During his general audience on Sept. 5, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Gregory of Nyssa. He highlighted St. Gregory’s teaching on the innate dignity of man, made in the image of God and called to grow more fully in his likeness. Man’s fulfillment is found in a dynamic process of growth towards the perfection that has its fullness in God as we daily press on towards union with God through love, knowledge and growth in virtue.
Dear brothers and sisters,
I would like to discuss a few aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s teachings, about whom we already talked last Wednesday.
Above all, Gregory of Nyssa had a highly developed concept of man’s dignity. Man’s goal, the saintly bishop tells us, is to become like God, and he attains this goal, first of all, through love, knowledge and the practice of virtue — “resplendent rays that come down from the divine nature” (see De beatitudinibus 6: PG 44,1272C) — and perpetually committed to do good with the dynamism of a runner who always forges ahead.
In this regard, Gregory uses an image that is very effective and that is found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians — épekteinómenos (see Philippians 3:13) — which means “straining forward” toward something that is greater, towards truth and love. This figure of speech describes a profound reality.
The perfection we seek is not something that we acquire once and for all. Perfection is an ongoing journey, a constant commitment to move forward, because complete likeness to God can never be attained. We are always on the path (see Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44,1025d). The story of each soul is that of a love that is being fulfilled yet is open at the same time to new horizons, because God continually opens up new possibilities to the soul so as to make it capable of even greater good. God himself, who placed the seeds of goodness within us and from whom comes every initiative of holiness, “forms the block of clay … shaping and polishing our spirit, forming Christ in us (see In Psalmos 2,11: PG 44,544B).
God in Us
Gregory is careful to make the following clarification: “It is not the result of our efforts, neither is it the result of human strength to become like the Deity, but rather it is the result of God’s generosity, who even from the beginning offered to our nature the grace of being like him” (see De virginitate 12:2: SC 119,408-410). For the soul, therefore, “it is not a matter of knowing something about God, but of having God within us” (see De beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1269c). Moreover, as Gregory notes, “divinity is purity, it is freedom from the passions and removal from all evil. If all these things are in you, God is truly in you” (see De beatitudinibus 6: PG 44,1272C).
When we have God within us, when man loves God through that reciprocity that is part and parcel of the law of love, he desires what God himself desires (see Homilia in Canticum 9: PG 44,956ac), and therefore cooperates with God in forming God’s image within himself, so that “our spiritual birth is the result of a free choice, and we are, in some way, our own parents, creating ourselves as we want to be and forming ourselves through our will, according to the model we choose” (see Vita Moysis 2:3: SC 1bis,108).
In order to ascend toward God, man must be purified: “The path that leads human nature to heaven is nothing more than separation from the evils of this world. … Becoming like God means becoming just, holy and good. … If therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), ‘God is in heaven’ and if, according to the prophet (Psalm 72:28) you ‘belong to God,’ it necessarily follows that you must be where God is from the moment you are united to him. Since he has commanded you to call God Father when you pray, he tells you to become like your heavenly Father, with a life worthy of God, as the Lord commands us more explicitly in other passages, saying: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ (Matthew 5:48)” (see De oratione dominica 2: PG 44,1145ac).
Christ, Our Model and Teacher
In this journey of spiritual ascent, Christ is our model and teacher who shows us the beautiful image of God (see De perfectione christiana: PG 46,272a). Looking at Christ, each one of us discovers that we are “the painters of our own lives,” in which our will undertakes the work and our virtues are the colors of the one whom we serve (see De perfectione christiana: PG 46,272b).
If, therefore, man is considered worthy of Christ’s name, how must he act? Gregory responds in the following way: “[He must] always examine his innermost thoughts, words and actions to see if they are focused on Christ or if they are far from him” (see De Perfectione christiana: PG 46,284c).
This point is important because of the value that it gives to the word “Christian.” Christians are those who bear Christ’s name. Therefore, they need to assimilate themselves to him in this life. Through baptism, we Christians take on a great responsibility.
Christ’s Presence in the Poor
Moreover, Gregory reminds us, Christ is also present in the poor, and for this reason we must never offend the poor: “Do not despise those who lie in the street as though they are not worth anything. Consider who they are and discover their dignity: They represent the very person of our Savior. Therefore, our Lord, in his goodness, bestowed on them his very person so that, through this, those who have become hard of heart and enemies of the poor would be moved to compassion” (see De pauperibus amandis: PG 46,460bc).
Gregory, as we mentioned earlier, speaks about ascent — ascent to God in prayer and through purity of heart but also ascent to God through love of neighbor. Love is the ladder that leads us to God.
Therefore, Gregory of Nyssa heartily encourages his listeners with these words: “Be generous with these brothers, who are victims of misfortune. Give to the hungry that which you deny your own stomach” (see De pauperibus amandis: PG 46,457c).
With great clarity, Gregory reminds us that we are all dependent on God. Therefore, he exclaims: “Do not think that everything is yours! There must also be something for the poor, God’s friends. The truth, in fact, is that everything comes from God, the universal Father, that we are brothers, and that we belong to the same progeny” (see De pauperibus amandis: PG 46,465b).
Thus, Gregory insists, Christians have to examine themselves: “What does it profit you to fast and abstain from meat if, with your wickedness, you bite your brother? In God’s eyes, what do you gain from not eating what is yours if you unjustly strip from the hands of the poor what is theirs?” (see De pauperibus amandis: PG 46,456a).
The Importance of Prayer
Let us conclude our catecheses on these three great Fathers of the Church from Cappadocia by recalling an important aspect of Gregory of Nyssa’s spiritual teaching, namely, prayer.
In order to make progress on the journey to perfection, to welcome God within us and to carry the Spirit of God — the love of God — within us, man must turn to God in prayer with faith: “Through prayer, we are able to be with God. He who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is the support and defense of chastity, the restraint on anger, the appeasement and control of pride. Prayer is the guardian of virginity, protection of fidelity in marriage, hope for those who keep vigil, abundance of fruit for farmers, and security for the traveler” (see De oratione dominica 1: PG 44,1124A-B).
Christians are always inspired by the Lord’s prayer when they pray: “If, therefore, we want to pray for God’s Kingdom to descend in our midst, we ask this through the power of the Word: that I be removed from corruption, freed from death, released from the chains of error; that death will never reign over me, that the tyranny of evil will never have power over us, that the enemy never rule over me or make me a prisoner through sin, but may your Kingdom come upon me so that the passions that rule me may be removed from me or, better yet, be obliterated” (see De oratione dominica 3: PG 44,1156d-1157a).
At the end of his earthly life, the Christian can approach God in peace. Speaking about this, St. Gregory refers to the death of his sister, Macrina, and writes that at the moment of her death she prayed: “You, who have the power on earth to remit sins, forgive me so that I may find comfort (Psalm 38:14) and that I may be found spotless in your eyes when I am stripped of my body (see Colossians 2:11), so that my spirit, holy and immaculate (see Ephesians 5:27), will be welcomed into your hands, ‘like incense before you’ (Psalm 140:2)” (see Vita Macrinae 24: SC 178,224).
Gregory’s teaching — not only speaking about God, but bearing God within us — remains valid even today. We do this through prayer and by living in a spirit of love for all of our brothers and sisters.