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Today, droves of people flock to Cappadocia for many different reasons. (See my earlier post on 8 Reasons to visit Cappadocia.)
Some come to see the distinct rock formations; some want to experience a new culture. Yet others, because of the early church history heritage in the region, come on a pilgrimage to better understand their spiritual ancestors.
One forerunner of the Christian faith and a so-called Cappadocian Father is Gregory of Nyssa (335-393? AD), the younger brother of the Great St Basil of Caesarea.
Even though Gregory of Nyssa (present-day Nevşehir) had been appointed bishop of this area, he never would have qualified to be a faith tourism marketer.
This is what he had to say about pilgrimages in a letter he addressed to a colleague when asked about the profitability of a journey to Jerusalem to see the physical places where Jesus of Nazareth lived, as if they could get an extra dose of holiness by being there:
“[The pilgrim] cannot imagine that our Lord is living, in the body, there at the present day, but has gone away from us foreigners; or that the Holy Spirit is in abundance at Jerusalem, but unable to travel as far as us. Whereas, if it is really possible to infer God’s presence from visible symbols, one might more justly consider that He dwelt in the Cappadocian nation than in any of the spots outside it. For how many Altars there are there, on which the name of our Lord is glorified! One could hardly count so many in all the rest of the world.” (On Pilgrimages)
The irony here is quite humorous: here is a man who is discouraging pilgrimages, but over time becoming the object of thousands of people’s excursions over the centuries. It would be like a pre-famous Justin Bieber encouraging young girls to broaden their musical tastes only to become famous and have those same girls totally disregard his words!
Gregory had a vision of the imminence of God that pervaded all he did. He can say this about pilgrimages because he believed:
“Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you, if the chambers of your soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in you and walk in you.” (On Pilgrimages)
As with Basil, Gregory truly believed that God himself had visited humankind through the person of Jesus of Nazareth 300 years before his time, and that God continued to come to visit people through the work of the sent Holy Spirit.
Gregory was greatly influenced by his elder brother Basil. When writing to his younger brother Peter, Gregory referred to Basil as being their “common father and teacher”. (On the Making of Man) Even though he didn’t have the extensive “secular” training that Basil did, he was far more influenced by his own reading of the classical Greek fathers, especially Plato, who came before him. (More will be mentioned about this later.)
Gregory did not pursue the ascetic life, but rather is believed to have been married, which, sadly to say, maybe he came to regret later in life. In his work, On Virginity, he says this of marriage:
“[L]et us sketch a marriage in every way most happy; illustrious birth, competent means, suitable ages, the very flower of the prime of life, deep affection, the very best that each can think of the other, that sweet rivalry of each wishing to surpass the other in loving; in addition, popularity, power, wide reputation, and everything else. But observe that even beneath this array of blessings the fire of an inevitable pain is smouldering.”
What is this pain? It was the anxiety created by the certainty of death.
“This continued expectancy of death, realized by no sure tokens, but hanging over them the terrible uncertainty of the future, disturbs their present joy, clouding it over with the fear of what is coming…You would see there, if only you could do it without danger, many contraries uniting; smiles melting into tears, pain mingled with pleasure, death always hanging by expectation over the children that are born, and putting a finger upon each of the sweetest joys. Whenever the husband looks at the beloved face, that moment the fear of separation accompanies the look.” (chapter 3)
In light of this and other reasons Gregory puts forth a case for the virtue of living a chaste life. This way of life allows the person, male and female, to center themselves upon God and to live a “pure life” by thwarting the impulse of sexual desire. He looks upon the ascetic life as contributing to unleashing the life of God in people’s hearts.
ENGAGING THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE DAY
Gregory shared the mantle, along with Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, as being the defenders of the Nicene faith and responders to the attacks upon the Scriptural understanding of the Holy Spirit in the eastern Roman Empire. Whereas Basil defended the creed and the identity of the Holy Spirit through Scriptural argumentation and ecclesiastical positioning, Gregory of Nyssa took more of a philosophical approach, greatly influenced by Plato and the earlier church father, Origen.
Gregory’s use of Platonic forms and structures for understanding reality (classic Hellenistic thought) to showcase the Gospel and how it addresses the human soul was controversial. The early church father Tertullian (160-225 AD) asks, “What have the philosopher and Christian in common, the disciple of Greece and the disciple of heaven?” (Apology 46) He, and others, saw this friendship between philosophy and revelation as being a betrayal of St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)
But did this mean that there was nothing to learn from the classics?
What was their role within a Christian context? What was the relationship between culture and the Cross? (This question is as valid today as it was back then.) Basil came to the defense of Gregory by writing, To Young Men on the Value of Classical Literature, addressing this issue. The ultimate criterion is ‘usefulness’, does it aid the reader toward a good, moral attitude? Whether Gregory is intentionally contextualizing the Gospel to allow his contemporaries to “hear and understand” it through their world-views, personally I do not know, but the fact that he is using cultural forms to do so has biblical precedence in St Paul:
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20,22)
Gregory does not fall for Hellenistic thought hook, line and sinker. Of course, he is thoughtful in his approach. In a later work he lists a few of the areas where there is agreement and disagreement between philosophy and biblical revelation:
“Pagan philosophy says that the soul is immortal; this is a pious offspring. But it also says that souls pass from bodies to bodies and are changed from a rational to an irrational nature. This is a fleshly and alien foreskin. And there are many such examples. It says there is a god, but thinks of him as material. It acknowledges him as creator, but says he needed matter for creation.” (On the Life of Moses, 2.40)
CONTRIBUTOR TO MYSTICISM
In his defense of the Nicene Creed of 325 AD against a fellow Cappadocian, Eunomious of Cyzicus, who claimed that God’s nature was capable of exact definition in words that could be understood by all (thus excluding the Son from the Deity), Gregory put forth the simple argument of divine incomprehensibility. No one can find an adequate definition of his inner nature because he is infinite; he is the source of all and can be limited by none, thus, there is a sense of divine mysteriousness to his nature. Here Gregory departs from his fathers, Plato and Origen, who argued that lack of limit and form signal a defect in being.
This “mysticism” shows up later in his writings, primarily in the important and influential work called On the Life of Moses. In this treatise he builds upon the teaching of Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” by using the events in the life of Moses to allegorically illustrate that religious virtue has to do with both right knowledge of God and right conduct. A mystical experience with God cannot be had without living a morally upright life.
“It is only when Moses has increased in knowledge that he confesses that he beholds God in the cloud, that is, that he knows that the Divine is by nature something above all knowledge and comprehension.” (2.164)
“Religious virtue may be distinguished in the following way. Part deals with the divine; part deals with moral behavior, for part of religion is purity of life. To begin with we must know how we are to think of God, and that knowledge entails entertaining none of the ideas which are derived from human understanding. The second part of virtue is taught by learning by what practices the life of virtue is realized.” (2.166)
Gregory claims that Moses after receiving the Ten Commandments, his “seeing” God as he passed by him (Exodus 33:18-23) was not a complete “knowing” or “experiencing” of God. Moses still had the duty to order his life around and practice the commands of God. Then, the knowledge that is above human understanding (i.e. “seeing God”), becomes something that has transpired in his life.
LATER PUBLIC LIFE
After Emperor Valens reduced the size of Cappadocia by changing its boundaries, in order to lessen Basil’s Nicean influence in the region, Basil countered by creating a new bishopric see in Nyssa (371/372 AD) and appointed his younger brother Gregory. Gregory was not a skilled ecclesiastical authority figure, as Basil points out in this letter to a friend, “[I]f indeed my God-beloved brother Gregory consents to the voyage and to the commission concerning these matters. For my own part, I do not know who can go with him, and am aware that he is quite inexperienced in ecclesiastical affairs.” (Letter 215) And to Gregory himself, Basil writes: “Thus I write attacking your simplicity, which I see plainly to be neither what generally becomes a Christ man…I must speak to you with all freedom, and I tell you that you are an unworthy minister of things so great.” (Letter 58) He was unable to hold up under the battle with the Arians (non-Nicene adherents) in his area and was eventually exiled in 375 AD, left to a life of wandering from town to town. He was allowed to return in 378 AD by imperial decree.
Maybe the public post wasn’t his cup of tea, but after the death of Basil, he started to come into his own. By the time of the Council of Constantinople (381 AD), Gregory was selected to be one of the promoters of the orthodox teaching on the subject of the Holy Spirit in the Roman province of Pontus. He was also chosen to deliver three important funeral orations: one for Meletius, bishop of Antioch, who presided over the council; the second for Emperor Theodosius’s daughter Pulcheria; and finally, the death of the emperor’s wife Flaccilla.
The rest of his life, to our knowledge, was filled with much literary activity.
Gregory of Nyssa will probably forever live in the shadow of his big brother, Basil, but he by no means was inferior in intellect. Most scholars of this time in history testify to the fact that Gregory demonstrated his superior acumen through his extensive writings and his theological interaction with classical philosophy. However, becoming more famous was probably not what drove Gregory of Nyssa. Instead, his pursuit of the truth was propelled by the conviction that he had found the One who was limitless, infinite and good.
“And the true vision of God consists in this, in never reaching satiety of the desire. We ought always to look through the things that we can see and still be on fire with the desire to see more. So let there be no limit to curtail our growth in our journey upwards to God.” (On the Life of Moses 2.239)
Have you experienced living in the shadow of a “great” elder sibling?
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Gregory of Nyssa: The Philosophical Theologian of Cappadocian Fathers
Click to see our Guide to the Cappadocian Fathers Homepage where you will find all of our posts on this subject.