St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Death of Infants 
Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos Vlachos


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 taken 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*. 

This teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa gives us the opportunity of underlining here that the soul of man is not impure at birth, but pure. Man from his birth experiences illumination of the nous. Therefore we see that even infants can have noetic prayer, corresponding of course to the images and representations of their age. When a person is created, his nous is in a state of illumination. We have observed many times that there are infants who pray even in their sleep. A monk of the Holy Mountain says that when small children turn their attention in some direction and laugh without a reason, it means that they see their angel. What happens in the lives of saints, for whom it is altogether natural to be with the angels, happens in little children. 

Therefore Orthodox theology does not teach what the theology in the West says, that man inherits the guilt of the ancestral sin. For we believe that at birth a person has a pure nous: his nous is illuminated, which is the natural state. The inheritance of ancestral sin lies in the fact that the body inherits corruptibility and mortality, which with the passage of time, and as the child grows and passions develop, darkens the noetic part of his soul. Indeed the developed passions linked with corruptibility and mortality and darkness of the environment darken the noetic part of the souls of children. 

Those who have nourished their souls with virtues in this life will in the future life enjoy divine comfort in proportion to the habit which they have acquired in this life. However, the soul which has not tasted virtue but is also not sickened with evil can also share the good to the depth to which it can contain the eternal blessings, empowered by the vision of Him Who is. 

Thus infants, although inexperienced in evil, will share in divine knowledge, divine light, empowered by the vision of God, by divine grace; and naturally with the vision of God they will advance to more perfect knowledge. 

* Gregory of Nyssa: On infant's early deaths, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 5, p. 372-382. 


source: Life after Death, by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos Vlachos, 'The Death of Infants', pages 94-109 (edited for length as published in Orthodox Heritage)
Orthodox Heritage, July/August 2008, volume 6, issue 07/08, page 27-29 (www.OrthodoxHeritage.org