and they remain in this conscious state for that period of time which will extend until the last day.

A final selection of passages will now consider the case of Christ Himself who also experienced death, and the separation of his soul from his body. In Letter 69 he says,

For then, I mean at the time of the revered Cross, it was only in order to demonstrate the power of our same Saviour, who in that the soul separated from the body went down to Sheol, that certain men rose by a divine manifestation, showing that in the places beneath the earth there was perception of the God-befitting illumination. LXIX

This passage seems to teach us several things. In the first place we must understand that the soul of our Lord Jesus Christ was separated from his body, and had a continuing existence after his death. This soul descended to a place which is called Sheol, and in that place were the souls of men, who had a ‘perception of the God-befitting illumination’. That these souls were in Sheol shows us that it is not only in the case of the Lord Jesus Christ that there is the possibility of the continuing existence of the soul after death, but that it is a properly human experience which he shared with all those others who have departed this life. More than that , we see that these souls, even before the Resurrection, are in a location, and therefore have a proper, spiritual integrity to their continuing existence. And finally we see that these souls respond to the coming of Christ among them, and are therefore to be considered as having ‘perception’, that is, consciousness and awareness.

In another place, in Letter 65, he writes,

He is said also to have tasted death for us, in that his soul was separated from his body; not that his soul was cut away from his Godhead, or his body left without Godhead; but he showed that he was in both without separation, for neither was his soul left in Sheol, nor did his flesh see corruption, according to the saying of the Psalmist. For he was not separated from his body that was buried, and therefore he annihilated corruption; for, if it had been separated from him who is life and incorruption, perhaps it would have been constantly attacked by corruption also. For he went down into Sheol with his soul also, the whole of him being in it, and the whole of him in his body without separation, as one that is incorporeal and is able to fill everything as one that is infinite. It was necessary for him to give light even to the lower regions also, and to have mercy on the souls there imprisoned, and, according to the saying of the prophet, «to say to those that are in bonds, ‘Come forth’, and to those also that are in darkness, ‘Be revealed’» LXV

This again shows us that the soul of our Lord was separated from his body, and that this soul with a continuing existence, descended to a place called Sheol. And what did he do in his soul in Sheol, but gave light and had mercy and spoke to those in bonds. This seems to me to require that those other souls in Sheol, who also had a continuing existence apart from the body, were able to be aware of both light, and receiving mercy, and hearing the voice of the Lord. Indeed we read that he spoke to the souls in Sheol saying, ‘Come out’, and this surely requires that those souls were able to hear and respond positively, all of which certainly requires consciousness and awareness in the soul separated from the body.

In one final passage about our Lord, we read in Letter 116,

But that all did not rise at that time with Christ, nor all who had died benefit by his descent into Sheol, although he himself appeared and made proclamation to all alike, but those who had already purified their soul as we have said, and therefore knew him and believed. CXVI

This again speaks about the descent of our Lord into Sheol, and in this passage it is made clear that the proclamation was made to all those souls. It must surely mean that we cannot even say that only the souls of the faithful departed have continuing existence and consciousness, but we must believe that all the departed souls are in such a state. Nor can it be said that the proclamation was made in some formal sense to souls without consciousness since we read here that the souls ‘knew him and believed’, in the case of the faithful, and this knowing and believing must also require a consciousness and awareness.

It seems to me that these passages provide us with a clear and unambiguous description of the teaching of St Severus of Antioch on the Intermediate State of the Soul. It can summarised as follows.

At the point of the death the soul is separated from the body. The soul is met by hosts of angels and demons, and according to the condition of our life will be led away to a place of waiting and expectation by either the angels or demons. The faithful souls are led to a place of rest and light. In this place they are conscious of our services and prayers which benefit them. They will remain conscious and aware in this place of rest and light until the last day when they will be reunited with their bodies, together with all those souls who have departed.

St Severus is one of the great authorities of the Oriental Orthodox communion. We must receive his teachings with great respect and humility. These views he describes are entirely consistent with those already considered from the first three centuries of the Church. The testimony of St Severus allows us to be even more confident in the traditional and universal teaching of the Church that the souls of the departed remain in a conscious existence, and a place of rest and light, where we may hope to join them if we are likewise faithful.


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