Archive for category Patristic Pearls

St. Gregory of Nyssa: “Epektasis (ἐπέκτασις)- The soul’s eternal ‘straining toward’ God”.

“Brothers, I do not yet reckon myself to have seized hold, save of one thing: Both forgetting the things lying behind and also stretching out [ἐπεκτεινόμενος] to the things lying ahead,”

Philippians 3:13 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Background – A Brief Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s Theology

In Gregory’s account of creation, the nature-energies distinction, developed to counter Eunomius, a defender of the 4th century Arian heresy, becomes extended into a general cosmological principle.

To Gregory, the essence of God is incomprehensible, transcendent, and cannot be defined by any set of human concepts. When speaking of God’s essence, or ousia, all that can be said is what that essence is not (Against Eunomius II, IV). In saying this, Gregory anticipates the via negativa (apophatic) theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century) and much of subsequent Orthodox theological thought.

If God is simply some transcendent, unknowable entity, what possible relation to the world could God ever have? Gregory answers these questions by distinguishing between God’s “nature” (phusis) and God’s “energies” (energeiai). God’s energies are the projection of the divine nature into the world; initially creating it and ultimately guiding it to its appointed destination (Beatitudes VI). The idea of God’s energies in Gregory’s theology emphasizes God’s actual presence in those parts of creation which are perfected just because of that presence. Whereas God’s nature is totally transcendent and unknowable, God’s energies are immanent and knowable to mankind. With this revelation, Gregory anticipates the more famous substance-energies distinction of the 14th century Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas.

Gregory’s view of human nature is dominated by his belief that humans were created in the image of God. This means that because God’s transcendent nature projects energies out into the world, we would expect the same structural relationship to exist in human beings between their minds and their bodies. In fact, that is precisely what Gregory argues concerning the human nous (a word that was traditionally translated as “mind”, but by the 4th century included the Christian idea of its nature also extending beyond and separate from the physical world).

The most important characteristic of the nature of the nous is that it provides for a unity of consciousness; where the myriad perceptions from various sense organs are all coordinated with each other. Using the metaphor of a city in which family members come in by various gates but all meet somewhere inside, Gregory’s assertion is that this can occur only if we presuppose a transcendent self to which all of one’s experiences are referred (Making of Man 10). But Gregory maintains that this unity of consciousness is entirely mysterious, much like the mysterious nature of the Godhead (Making of Man 11).

Yet the nous is also extended by its energies throughout the body, which includes our ordinary sensory and psychological experiences as well as our discursive, rational mind (dianoia) (Making of Man 15; Soul and Resurrection).

There are two further important characteristics of the human nous according to Gregory. First, because the human nous is created in the image of God, it possesses a certain “dignity of royalty” (to tes basileias axioma) that is lacking in the rest of creation. Second, the nous is free. Gregory derives the freedom of the nous from the freedom of God. For God, being dependent on nothing, governs the universe through the free exercise of will; and the nous is created in God’s image (Making of Man 4).

Epektasis – the eternal ‘stretching and straining’ of the soul toward God

This concept of epektasis features heavily throughout the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (most especially in his Life of Moses and Homilies on the Song of Songs). His work leans toward an ascetic, mystical approach to the faith. Gregory believed that man’s ultimate purpose was to grow in participation in the divine. Since God is transcendent and infinite and man is created and finite, he reasoned that man could never reach a point where he fully participated in God; hence the need for the concept of epektasis. Gregory rejected the more typical view that happiness and perfection are found in attaining a concrete spiritual goal. Rather, he suggested, since humanity is incapable of reaching the actual transcendent perfection of God, purpose and meaning are found in progress toward that relationship standard. Gregory’s views on spiritualty had an early and lasting impact on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of theosis.

Epektasis is derived from a Greek word found in verses such as Philippians 3:13, where it is translated as “stretching out.” Epectasis, like askesis, is a term from athletics. It implies something that is becoming, developing, being strived for. It has alternately been understood as “evolving” or “growing.” As it pertains to Christian theology, epektasis implies that true joy in Christian living is found in the process of spiritual growth and development. That is, it is the internal change we experience that produces a sense of happiness, not the achievement of any particular goal. Specifically, epektasis emphasizes the need for continual “spiritual transformation” and suggests this process will continue forever in eternity. For Gregory, it is the journey that is important.

As Gregory puts it, “Deity is in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it” (Great Catechism 25). So, we directly experience the divine energies in the only thing in the universe that we can view from within – ourselves. God’s energies are always a force for good. Thus, we encounter them in the experience of virtues such as purity, passionlessness (apatheia), sanctity, and simplicity in our own moral character. “if . . . these things be in you,” Gregory concludes, “God is indeed in you” (Beatitudes VI).

Gregory tells us epektasis also imposes certain obligations on us in relation to both others and ourselves. To others we owe mercy (Beatitudes V) and the Christian virtue of agape (Beatitudes VII). To ourselves we owe the effort to overcome (through askesis; athletic training) the deficiencies and shortcomings in our likeness to God; for we are unable to contemplate God directly, and morally our free will has been compromised by the passions (pathe). Thus, with respect to ourselves we must continuously stretch out our souls (epektasis; like a straining athlete), toward intellectual and moral perfection (Beatitudes III).


“Whereby he has given us his precious and majestic promises, so that through these you may become communicants in the divine nature, having escaped from the decay that is in the cosmos on account of desire.”

2 Peter 1:4 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Text references (by Gregory of Nyssa):
Against Eunomius
Homilies on the Beatitudes
On the Making of Man
On the Soul and the Resurrection
The Life of Moses
Homilies on the Song of Songs
The Great Catechism

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Evagrius Ponticus – “… like a sapphire or the color of heaven.”

Evagrius Ponticus (c. 346-399) – was originally from Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is modern-day Turkey. He served as a Lector under St. Basil the Great and was made Deacon and Archdeacon under St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He was also greatly influenced by Origen of Alexandria and St. Gregory of Nyssa.  In about 383, Evagrius left Constantinople, eventually retreating to the Egyptian desert and joining a cenobitic community of Desert Fathers. As a classically trained scholar, Evagrius recorded the sayings of the desert monks and developed his own theological writings. The excerpt below is from Evagrius’ Skemmata (Reflections).

  1. If any would see the state of their nous, let them deprive themselves of all concepts (noemata): and then they will see themselves like a sapphire or the color of heaven (Exod. 24.10); but this cannot be accomplished without apatheia [dispassion] since it requires the cooperation of God who breathes into them the kindred light.
  2. Apatheia is the quiet state of the reasoning soul composed of gentle temperance.
  3. The state of the nous is the noetic [spiritual] height like the color of heaven, upon which the light of the holy Trinity comes at the time of prayer.

Skemmata, Gnostic Chapters 1-3

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St. Athanasius on St. Antony the Great: “… learn what the life of monks ought to be;”

St. Antony the Great (Greek: Ἀντώνιος) (251 – 356)- was a Christian ascetic monk from Egypt. Antony was among the first anchorites known to go into the Egyptian desert wilderness in about AD 270. Because of his importance among the Desert Fathers and to all later Christian monastics, he is also known as the Father of All Monks. Most of what is known about Antony comes from the Life of Antony, written around 360 by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. It depicts Anthony as an illiterate holy man who, through his stark solitary ascetic life in the desert, forges an absolute connection to the divine Truth. This biography of Antony’s life helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism into both the Greek and Latin worlds. The excerpt below is from St. Athanasius’ Life of Antony:

“Further, he was able to be of such use to all, that many soldiers and men who had great possessions laid aside the burdens of life, and became monks for the rest of their days. And it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not forthwith put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not forthwith deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?” (87).

“Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him: and leads those who serve Him unto the end, not only to the kingdom of heaven, but here also— even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world— makes them illustrious and well known everywhere on account of their virtue and the help they render others. And if need be, read this among the heathen, that even in this way they may learn that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only God and the Son of God, but also that the Christians who truly serve Him and religiously believe in Him, prove, not only that the demons, whom the Greeks themselves think to be gods, are no gods, but also tread them under foot and put them to flight, as deceivers and corrupters of mankind, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (94)

~ from: St Athanasius, Life of Antony, 87, 94

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father;”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 25 January 390), also known as Gregory the Theologian or Gregory Nazianzen, was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, theologian, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa). He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age. Gregory made a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology among both Greek and Latin-speaking theologians, and he is remembered as the “Trinitarian Theologian”.

“The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father; Who, inasmuch as He proceeds from That Source, is no Creature; and inasmuch as He is not Begotten is no Son; and inasmuch as He is between the Unbegotten and the Begotten is God. And thus escaping the toils of your syllogisms, He has manifested himself as God, stronger than your divisions. What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God. And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet, or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of Eternity, much less enter into the Depths of God, and supply an account of that Nature which is so unspeakable and transcending all words?”

~ from: The Orations and Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 31 (5th Theological Oration), VIII.

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St. Basil the Great: “Homily About Ascesis – How a Monk Should be Adorned”

St. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (330 – January 379), was a bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal (coenobitic) monasticism in Eastern Christianity. Basil, together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers.

“The monk, above all, must not possess anything in his life. He must have bodily isolation, proper clothing, a moderate tone of voice, and discipline speech; he must not cause a ruckus about the food and drink and he must eat in silence; he must be silent before his elders and be attentive to wiser men; he must love his peers and advise those junior in a loving way; he must move away from the immoral and the carnal and the sophisticated; he must think much and say less; he must not become impudent in his words, nor gossip and not be amenable to laughter; he must be adorned with shame, directing his gaze to the ground and his soul upward; he must not object with words of contention but rather be compliant; he must work with his hands and always keep in remembrance the end of this age; he must rejoice with hope, endure sadness, pray unceasingly and thank God for everything; he must be humble towards all and hate pride; he must be vigilant in keeping his heart pure of any evil thought; he must gather treasures in Heaven by keeping the commandments, examine himself for his thoughts and actions each day and not be involved in vain things of life and in idle talk; he must not examine inquisitively the life of idle people, but imitate the lives of the Holy Fathers; he must be happy with those who achieve virtue and not be envious; he must suffer with those suffering and weep with them and be sorry for them, but not criticise them; he must not reproach one who returns from his sin and never justify himself. Above all else he must confess before God and the men that he is a sinner and admonish the unruly, strengthen the faint-hearted, minister unto the sick and washed the feet of the saints; he must attend to hospitality and brotherly love, to be at peace with those who have the same faith and abhor the heretics; he must read the canonical books and not open even a single one of the occult; he must not talk about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but think and confess the uncreated and consubstantial Trinity with courage, and tell those who ask that there is the need of to be baptised, as we have received it from the tradition, to believe, as we have confessed it according to our baptism, and to glorify God, as we have believed.”

~ from: The Monastic Rule of St. Basil the Great

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St. Gregory of Sinai: ‘Sowing in the Light’

St. Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260s -1346) – was a well-travelled Greek Christian monk and writer from Smyrna (modern-day İzmir, Turkey). He was instrumental in the emergence of hesychasm on Mount Athos in the early 14th century. He was a contemporary of St. Gregory Palamas.

“According to St. Paul (cf. Rom. 15:16), you “minister” the Gospel only when, having yourself participated in the light of Christ, you can pass it on actively to others. Then you sow the Logos like a divine seed in the fields of your listeners’ souls. ‘Let your speech be always filled with grace’, says St Paul (Col. 4:6), ‘seasoned’ with divine goodness. Then it will impart grace to those who listen to you with faith. Elsewhere St. Paul, calling the teachers tillers and their pupils the field they till (cf. II Tim. 2:6), wisely presents the former as ploughers and sowers of the divine Logos and the latter as the fertile soil, yielding a rich crop of virtues. True ministry is not simply a celebration of sacred rites; it also involves participation in divine blessings and the communication of these blessings to others.”

~ from: The Philokalia

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St. Macrina and the Healing of the Soldier’s Daughter

St. Macrina the Younger (ca. AD 327 – July 379), was the older sister of three Cappadocian Saints and Bishops: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. She was also friends with St. Gregory of Nanzianzus. Macrina transformed one of her family’s rural estates in Pontus (modern Turkey) into a monastery for ascetic virgins who came from both an aristocratic and non-aristocratic backgrounds.  All members, including those from her own household, were free and ex-slaves received the same rights and obligations as their former masters. St. Basil established a men’s monastery nearby. Macrina was so well respected and loved by her younger brother, Gregory, that he wrote two books about her virtues, holiness, and intellect soon after her death in AD 379: The Life of Saint Macrina and On the Soul and the Resurrection. The post below is an excerpt from The Life of Saint Macrina, written in about AD 381.

“Along the way [from Macrina’s funeral], a distinguished military man who had command of a garrison in a little town of the district of Pontus, called Sebastopolis, and who lived there with his subordinates, came with the kindly intentions to meet me [Gregory of Nyssa] when I arrived there. He had heard of our misfortune [the death of Macrina] and he took it badly (for, in fact, he was related to our family by kinship and also by close friendship). He gave me an account of a miracle worked by Macrina; and this will be the last event I shall record in my story before concluding my narrative. When we stopped weeping and were standing in conversation, he said to me, “Hear what a great good has departed from human life.” And with this he stated his story.

“It happened that my wife and I once desired to visit that powerhouse of virtue; for that’s what I think that place should be called in which the blessed soul spent her life. Our little daughter was also with us and she suffered from an eye ailment as a result of an infectious disease. And it was a hideous and pitiful sight, since the membrane around the pupil was swollen and because of the disease had taken on a whitish tinge. As we entered that divine place, we separated, my wife and I, to make our visit to those who lived a life of philosophy1 therein, I going to the monks’ enclosure where your brother, Peter [of Sebaste], was abbot, and my wife entering the convent to be with the holy one. After a suitable interval had passed, we decided it was time to leave the monastery retreat and we were already getting ready to go when the same, friendly invitation came to us from both quarters. Your brother asked me to stay and take part in the philosophic table, and the blessed Macrina would not permit my wife to leave, but she held our little daughter in her arms and said that she would not give her back until she had given them a meal and offered them the wealth of philosophy; and, as you might have expected, she kissed the little girl and was putting her lips to the girl’s eyes, when she noticed the infection around the pupil and said, “If you do me the favor of sharing our table with us, I will give you in return a reward to match your courtesy.” The little girl’s mother asked what it might be and the great Macrina replied, “It is an ointment I have that has the power to heal the eye infection.” When after this a message reached me from the women’s quarters telling me of Macrina’s promise, we gladly stayed, counting of little consequence the necessity which pressed us to make our way back home.

Finally the feasting was over and our souls were full. The great Peter with his own hands had entertained and cheered us royally, and the holy Macrina took leave of my wife with every courtesy one could wish for. And so, bright and joyful, we started back home along the same road, each of us telling the other what happened to each as we went along. And I recounted all I had seen and heard in the men’s enclosure, while she told me every little thing in detail, like a history book, and thought that she should omit nothing, not even the least significant details. On she went telling me about everything in order, as if in a narrative, and when she came to the part where a promise of a cure for the eye had been made, she interrupted the narrative to exclaim, “What’s the matter with us! How did we forget the promise she made us, the special eye ointment?” And I was angry about our negligence and summoned some one to run back quickly to ask for the medicine, when our baby, who was in her nurse’s arms, looked, as it happened, towards her mother. And the mother gazed intently at the child’s eyes and then loudly exclaimed with joy and surprise, “Stop being angry at our negligence! Look! There’s nothing missing of what she promised us, but the true medicine with which she heals diseases, the healing which comes from prayer, she has given us and it has already done its work, there’s nothing whatsoever left of the eye disease, all healed by that divine medicine!” And as she was saying this, she picked the child up in her arms and put her down in mine. And then I too understood the incredible miracles of the gospel, which I had not believed in, and exclaimed: “What a great thing it is when the hand of God restores sight to the blind, when today his servant heals such sicknesses by her faith in Him, an event no less impressive than those miracles!” All the while he was saying this, his voice was choked with emotion and the tears flowed into his story. This then is what I heard from the soldier.”

~ from The Life of Saint Macrina, by St. Gregory of Nyssa


1 Philosophy as the ideal of the Christian monastic life plays a central role in The Life of Saint Macrina (LSM) and will undoubtedly seem strange, even alien, to modern ears long accustomed to the scholasticism and secularization of academic disciplines. However, the essential and organic unity of the spiritual, intellectual, and physical ways of life, central to the monastic Rule of St. Basil, even yields such a remarkable phrase in the LSM as “the philosophic table”. This usage accurately reflects St. Gregory’s fourth-century Christian understanding of “philosophy”, i.e., love of wisdom, passion for the truth, care of the soul, contemplation (theoria), and ascetic physical discipline which spurns attachment to material things while recognizing that the body will be restored to its true God-created stature by the resurrection.

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St. Basil the Great: “On the Holy Spirit”

St. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (330 – January 379), was a bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal (coenobitic) monasticism in Eastern Christianity. Basil, together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers.

“Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God. Such, then, to instance a few out of many, are the conceptions concerning the Holy Spirit, which we have been taught to hold concerning His greatness, His dignity, and His operations, by the oracles of the Spirit themselves.”

~ from: On the Holy Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto), Chap. 9

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “… the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 25 January 390), also known as Gregory the Theologian or Gregory Nazianzen, was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, theologian, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa). He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age. Gregory made a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology among both Greek and Latin-speaking theologians, and he is remembered as the “Trinitarian Theologian”.

“Besides all this and before all, keep I pray you the good deposit, by which I live and work, and which I desire to have as the companion of my departure; with which I endure all that is so distressful, and despise all delights; the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. This I commit unto you today; with this I will baptize you and make you grow. This I give you to share, and to defend all your life, the One Godhead and Power, found in the Three in Unity, and comprising the Three separately, not unequal, in substances or natures, neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same; just as the beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one; the infinite conjunction of Three Infinite Ones, Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; Each God because Consubstantial; One God because of the Monarchia. No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.”

~ from The Orations and Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzus . Oration 40, XLI.

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St. Maximus the Confessor: “…and having entered the dark cloud”

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662) was a 7th century Christian monk, theologian, and scholar who many contemporary scholars consider to be the greatest theologian of the Patristic era.  Two of his most famous works are “Ambigua” – An exploration of difficult passages in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nazianzus, focusing on Christological issues, and “Questions to Thalassius” or “Ad Thalassium” – a lengthy exposition on various Scriptural texts.  The following quote comes from Maximus’ “Two Hundred Chapters on Theology”, probably written after both Ambigua and Ad Thalassium, in about AD 633.

“The great Moses, having pitched his tent outside the camp, that is, having established his will and intellect outside visible realities, begins to worship God; and having entered the dark cloud [γνόφον], the formless and immaterial place of knowledge, he remains there, performing the holiest rites.

The dark cloud [γνόφος] is the formless, immaterial, and incorporeal condition containing the paradigmatic knowledge of beings; he who has come to be inside it, just like another Moses, understands invisible realities in a mortal nature; having depicted the beauty of the divine virtues in himself through this state, like a painting accurately rendering the representation of the archetypal beauty, he descends, offering himself to those willing to imitate virtue, and in this shows both love of humanity and freedom from envy of the grace of which he had partaken.”

~ from: Two Hundred Chapters on Theology, 1.84, 1.85.

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