Last night I lectured on St Gregory of Nyssa in my course “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”. A certain amount of time had to be spent on his Trinitarian theology not least because my own interpretation has changed as a result of Fr John Behr’s detailed analysis in The Nicene Faith, Part 2, contrary to my previous understanding as informed by Met. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (a book I’ve mentioned here many times).
I wanted, this time, to expand it outwards from triadology to that which we call “mysticism”, partly because mystical questions keep arising in question time, partly because St Gregory of Nyssa is chiefly famous of late for his “mysticism”, partly because one of the first patristic texts I read was The Life of Moses.
And as I thought about mysticism and the Trinity and the Life of Moses, I couldn’t get the little word theosis out of my head. Theosis, the Greek word for “deification”. You’ll meet this word everywhere in Orthodox circles. Its foundational statement is in Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius: God became man so that man might become God. Theosis, however, is more than just a slogan or saying. And it’s more than just the mystical activities of ascetics like the Cappadocian Fathers and the monks of the desert or mediaeval Mt Athos. It is, ultimately, the all-embracing soteriology and endpoint of all Christian theology for the eastern tradition.
For Gregory, it is stated in terms of participation (he rarely actually uses the word theosis), which is how a modern Orthodox will describe its meaning. We are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of theosis. Not only are our sins washed away through the waters of baptism and by the blood on the cross—which St Gregory and the rest of the Fathers affirm—we are enabled and empowered to be united to God and to know him more and more fully all the time.
St Gregory argues that the pursuit of perfection, the path of sanctification, is itself part of this participation, not just activities we today would call “mystical” or “contemplative”. Sanctification itself, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a participation in the divine life. And, as I’ve stated here before, twice in fact, since perfection and holiness are attributes of God, and God is infinite (St Gregory is one of the first to actually argue for the infinity of God), then the path to perfection is itself infinite. This endless journey of perfection is called in Greek epektasis (acute accent on the second e). Epektasis for Gregory is what other Greek thinkers would call theosis, I would wager.
Whereas contemporary Protestant ideas of salvation tend to parse it into helpful categories such as: justification is God setting us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification is God setting us free from the power of sin; glorification is God setting us free from the presence of sin—theosis sees it as all of these and more. Salvation is entering into and participating in the life of God most high through the intervention of God in the incarnation. God is present and available to us today because Jesus died on the Cross. We meet with him through righteous acts, through prayer, through the Eucharist, through meditating on the words of Scripture. And we will never cease growing in perfection and getting to know Him more because He Himself is infinite, and our perfection itself is merely a participation in His life.
When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.
However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.
From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?
By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:
It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222
The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).
As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).
Even the angels progress in grace.
This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!
This liturgical aspect of a missional church interests and excites me for more than the obvious reasons. I think that prayer must be at the centre of our lives as individuals as well as churches. If we want to see transformation occur in our own hearts as well as in the communities around us, we need to encounter the living God. The witness of Scripture and Christian history tells us that this happens when we set aside time for prayer and worship.
Indeed, Baptist preacher John Piper even notes that worship is our true end; mission exists because worship does not.
This is our chief activity.
I would have been really excited to hear about this venture and mission on behalf of Christ’s church — and in my old stompin’ grounds (well, almost — Port Arthur isn’t quite the same as Fort William) — regardless of anything else. I’m doubly pleased that a friend from high school and her husband (who is fast becoming a friend) are involved in this disciple-making movement of prayer in the broken heart of Thunder Bay.
And I’m humbled that I have been approached to assist with the liturgical angle of this moment of Our Lord’s mission on earth.
Which brings me to the title of this post. The request mentions that they are interested in using ancient/classical forms of prayer (the obvious reason why Urban Abbey interests me), and says:
Anyways, I was interested if you would ever be interested in sharing/creating some liturgies ( I know you don’t just “create” them, but I hope you get what I mean) that you feel would be meaningful/important.
Of course, I directed Scot to this blog, specifically to the liturgies you can see off to your right under ‘Classic Christian Texts.’
I’ve been mulling over this for the past couple of weeks — probably too much, but that’s just the way I am.
It’s true that one doesn’t just ‘create’ liturgies.
For example, I once led a study of a portion of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses that dealt with perfection — since Divine perfection is endless, then our own perfection will be endless too. This is the selection in Richard Foster’s book Devotional Classics. For prayers at the start of that evening, I took some of the prayers from the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great and modified them a little, making portions antiphonal and giving the selection a beginning and an end — these were prayers for perfection. Obviously, they were out of context. But it was a way to truly pray (one does not pray ancient prayers for novelty) but also to connect with the world of the Cappadocians more thoroughly than a merely intellectual study would or could.
The creation of ‘occasional’ liturgies such as that is a matter of looking at the needs of that community and that moment, and then looking at the resources — the rich and beautiful resources — available to us in the centuries of prayers that Christians have offered up to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I do not think I would ever truly create a Eucharistic liturgy, although once I put together something based upon research into first-century worship and St Hippolytus, but that was basically just the Anaphora/Canon of the Mass. I don’t know if it’s something I would use again, though. (Yes, we had a real priest in Apostolic Succession consecrate the elements that night.)
As a Latinist, I have an advantage over a great many other people in this regard. While some of our earliest Greek liturgical texts, such as St Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, have been Englished, most early Latin liturgical texts remain untranslated. I can thus more easily tap into the wellspring of ancient and early mediaeval prayer than those unschooled in the Latin tongue.
I think I will prayerfully read through these ancient and early mediaeval prayers and prepare some texts for my friends. They are the same sources that Thomas Cranmer used in the 1500s as well as some new ones that have come to light. They express beautiful truths that all Christians can stand behind. So I will see if we can make them live again today in Urban Abbey’s Tower of Prayer in Thunder Bay.
In my next post I’ll go into some actual thoughts on Christian prayer in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
The word fresh is in quotation marks above because the freshness of the Fathers is relative to the reader. They themselves are not fresh, for they have mostly been around for 1500 years of more. But to many of us, their ideas can be a breath of fresh air.
When we first meet patristic exegesis, it can often seem quite unfamiliar to us. And some of it is probably bogus. So why should we even tryReadingScripture with the Church Fathers? (To name a book that addresses this very issue.)
To answer this, I think I’ll use a different approach, one that will hopefully highlight those other reasons to read the Fathers — their awesomeness and relevance. I’ll talk about myself (something bloggers like to do).
My very, very first encounter with patristic exegesis was, thankfully, not the beautiful, lyrical, typological poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian. If it had been, I would have been left very puzzled and very nonplussed. No, it was with level-headed, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘Antiochene’ St. John Chrysostom.
What I found was not merely attention to detail or the exegesis of the passage in terms of what it meant in its original, historical context. Chrysostom looked at the passage and exegeted it to bring its full weight to bear upon his congregation. He drew forth from the words of Holy Writ spiritual and ethical lessons for his congregation. He called them to lead holy lives.
When Chrysostom talks of St. Paul’s conversion, he also calls his congregation to read their Bibles for themselves. Commenting upon Philippians, he berates fathers who are angry about their sons taking up the religious life — if they are Christians, how is this a bad choice? Better than the pitfalls at the imperial court with its many opportunities for sin and worldliness! Then he says that one could be a light in the darkness at the imperial court, and it’s not a place Christians should avoid.
The Scriptures for Chrysostom and many, if not all, of the Fathers are alive. They speak here and now. They call us to holiness. They call us to contemplation (theoria) of God.* They drive us to worship. They are not objects of study — rather, they turn us into the objects of study. Patristic exegesis was not scary but exciting and invigorating with Chrysostom.
If you are cautious about patristic exegesis, start with St. John Chrysostom.
If you are curious about things less familiar, less like a Sunday-morning evangelical sermon, curious about things that will take you into the land of mystical union with the Divine and the world of the luminous eye (to cite the title of a book by Sebastian Brock), check out my second major helping of Patristic exegesis: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.
The Life of Moses starts out with Chrysostom’s familiar territory — ad litteram — the literal, historical meaning of the text. St. Gregory (Saint of the Week here) tells us the life of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. There are lessons to be found here about life, ethics, and God. Even that (in)famous allegorist Origen believes in the power and importance of the literal meaning of Scripture.
But Gregory takes us beyond the literal into the mystical world of allegory. Moses’ life is an allegory for our own spiritual world. As the Israelites were saved by crossing the Red Sea, we are saved in the waters of baptism. As Moses ascended the mountain of God into the cloud of unknowing (to borrow the title of a piece of Middle English mysticism), so too is the Christian called to ascend the mountain of God and find God in His incomprehensibility through mystical contemplation.
That’s probably more than enough to make most people uneasy about Patristic exegesis. What has Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to do with me, alone, in a dark room engaged in the ‘useless’ pursuit of omphaloskepsis (‘navel-gazing’, used as a perjorative in the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy)?
We, as Protestants, shy away from this sort of allegorical, mystical reading, fearing that it will turn the Scriptures into a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction.
When I read The Life of Moses, I found it invigorating, in fact. Who knows if St. Gregory’s mystical allegory is true or ‘right’? What I know is that it contained truth and rightness. I mean to say that it found in all of Scripture a spiritual sense and sought to encourage Christians through the use of Scripture for understanding their special call as followers of Jesus. St. Gregory sees the events of the history of the people of Israel as more than simply the account of God’s dealing with the human race — he sees in them a vision of God’s dealings with each, individual human. God can save you and me, and draw us to Him, if we have the eyes to see and a deep faith rooted in Him and His word.
You may not like allegory. You may think it dangerous. You may confuse it with typology (if that’s the case, read my post about the usefulness of typology in Scripture-reading, as well as on the fourfold sense of Scripture). Nonetheless, I hope that encountering uncomfortable writings such as St. Gregory of Nyssa will jar you into trying to see that there is spiritual benefit in all of Scripture, that the Scriptures are not a self-help book, that the Scriptures are not there as a perfect roadmap to life, but, most importantly, that the Scriptures exist primarily as the revelation of God and as a means for us to be drawn into him.
This leaves us even with a place for the mind-bending typologies of St. Ephraim the Syrian (see this hymn on the Incarnation of his), well worth a read. And then, perhaps we can shed any vestiges that we have the perfect, historically accurate, airtight, ‘useful’ interpretation of Scripture and allow our souls to breathe.
If you are curious about looking into Patristic exegesis and hermeneutics more, here are two places to start:
Oden, Thomas, General Editor. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. IVP. Hall’s book is meant to be an accompaniment to this 26-volume commentary on the whole of Scripture, including the Deuterocanonical Books, giving brief selections from the Patristic witness ranging from Origen and Athanasius to Cassian and Augustine. A fantastic resource.
*For a good article about Chrysostom and the Antiochene understanding and use of theoria in interpreting Scripture, see Bradley Nassif, “Antiochene theoria [actually in Greek] in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. IVP.
I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.
Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.
This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.
Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:
the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*
Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”
Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.
Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:
Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)
If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?
Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:
Typology in Action
The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.
The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.
Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.
Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.
Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.
Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.
de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).
*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.
I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).
One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).
This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).
Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.
We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.
It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.
But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!
Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.
Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.
Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?
If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.
All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.
This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’ Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).
The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.
Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.
So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!
**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).
Metrophanes (on the far right) was old and frail at the time of the gathering at Nikaia. He had retired from being overseer of Byzantion eleven years before the gathering at Nikaia, although some say otherwise. We learn from a fresco painter on the island of Kypros that he was present at Nikaia. The scholars are mostly silent.
Despite the conflicting reports of tradition, internet encyclopaediae, fresco-painters, and scholars centuries in the future, Metrophanes of Byzantion stood quietly in the market of Nikaia, examining a pomegranate.
“It is funny,” he noted to Antonios the fruit-seller, “my family is from the upper classes, you see. My grandparents worshipped the old gods; my father was the first to follow Jesus. And, well, the old stories are still a part of who I am.”
“The old stories are part of us all. It’s no shame, old man,”  replied the fruit-seller.
“I have a friend,” explained Metrophanes, “who looks at pomegranates, and you know what she thinks of?”
“Solomon’s Temple! Pomegranates were one of the chief decorations of the splendour of that place. Imagine. I, on the other hand, think immediately of Persephone, the story of how she was abducted by Hades. Whilst in the Underworld, she eats pomegranate seeds, thus sealing her doom to spend a portion of every year in the Underworld.”
“I know the story well,” said the fruit merchant. “Thus comes the season of winter, say the old stories. It is no shame that a pomegranate reminds you of the stories of the ancients. These stories are part of who we are, whether we be Khristianos, Platonistos, Stoikos, Manichaios, Gnostikos, or worshipper of the Unconquered Sun; we all are Romans.”
An older woman standing nearby held up a pomegranate. “Indeed,” she said, “let us not forget the teachings and stories of the ancients, even if we do not believe in them all; thus can we spoil the Egyptians, like the Israelites did.”
“This is good wisdom,” noted Metrophanes. “I am not acquainted with you, dear lady. My name is Metrophanes.”
“I am Makrina,” she replied. “If we think more deeply on the pomegranate, my brothers, we will find in it a spiritual lesson. For the skin of this fruit is very thick and tough. This is like the beginning of the spiritual life. We find the discipline hard, odious even. We do not wish to pray or fast or get out of bed on the Sun’s Day for the Lord’s Supper. Every act of charity, even for a poor widow or an orphan, feels like an unwanted burden. It does not taste sweet.
“But if we endure past this hard exterior and persevere, within the pomegranate we find these gems, jewels of sweetness,” Makrina tore open the pomegranate, plucked out a seed and began to eat it. “So it is with the spiritual life. Over time, we find that it is sweet to our souls, that the prayers are like the water of life to us, that we cannot even live without the Lord’s Supper. On that note, good sir, I would like to buy three.”
“Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Makrina,” noted Metrophanes. “Are you from these parts, or did you travel to Nikaia?”
“I come from Kappadokia,” she replied. “I came here to see what the overseers would decide regarding the faith.”
“You are not Makrina the Confessor, are you? We have heard of your bravery under Diokletianos in Byzantion!”
“Many were brave in those days, Metrophanes of Byzantion,” Makrina said with a smile (was it sly or sad?). “I see a new kind of bravery need now, though, mark me. Rumour has it Byzantion is going to become the New Roma.”
“Well . . . I . . .”
“That’s what I hear, too,” Antonios noted, receiving the coins from Makrina. “Have they not already begun building houses of the Lord there and tearing down the old temples?”
“Indeed, they have,” noted Metrophanes.
“It is to be a city dedicated to the one and only God,” said Makrina. “No pagan ceremony will ever be performed in it, no pagan temple shall stand, no monument to any god but the one, true God.”
“Ah,” snorted a customer leaving with some lemons, “I hear there’ll be a statue of Konstantinos arrayed like the Unconquered Son. Which one, true god does anyone mean these days?” He trooped off.
“The heart of Konstantinos is good,” said Metrophanes. “He is still somewhat young in the faith. We must give him time and see where things go.”
“Indeed, let us hope his thoughts about God do not remain as naive as what we’ve seen in the council,” noted Makrina.
“His thoughts on architecture, on the other hand,” said Antonios, making change for a customer, “are not to be missed! You spoke, madam, of spoiling the Egyptians. Well, Konstantinos has been doing just that for the past year. He is stripping the monuments to the old gods and old emperors to furnish this new city! There shall be fora filled with art from all over the Empire.”
“Yes, my friends, Konstantinos is remaking Byzantion in a new image. The old is going, and the new is on its way. This is his thankoffering to the Most High for his defeat of Likinios and the maintenance of true religion, the triumph of the Anointed’s Assembly,” Metrophanes looked at the two of them.
“However,” Makrina noted, “is it not dangerous, this union of City and Assembly? Ought we not to always be looking to the City of God? Yet Konstantinos plans to give us a City of Earth.”
“He’s a politican,” Antonios replied, “Earth is his domain, not the heavens.”
“You have touched on a key aspect of it all, Makrina,” responded Metrophanes. “This is what the overseer, Alexandros, and many of the others in the city are concerned about. We have all, of course, been anxious to see what will come of this gathering here, about Arios’ fate. But we have another issue at hand in Byzantion — keeping the heavenly kingdom free from compromise as Konstantinos comes with his grand plan of reforming Roma’s dominion. It is a very difficult calling, and markedly contrasted with yours, dear lady. No longer will our faith be tried and tested with the sword, the wheel, the stocks, the rack, burning coals — instead, Satan, the False Accuser, will come after us with mammon, with power, wealth, earthly glory, a share in the course of the events of the empire, status, prestige, comfort, food. Rather than scare us into submission, he will try to buy our souls. It will be the hard task of future generations not to sell them to Hades and its denizens.”
“Well said, Metrophanes. God’s good blessings,” she walked off into the market.
“Well, old man, will you buy the pomegranate or not?” Antonios asked.
 J B Bury, Later Roman Empire; Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire; Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; W H C Frend, The Early Church (all we know from him is that he counts Alexander as bishop of Byzantium at the time of Nicaea); A H M Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (the content surrounding the discussion of Constantinople comes from here, pp. 190-193, but all opinions and conjectures are my own or the characters’); Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church. Also silent: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The Catholic Encyclopedia
 In ancient Greek culture, calling someone “old man (geron)” was not rude but respectful.
 St. Macrina the Elder was probably not at Nicaea, thus rendering this entire an unlikely fiction. Also, the analogy she is about to make was one that her grandson, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was to make in his Life of Moses. Since this venerable lady exercised an influence over the education of her grandchildren, who is to say that St. Gregory’s idea did not come from her?
Perfection in St. Gregory is endless. Following in the Platonic tradition, Gregory argues that evil is essentially non-being. Evil is a lack, the absence of the good. The good, on the other hand, when there is no evil, is boundless. Goodness is never-ending; so also must be the pursuit of it, and that pursuit is virtue.
This line of reasoning also takes Gregory to the doctrine of divine infinity during this passage. God himself is the ultimate good, the highest good, the most perfect being there is. Therefore, he must be infinite, boundless. He has no boundaries upon himself, his being, his action. According to Anthony Meredith in The Cappadocians, this doctrine of divine infinity is a new direction in theology and philosophy. St. Gregory has innovated in both the Patristic Greek tradition as well as in his Origenist/Platonic context. If so, like most of the innovations within Meredith’s book, this has a great impact upon the subsequent tradition as well as being dictated by Scripture and tradition.
Back to our own pursuit of perfection. I agree with St. Gregory. If God is perfect, and God is infinite, then the road to perfection must also be infinite. Thus, St. Gregory says, “For the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.” I believe that this would accord with John Wesley’s idea of Christian Perfection as seen in his Plain Account thereof (for more on Wesley’s teachings on the topic, see the blog A Heart That Burns).
We are not to lose hope, however. Gregory draws our attention to the heroes of the faith, to the people who populate the Bible, especially Abraham and Sarah. Of course, the main thrust of his work is the life of Moses and how Moses’ life is a model for our faith, especially when seen “spiritually”, ie. allegorically.
In our discussion afterward, Liam suggested that perhaps the best thing to do in our journey towards perfection, towards “friendship” with God (St. Gregory of Nyssa’s word, not mine), is to start with regular prayer and Bible-reading. I know, I know. It’s grade three at Sunday School again. It’s every Evangelical preacher you’ve ever met. Well, guess what.
And St. Gregory would recommend it, too. The Bible is where we find the lives of the Old and New Testament saints, where we find the teachings of who God is. And prayer is where we approach the Uncreated Light and enter into the darkness that surrounds His radiance. Would that we all prayed and read our Bibles!
Where do you think we should go from there as we seek perfection and cultivate friendship with God?
In Conference 8.17.1, Abba Serenus says to Cassian and Germanus, “Scripture testifies that two angels cling to each of us, a good one and a wicked one.”* We all know about the doctrine of the good angel, for that is the popular “Guardian Angel,” with scriptural evidence at Mt 18:10, Ps 34:7, Acts 12:15 as cited by Cassian.
But what of this wicked angel? The scriptural basis for belief in a maleficent spirit that follows someone his or her entire life is slim, indeed. Cassian gives the weak arguments of Job and Judas, both of whom had Satan’s attentions. Their examples are to encourage the monk, the former to embolden, the latter to warn.
However, although uncited by Cassian regarding the maleficent spirit, the Shepherd of Hermas — one of those popular books that did not quite make the cut for the New Testament, and the only non-canonical book quoted by Cassian alongside Scripture — makes mention of such a being at 2.6.2:
“Now listen,” he said, “concerning faith. There are two messengers (angeloi) with a man, one of righteousness and one of wickedness.”
Cassian is a student not only of Hermas but also of Origen, largely via Evagrius Ponticus. While Evagrius denies that a man has a particular demon which follows him all his life (Prak. 59), Cassian stands with Origen’s teaching at De Principatibus 3.2.4 and Homilies on Luke 3.5.3-5.
The question of whether Cassian or Evagrius deviates from the Egyptian tradition on this point is unanswerable. Indeed, both may represent separate streams within that tradition. That Cassian in turning from his master stays within the broad river of Egyptian monasticism is found in Palladius: The Lausiac History 19.3:
In the end this abandoned man [Abba Moses the Robber], conscience-stricken as a result of one of his adventures, gave himself up to a monastery and to such practising of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him. (1918 trans. online)
Thus we see Cassian to be connected with Hermas, Origen, and Palladius/Abba Moses — the latter’s writing being something that would have brought Egyptian teaching to Constantinople. The interconnection runs beyond the Desert, however, to Nyssa.
There is a doctrine (which derives its trustworthiness from the tradition of the fathers) which says that after our nature fell into sin God did not disregard our fall and withhold his providence. No, on the one hand, he appointed an angel with an incorporeal nature to help in the life of each person and, on the other hand, he also appointed the corruptor who, by an evil and maleficent demon, afflicts the life of man and contrives against our nature. (Trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson)
So we see that the patristic world was interconnected through this teaching of the maleficent spirit. The root connection that this doctrine rests upon is the teaching that we are always beset by temptations. Yes, God has appointed a “Guardian Angel” to be with us; yet we are also followed by a trail of maleficent spirits, spirits of wickedness. Through these, too, shall we be perfected.
Through this underlying teaching, we see that Evagrius is still connected to the other Fathers in the foundations. His denial of a single, lifelong maleficent spirit stems from his belief that as a person progresses in virtue and prayer, so stronger demons and tempters will have to be set against him (see On Thoughts 34).
Nevertheless, none of these writers deny the presence of daimones, and all of them believe that life is a struggle between virtue and vice, between fleshly lusts and spiritual glories. We are all tempted and are never far from our tempter, be he Wormwood, Screwtape or Satan himself.
*Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this post are mine.
Today in the West is the feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331-395), the younger brother of St. Basil the Great (Saint of the Week here) and the youngest of the Cappadocian Fathers (brief blurb here), the others being his brother Basil and Basil’s university buddy Gregory of Nazianzus. One could also include the holy women of Sts. Gregory and Basil’s family, the Sts. Macrina, their grandmother and sister, the former who helped raise them, the latter who helped raise them up to holiness.
St. Gregory was not originally destined for an ecclesiastical career. He originally pursued law, but the bidding of his mother Emily, was drawn to the holy life. According to abbamoses.com (see January 10), she had him come to a service in honour of the 40 Martyrs. Tired from his journey and not especially zealous, he fell asleep. Whilst asleep, the 40 Martyrs came to him in a dream, rebuking him for his sloth. Overcome by penitence, he decided that he would thenceforth lead a holy, righteous, and sober life.
In 372 he became bishop of Nyssa in Asia Minor, but was exiled by the Semi-Arian Emperor Valens in 374. In 378, the Nicene Emperor Gratian recalled St. Gregory to his bishopric. He was present in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, which produced the form of the “Nicene” Creed in use to this day. In 395 he fell asleep, having left behind a large body of writings.
One of the blessings that comes from reading the Cappadocian Fathers, especially this youngest of the three, is their bridging of the gap into an age where Nicene Orthodoxy was the accepted norm for theological discourse. This gives their writings a different tone from those of St. Athanasius, who spends great energy and passion in polemic against Arianism, or in later ages when new controversies arise, producing the polemic of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo. This must be qualified, of course, because there are always various smaller controversies, or certain local ones, that give flavour to theological writings.
Be that as it may, St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to produce works of theology that are not always on the defense but are often simply the proclamation of Orthodoxy. It is a position of security rare in the world of theology and one not to be missed.
The only work of his which I have read in full is his Life of Moses. I recommend it highly. It is a guide to the virtuous life, using a “spiritual” rather than literal approach to Scripture, basing the steps of the virtuous life upon that of Moses. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, many good ideas and truths are found in this book. It is a great introduction to how the Fathers read Scripture as well as providing much food for thought and consideration of how we live our lives.
How to honour St. Gregory of Nyssa? Do not simply read his works, but praise, worship, honour, and glorify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom he adored. Live a virtuous life. The Fathers seek no higher honour than this. Although, if you really like a guy, an icon wouldn’t hurt ;).