Father Raniero Cantalamessa, ofmCap.
Fourth Lenten Homily
SAINT GREGORY OF NYSSA
AND THE WAY TO KNOW GOD
1. The Two Dimensions of Faith
In regard to faith, Saint Augustine made a distinction which has remained classic up to today: the distinction between things that are believed and the act of believing in them: “Aliud sunt ea quae creduntur, aliud fides qua creduntur”, the fidea quae and the fides qua, as is said in theology. The first is also said to be objective faith, the second faith is subjective. All Christian reflection on faith takes place between these two poles.
Delineated are two orientations, with different names and accentuations. On one hand we have those who accentuate the importance of the intellect in believing, hence, objective faith, as assent to revealed truths, on the other, those who accentuate the importance of the will and affection, hence, subjective faith, to believe in someone (“to believe in”), rather than believing something (“believe that”) — on one hand, those who accentuate the reasons of the mind and, on the other, those that, as Pascal, accentuate “the reasons of the heart.”
This oscillation reappears in different forms at every turn of the history of theology: in the Medieval Age, in the different accentuation between the theology of Saint Thomas and that of Saint Bonaventure; at the time of the Reformation between the faith-trust of Luther and the Catholic faith informed by charity; later between Kant’s faith in the limits of simple reason and faith founded on the sentiment of Schleiermacher and of Romanticism in general; and, closer to us, between the faith of liberal theology and Bultmann’s existential theology, practically devoid of all objective content.
Contemporary Catholic theology makes an effort, as in other times in the past, to find the right balance between the two dimensions of faith. The phase has been surmounted in which, for contingent controversial reasons, the whole attention of theology manuals ended up by concentrating on objective faith (fides quae), that is, on the set of truths to be believed. “The act of faith — one reads in an authoritative critical dictionary of theology — in the prevailing current of all Christian confessions, appears today as the discovery of a divine You. Hence, the apologetics of proof tends to situate itself behind a pedagogy of spiritual experience that tends to initiate to a Christian experience, the possibility of which is recognized inscribed a priori in every human being.” In other words, more than appealing to the person on the strength of external arguments, what is sought is to help him find in himself the confirmation of the faith, seeking to rekindle that spark which is in the “restless heart” of every man by the fact of being created “in the image of God.”
I made this introduction because once again it enables us to see the contribution that the Fathers can make to our effort to give back to the faith of the Church its splendor and impetus. The greatest among them are unsurpassed models of a faith that is both objective and subjective, concerned, that is, about the content of the faith, namely, its orthodoxy but, at the same time believed and lived with all the ardor of the heart. The Apostle Paul proclaimed: “corde creditor” (Romans 10:10), one believes with the heart, and we know that with the word heart, the Bible understands both spiritual dimensions of man, his intelligence and his will: the heart is the symbolic place of knowledge and love. In this sense the Fathers are an indispensable link to rediscover the faith as Scripture intends it.
2. “I believe in one God”
In this last meditation we approach the Fathers to renew our faith in its primary object, in what is commonly understood with the word “believe” and on the basis of which we distinguish persons between believers and non-believers: faith in the existence of God. In the preceding meditations we reflected on the divinity of Christ, on the Holy Spirit and on the Trinity. However, faith in the Triune God is the final stage of faith, the “more” on God revealed by Christ. To attain this fullness it is necessary first to believe in God. Before faith in the Triune God, there is faith in the One God.
Saint Gregory of Nazianz reminded us of God’s pedagogy in revealing himself gradually. First, in the Old Testament, the Father is revealed openly and the Son, then, in the New, the Son is revealed openly and the Holy Spirit in a veiled way, now, in the Church, the whole Trinity is revealed openly. Jesus also says that he refrains from telling the Apostles those things of which they are still unable to “bear the weight” (John 16:12). We must also follow the same pedagogy in addressing those to whom we wish to proclaim the faith today.
The Letter to the Hebrews says what the first step is to approach God: “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). This is the foundation of all the rest that remains, also after having believed in the Trinity. Let us see how the Fathers can be of inspiration to us from this point of view, always keeping present that our main purpose is not apologetic but spiritual, oriented, that is, to consolidate our faith, more than to communicate it to others. The guide we choose for this path is Saint Gregory of Nyssa.
Gregory of Nyssa (331-394), blood brother of Saint Basil, friend and contemporary of Gregory of Nazianz, is a Father and Doctor of the Church, whose intellectual stature and decisive importance in the development of Christian thought is being discovered ever more clearly. He is “one of the most powerful and original thinkers known in the history of the Church” (L. Bouyer), “the founder of a new mystical and ecstatic religiosity” (H. von Campenhausen).
Unlike us, the Fathers did not have to demonstrate the existence of God, but the oneness of God; they did not have to combat atheism but polytheism. We will see, however, how the path traced by them to attain knowledge of the one God is the same one that can lead the man of today to the discovery of God tout court.
To assess the contribution of the Fathers and, in particular, of Gregory of Nyssa, it is necessary to know how the problem of the oneness of God presented itself at the time. While the doctrine of the Trinity was being affirmed, Christians saw themselves exposed to the same accusation that they had always addressed to pagans: that of believing in more divinities. Here is why the creed of Christians, which for three centuries, in all its various formulations, began with the words “I believe in God” (Credo un Deum), beginning in the 4th century, registers a small but significant addition which would never be omitted afterwards: “I believe in one God” (I believe in unum Deum).
It is not necessary to go over the path again here that led to this result; we can begin from its conclusion. Concluded toward the end of the 4th century was the transformation of the monotheism of the Old Testament into the Trinitarian monotheism of Christians. The Latins expressed the two aspects of the mystery with the formula “one substance and three persons,” the Greeks with the formula “three hypostasis, only one ousia.” After a long confrontation, the process concluded apparently with a total agreement between the two theologies. “Can one conceive — exclaimed Gregory of Nazianz — a fuller agreement and say more absolutely the same thing, even if with different words?”
In reality a difference remained between the two ways of expressing the mystery. Today it is usual to express it thus: in the consideration of the Trinity, the Greeks and the Latins move from opposite sides: the Greeks begin from the divine persons, namely from plurality, to attain the unity of nature; and, vice versa, the Latins begin from the unity of the divine nature, to arrive at the three persons. “The Latin considers the personality as a way of the nature; the Greek considers the nature as the content of the person.”
I think the difference can be expressed in another way. Both Latins and Greeks begin from the unity of God. Both the Greek and the Latin symbol begin saying “I believe in one God” (Credo in unum Deum”!). Only that for the Latins this unity is conceived as impersonal or pre-personal; it is the essence of God that is specified then in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without, of course, being thought as pre-existing to the persons. For the Greeks, instead, it is a unity that is already personalized, because for them “the unity is the Father from whom and to whom the other persons are counted.” The first article of the Greek Creed also says this ”I believe in one God the Father almighty” (Credo in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem”), only that here “the Father almighty” is not detached from ‘unum Deum,’ as in the Latin Creed, but it makes a whole with it: I believe in one God who is the Almighty Father.”
This was the way all three Cappadocians conceived the oneness of God, but more than all of them Saint Gregory of Nyssa. For him, the unity of the three divine persons is given by the fact that the Son is perfectly (substantially) “united” to the Father, as is also the Holy Spirit through the Son.” It is, in fact, this thesis that creates a difficulty for the Latins who see in it the danger of subordinating the Son to the Father and the Spirit to one and the other: “The name ‘God’ — wrote Augustine — indicates the whole Trinity, not just the Father.”
God is the name we give the divinity when we consider it not in itself, but in relation to men and to the world, because all that it does outside of itself it does together, as one sole efficient cause. The important conclusion we can draw from all this, apart from the different point of departure of Latins and Greecs, is that the Christian faith is also monotheistic; Christians have not given up the Jewish faith in one God, rather, they have enriched it, giving content and a new and marvelous sense to this unity. God is one, but not solitary!
3. “Moses entered the cloud”
Why choose Saint Gregory of Nyssa as guide in knowledge of this God in front of whom we stay as creatures before the Creator? The reason is that this Father, first of all in Christianity, has traced a way to knowledge of God that appears to be particularly respondent to the religious situation of the man of today: the way of knowledge that passes through … non-knowledge.
The occasion was offered to him by the controversy with the heretic Eunomius, the representative of a radical Arianism against whom all the great Fathers wrote who lived in the last period of the 4th century: Basil, Gregory of Nazianz, Chrysostom and, more acutely than all, Gregory of Nyssa. Eunomius identified the divine essence in the fact of being “un-begotten” (agennetos). In this connection, for him it was perfectly knowable and did not represent a mystery; we can know God no less than he knows himself.
The Fathers reacted as one, holding the thesis of the “incomprehensibility of God” in his intimate reality. But while the others halted at a confutation of Eunomius, based more than anything on the words of the Bible, Gregory of Nyssa, went beyond demonstrating that precisely the recognition of this incomprehensibility is the way to the true knowledge (theognosia) of God. He did so taking up a theme already sketched by Philo of Alexandria: that of Moses who encounters God on entering the cloud. The biblical text is Exodus 24:15-18 and here is his comment:
“The manifestation of God happens first for Moses in the light; then He spoke with him in the cloud, finally having become more perfect, Moses contemplates God in the darkness. The passage from darkness to light is the first separation of the false and erroneous ideas about God; the intelligence more attentive to hidden things, leading the soul through visible things to the invisible reality, is like a cloud that darkens all the sensible and accustoms the soul to the contemplation of what is hidden; finally the soul that has walked on this path toward heavenly things, having left earthly things in so far as possible to human nature, penetrates the sanctuary of divine knowledge (theognosia) surrounded from all sides by the divine darkness.”
True knowledge and the vision of God consist “in seeing that He is invisible, because He whom the soul seeks transcends all knowledge, separated from every part by his incomprehensibility as by a darkness.”
In this final stage of knowledge, there is no concept of God, but that which Gregory of Nyssa, with an expression that has become famous, defines as “a certain feeling of presence” (aisthesin tina tes parusias). A feeling not with the senses of the body, it is understood, but with the interior ones of the heart. This feeling does not go beyond faith but is its highest accomplishment. “With faith — exclaims the Bride of the Canticle (Canticle 3:6) — I have found the Beloved.” She does not “understand” him”; she does better, she “holds” him!
These ideas of Gregory of Nyssa had an immense influence on subsequent Christian thought, to the point of his being considered the very founder of Christian mysticism. Through Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor who take up his theme, his influence spread from the Greek world to the Latin. The subject of the knowledge of God in darkness returns in Angela of Foligno, in the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, in the subject of “learned ignorance” of Nicolas Cusanus, and in that of the “dark night” of John of the Cross and in many others.
4. Who really humiliates reason?
Now I would like to show how Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s intuition can help us, believers, to deepen our faith and to indicate to modern man, who has become skeptical of the “five ways” of traditional theology, to rediscover a path that leads him to God.
The novelty introduced by Gregory of Nyssa in Christian thought is that to encounter God it is necessary to go beyond the confines of reason. We are at the antipodes of Kant’s plan to keep religion “within the confines of simple reason.” In today’s secularized culture we have gone beyond Kant: in the name of reason (at least practical reason) he “postulated” the existence of God, subsequent rationalists even deny this.
From this we understand how timely Gregory of Nyssa’s thought it. He demonstrates that the highest part of the person, reason, is not excluded from the search for God; that we are not constrained to choose between following the faith and following the intelligence. Entering the cloud, that is, by believing, the human person does not give up his rationality but transcends it, which is something very different. It stretches the resources of reason to the extreme, permitting it to perform its most noble act, because, as Pascal affirms, “the supreme act of reason lies in recognizing that there is an infinity of things that surpass it.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas, rightly considered one of the most strenuous defenders of the exigencies of reason, wrote: “It is said that at the end of our knowledge, God is known as the Unknown because our spirit has arrived at the extreme of its knowledge of God when in the end it understands that his essence is beyond all that which it can know down here.”
In the very instant that reason recognizes its limit, it breaks through it and surpasses it. It understands that it cannot understand, “it sees that it cannot see,” said Gregory of Nyssa, but it also understands that a comprehensible God would no longer be God. It is the work of reason that produces this recognition which is, because of this, an exquisitely rational act. It is, to the letter, a “learned ignorance.”
Hence, what should be said, instead, is the contrary, the one who puts a limit to reason and humiliates it is he who does not recognize its capacity to transcend itself. “Up to now — wrote Kierkegaard — we have always spoken thus: ‘To say that one cannot understand this or that thing does not satisfy science which wants to understand.’ Here is the mistake. In fact, the contrary should be said: if human science does not want to recognize that there is something that it cannot understand, or — in a still more precise way — something of which with clarity it can ‘understand that it cannot understand,’ then everything is thrown into confusion. Hence it is a task of human knowledge to understand that there are, and to identify which are, the things that it cannot understand.”
However, what sort of darkness is this? It is said of the cloud that, at a certain point, interposed itself between the Egyptians and the Jews, that it was “dark for some and luminous for others” (cf. Exodus 14:20). The world of faith is dark for one who looks at it from outside, but it is luminous for one who goes inside, a special luminosity, of the heart more than of the mind. In the Dark Night of Saint John of the Cross (a variant of Gregory of Nyssa’s theme of the cloud!) the soul declares it is proceeding on its new path, “without any other guide and light than the one that shines in my heart.” A light, however, that is “more luminous than the sun at midday.”
Blessed Angela of Foligno, one of the highest representatives of the vision of God in darkness, says that the Mother of God “was so ineffably united to the total and absolutely ineffable Trinity, that in life she enjoyed the joy that the saints enjoy in heaven, the joy of incomprehensibility (Gaudium incomprehensibilitatis), because they understand that it cannot be understood.”
It is a stupendous complement to the doctrine of Gregory of Nyssa on the unknowability of God. It assures us that far from humiliating us and depriving us of something, this unknowability is made to fill man with enthusiasm and joy; it tells us that God is infinitely greater, more beautiful, more good than we can think, and that all this is for us, so that our joy will be full and we will never be touched by the thought that we will be bored in spending eternity with him!
Another idea of Gregory of Nyssa, which is useful for a comparison with modern religious culture, is that of the “feeling of a presence” that he puts at the summit of knowledge of God. Religious phenomenology has brought to light the existence of a primary fact, present in different degrees of purity, in all the cultures and in all the ages that he calls “feeling of the numinous,” that is the sense, mixed with terror and attraction, which grips the human being suddenly in face of the manifestation of the supernatural and the super-rational. If the defense of the faith, according to the latest guidelines of apologetics recalled at the beginning, “is placed behind a pedagogy of spiritual experience, of which the possibility is recognized inscribed a priori in every human being,” we cannot neglect the link that modern religious phenomenology offers us.
Certainly, the “feeling of a certain presence” of Gregory of Nyssa is different from the confused sense of the numinous and the thrill of the supernatural, but the two things have something in common. One is the beginning of a path toward the discovery of the living God, the other is the end. Knowledge of God, said Gregory of Nyssa, begins with the passing from darkness to light and ends with the passing from light to darkness. The second passage is not attained without passing through the first; in other words, without first being purified from sin and the passions. “I would already have abandoned pleasures — says the libertine — if I had faith. But I respond, says Pascal: You would already have faith if you had abandoned pleasures.”
The image that accompanied us in the whole of this meditation, thanks to Gregory of Nyssa, was that of Moses who goes up to mount Sinai and enters the cloud. The proximity of Easter pushes us to go beyond this image, to pass from the symbol to the reality. There is another mount where another Moses has encountered God while “there was darkness over all the land” (Matthew 27:45). On Mount Calvary the man-God, Jesus of Nazareth, united man forever with God. At the end of his Journey of the Mind to God, Saint Bonaventure writes:
“After all these considerations, what stays in our mind is to elevate it speculating not only beyond this sensible world, but also beyond itself; and in this ascent Christ is the way and door, Christ is ladder and vehicle … He who looks attentively at this propitiation hanging on the cross, with faith, hope and charity, with devotion, admiration, exultation, veneration, praise and rejoicing celebrates Easter with him, that is, the passage.”
May the Lord grant us to make this beautiful and holy “Passover” with him!
— — —
1. Augustine, De Trinitate, XIII, 2, 5.
2. J. Y. Lacoste and N. Lossky, “Fois,” in Dictionnaire critique de Theologie, Presses Universitaires de France, 1988, p. 479.
3. Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 42, 16 (PG 36, 477).
4. Th. De Regnon, Etudes de theologie positive sur la Sainte Trinité, I, Paris 1892, 433.
5. Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 42, 15 (PG 36, 476).
6. Cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium 42 (PG 45, 464).
7. Augustine, De Trinitate, I6,10; cf. also IX,1,1 (“credamus Patrem et Filium et Spiritum Sanctum esse unum Deum”).
8. Cf. Philo Al., De posteritate, 5, 15.
9. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily XI on the Canticle )(PG 44, 1000 C-D).
10. Life of Moses, II, 163 (SCh 1 bis, p. 210 f.).
11. Homily XI on the Canticle (PG 44, 1001 B).
12. Homily on the Canticle (PG 44, 893 B-C).
13. B. Pascal, Pensees 267 Br.
14. Thomas Aquinas, In Boet. Trin. Proem., q. 1, a.2, to 1.
15. Augustine, Epistle 130, 28 (PL 33, 505).
16. S. Kierkegaard, Diary VIII A 11.
17. John of the Cross, Dark Night, Song of the Soul, stanza 3-4
18. Il libro della beata Angela da Foligno, Quaracchi publishers, 1985, p. 468.
19. R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923), Oxford University Press.
20. Pascal, Pensees, 240 Br.
21. Bonaventure, Itinerarium mentis in Deum, VII, 1-2 (Opere de S. Bonaventura, V, 1, Rome, Citta Nuova, 1993, p. 564.
The traditional view of Gregory is that he was an orthodox Trinitarian theologian, who was influenced by the neoplatonism of Plotinus and believed in universal salvation following Origen. However, as a highly original and sophisticated thinker, Gregory is difficult to classify, and many aspects of his theology are contentious among both conservative Orthodox theologians and Western academic scholarship. This is often due to the lack of systematic structure and the presence of terminological inconsistencies in Gregory’s work.
Conception of the Trinity
Gregory, following Basil, defined the Trinity as “one essence [οὐσία] in three persons [ὑποστάσεις]“, the formula adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381. Like the other Cappadocian Fathers, he was a homoousian, and Against Eunomius affirms the truth of the consubstantiality of the trinity over Eunomius’ Platonic belief that the Father’s substance is unengendered, whereas the Son’s is engendered. According to Gregory, the differences between the three persons of the Trinity reside in their relationships with each other, and the triune nature of God is revealed through divine action (despite the unity of God in His action). The Son is therefore defined as begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son, and the Father by his role as progenitor. However, this doctrine would seem to subordinate the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to the Son. Robert Jenson suggests that Gregory implies that each member of the Godhead has an individual priority: the Son has epistemological priority, the Father has ontic priority and the Spirit has metaphysical priority. Other commentators disagree: Morwenna Ludlow, for instance, argues that epistemic priority resides primarily in the Spirit in Gregory’s theology.
Modern proponents of social Trinitarianism often claim to have been influenced by the Cappadocians’ dynamic picture of the Trinity. However, it would be fundamentally incorrect to identify Gregory as a social Trinitarian, as his theology emphasises the unity of God’s will, and he clearly believes that the identities of the Trinity are the three persons, not the relations between them.
Infinitude of God
Gregory was one of the first theologians to argue, in opposition to Origen, that God is infinite. His main argument for the infinity of God, which can be found in Against Eunomius, is that God’s goodness is limitless, and as God’s goodness is essential, God is also limitless.
An important consequence of Gregory’s belief in the infinity of God is his belief that God, as limitless, is essentially incomprehensible to the limited minds of created beings. Gregory’s theology was thus apophatic: he proposed that God should be defined in terms of what we know He is not rather than what we might speculate Him to be.
Accordingly, the Nyssen taught that due to God’s infinitude, a created being can never reach an understanding of God, and thus for man in both life and the afterlife there is a constant progression [ἐπέκτασις] towards the unreachable knowledge of God, as the individual continually transcends all which has been reached before. In the Life of Moses, Gregory speaks of three stages of this spiritual growth: initial darkness of ignorance, then spiritual illumination, and finally a darkness of the mind in mystic contemplation of the God who cannot be comprehended.
It is generally agreed that Gregory believed in universal salvation or resurrection. In the Life of Moses, he writes that just as the darkness left the Egyptians after three days, perhaps redemption [ἀποκατάστασις] will be extended to those suffering in hell [γέεννα]. This salvation may not only extend to humans; following Origen, there are passages where he seems to suggest (albeit through the voice of Macrina) that even the demons will have a place in Christ’s “world of goodness”. Gregory’s interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:28 (“And when all things shall be subdued unto him …”) and Philippians 2:10 (“That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”) support this understanding of his theology.
However, in the Great Catechism, Gregory suggests that while every human will be resurrected, salvation will only be accorded to the baptised. While he believes that there will be no more evil in the hereafter, it is arguable that this does not preclude a belief that God might justly damn sinners for eternity. Thus, the main difference between Gregory’s conception of ἀποκατάστασις and that of Origen would be that Gregory believes that mankind will be collectively returned to sinlessness, whereas Origen believes that personal salvation will be universal.
Gregory’s anthropology is founded on the ontological distinction between the created and uncreated. Man is a material creation, and thus limited, but infinite in that his immortal soul has an indefinite capacity to grow closer to the divine. Gregory believed that the soul is created simultaneous to the creation of the body (in opposition to Origen, who believed in preexistence), and that embryos were thus persons. To Gregory, the human being is exceptional being created in the image of God. Humanity is theomorphic both in having self-awareness and free will, the latter which gives each individual existential power, because to Gregory, in disregarding God one negates one’s own existence. In the Song of Songs, Gregory metaphorically describes human lives as paintings created by apprentices to a master: the apprentices (the human wills) imitate their master’s work (the life of Christ) with beautiful colors (virtues), and thus man strives to be a reflection of Christ. Gregory, in stark contrast to most thinkers of his age, saw great beauty in the Fall: from Adam’s sin from two perfect humans would eventually arise myriad.
There are many similarities between Gregory’s theology and neoplatonist philosophy, especially that of Plotinus. Specifically, they share the idea that the reality of God is completely inaccessible to human beings and that man can only come to see God through a spiritual journey in which knowledge [γνῶσις] is rejected in favour of meditation. Gregory does not refer to any neoplatonist philosophers in his work, and there is only one disputed passage which may directly quote Plotinus. Considering this, it seems possible that Gregory was familiar with Plotinus and perhaps other figures in neoplatonism. However, some significant differences between neoplatonism and Gregory’s thought exist, such as Gregory’s statement that beauty and goodness are equivalent, which contrasts with Plotinus’ view that they are two different qualities.
Eastern Orthodox theologians are generally critical of the theory that Gregory was influenced by neoplatonism. For example, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos aruges in Life After Death that Gregory opposed all philosophical (as opposed to theological) endeavour as tainted with worldliness. This view is supported by Against Euthonius, where Gregory denounces Euthonius for placing the results of his systematic Aristotelean philosophy above the traditional teachings of the Church.
The First Council of Constantinople, wall painting at the church of Stavropoleos, Bucharest, Romania
- Gregory of Nyssa Home Page, including many English translations of his writings.
- “St. Gregory of Nyssa“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Gregory of Nyssa from “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy“
- Opera Omnia by Migne, Patrologia Graeca with analytical indexes.
- Relics of St. Gregory of Nyssa
- Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (online), including the works of St. Gregory
- Early Church Fathers: Gregory of Nyssa