Light and dark on the Devil’s chair, Shropshire. MMB.
St Irenaeus, in the second century, writes this on the relationship between our capacity for freedom and for evil:
The light does not force itself on any man against his will; nor does God constrain a man, if he refuses to accept God’s working. Therefore, all who revolt from the Father’s light, and who transgress the law of liberty, have removed themselves through their own fault, since they were created free and self-determining [Against Heresies ].
Origen, around the third century, says similarly: ‘It is laid down in the doctrine of the Church that every rational soul is possessed of free choice and will; and that it has to struggle against the devil.’
There is simply no way around it: we cannot possess our freedom by giving free reign to our every desire, no matter how selfish. Pope Emeritus Benedict has written,
[The human person] is called to greatness, but his freedom can allow the contrary temptation, that of wanting to be great over against God…. Sometimes we feel like saying to God, If you had made man a little less great, then he wouldn’t be so dangerous. If you hadn’t given him his freedom, then he should not be able to fall so far. And yet, we don’t quite dare to say it in the end, because at the same time we are grateful that God did put greatness into man.’
Today the Roman Martyrology commemorates Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Basil the Great and Macrina (see blog entries for 2-9 January 2016). Among Gregory’s most influential works are his Life of Moses and homilies on the Song of Songs. The latter were composed at the behest of a wealthy young Christian woman named Olympias who lived in Constantinople, and were delivered in the church at Nyssa during Lent, most likely in 394 or 395.
In his preface Gregory explains that although he wrote them in response to Olympias’ requests, he did so not for her benefit, since he is sure she has no need of them, but so that ‘some direction may be given to more fleshly folk for the sake of the spiritual and immaterial welfare of their souls.’
In addressing them to a congregation of ordinary churchgoers Gregory shows a confidence in the spiritual maturity of ordinary laypeople which contrasts strikingly with the reservations of his mentor Origen, who in the prologue to his own commentary on the Song ‘[advises and counsels] everyone who is not yet rid of the vexations of the flesh and blood and has not ceased to feel the passion of his bodily nature, to refrain completely from reading this little book and the things that will be said about it. For they say that with the Hebrews also care is taken to allow no one even to hold this book in his hands, who has not reached a full and ripe age.’