St. Gregory of Nyssa

Pope Benedict XVI weekly catechesis.

general audience august 29, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Gregory of Nyssa during his general audience on Aug. 29. St. Gregory was a staunch defender of the faith in the period following the Council of Nicaea. In his many catechetical, spiritual and exegetical writings, he emphasized that man is created in God’s image, that we are to be good stewards of God’s creation, and that we have a responsibility to cultivate our inner beauty, which is created in God’s image, by purifying our hearts and progressing in holiness.

Dear brothers and sisters,

During my last few catecheses, I spoke about two great Doctors of the Church from the fourth century, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, a bishop of Cappadocia in present-day Turkey. Today we will discuss a third, Basil’s brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, a contemplative man with a great capacity for reflection and a dynamic intellect that was open to the culture of his time. Because of this, he proved to be an original and deep thinker in the history of Christianity.

Born in the year 335, his brother Basil — whom he described as his “father and teacher” (Epistola 13,4: SC 363, 198) — and his sister Macrina took a particular care for his Christian formation. He completed his studies with a deep appreciation for philosophy and rhetoric.

At first, he married and dedicated himself to teaching. But then, like his brother and sister, he devoted himself entirely to an aesthetic life. Later, he was elected bishop of Nyssa, and proved to be a zealous shepherd, earning the respect of his community.

After being accused of embezzlement by some heretical adversaries, he had to abandon his episcopal see for a brief period of time, but later made a triumphant return (see Epistola 6: SC 363, 164-170) and continued his commitment to defending the true faith.

A Pillar of Orthodoxy

Especially after Basil’s death, as if taking up on Basil’s spiritual legacy, Gregory worked for the triumph of orthodoxy. He participated in various synods, tried to resolve some divisions among the Churches, took an active role in ecclesiastical reorganization, and, as “a pillar of orthodoxy,” played an important role at the Council of Constantinople in 381, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He was entrusted with various official missions by Emperor Theodosius, gave important homilies and eulogies, and dedicated himself to writing various theological works. In 394, he participated yet again in a synod that was held in Constantinople. The date of his death is unknown.

Gregory expressed with clarity the purpose of his studies and the ultimate goal for which he was aiming in his work as a theologian: not to engage his life in vane pursuits, but to find the light that would enable him to discern what is truly useful (see In Ecclesiasten hom. 1: SC 416, 106-146). He found this ultimate goal in Christianity, thanks to which the “imitation of divine nature” is possible (De Professione Christiana: PG 46, 244C).

With his keen intelligence and his vast knowledge of philosophy and theology, he defended the Christian faith against heretics who denied the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit (like Eunomios and the Macedonians) or Christ’s perfect humanity (like Apollinaris).

He wrote commentaries on sacred Scripture, focusing on the creation of man. He regarded creation as a crucial theme. He saw the reflection of the Creator in his creatures, thereby finding the path to God. He also wrote an important book on the life of Moses, which depicts him as a man traveling along this path toward God: for Gregory, Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai is an image of our own ascent in our human life towards true life — toward our encounter with God. He also offered interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, as well as the Beatitudes.

A Father of Mysticism

In his Great Catechetical Discourse (Oratio catechetica magna), he expounded on the basics of theology, not as some academic theology that was closed in on itself, but in an effort to offer catechists a reference point that they could keep in mind in their teaching — a sort of framework within which a pedagogical interpretation of the faith could take place.

In addition, Gregory distinguished himself with his teachings on spirituality. His theology was not an academic exercise, but an expression of a spiritual life, of a life of faith that he lived out.

As a “father of mysticism,” he presented the path that Christians must take to attain genuine life — perfection — in various treatises like De professione christiana and De perfectione christiana. He exalted consecrated virginity (see De virginitate), and offered his sister, Macrina, who was always a guide and an example for him (see Vita Macrinae), as an outstanding model of this vocation in life. He gave various discourses and homilies and wrote numerous letters. Commenting on the creation of man, Gregory highlights the fact that God, “the best artist, forges our nature so as to make it suitable for the exercise of royalty. Through the superior advantages of the soul and the very make-up of the body, he arranges things in such a way that man is truly fit for regal power” (De hominis opificio 4: PG 44, 136B).

Nevertheless, we see how man, caught up in the web of sin, often abuses creation and does not exercise this power in a regal fashion. For this reason, he has to let God penetrate his whole being and he has to live in the light in order to properly exercise responsibility for God’s creation.

Indeed, man is a reflection of that original beauty which is God: “Everything that God created was very good,” this holy bishop wrote. “The story of creation gives witness to it (see Genesis 1:31). Man, adorned with a beauty far superior to all of the good things, is among these very good things. Indeed, what other things could be as beautiful as someone who is similar to pure and incorruptible beauty? ... As a reflection and image of eternal life, he is truly beautiful; no, he is the most beautiful, with the shining sign of life on his face” (Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1020C).

Man’s Greatness

God honored man and placed him above every other creature: “The sky was not made in God’s image, and neither were the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars or any other thing that appears in creation.

“Only you (human soul) were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect — a likeness of incorruptible beauty, the mark of true divinity, a vessel of blessed life, an image of the true light — so that when you look upon it, you become that which he is, because through the ray that is reflected and that comes from your purity, you imitate him who shines within you.

“Nothing that exists can measure up to your greatness” (Homilia in Canticum 2: PG 44,805D). Let us meditate on this elegy of man. Let us see how man has been debased by sin. Let us try to return to our original greatness. Man will arrive at his true greatness only if God is present.

Man, therefore, recognizes the reflection of God’s light within him. Purifying his heart, he is once again, as he was in the beginning, a clear image of God, beauty itself (see Oratio catechetica 6: SC 453, 174). Thus, by purifying himself, man can see God like the pure in heart (see Matthew 5:8): “If you will wash away the shameful things that have been deposited in your heart through a standard of living that is diligent and attentive, God’s beauty will shine in you. … Contemplating yourself, you will see within you he who is the desire of your heart, and you will be blessed” (De beatitudinibus 6: PG 44,1272AB).

Therefore, let us wash away the bad things that have deposited in our hearts and let us discover once again God’s light within us.

Man has, as his goal, the contemplation of God. This is the only way he can find his fulfillment. In order to have a foretaste of this goal in this life, he must strive constantly toward a spiritual life, a life in dialogue with God. In other words — and this is the most important lesson that St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us — man’s total fulfillment consists in holiness, in a life lived out in an encounter with God, thereby becoming a light for others and for the world.      

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