Archive for category Patristic Pearls
Gregory of Nyssa (c. AD 335 – 395) – Along with his older brother, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory was one the three great Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century.
“…every concept formed by our understanding which attempts to attain and to hem in the divine nature serves only to make an idol of God, not to make God known”. ~ from “The Life of Moses”.
“Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. Here O sinner, is the kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly and you will find it without great travail. Outside you is death, and the door to death is sin. Enter within yourself and remain in your heart, for there is God.”
– St Ephraim the Syrian
“But when you hear of the vision of God face-to-face, recall the testimony of Maximus: ‘Deification is an enhypostatic and direct illumination which has no beginning, but appears in those worthy as something exceeding their comprehension. It is indeed a mystical union with God, beyond intellect and reason, in the age when creatures will no longer know corruption. Thanks to this union, the saints, observing the light of the hidden and more-than-ineffable glory, become themselves able to receive the blessed purity, in company with the celestial powers'” ~ St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, III.i.28
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), is one of the three Great Cappadocian Fathers along with his older brother, St. Basil the Great, and friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus. I especially love Gregory Nyssen for his deep spirituality and mysticism. He was a highly original and sophisticated thinker who remains controversial among both liberal and conservative theologians to this day. In his treatise The Life of Moses, St. Gregory tells us that a person’s encounter of the mystery of God corresponds to the three theophanies of Moses, involving successive entry into light, cloud, and darkness.
According to St. Gregory Nyssen, the first stage in our quest to encounter God is Moses’ vision of God as the light of the burning bush; illuminating the darkness of our sin and ignorance. The second stage involves a journey from light into partial darkness where Moses encounters God as the ‘cloud’; the intermingling of light and darkness, revealing the distance between the Creator and the created realm. The third and final stage entails Moses entering the darkness of Sinai where God is; and our realization upon encountering and even being united with God that He is utterly incomprehensible in his essence.
In this treatment, I think, St. Gregory of Nyssa clearly identifies both cataphatic and apophatic theology, bridges the two and holds the tension between them, drawing the best from both.
“What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the divine was beheld in light but now He is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness; an escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly that God cannot be contemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible and there it sees God. 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. Therefore John the sublime who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says “no one has ever seen God,” thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by humans but also by every intelligent creature. When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says,‘Moses approached the dark cloud where God was’.” ~ The Life of Moses
“How is unceasing prayer possible? When we are singing the Psalms, when we are reading the Scriptures, when we are serving our neighbor, even then it is easy enough for the mind to wander off after irrelevant thoughts and images.
Yet the Scriptures do not require impossibilities. St. Paul himself sang the Psalms, read the Scriptures, offered his own apostolic service, and nonetheless prayed uninterruptedly.
Unceasing prayer means to have the mind always turned to God with great love, holding alive our hope in Him, having confidence in Him whatever we are doing and whatever happens to us.
That is the attitude that the Apostle had when he wrote: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”…
Thanks to this attitude of mind, Paul prayed without ceasing. In all that he did and in all that happened to him, he kept alive his hope in God.”
– St. Maximos…
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Saint Diadochos of Photiki (c. AD 400 – c. 486). “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination. One Hundred Texts”, No. 31. From Philokalia, Vol. 1. One of the earliest written references to the “Jesus Prayer”; “the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus…“
“When our intellect begins to perceive the grace of the Holy Spirit, then Satan, too, importunes the soul with a sense of deceptive sweetness in the quiet times of the night, when we fall into a light kind of sleep. If the intellect at that time cleaves fervently to the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus and uses it as a weapon against Satan’s deception, he gives up this trick and for the future will attack the soul directly and personally. As a result the intellect clearly discerns the deception of the evil one and advances even further in the art of discrimination.”
“Flee from self-love, the mother of malice, which is an irrational love for the body. For from it are born the three chief sinful passions: gluttony, avarice, and vainglory, which take their causes from bodily needs, and from them all the tribe of the passions is born. This why we must always oppose self-love and fight against it. Whoever rejects self-love will easily conquer all the other passions with the help of God: anger, despondency, rancor, and the others. But whoever is retained by self-love will even unwillingly be conquered by the above-named passions.”
– Saint Maximus the Confessor
“I once used to deride secular rulers because they distributed honors, not on grounds of inherent merit, but of wealth or seniority or worldly rank. But when I heard that this stupidity had swaggered into our own affairs [within the Church] too, I no longer reckoned their actions so strange. For why should we be surprised that worldly people, who love the praise of the mob and do everything for money, should make this mistake, when those who claim to have renounced all these desires are no better? For although they are contending for heavenly rewards, they act as though they had to decide merely about acres of land or something else of the kind. They simply take common place men and put them in charge of those things for which the only begotten Son of God did not disdain to empty Himself of His own glory and to be…
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“Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.” ~ Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses
Origen of Alexandria, (c. 184 – c. 254) was Head of the famed Catechetical School in Alexandria at age 18 and arguably the most brilliant theologian of the early Christian church. He was probably the most able and successful defender of the faith against the heresy of Gnosticism in the third century. In this quote he tells us that Scripture ought to be interpreted at three levels: starting with the lowest level, the body or literal interpretation; followed by the more advanced at the soul level, or moral interpretation; and culminating with the highest level of interpretation, the spiritual, or allegorical interpretation. 1,800 years ago, Origen very clearly articulated what contemporary Christian fundamentalists still haven’t figured out.
“The individual ought, then to portray the ideas of holy Scripture in a threefold manner upon his own soul; in order that the simple man may be edified by the “flesh”, as it were, of the Scripture, for so we name the obvious sense; while he who has ascended a certain way (may be edified) by the “soul”, as it were. The perfect man, again… (may receive edification) from the “spiritual” law, which has a shadow of good things to come. For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture, which has been arranged to be given by God for the salvation of men.” ~ Peri Archon; First Principles, Book IV, Chapter 1