For Gregory of Nyssa, the cloud into which God calls Moses on Mount Sinai symbolises the unknown and unknowable place in which we meet God:
‘Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, Moses keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding he gains access to the invisible and incomprehensible, and there he sees God.’
In today’s Gospel, (Luke 24: 13-33) the women tell the apostles about the empty tomb and the angels they encountered there, but the men dismiss their testimony. Peter goes and checks the tomb for himself, but what he finds still does not persuade him of the women’s veracity.
The disciples set off for Emmaus. As they walk, Jesus joins them. When they fail to recognise him, he chides them for their folly. ‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’ Still they do not recognise him. It is only he when breaks bread with them that they finally see. As soon as they do so he vanishes from their sight.
Gregory’s description of the ascent continues,
‘This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.’
Stiperstones, Shropshire: MMB; FMSL;
In the first of his homilies on the Song of Songs Gregory explains that it concerns ‘the most blessed and most perfect way of salvation – I mean which comes through love’. Some people seek salvation because they fear punishment and some because they desire rewards, but the Song of Songs speaks to those who ‘love with their whole heart and soul and strength not something else, something that comes from the Giver, but that very One who is the source of all good things.’
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.’
Gregory of Nyssa writes of their sister Macrina, ‘We had a sister who was for us a teacher of how to live, a mother in place of our mother. Such was her freedom toward God that she was for us a strong tower and a shield of favour as the Scripture says, and a fortified city and a name of utter assurance, through her freedom towards God that came of her way of life.’ Not surprisingly, Basil strongly supported women in religious life: ‘If women also choose to live according to the Gospel, and prefer virginity to marriage … they are blessed in their choice wherever they are upon the earth … We for our part pray to have communities of both men and women whose citizenship is in heaven’. Again, ‘The female too joins the campaign at Christ’s side, being enrolled in the campaign according to her virility of soul, rejected in no way for weakness of body. Many women have excelled not one whit less than men. Indeed some have proved themselves even more outstanding. Among their number are those who fill the choir of virgins. From their number are those who have shone resplendently in the contests of confession and in the victories of martyrdom. For the Lord himself, when he came, was not only followed by men, but also by women, and both sexes ministered to the Saviour’.
Today, the Eve of the Epiphany, is the anniversary of a protégé of the Cappadocians, the desert monk and spiritual writer Evagrius of Pontus (345-399). Evagrius pays tribute to Gregory in the prayer with which he concludes his handbook, the Praktikos: ‘This is what we have discovered by the grace of the Holy Spirit in our gleaning through the harvest of ripening grapes. But when the high Sun of Justice shines upon us and the grape is ripened, then will we drink its wine which ‘gladdens the human heart’, thanks to the prayers and intercessions of Gregory the just who planted me, and of the holy fathers who now water me and by the power of Christ Jesus our Lord who has granted me growth. To him be the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Today is the feast of Basil the Great (330-379) and his friend, Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), known as ‘the Theologian’. Together with Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, they are remembered as the Cappadocian Fathers. Basil was one of ten children born into a wealthy Christian family whose commitment to their faith had been tested by persecution: a maternal grandfather had suffered martyrdom, while their paternal grandparents had their property confiscated and fled to the forested mountains of Pontus where they lived for seven years by hunting and fishing. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus met as students in Athens and remained lifelong friends. They had contrasting temperaments. Basil was the extravert man of action, an able leader, administrator and ecclesiastical politician whose preferred form of religious life was communal, while Gregory was a sensitive introvert, poet and man of letters who disliked publicity and loved solitude. Both were major players in the development and consolidation of Trinitarian doctrine and the victory of Nicene orthodoxy, which affirmed the divinity of the Son, over Arianism, which denied it. It is to Gregory that we owe the maxim, ‘What has not been assumed, has not been redeemed’ (Letter 101).
That night it snowed and the next morning when we went to the post box at the bottom of the road we found two, very tatty, old slippers on the path in the snow. My wife was deeply moved not so my daughters who declared it to be a ‘plant’ and a typical ‘witches trick’ to win sympathy. But the next day we received beautiful Christmas cards from Hilda which turned the tables, just, and so the girls went and asked if she would like to join us for Christmas. Of course she accepted with alacrity.
When she arrived at about midday on Christmas morning we could hardly believe our eyes. Hilda was wearing a beautiful silk dress with a multi-coloured shawl draped around her, her hair was coiffured in an almost glamourous manner and she was carrying a large, ornamented leather bag which was full of wonderful presents. A lunch she showed how much she appreciated it all by accepting two helpings of everything and indeed, three of Christmas pudding.
After lunch she said she hoped we would play some games but suggested that perhaps a musical interlude would be acceptable. When she started to play our old German piano we were ‘gob smacked’ by her skill and artistry. She played all sorts of music for the next two hours and then the girls played and we all sang Christmas carols. After tea we played games until ten o’clock when, as it was snowing and Hilda was a little weary we all escorted her home. When she entered her ‘tumble- down’ bungalow the girls were crying because of all the bad things they had said about this wonderful, talented person who had given them the best Christmas ever.
No, we should not judge by appearances but we would benefit from the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa and try and cultivate the organs of ‘mystical perception’ by which we can attune ourselves to the ‘gift of grace’ in our neighbour.