What does it mean to be alive? This is a question whose answer would seem so obvious that it is hardly worth asking. And yet. A recent comment drew attention to a different way of thinking about what is “alive.” I will offer some quotes from the comment and then some observations of my own. I give special thanks to Justin.
Everything is alive. Everything.
We encounter the trees bowing to St Irene Chrysovalantou and imagine that God has thrust His hand down from the “second story” to force down lifeless trees. We simply cannot fathom the trees wilfully bowing of their own accord (“green herb for the service of man” vespers Psalm). We cannot see that the wind and waves obey, we fantasize that God forces dead water to part (Moses), or calm down (Christ in the boat). “Even the wind and the waves obey Him.” “Wind and waves, snow and ice, things that do His word” (Psalms).
“The trees of the field clap their hands.”
“The stones cry out.”
“Ask the rocks and they will tell you.”
Elder Porphyrios spoke of rocks communicating with him. Elder Paisios also spoke of plants speaking to him. St Gerasimos’ Lion, St Seraphim’s bear. “The heavenly intelligences praise You, sun moon, and stars” (Theophany prayer).
“The heavens declare the glory of God.”
“Moving mountains” is not in the Holy Scriptures, instead we are told of the mountains, “They will move.”
Scripture knows nothing of folks wishing in their minds that rocks would crush them; nay, they “say to the rocks, ‘fall on us.’”
The wisest people on earth risked life and limb, by the perilous travel of the day, to hear Solomon’s wisdom. Scripture identifies the content of that wisdom as, (get this) “He spoke of trees.” You can bet your arse it weren’t no botany lesson the wisest humans alive were imperiling their earthly existences for the sake of encountering.
Everything is alive because HE is alive, indeed, He IS life. The Logos has given logoi to ALL things which He has created. Earth, wind, water, fire, plants, animals, men and angels ALL are sentient, all praise the Lord, all can communicate, both with God and all creation. Every tree is the cross, every river the Jordan. All creation cries out…
The ancient Greeks, beginning with Aristotle, differentiated between things with a soul (animate) and things without a soul (inanimate). Bear in mind, that the word “animus” means “soul.” This differentiation is commonly used within the Fathers as well, though, as our earlier quote noted, there is a recognition that trees, rocks, everything – must be seen as “alive” – in at least some manner. I am not certain that “alive” is the word that we want to use, but for the moment I will stay with it.
We say “soul” and think we know what we mean (we do not). The soul is, indeed, the life of the body. In Aristotle, it is the form and the body is the matter. But even a rock has form. Over the centuries, people have come to think of the soul as the “ghost in the machine” and assume that the soul has an appearance that would be ghost-like. As hard as it may be for us to think in a different way, it is more accurate to say that the soul is the life of the body while having no image in mind whatsoever. What we know of the soul after death is that God sustains it in existence, though an existence of a soul apart from our body is a very strange, and even unnatural thing. It is incorrect to call it a “spiritual” existence. It is simply our life, preserved in existence through the mercy of God, as we await the resurrection of the body.
The hope of resurrection is not uniquely ours, according to the Scriptures: it is the promised end of all creation (Romans 8:19-23). That creation shares in our hope of the resurrection, says that there is much more to all things than our notion of the world as a collection of “inanimate objects” would allow.
Our friend Justin rightly cites some of the numerous passages in Scripture in which creation (trees, rocks, wind, water) are described in very animate terms. They sing, clap their hands, obey and do His will. Are these mere metaphors? Are the writers of Scripture engaging in simple hyperbole? The answer takes us into the hidden world described in various forms of allegory within the Scriptures. The testimony of great saints such as the Elder Porphyrios (who is not at all alone) points to a reality reflected in the language of Scripture. Trees, rocks, wind and water, are all things that “do His will.”
We take existence far too much for granted. To describe anything that has being and existence as “inanimate” does existence and being a disservice. We speak of things existing as though it were a complete given and not extraordinary, while, in truth, everything that exists shimmers with wonder as the Divine will sustains it in existence. What our normal way of thinking does is to reckon that being and existence have nothing necessarily to do with God, while the opposite is true.
That which exists does not exist in the same manner as God. We say of God that He is the “Trinity beyond all being” (hyperousios). God alone has self-existence. Creation has a contingent existence, that is, we only exist because God sustains us.
As such, we do not rightly say that “creation has life because God is life.” But we can say that creation has existence because God sustains it in existence. And it is equally appropriate to think of existence itself more in terms of life than simple materiality. If modern physics has taught us anything, it is that simple materiality is far more complex and wonderful than we have ever imagined.
The Biblical and patristic witness that speaks of rocks and trees in very animate terms are also rightly understood to point towards the kind of existence shared by all things. The whole of creation, we are told, “groans together until now” (Romans 8). Such statements are meaningless if treated in a manner that makes them mere figures of speech. The gift of existence carries something of an animate form, such that all creation speaks, obeys and yearns for its Creator.
We should also understand that the whole of ourselves, body, soul, spirit cries out for God. To give assent with that small portion of our existence that could do otherwise is to put our life on the path of its true nature, and to join the chorus of all creation.
Bless the Lord, O my soul! And all that is within me, bless His Holy Name!