An Introduction to St. Gregory of Nyssa,
by Bro. Richard McCambly, OCSO
GREGORY was one of three notable Cappadocians (a region of Asia Minor or what is today modern southern Turkey), Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzen. As far as it is known, he was not educated at any of the important intellectual centers of the Hellenistic world. However, he was inspired by such classical authors as Plato (especially the Phaedrus, Phadeo, Republic), Middle Platonism, Iamblicus (cosmology), Porphyry (logic), Plotinus, not to mention being greatly interested in Hellenistic sciences. Gregory was also inspired by such Christian writers as Origen, Macarius, his brother Basil as well as Philo. Both influences provided models to stimulate his interest in philosophy and theology through the medium of a lofty rhetorical style.
Gregory's youth coincided with the last revival of pagan culture which culminated with Julian the Apostate. He was completely won over by the humanism of this period, married and became a teacher of rhetoric. Later he travelled throughout Palestine and Egypt to visit monastic and hermetical communities which stimulated him to take up this form of life at the family estate in Pontus along with his dear friend, Gregory of Nazianen. Although he greatly admired the monastic ideal, Gregory was married, and no evidence exists that he had ever lived it.
Having been appointed by Basil to the insignificant see of Nyssa, Gregory showed no signs of outstanding administrative talent. In 376 he was deposed by the Arian faction on the pretense of mismanaging his jurisdiction and was forced into exile until 378. When the emperor Valens died in that same year and Theodosius I favored the upholders of the Nicene Creed, Gregory became the heir of his brother Basil who died in 379. Despite his Basil's domineering attitude towards him, Gregory was actively involved in perpetuating his doctrine and teachings on monastic life plus in restructuring ecclesiastical affairs at the council of Antioch. In the years 381 and 382 Gregory played a significant role at the councils of Constantinople. He also refuted the Arian theologian Eunomius who claimed that a person could attain direct knowledge of the divinity. Many twentieth century theologians hold Gregory of Nyssa in great esteem, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jean Danielou. Although he made considerable use of various Hellenistic schools as vehicles to express Christian teaching, Gregory never did achieve a logical consistency in his writings. One of the most important contributions made by him should be seen in light of a prevailing belief of the day, namely, that the Platonic notion of perfection is static as opposed to movement or change. It is here that Gregory breaks with a strong philosophical position--that stability is perfection and that alteration is for the worse. It was therefore easy to envisage in Christian terms, for example in Origen, that humankind "fell" from perfection and needed to return to this static state of existence. On the other hand, Gregory saw perfection in terms of constant progress, the term for which is epektasis, his most notable contribution to theology. Since there is no limit to perfection, the same applies to virtue. Thus progress is never-ending.
While this notion of advancement can be misunderstood as giving rise to a certain unfulfillment, Gregory sees the soul as never satiated; as soon as it attains one degree of satiety, it advances with increased ardor to the next and so forth. This idea is based in Gregory's most fundamental perception, namely, that human mutability enables us to make constant progress while on the other hand, God's transcendence can never be grasped. This incomprehensibility of God is established in his infinity which for Gregory is a positive insight as opposed to the Greek philosophical tradition which held it as being formless.
Gregory of Nyssa expresses his ideas through the vehicle of allegorical representation which can appear alien to a modern reader. However, one cannot help but be captivated by his original notion of epektasis, perpetual ascent, which runs throughout most of his writings. Since men and women are made in God's image and likeness, another central theme for Gregory, they bear the very stamp of divinity within them, a fact which serves to ennoble the human race. Both insights thereby lend a certain modern quality to Gregory's writings and help make them relevant to us today.
Universal Eastern obsession with
theological controversy (in this case, Arianism)
|THE whole city is full of it, the squares, the marketplaces, the crossroads, the alleyways; rag dealers, money-changers, food-sellers, they are all busy arguing.||Πάντα γὰρ τὰ κατὰ τὴν πόλιν τῶν τοιούτων πεπλήρωται͵ οἱ στενωποὶ͵ αἱ ἀγοραὶ͵ αἱ πλατεῖαι͵ τὰ ἄμφοδα· οἱ τῶν ἱματίων κάπηλοι͵ οἱ ταῖς τραπέζαις ἐφεστη κότες͵ οἱ τὰ ἐδώδιμα ἡμῖν ἀπεμπολοῦντες.|
|If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask, “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing. “On the Deity of the Son” PG xlvi, 557b||Ἐὰν περὶ τῶν ὀβολῶν ἐρωτήσῃς͵ ὁ δέ σοι περὶ γεννητοῦ καὶ ἀγεννήτου ἐφιλοσόφησε· κἂν περὶ τιμήματος ἄρτου πύθοιο͵ Μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ͵ ἀποκρίνεται͵ καὶ ὁ Υἱὸς ὑποχείριος. Εἰ δὲ͵ Τὸ λουτρὸν ἐπιτήδειόν ἐστιν͵ εἴποις͵ ὁ δὲ ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων τὸν Υἱὸν εἶναι διωρίσατο. Οὐκ οἶδα τί χρὴ τὸ κακὸν τοῦτο ὀνομάσαι͵ φρενῖτιν ἢ μανίαν͵ ἤ τι τοιοῦτον κακὸν ἐπιδήμιον͵ ὃ τῶν λογι σμῶν τὴν παραφορὰν ἐξεργάζεται.|
In the last Catecheses, I spoke of two great fourth-century Doctors of the Church, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus, a Bishop in Cappadocia, in present-day Turkey. Today, we are adding a third, St Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother, who showed himself to be a man disposed to meditation with a great capacity for reflection and a lively intelligence open to the culture of his time. He has thus proved to be an original and profound thinker in the history of Christianity.
He was born in about 335 A.D. His Christian education was supervised with special care by his brother Basil - whom he called “father and teacher” (Ep. 13, 4: SC 363, 198) - and by his sister Macrina. He completed his studies, appreciating in particular philosophy and rhetoric. Initially, he devoted himself to teaching and was married. Later, like his brother and sister, he too dedicated himself entirely to the ascetic life. He was subsequently elected Bishop of Nyssa and showed himself to be a zealous Pastor, thereby earning the community’s esteem. When he was accused of embezzlement by heretical adversaries, he was obliged for a brief period to abandon his episcopal see but later returned to it triumphant (cf. Ep. 6: SC 363, 164-170) and continued to be involved in the fight to defend the true faith.
Especially after Basil’s death, by more or less gathering his spiritual legacy, Gregory cooperated in the triumph of orthodoxy. He took part in various Synods; he attempted to settle disputes between Churches; he had an active part in the reorganization of the Church and, as a “pillar of orthodoxy”, played a leading role at the Council of Constantinople in 381, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Various difficult official tasks were entrusted to him by the Emperor Theodosius, he delivered important homilies and funeral discourses, and he devoted himself to writing various theological works. In addition, in 394, he took part in another Synod, held in Constantinople. The date of his death is unknown.
Gregory expressed clearly the purpose of his studies, the supreme goal to which all his work as a theologian was directed: not to engage his life in vain things but to find the light that would enable him to discern what is truly worthwhile (cf. In Ecclesiasten hom. 1: SC 416, 106-146). He found this supreme good in Christianity, thanks to which “the imitation of the divine nature” is possible (De Professione Christiana: PG 46, 244c). With his acute intelligence and vast philosophical and theological knowledge, he defended the Christian faith against heretics who denied the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (such as Eunomius and the Macedonians) or compromised the perfect humanity of Christ (such as Apollinaris).
He commented on Sacred Scripture, reflecting on the creation of man. This was one of his central topics: creation. He saw in the creature the reflection of the Creator and found here the way that leads to God. But he also wrote an important book on the life of Moses, whom he presents as a man journeying towards God: this climb to Mount Sinai became for him an image of our ascent in human life towards true life, towards the encounter with God.
He also interpreted the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”, as well as the Beatitudes. In his “Great Catechetical Discourse (Oratio Catechetica Magna) he developed theology’s fundamental directions, not for an academic theology closed in on itself but in order to offer catechists a reference system to keep before them in their instructions, almost as a framework for a pedagogical interpretation of the faith.
Furthermore, Gregory is distinguished for his spiritual doctrine. None of his theology was academic reflection; rather, it was an expression of the spiritual life, of a life of faith lived. As a great “father of mysticism”, he pointed out in various treatises - such as his De Professione Christiana and De Perfectione Christiana - the path Christians must take if they are to reach true life, perfection. He exalted consecrated virginity (De Virginitate) and proposed the life of his sister Macrina, who was always a guide and example for him (cf. Vita Macrinae), as an outstanding model of it.
Gregory gave various discourses and homilies and wrote numerous letters. In commenting on man’s creation, he highlighted the fact that God, “the best artist, forges our nature so as to make it suitable for the exercise of royalty. Through the superiority given by the soul and through the very make-up of the body, he arranges things in such a way that man is truly fit for regal power” (De Hominis Opificio 4: PG 44, 136b). Yet, we see that man, caught in the net of sin, often abuses creation and does not exercise true kingship. For this reason, in fact, that is, to act with true responsibility for creatures, he must be penetrated by God and live in his light. Indeed, man is a reflection of that original beauty which is God: “Everything God created was very good”, the holy Bishop wrote. And he added: “The story of creation (cf. Gn 1: 31) witnesses to it. Man was also listed among those very good things, adorned with a beauty far superior to all of the good things. What else, in fact, could be good, on par with one who was similar to pure and incorruptible beauty?... The reflection and image of eternal life, he was truly good; no, he was very good, with the radiant sign of life on his face” (Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1020c).
Man was honoured by God and placed above every other creature: “The sky was not made in God’s image, not the moon, not the sun, not the beauty of the stars, no other things which appear in creation. Only you (human soul) were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect, likeness of incorruptible beauty, mark of true divinity, vessel of blessed life, image of true light, that when you look upon it you become what he is, because through the reflected ray coming from your purity you imitate he who shines within you. Nothing that exists can measure up to your greatness” (Homilia in Canticum 2: PG 44, 805d).
Let us meditate on this praise of the human being. Let us also see how man was degraded by sin. And let us try to return to that original greatness: only if God is present, does man attain his true greatness. Man therefore recognizes in himself the reflection of the divine light: by purifying his heart he is once more, as he was in the beginning, a clear image of God, exemplary Beauty (cf. Oratio Catechetica 6: SC 453, 174). Thus, by purifying himself, man can see God, as do the pure of heart (cf. Mt 5: 8): “If, with a diligent and attentive standard of living, you wash away the bad things that have deposited upon your heart, the divine beauty will shine in you.... Contemplating yourself, you will see within you he who is the desire of your heart, and you will be blessed” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272ab). We should therefore wash away the ugliness stored within our hearts and rediscover God’s light within us. Man’s goal is therefore the contemplation of God. In him alone can he find his fulfilment.
To somehow anticipate this goal in this life, he must work ceaselessly toward a spiritual life, a life in dialogue with God. In other words - and this is the most important lesson that St Gregory of Nyssa has bequeathed to us - total human fulfilment consists in holiness, in a life lived in the encounter with God, which thus becomes luminous also to others and to the world.
Gregory of Nyssa (2 of 2): Wednesday, 22 August 2007
I present to you certain aspects of the teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa, of whom we spoke last Wednesday. First of all, Gregory of Nyssa had a very lofty concept of human dignity. Man’s goal, the holy Bishop said, is to liken himself to God, and he reaches this goal first of all through the love, knowledge and practice of the virtues, “bright beams that shine from the divine nature” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c), in a perpetual movement of adherence to the good like a corridor outstretched before oneself. In this regard, Gregory uses an effective image already present in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: épekteinómenos (3: 13), that is, “I press on” towards what is greater, towards truth and love. This vivid expression portrays a profound reality: the perfection we desire to attain is not acquired once and for all; perfection means journeying on, it is continuous readiness to move ahead because we never attain a perfect likeness to God; we are always on our way (cf. Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1025d). The history of every soul is that of a love which fills every time and at the same time is open to new horizons, for God continually stretches the soul’s possibilities to make it capable of ever greater goods. God himself, who has sown the seeds of good in us and from whom every initiative of holiness stems, “models the block..., and polishing and cleansing our spirit, forms Christ within us” (In Psalmos 2, 11: PG 44, 544b).
Gregory was anxious to explain: “In fact, this likeness to the Divine is not our work at all; it is not the achievement of any faculty of man; it is the great gift of God bestowed upon our nature at the very moment of our birth” (De Virginitate 12, 2: SC 119, 408-410). For the soul, therefore, “it is not a question of knowing something about God but of having God within” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1269c). Moreover, as Gregory perceptively observes, “Divinity is purity, it is liberation from the passions and the removal of every evil: if all these things are in you, God is truly in you” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c).
When we have God in us, when man loves God, through that reciprocity which belongs to the law of love he wants what God himself wants (cf. Homilia in Canticum 9: PG 44, 956ac); hence, he cooperates with God in fashioning the divine image in himself, so that “our spiritual birth is the result of a free choice, and we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we ourselves wish to be, and through our will forming ourselves in accordance with the model that we choose” (Vita Moysis 2, 3: SC 1ff., 108). To ascend to God, man must be purified: “The way that leads human nature to Heaven is none other than detachment from the evils of this world.... Becoming like God means becoming righteous, holy and good.... If, therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5: 1), “God is in Heaven’, and if, as the Prophet says, “You have made God your refuge’ (Ps 73: 28), it necessarily follows that you must be where God is found, since you are united with him. “Since he commanded you to call God “Father’ when you pray, he tells you definitely to be likened to your Heavenly Father and to lead a life worthy of God, as the Lord orders us more clearly elsewhere, saying, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5: 48)” (De Oratione Dominica 2: PG 44, 1145ac).
In this journey of spiritual ascesis Christ is the Model and Teacher, he shows us the beautiful image of God (cf. De Perfectione Christiana: PG 46, 272a). Each of us, looking at him, finds ourselves “the painter of our own life”, who has the will to compose the work and the virtues as his colours (ibid.: PG 46, 272b). So, if man is deemed worthy of Christ’s Name how should he behave? This is Gregory’s answer: “[He must] always examine his own thoughts, his own words and his own actions in his innermost depths to see whether they are oriented to Christ or are drifting away from him” (ibid.: PG 46, 284c). And this point is important because of the value it gives to the word “Christian”. A Christian is someone who bears Christ’s Name, who must therefore also liken his life to Christ. We Christians assume a great responsibility with Baptism.
Contemplation of God in Service to Neighbor
But Christ, Gregory says, is also present in the poor, which is why they must never be offended: “Do not despise them, those who lie idle, as if for this reason they were worth nothing. Consider who they are and you will discover wherein lies their dignity: they represent the Person of the Saviour. And this is how it is: for in his goodness the Lord gives them his own Person so that through it, those who are hard of heart and enemies of the poor may be moved to compassion” (De Pauperibus Amandis: PG 46, 460bc). Gregory, as we said, speaks of rising: rising to God in prayer through purity of heart, but also rising to God through love of neighbour. Love is the ladder that leads to God. Consequently, Gregory of Nyssa strongly recommends to all his listeners: “Be generous with these brothers and sisters, victims of misfortune. Give to the hungry from what you deprive your own stomach” (ibid.: PG 46, 457c).
Gregory recalls with great clarity that we all depend on God and therefore exclaims: “Do not think that everything belongs to you! There must also be a share for the poor, God’s friends. In fact, the truth is that everything comes from God, the universal Father, and that we are brothers and sisters and belong to the same lineage” (ibid.: PG, 465b). The Christian should then examine himself, Gregory insists further: “But what use is it to fast and abstain from eating meat if with your wickedness all you do is to gnaw at your brother? What do you gain in God’s eyes from not eating your own food if later, acting unfairly, you snatch from their hands the food of the poor?”.
Let us end our catechesis on the three great Cappadocian Fathers by recalling that important aspect of Gregory of Nyssa’s spiritual doctrine which is prayer. To progress on the journey to perfection and to welcome God within him, to bear the Spirit of God within him, the love of God, man must turn to God trustingly in prayer: “Through prayer we succeed in being with God. But anyone who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is a support and protection of charity, a brake on anger, an appeasement and the control of pride. Prayer is the custody of virginity, the protection of fidelity in marriage, the hope for those who are watching, an abundant harvest for farmers, certainty for sailors” (De Oratione Dominica 1: PG 44, 1124ab). The Christian always prays by drawing inspiration from the Lord’s Prayer: “So if we want to pray for the Kingdom of God to come, we must ask him for this with the power of the Word: that I may be distanced from corruption, delivered from death, freed from the chains of error; that death may never reign over me, that the tyranny of evil may never have power over us, that the adversary may never dominate me nor make me his prisoner through sin but that your Kingdom may come to me so that the passions by which I am now ruled and governed may be distanced, or better still, blotted out” (ibid., 3: PG 44, 1156d-1157a).
Having ended his earthly life, the Christian will thus be able to turn to God serenely. In speaking of this, St Gregory remembered the death of his sister Macrina and wrote that she was praying this prayer to God while she lay dying: “You who on earth have the power to take away sins, “forgive me, so that I may find refreshment’ (cf. Ps 38: 14), and so that I may be found without blemish in your sight at the time when I am emptied from my body (cf. Col 2: 11), so that my spirit, holy and immaculate (cf. Eph 5: 27), may be accepted into your hands “like incense before you’” (Ps 141: : 2) (Vita Macrinae 24: SC 178, 224). This teaching of St Gregory is always relevant: not only speaking of God, but carrying God within oneself. Let us do this by commitment to prayer and living in a spirit of love for all our brethren.
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