Document: De cura pro mortuis gerenda
Reference numbers: CPL 307
Incipit: Diu sanctitati tuae, coepiscope
Date: 422?
Earliest manuscripts: 5 9th century mss., Brussels 10798; Bamberg 68; Trier(?) 160; Laon 135, 136
Latin text: CSEL 41 p.619-660; click here for the Latin text
English translations: Glen L. Thompson (Fourth; H. Browne (NPNF, Ser. 1, vol. 3, pp. 539-551); Catherine T. Rapp (University of Notre Dame, unpublished M.A. Thesis, 1931)

1.  My venerable fellow bishop Paulinus: For a long time I have owed your holiness an answer to the question you wrote me in the letter carried by the men of our most pious daughter Flora. You asked me whether a person benefited when his body was buried at the tomb of some saint after he died. A widow had begged you to do this for her son who had died in that region, and you had written back to her, consoling her, and telling her that you had done this for the body of the faithful young man Cynegius, her son, just as her motherly and pious affection had desired. You had it placed it in the basilica of the most blessed confessor Felix. On that occasion it happened that by the same people who carried your letter to her, you wrote also to me, asking the same question, and begging that I would answer what I thought about this matter, while not hiding what your own thoughts were. For you said that to your thinking this was not merely some useless act of religious and faithful minds to care for the body of one’s deceased. You also add that it cannot be without significance that the whole Church is accustomed to offer prayers for the departed. Therefore, one might further conjecture that it does help a person after death, if, through the faith of those around him, his body is interred in a spot where the aid of the saints, petitioned in this way, might be made apparent.

2. But if this is the case, you do not understand, you say, how this cannot be contrary to what the Apostle says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). For this apostolic statement admonishes us that it is what we do before we die which will benefit us after death, and not what is done afterwards (when one is about to receive the fruits of that which was done before death.  True, but the question is solved this way:  namely, that one can lead a certain kind of life while living in the body which is then possible to help the departed.  So consequently, it is according to the things done by the body that they are aided by the things which are piously done on their behalf after they have left the body. For there are those which nothing at all can help, either because they are done for persons whose merits are so evil, that they are not worthy to be aided by such things, or else for persons whose merits are so good  that they have no need of such aid. So the kind of life which each has led in the body determines whether such acts which are piously done on a person’s behalf after they have left the body can be of help or not. As for any merit which might be gained, if none was acquired in this life it is useless to seek for it in the next. So it turns out that it is not without meaning that the Church, or the care of friends, provides for the departed whatever pious acts it can. Nevertheless, “each receives according to the things which he has done in the body, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10), for the Lord will give “to each according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6; Rev. 22:12). For, in order that what has been done should be able to profit a person after leaving the body, it had to be first acquired while living in the body.

3. Possibly your inquiry is satisfied by this brief reply of mine. But pay attention for a moment for I have been struck by some other considerations which I think I must answer. In the books of the Maccabees we read of sacrifices offered for the dead. Yet even if we read about this nowhere in the ancient Scriptures, the authority of the universal church which clearly has this custom is not insignificant; for the “recommendation of the dead” also has a place among the prayers which the priest offers to the Lord God at his altar.

II.  But then, whether the soul of the dead profits in some way from the place where its body lies requires a more careful investigation. First of all, does it cause or increase the misery of the spirits of men after this life if their bodies are not buried? We must look into this not by considering public opinion, no matter how widespread, but rather in light of the sacred writings of our religion. For we should not believe, as we read in Virgil, that the unburied are prohibited from navigating and crossing the infernal river. For indeed

To none is given to pass the horrid banks and roaring streams
Until the bones have sunk to rest in peace.

Who can suggest such poetic and fantastic notions to a Christian heart? For the Lord Jesus, asserts that without fear Christians should give themselves over to the hands of their enemies, give their bodies in their power, and yet that not a hair of their head shall perish; and he exhorts them not to fear those who, when they have killed the body, can do no further harm. In the first book of On the City of God I think I said enough on this matter to blunt the teeth of those who, by blaming the barbarian ravages on our Christian age, especially that one which Rome itself recently suffered, also hurl at us the accusation that Christ did not come to the aid of his own people at that time. When we answered that he did take the souls of the faithful, according to the merits of their faith, into his protection, they insult us by describing the corpses that were left unburied. Thus I have already expounded on this entire subject of burial in such words as these.

4. But, I say, in such a slaughter-heap of dead bodies, they could not be buried at all. Yet even this is not a great dread to pious faith, which holding to that which was foretold, that not even being eaten by a beasts can prevent the rising again of bodies on which “not a hair of their head will perish” (Luke 21:18). For Truth would never say, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28) if whatever enemies might choose to do with the bodies of the slain could in any way hinder the life to come. Unless, perhaps, someone is so absurd as to argue that such people should not be feared before death, out of fear that they might kill the body, but ought to be feared after death, when, having killed the body, they allow it to remain unburied. If they can have such a great impact on dead bodies, is it then false when Christ speaks of those “who kill the body, and afterwards have no more that they can do” (Luke 12:4)? Banish the thought, that what Truth has spoken is false. For it is said that they do accomplish something when they kill, because there is feeling in the body while it is being killed, but afterwards they can do no more because there is no feeling in the body after it has been killed. The bodies of many Christians, then, have not been covered by the earth, but none of them have been separated from heaven and earth, the whole of which he fills with his presence. He knows from where to resuscitate what he has created.  Indeed, it is said in a Psalm, “They have given the dead bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the air, the flesh of your saints to the beasts of the earth; they have poured out their blood like water all round Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them” (Ps. 78:2-3 Vulg.). But this is said more to emphasize the cruelty of those who did these things, rather than the misfortune of those who suffered them. For, no matter how hard and dire these things may seem in the eyes of men, yet “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 115:6).  So, then, all these other things — the management of the funeral, condition of the interment, the procession of the funeral rites — they are more to comfort the living, than to bring relief to the dead. If an expensive funeral is of profit to the ungodly, then a cheap one or none at all will harm the godly. From man’s perspective, a crowd of family members provided a lavish funeral to that rich man clad in purple; but from God’s perspective, that poor man full of sores in a much more distinguished manner was attended by angels who did not carry him into a marble tomb, but into Abraham’s bosom on high. Those before whom we have undertaken to defend the City of God merely laugh at this; but for all that, even their own philosophers scorned such treatment of the dead; and often whole armies, while dying for their earthly country, cared not at all where they might lie afterwards, or what animals might eat them.  And the poets spoke of this attitude with applause, saying:

He is covered by the sky, whose ashes has no urn.

How much less ought they to toss out insults about the unburied bodies of Christians, to whom he has promised that the flesh itself with all its members, formed anew, not only from the earth, but truly also from the other elements, yes, from that most secret safe haven to which the vanished corpses have retreated, will instantaneously be restored and made whole again.

5. Yet it this does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be despised and flung aside, and above all those of just and faithful men, whose bodies have been used by their spirits as instruments and tools for doing all their good works. For just as the greater the affection one has for his parents, the more treasured are the father’s clothing and ring and all such things to those who survive him, in the same way the bodies themselves should not be neglected, since we wear them and are joined to them more closely than anything which we ourselves put on. For our bodies are not some ornament or aid which is added from outside, but belongs to the very nature of man. So also in ancient times the funerals of just men were arranged with dutiful piety, and their funerals were celebrated, and burials provided for, and while they were still alive they gave instructions to their sons about their burial or even about moving their bodies to another place. Tobias also was commended by the testimony of an angel for burying the dead, thus obtaining favor with God (Tobit 2:9). The Lord himself also, when he was about to rise on the third day, both proclaimed, and commended for preaching the good work of the pious woman who poured a precious perfume over His limbs and did it for his burial.  And the Gospel commemorated with praise those who took Christ’s body from the cross and carefully and with reverent honor saw it wrapped and laid in the tomb. However these authorities in no way suggest that dead bodies can experience any feeling; but rather, they signify that the providence of God (who is pleased with such acts of piety) is concerned also with the bodies of the dead, in order that our faith in the resurrection might be strengthened. From these we can also profitably learn that the reward for giving alms to those who are alive and have their senses must be great, if God does not overlook even those things which with duty and diligence we do for the lifeless bodies of men. There are indeed also other things which the holy patriarchs, through the speaking of the prophetic Spirit, wanted us to understand about the burying or removal of their bodies. But this is not the place to thoroughly discuss these things, and so what we have said here must suffice. Yet if good men exhibit a manly courage to bear and endure a shortage of those things which are necessary for sustaining life, such as food and clothing, no matter how heavy an affliction goes with it, and do not break, nor does such privation drive piety from their minds, but by exercising it makes them all the more fruitful, how much more does a lack of that care which is normally used for funerals and the burying of the bodies of the departed, fail to make the dead wretched, since now they are at rest in the hidden dwelling place of the pious! And so, when these things were also not carried out for the dead bodies of Christians during that devastation of the great city or of other towns, the living who could not afford to do these things were not at fault, nor did it result in pain for the dead who were not able to feel them. This is my opinion as to the motives for and manner of burial. I have transferred this from another book of mine, because it was easier to retell it than to express the same material in a different way.

6. If this be true, then also providing a burial place for bodies at the memorials of saints is a mark of a good and human disposition towards the remains of one’s friends. For if there is a sanctity in providing burial, there must also be sanctity in paying attention to where the burial occurs. But while it is desirable that there be such solace for the survivors, by which means they can show their pious attitudes towards their beloved, I do not see what assistance this can be to the dead except in this way: that when remembering the place in which the bodies of those whom they love have been laid, they might with their prayers commend the departed to those same saints as if they were patrons undertaking to aid them before the Lord. Indeed they would still be able to do so, even if they were not able to be interred in such places. But these tombs of the dead  which have become famous are called memorials or monuments because they call to mind those who by death have disappeared from the eyes of the living, and by bringing them to mind, they have not disappeared from men’s hearts through forgetfulness. For both the term memorial shows this very clearly, and monument is that which instructs the mind, that is, admonishes. This is why what we call a memorial or monument is called a μνημεῖον by the Greeks. For in their language the memory itself, by which we remember things, is called μνήμη. When therefore a mind recollects where the body of a very dear friend lies buried, and in the process the place represents itself to his thoughts as a place made reverent by the name of a martyr, such a state of mind then commends that soul to that martyr by his remembrance and prayer. And when the departed see such things done by the faithful Christians who were very dear to them, one cannot doubt that it profits those who while living in the body deserved that such things should profit them after this life. But even if, due to the lack of opportunity, some necessity does not permit bodies to be interred, or to be interred in such places, one should still not neglect prayers for the souls of the dead.  For in its general prayer the Church undertakes to make such supplications for all the departed in our Christian and catholic fellowship, even without mentioning their names. Thus those who do not have parents or sons or any relatives or friends still have the one pious mother common to all Christians to perform these acts for them. But no matter how holy the places where lifeless bodies are laid, I think their souls will not profit in the least without such prayers for the dead and if they are not made with the right faith and piety.

7. When therefore a Christian mother desired to have the body of her dead Christian son deposited in the basilica of a martyr because she believed that his soul would be aided by the merits of the martyr, the very believing of this was a type of supplication, and this would profit if anything would. And in that her thoughts return to this same tomb, and in her prayers she more and more prays for her son, the spirit of the departed is aided, not by where its dead body has been placed, but by the living affection of the mother which remembers that place. For at once the thought of who is being commended and to whom, does affect the pious mind of the one praying in a way that is not unprofitable. For also when men pray to God they use their bodies in a way that is fitting to prayer. So when they kneel, stretch out their hands, or even prostrate themselves on the ground, or whatever other visible actions they perform, they do this as if God will then know the invisible desire and intention of their heart, even though he does not need such actions to know what is in the human mind. Yet in so doing, a person rouses himself to pray and groan even more humbly and more fervently. I do not understand how it is that although these bodily motions cannot be made unless a mental activity proceeds comes first, yet when these are done in an outward and visible way, that inward invisible activity which caused them also increases. And so the heart’s affection which first caused them to be done itself grows because they are done. Yet truly if any man is held back, or even bound, so that he cannot do these actions with his limbs, one cannot conclude that his inner man is not praying, or that it has not in its most secret chamber thrown itself upon the ground in remorse before the eyes of God. In the same way it does makes a great difference where a person places the body of a departed one for whose spirit he prays to God, because both beforehand the affection chose a spot which was holy, and later, after the body is laid there, the mind’s recollection of that holy spot renews and increases the affection which came first; yet, even if he is unable to bury his beloved in the place which his pious mind, he should still in no way stop  the required prayers and commending of that person. For wherever the body of the departed may or may not lie, the spirit requires rest. For when the spirit leaves the body, along with it goes consciousness, by which one is able to ascertain the state one is in, whether good or bad.  Nor does it look for assistance for its life from that flesh to which it did itself give life and then withdrew life when it departed, and will again give it back when it returns. For the spirit adds merit to the flesh (not vice versa) even in its resurrection, whether it comes alive for punishment or for glory.

8. In the Church History which Eusebius wrote in Greek, and Rufinus translated into Latin, we read about the bodies of the martyrs in Gaul which were fed to the dogs, and that what the dogs left, together with the bones of the dead, were then cremated by fire until they were totally consumed; and these ashes were in turn scattered upon the Rhone River, so that nothing would be left to remember them by in any way. We must believe that this was divinely allowed for no other reason except that Christians should learn that, while this life is of little value compared with confessing Christ, being buried is of even less importance. For if what was done to the bodies of the martyrs with such savage rage could in any way have harmed them by hindering the blessed rest of their most victorious spirits, God surely would never have allowed this to happen. By this very deed, therefore, it has been made clear, that when the Lord said, “Fear not those who kill the body, but can do nothing else besides,” he did not mean that he would not allow them to do any thing to the bodies of his followers after they were dead; but rather that whatever they might be allowed to do, nothing could be done that would lessen the happiness of  a departed Christian; nothing indeed that could reach the consciousness still living after death; nothing that would end in any hindrance to the bodies themselves to prevent them from rising again intact.

9. And yet, because of the feeling that the human has, by which “ no one ever hates his own body” (Eph. 5:29), if men know that after their death their bodies will not receive the burial rites that are customary in each man’s nation or country, it makes them sad as men; and in this way before their death they can become anxious about what they cannot feel after death.  Thus we find in the books of Kings that, using one prophet to threaten another prophet who had transgressed his word, God declares that his dead body would not be laid in the tomb of his fathers. The Scripture says it this way: “Thus says the Lord, because you have not obeyed what the Lord said and have not kept the command which the Lord your God gave you, and have returned and eaten bread and drank water in the place where he commanded you not to eat bread or drink water, your dead body will not be buried in the tomb of your fathers” (1 Kg. 13:21-22). Now if we consult the Gospel to consider how heavy a punishment this was, we learn that after the body has been killed there is no reason to fear that the lifeless members can experience any suffering; thus it should not even be called a punishment. But if we think of a man’s human feelings towards his own body, it is possible for him while still alive to be frightened or saddened by what he would not feel when dead. And in this sense it was a punishment, because the mind was pained by what would in the future to happen to its body, even though when it did happen he would feel no pain. To this extent, then, it pleased the Lord to punish his servant, not that he obstinately neglected to fulfill his command, but rather because of another man’s deceitful lie he thought he was obeying it when he really was not. For one should not think that he was killed by the teeth of a beast in order that his soul could be snatched away from there to the torments of hell, for the very same lion which had killed him then kept watch over his body, while the animal he had been riding was also left unhurt, and together with that fierce beast resolutely stood there beside his master’s corpse. Thus this miraculous sign indicates that this man of God was being corrected in this life even with his death, rather than being punished after death. The apostle speaks of this subject when he called to mind the sicknesses and deaths of many people which were due to certain offenses, saying, “For if we judge ourselves, we would not be judged by the Lord. But when we are judged, we are being disciplined by the Lord, so that we will not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:31-32).  For in truth the other prophet, the very man who had deceived him, buried him with great respect in his own tomb, and carefully arranged that he himself would be buried beside the other’s bones. He was thus hoping that in this way his own bones might be spared, when the time came that Josiah king of Judah, as the prophecy of that man of God had said, would disinter the bones of many dead in that land, and use those same bones to defile the sacrilegious altars which had been set up for the man-made idols. For in fact he spared that tomb in which lay the prophet who more than three hundred years earlier had predicted those things, and for his sake the grave of the one who hade deceived him was also not desecrated. So because of that feeling which causes no one ever to hate his own body, this man, who had killed his own soul with a lie, made provision for his own body. In this way, therefore, the natural love which every man has for his own body was for the one prophet a punishment to inform him that he would not lie in the tomb of his fathers, and to the other an admonition to make provision beforehand so that his own bones would be spared, if he would be buried next to the man whose tomb no man was to desecrate.

10. In their battle for the faith the martyrs of Christ overcame these feelings. Nor should we wonder that they despised those things which they would not feel after death, when they did not give in to those tortures which they could feel while alive. God was no doubt able, just as he did not permit the lion to touch further the body of the prophet it had killed and made the killer watch over the body — he could have, I say, kept the dead bodies of his own martyrs from the dogs to which they had been thrown. Furthermore, he could have in any number of ways turned aside the rage of the men themselves, so that they would not have dared to burn their bodies or scatter their ashes. But it was necessary that this experience should also include these numerous types of temptations, so that this courageous confession which would not give in to savage persecution in order to save the life of the body would also not have an anxious fear of not having an honorable burial; in other words, that faith in the resurrection should not stand in dread of the destruction of the body. Thus it was appropriate even for these things to be allowed, so that, even after cases of such great horror, the martyrs, fervent in their confession of Christ, would become witnesses also to this truth which they had learned:  that those who could kill their bodies had no capacity to do them any further harm.  For whatever others might do to dead bodies, they really were accomplishing nothing at all, seeing that when a body is devoid of all life, it is impossible both for him who had departed from the body to feel anything, and impossible for him who had created the body to lose anything. Yet while these things were being done to the bodies of the slain, and the martyrs without fear endured them with great fortitude, there was great sorrow among the brothers, because there were given no opportunity to pay their last respects to the remains of the saints, nor, as the story above records, did the vigilance of their cruel guards allow the Christians to secretly take away any of their remains. So, while no misery was felt by those who were killed when they were torn limb from limb, their bones burned and their ashes scattered, still great compassion did torture those who had nothing left that they could bury; for what the former did not feel in any way was felt by the latter; and whereas the former would experience no more suffering, the latter suffered in sorrowful compassion.

11. People with this kind of sorrowful compassion which I have described were praised and blessed by king David when they provided a merciful burial to the dry bones of Saul and Jonathan. But what kind of mercy is it which is shown to those who can feel nothing? Or must this perhaps refer to the belief that unburied men may not cross over the river in Hades? This is very different from the Christian faith! For otherwise things would go very badly for the very great multitude of martyrs whose bodies were not able to be buried. If these men had been able to do the martyrs such a great evil as keeping them from crossing over to the places they longed to reach, then truth would have deceived them when it said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but afterwards can do no more,” But, since this is without doubt totally false, and it doesn’t hurt the faithful a single bit to have their bodies go without burial, or does burial help unbelievers in the slightest, why then are those who buried Saul and his son said to have acted with compassion and were blessed for it by that godly king? It was because of the good feeling which touched their compassionate hearts, when they felt that grief for the dead bodies of other men (touched by that feeling by which no man ever hates his own flesh) as to what they did not want done to their own bodies after death.  Rather, they, while they yet had feelings themselves, took care to do to these others who no longer had feelings that which they would have wanted to happen to their bodies when they would have no more feeling,

12. Stories are told of certain visions, which might seem to bring into this discussion a question which we should not overlook. It is said, namely, that dead men have at times either in dreams or in some other way appeared to the living and pointed out to them the place where, unknown to the living, their bodies lay unburied and encouraged them to give them the burial they were lacking. If we were to respond that such things were untrue, it might be thought we were shamelessly contradicting the writings of certain faithful men, and the senses of those who assure us that such things have happened to themselves. But we must answer, that it should not be thought for that reason that the dead have some sense of these things just because they appear in dreams to say or show or ask for such things. For those who are alive also often appear to the living as they sleep, even though they themselves are not aware that they are appearing, but they are told by the others what they had dreamed, namely, that in their dream the speakers saw them doing or saying something. So what if a person should see me in a dream showing that person something that has happened or even foretelling something that is about to happen, while I am totally ignorant of it and have no business at all in the matter – regardless of whether he is asleep, or he is awake while I am asleep, or he is asleep while I am awake, or whether we are both awake or asleep at one and the same time while he has the dream in which he sees me. How marvelous if the dead are unconscious and insensible of these things and yet still are seen by the living in their dreams, and say something which after they awake turns out to be true! Therefore, I should think that this happens through the working of angels, whether permitted or commanded from above, so that they seem to say something in dreams about the burying of their bodies, while those in whose bodies they are seen are totally unconscious of it. Now this is useful sometimes to provide some solace for the living who have a connection with the dead whose likenesses appear to them in dreams, and at other times as admonitions to humanity that they might have regard for the burial of humans, so that even though burial does not help the departed, yet there is still some guilt when one impiously neglects to do it. Sometimes however, false visions which lead people into great error are seen by men who deserve to suffer this. It is as if one might see in a dream what Aeneas is said to have seen in the world below (although what the poem said was untrue), and the likeness of some unburied man should appear to him who would speak the same words as Palinurus is said to have spoken to him; and when he awakes, he would find the body in that place where in his dream he was told  it lay unburied, and which he was encouraged and asked to bury when found; and because he finds this to be true, he believes that the dead are buried so that their souls will pass to places from which in his dream the souls of the unburied are prohibited by a law of the underworld.  By believing all this, does he not veer away drastically from the path of truth?

13. However, our human weakness is such that when someone sees a dead person in a dream, he thinks he is seeing that person’s spirit, yet when he similarly sees a person yet alive in dream, he has not doubts as to its being a soul or a body, but understands it is merely a representation of the person which has appeared to him. Is this not also possible with dead people, that unknown to their spirits their images can appear to those who are sleeping? It is certain that when we were living at Milan, we heard of a certain person of whom payment of a debt was demanded. An acknowledgment of this debt owed by his now deceased father was produced. Unknown to the son, however, the father had paid the debt. The son became very upset and was astonished that when his dying father had made his will, he had not told him about this debt. Then while he was so exceedingly agitated, his father appeared to him in a dream, and told him where to find the receipt showing that the debt had been paid in full. After the young man found it and showed it, he not only disproved the wrongful claim of a false debt, but also got back his father’s promissory note which the father had not retrieved when the money had been paid. Here then a man’s spirit is supposed to have shown concern for his son, and to have come to him in his sleep to teach him something he did not know, and thus free him from a great problem. But about the very same time as we heard this, it happened that at Carthage the rhetorician Eulogius, who had been my student in that subject, was engaged in lecturing to his students on Cicero’s rhetorical books (he himself told us this story, after we returned from Africa). As he was looking over the portion of text which he was going to explain the following day, he stumbled upon an obscure passage, and not being able to understand it, was bothered so much by it that he was hardly able to sleep. That night as he dreamed, I explained to him what he did not understand – of course, not me, but my image.  And this was while I was totally ignorant of the thing, and was far away across the sea, either doing something or perhaps dreaming some other thing, but not in the least caring about his problems. I do not know how these things happen. But no matter how they come about, why can we not believe that a person who is dreaming sees a dead man and a living man in the same way? Both, undoubtedly, neither know nor care who, or where, or when someone is dreaming of their images.

14. Similar to dreams, moreover, are also some of the visions which people have who although conscious are disturbed in their senses, such as those who are in some way deranged or mad. For they too talk to themselves just as though they were speaking to people who were present, or they speak to those who are absent as if they were present, seeing their images no matter whether alive or dead. But just as the living are not aware that they are being seen or talked to by such people – for indeed they are not really themselves present, or conversing with them, but because of their troubled senses, these persons are afflicted with these kind of imaginary visions – in the same way those who have departed this life appear to those so affected as if present while really they are absent and completely ignorant as to whether any one is seeing their image.

15. The same is true when people have such visions while in a state of unconsciousness even more profound than when they are asleep. For similar images of the living and the dead also appear to such people. But when they return to consciousness, the dead they claim to have seen are considered to have truly visited them, and those who hear about these things do not pay attention to the fact that they had also seen (while unconscious) similar images of living persons who were not present or were unaware of this. A certain man named Curma from the town of Tullium close to Hippo, a poor member of the curial class, barely eligible to serve as duumvir of that town, just a country man, became ill and lay unconscious and all but dead for several days. One could just feel a very slight breathing from his nostrils, indicating that he was barely alive, and this was all that kept him from being considered dead and then buried. He didn’t move a finger, did not eat anything, nor did he indicate with his eyes or any other bodily sense that he was touched by any feeling. Yet, when at last after a great many days he woke up, he said that he had seen many things as if in a dream. And the first thing he said after he had opened his eyes was, “Let some one go to the house of the ironworker named Curma and see what is happening there.” So some one went and found that the ironsmith had died at the very moment when the other had come back to his senses, and had, it could almost be said, revived from death. Then, as those who stood by eagerly listened, he told them how the other man had been ordered to surrender himself, while he himself was released; and that he had heard it said in that place from which he had returned, that it was not the Curma the official, but Curma the ironsmith who had been ordered to be taken to the place of the dead. In his dream-like visions he recognized others whom he had known when they were alive and saw the deceased being treated according to their various merits. I might perhaps have believed that he really had seen these very persons themselves if he had not in the course of this apparent dream of his also seen some who are still alive today, namely, some clerks of his district, by whose presbyter he was instructed while there to be baptized at Hippo by me, something that he also said had actually taken place. So then in this vision in which he afterwards saw the dead, he also had seen a presbyter, clerks, I myself, i.e. persons not yet dead. So why could he not be thought to have seen the dead in the same way as he saw us? – that is, that both the one kind and the other, absent and unconscious, were consequently not the persons themselves, but merely images of them, just as he saw images of various places? For example, he saw both the plot of ground where that presbyter was with the clerks, and Hippo where he seemed to be baptized by me. He certainly was not truly in those places when he seemed to himself to be there. For he did not know what was going on there at that time. Undoubtedly he should have known those things if he had really been there. Therefore, what he saw were not presentations of the things themselves as they really are, but the things were being represented by some type of images. Finally, after telling all the things he had seen, he narrated how he had also been led into paradise, and how, after he was released from there, he was told to return to his own family. “Go, be baptized, if you want to come to this place of the blessed.” He was then admonished to be baptized by me, and he replied that it had already been done. The one to whom he was talking then replied, “Go, be truly baptized; for what you saw was but a vision.” After this he regained consciousness and came to Hippo. As Easter was then approaching, he submitted his name among the others who had been properly instructed (competentes), together with a large number of others who we did not know personally. Nor did he bother to tell me or anyone else about his vision. He was baptized, and after the holy days he returned home. It was at least two years later when I learned of the whole matter. First I heard about it at the table of a certain friend we had in common, as we were talking about some such matters. Then I followed upon it and made the man tell me the story in person, with some trustworthy people from his town confirming what he said, both about his astonishing illness, how he lay all but dead for many days, and about that other Curma, the ironsmith, as I related above. They remembered everything about the events he was telling me, and assured me that they had at that time also heard them from his own lips. So, in the same way as he saw his own baptism, and me, and Hippo, and the basilica, and the baptistery – not the true realities, but some sort of image of these things —  he similarly saw certain other living persons, without those people being aware of it.

XIII. Why then could it not be the same with those dead people, i.e. that they were seen without their being aware of it?  16. Why should we not believe that these are the work of angels which was allowed by the providence of God who makes good use of both good  and evil in accord with the unsearchable depths of his judgments? Whether in this way the minds of mortals are instructed or deceived, consoled or terrified, according as each is to be shown mercy or judgment. For it is not in vain that the Church sings of his mercy and judgment (Ps. 100:1). Let each person accept what I am saying as it pleases him. If the souls of the dead could indeed involve themselves in the affairs of the living, and if it were really they themselves who are speaking to us when we see them in our sleep, I cannot speak for others, but my pious mother, who followed me over land and sea in order to live with me, would never miss a single night in visiting me. For it cannot be right that in a happier life she would have become crueler to such an extent that when any thing troubles my heart she no longer consoles the sad son whom she loved with a special love and whom she never wanted to see grieving. But assuredly it is true what the sacred Psalm sings in our ears, “Since my father and my mother have forsaken me, therefore the Lord has taken me up” (Ps. 26:10; Vulg. 27:10). If then our parents have forsaken us, how is it that they take an interest in our cares and affairs? But if parents do not, who else among the decease know us and what we are doing, or what we are enduring? Isaiah the Prophet says, “For You are our Father, because Abraham did not know us, and Israel did not take notice of us” (Isaiah 63:16). The great patriarchs were ignorant of the deeds done by the people whom they themselves had begotten, even though, because they believed in God, this people was promised to come from their own stock. If that is the case, how can the dead be involved so as to either know or help with the affairs and actions of the living? How can we say that those people were favored who died before the evils which happened soon after their death, if also after death they are feeling whatever calamites of human life take place? Or are we perhaps wrong in saying this, and in thinking that they are quietly at peace who are disturbed by the troubled life of the living? What then would have been the great benefit in what God promised to that most godly king Josiah when he said that Josiah would die beforehand so that he would not have to see the evils which God threatened would come to that place and people? These are God’s words: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, you have listened to my words and you are afraid in my presence when you heard what I said about this place and those who live in it – that it will be deserted and under a curse. You tore your clothes, and wept in my presence, and I have heard you, says the Lord Sabaoth. Is it not so?  Behold, I will lay you with your fathers, and you will be peacefully laid with them. Your eyes will not see all the evils which I am bringing upon this place and upon those who live in it” (2 Kgs. 22:18-20).  Frightened by God’s threats, he wept, and tore his clothes, and, because of his early death, he was protected from all those future evils, for he was about to rest in peace, so that he would not see any of those things. So then the spirits of the departed are there where they cannot see whatever things are transpiring and happening to men in this life. How then can they see their own graves, or whether their own bodies have been disgracefully abandoned or properly buried? How then can they take part in the misfortunes of the living?  For they are either enduring their own punishment, if such is what they have merited, or are resting in peace, as was promised to Josiah, where they experience no evil of any kind, either for themselves or seeing the suffering of others. For then they are freed from every evil which they endured while they were alive, both their own suffering and in seeing the suffering of others.

17. Someone may ask, “If the dead do not take an interest in the living, how is it that the rich man, who was tormented in hell, asked father Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers who have not yet died, and to urge them so they themselves would also not end up in that same place of torments? But does it follow, that because the rich man said this, he knew what his brothers were doing or enduring at that time? He was concerned with the living, although he did not know what they were experiencing, just as we have concern for the dead, although we surely do not know what there condition is. For if we were not concerned about the dead, we would not pray to God on their behalf as we do.  In the end, Abraham did not send Lazarus, and answered that here they have Moses and the Prophets, and that they should listen to them so that they will not arrive at these punishments. Where again one might reply, how was it that father Abraham himself did not know what was happening here, while he did know that Moses and the Prophets are here, that is, the books which men could  obey in order to escape the torments of hell? He knew, in short, that the rich man had lived in pleasure but the poor man Lazarus had lived to have lived in toil and sorrow. For he also says the following to him, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received good things, but Lazarus evil things.” Thus assuredly he knew what things had taken place among the living but not among the dead. While this is true, it may be, however, that he did not learn about these things while they were happening among the living, but after they had died, being informed of them by Lazarus. So it is not false when the prophet says, “Abraham did not know us” (Is. 63:16).

18. So then we must confess that the dead indeed do not know what is happening in this life while it is taking place. Afterwards, however, they might hear of it from those who pass from here to there at their death; not indeed everything, but those things which they who are allowed to remember such things are permitted to make known – those things which it is proper for those they are informing to hear. It may be also, that the dead hear some things from the angels who are acting in what happens here, but he to whom all is subject judges what it is proper for each one of them to hear. For unless there were angels who were present among both the living and the dead,  the Lord Jesus would not have said, “It happened then that the poor man died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s breast” (Lk. 16:22). Therefore those who God wished to carry this man from here to there were able to be both here and there. The spirits of the dead might also learn of some of the things happening here which it is necessary for them to know, and these are made known only to those persons who it is necessary should know them, not only things in the past or present, but even those future things revealed to them by the Spirit of God. For similarly not all men, but only the Prophets while they were alive did not know everything, but only those things which God’s providence thought it proper to reveal to them. Moreover, divine Scripture also testifies that some of the dead are sent to the living, just as the opposite happened when Paul was seized and carried from among the living into paradise (2 Cor. 12:2). For the dead prophet Samuel predicted to the living king Saul what was about to happen, although some think it was not Samuel himself who was able to be conjured up by magical arts, but they think some spirit suited for such evil works appeared as his image. Yet the book Ecclesiasticus, which claims to have been written by Jesus, son of Sirach, but which is argued to be by Solomon because of some resemblance to his style, while praising the fathers, holds that Samuel prophesied even after he had died (Sirach 46:23). But even if someone should speak against this book because it is not in the Hebrew canon, what must we say about Moses? For we certainly read both in Deuteronomy that he died and in the Gospel that he appeared to the living together with Elijah, who did not die.

19. This also solves that other question: If the dead do not know what the living are doing, how is it that the martyrs can provide aid to those that pray, and thus show that they take an interest in the affairs of men?  For it is certain that, when the barbarians were attacking Nola, the confessor Felix (whom you piously love as he rests among you) appeared not only through what resulted from his aid, but that he was actually seen by men. We heard this not in unreliable rumors but from trustworthy witnesses. But such things were a divine display far different from the usual function God has fixed for each kind of creature. For it does not follow that just because the Lord suddenly changed water into wine when he wanted that we should not consider water as valuable and useful in its usual place among the elements quite apart from its rare and unusual use in that divine event. Just because Lazarus was raised does not mean that every dead man will be raised when he wishes, or that a lifeless man is raised up by a living one in the same way as a sleeping man by one who is awake. Some things are within the boundaries of human conditions, others are signs of divine power; some are done naturally, others miraculously, although God is still present in nature so that it exists, and nature is not absent in the miraculous. So we should not think then, that just because the martyrs assist in healing or helping some men that any dead person who wants can be an influence in the affairs of the living. Rather we are to understand that the martyrs are interested in the affairs of the living through divine power, for it is not possible for the departed by their own nature to be interested in the affairs of the living.

20. However, the following question is beyond the powers of my understanding:  In what way do the martyrs bring aid to those who truly have been helped by them? Are they themselves present at the same time in so many different places, many separated from one another by great distances, either where their memorials are, or even away from their memorials wherever they are felt to be present? Or  do they themselves remain in a place fitting to their merits and removed from all interaction with mortals, and yet are praying in a general way for the needs of those who ask them – just as we pray for the dead even though we are not present with them nor do we know exactly where they are or what they are doing. Or whether Almighty God, who is present everywhere and neither limited to our presence nor separated from us, is hearing and granting the martyrs’ prayers, and through the work of his angels which is spread everywhere grants these comforts to those men to whom he sees fit to grant them in the misery of this life – and does he thus by his miraculous and ineffable power and goodness commend the merits of the martyrs themselves where he wants, when he wants, and how he wants, and most particularly through their memorials, because he knows this helpful in building up our faith in Christ, for they suffered because they confessed their faith in him. This matter is too high for me to be able to understand it and too profound for me to fathom it. Therefore I dare not say definitively which of these two it might be, or whether perhaps it is both – that sometimes these things are done by the actual presence of the martyrs and at other times by angels appearing as images of the martyrs. I would rather seek an answer from those who know. For there is someone who knows these things (though not indeed the one who thinks he knows them but does not). For these are gifts of God. According to the apostle, some are given to one, others given to another, and he says that they are given to each person as a manifestation of the Spirit for some use.  He says, “To one indeed  a word of wisdom is given by the Spirit; to another a word of knowledge by the same Spirit; while to another faith in the same Spirit; to another the gift of healing in the one Spirit; to another miraculous works; to another prophecy; to another the discerning of spirits; to another a variety of languages; to another the interpretation of speeches. But one and the same spirit is working in all of these, dividing them between everyone as he wishes” (1 Cor. 12:7-11). Among all these spiritual gifts which the apostle has listed, whoever is given the discerning of spirits will know these things as they are to be known.

21. We must believe that one such person was the monk John, whom the emperor Theodosius the Elder consulted on the issue of the civil war, for indeed he also had the gift of prophecy. For I do not dispute that individuals do not have only one of these gifts, but one may have several. Therefore, when once a certain very pious but impatient woman wished to see this John, she  through her husband fervently begged him to see her, but indeed he refused this request because he had never allowed women to see him. But he said, “Go, tell your wife that she will see me tonight, but in a dream.” And that is what happened. He gave her the advice that was proper to be given a married woman of the faith. When she awoke, she told her husband that she had seen a man of God, such that her husband recognized who it was, and she reported what she had been told by him. They told this story to a serious aristocratic man, most worthy to be believed, and he related it to me. Now if I myself had visited that holy monk, because, it is said, he was very patient about taking questions and very wise in answering them, I would have asked him, as it is relevant to our question, whether he himself came to that woman in a dream, that is to say, his spirit in an image of his body, just as we dream that we see ourselves in the image of our own body; or whether such a vision occurred in the woman’s dream through an Angel or in some other way while he himself was occupied with something else, or, if asleep, was dreaming of something else? Did he also himself know beforehand by a revelation from the prophetic Spirit that what he had promised would take place? For if he himself was present to her in her dream, of course it was by a miraculous gift, not by nature, that he was enabled to do so, and by a gift of God, not by his own abilities. But if he was occupied with some other thing or was sleeping and occupied with other visions when the woman saw him in her dream, then doubtless what happened was something like what we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, where the Lord Jesus speaks to Ananias about Saul, and informs him that Saul has seen Ananias coming to him, while Ananias still knew nothing about this. After this man of God had given me whatever answers he had on these matters, I would then go on to ask him about whether the martyrs are themselves present in dreams or in some other way to those who see them in whatever form they wish, especially when the demons in men confess that they are being tormented by the martyrs and beg the latter to spare them. Are these things done for the benefit of men by the will of God through the power of angels to show honor and approval of the saints, while they are in supreme peace and devoted to other far better visions, apart from us and praying for us. For in Milan at the tomb of the holy martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, it happened that the demons made confession to the name of the still living bishop Ambrose, just like the dead whose names they were reciting, and they pleaded that he spare them, although Ambrose was occupied elsewhere and was totally unaware of this while it was taking place. Indeed, are some of these things done through the martyrs themselves being present, and others through the presence of angels? Is it possible, or by what signs is it possible, for us to distinguish between these two situations? Or is it impossible to know or judge such matters unless one has that gift through God’s Spirit which distributes to every person individually as he wishes? I think that the aforementioned John would discuss all these matters with me just as I would want, so that either I could learn from his teaching, knowing that what I would be told was true and certain, or so that I would believe what I could not understand after he had told me the things that he knew. But I would also thankfully accept it, if he would perhaps answer me from holy Scripture and say, “Do not seek the things that are too high for you, and do not search for the things which are too strong for you, but think always about what the Lord has commanded you” (Sirach 3:22). For it is no small accomplishment if, when some things are unclear and uncertain and we are not able to understand them, it at least becomes clear and certain that we should not be seeking answers; and that if there is something that we want to find out because we think it is useful for us to know it, we should learn there is no harm in not knowing it.

22. Since this is so, let us not think that anything reaches those deceased for whom we care except what we solemnly pray with our sacrifices  — either at the altar, or by our prayers, or by our alms. Yet this does not benefit all for whom such things are done, but only those who prepared for such benefit while they were yet alive. But since we cannot determine who these people are, we ought to do them for all those who have been reborn, so that none we do not overlook anyone whom these benefits can and should reach. For it is better  to do these things uselessly for people whom they will neither help nor hinder, than to not do them for someone whom they could help. However each man does these things more diligently for his own near and dear friends, so that they will likewise be done to him by his friends. But whatever is spent on the burial of the body is of no assistance for its salvation, but is merely a humane ceremony in accord with that feeling by which “no man ever hates his own flesh” (Eph. 5:29).  Therefore it is fitting that, as he is able, a person take care of his neighbor’s body after the one who wore it departs. And if those who do not believe in the resurrection of the flesh do these things, how much more ought those who do believe in it do these things. Thus a ceremony of this kind, given to a body which is dead but will rise again and remain to eternity, can also be a kind of testimony to the same faith!  But as for a person buried at the memorials of the martyrs, this seems to me to benefit the departed in so far as that in commending him also to the martyrs’ patronage, the feeling of supplication on his behalf is increased.

23. Here then is the reply I have been able to provide for you about the things you have thought to ask me. If it was overly lengthy, please excuse me, for it was done because in love I wished to have a longer talk with you. Write back, esteemed and beloved brother, and let me know what you think of this book. Doubtless it will be more welcome because of the one carrying it, our brother and fellow presbyter Candidianus. Through your letter I have now made his acquaintance, and I have welcomed him with all my heart, and am now sorry to send him off. For by his presence he has greatly consoled us with the love of Christ; and, to be truthful, it was because of his insistence that I have done what you asked. For my heart is so greatly occupied, that if he had not by his repeated reminders prevented me from forgetting about it, my reply to your question would never have been completed.

Translation by GLT based on that of H. Browne (NPNF, Ser. 1, vol. 3, pp. 539-551), and consulting also the unpublished translation and notes of Catherine T. Rapp’s (University of Notre Dame M.A. Thesis, 1931).

Last updated: 2-10-2011

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