This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more.

(St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 239)

 

The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa[1] is considered a true classic of Biblical exegesis from one considered a master of spirituality and mysticism[2]. Written c. 390AD in his old age in response to one thought to be named Caesarius (perhaps a monk[3]) enquiring about “the perfect life,”[4] it is a theological treatise using the life of Moses the archprophet as a model of virtuous ascent to perfection. Following this type, the reader is called to live a life of ascetic purification so that they are able to ascend Mt. Sinai, “the mountain of the knowledge of God”.

 

Author and context

Gregory of Nyssa, youngest of the three Cappadocian Fathers, was born into a virtuous family in Neocaesarea, Pontus c. 335AD. His paternal grandmother St. Macrina the Elder was a student of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus[5] the famous bishop who had transformed Neocaesarea into a Christian city[6]. She had at one time fled along with her husband and son, St. Basil the Elder (St. Gregory of Nyssa’s father) during the Galerian persecution losing all their belongings; a family estate would eventually become a communal monastery headed by his sister St. Macrina the Younger, who herself played a great part in the spiritual development of her brothers St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Basil the Great. His renowned brother St. Basil the Great was Bishop of Caesarea and considered one of the greatest theologians in Church history; other brothers included St. Peter, Bishop of Sebaste and St. Naucratius, a hermit.[7]

Being a devout Christian family however did not however mean isolation from wider society and secular life. Following in his father’s and brother’s (St. Basil the Great) footsteps, Gregory initially followed a non-religious career path, having a classical education in philosophy and becoming a rhetorician[8]. There is evidence that he was perhaps married but this remains a matter of scholarly dispute[9] [10]. He soon retired and took a different course in life; under influence from his family, he became a monk in his brother Basil’s monastery. He was ordained bishop of the small town of Nyssa by his brother at around the age of 40, against his will.[11] Amongst his ecclesiastical roles, he was one of the 150 bishops who attended the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381. In his later life he was a greatly respected hierarch, both by the Imperial Court, pronouncing the oration at the funeral of the Empress Flacilla in 382, and as a master of spirituality, producing a number of exegetical and mystical works, including The Life of Moses, the subject of our present study.

 

Form and structure

The Life of Moses is comprised of 4 sections: a prologue, historia, theoria and a conclusion.

In the prologue he opens with a simile; that of spectators and charioteers at an event who are striving (the concept of επέκτασις[12]). He likens himself to a spectator, who does not “contribute anything to the victory” of the charioteer, but is encouraging from his goodness of will. The charioteer he cheers for is the recipient of his work, Caesarius the monk, who has written to him enquiring about the perfect life. Gregory who identifies himself as being in a “position of a father” and in his “old age” [13] accepts this commission in order to instruct the younger monk using Moses as “an example of our life” to “come to know the perfect life for men.”[14]

In the historia he outlines certain key events in the life of Moses in a summarised fashion, including: his birth, upbringing by the daughter of Pharaoh, slaying the Egyptian to save his kinsman, fleeing to the wilderness, the theophany at the Burning Bush, his return to Egypt, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus of the Israelites, the first stations in the desert, the Manna, the theophany in ascending Mt. Sinai and receiving the Law from God, the trials of the people, the battle against the Amalekites and Balaam and finally his death upon the mountain.

The theoria constitutes the bulk of the treatise, and is the spiritual contemplation of the historia. Gregory here in allegorical exegesis interprets the various events in the life of Moses and “lays bare the hidden meaning of the history”[15]. He searches for and applies a spiritual interpretation where he feels there is superfluous detail or something out of place within the historia, where there is a seemingly immoral action that is taken (such as the death of the Egyptian firstborn), or anything unworthy of God if taken only literally (the description of God having a “back” or “face” in Ex:33:18 leads to a lengthy spiritual exposition)[16]. Finally he concludes by wishing Caesarius a practical application of the spiritual principles into his own life, and perhaps build on it with further spiritual contemplation or development “he may find” for the “common benefit in Christ Jesus”[17].

By God’s grace, let’s take three contemplations from St. Gregory’s inspired work:

 

Contemplations

1. Let us choose our birth and defy the tyrant

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(Detail from “Moses Taken from the River”, Fresco on plaster, Euphrates Syria, 244-255AD, Wikimedia Commons (link to resource, accessed 10th February 2021)

St. Gregory begins by reminding us that Moses was born at a time when, as a male, he was expected to die, by the royal decree of Pharaoh (Ex 1:22). And Pharaoh had commanded this out of fear – the Hebrews, a foreign people in Egypt whom he didn’t trust were growing stronger and greater in number, no matter how badly they were treated (Ex 1:12). But what can we learn from Moses’ birth?

Now, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth. In mutable nature nothing can be observed which is always the same. Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as the result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.[18]

So according to St. Gregory, we in a sense are always being born, because we are constantly changing. But unlike having physical birth, we make the choices of our way of living, and how we choose to change them.

We can most certainly enter upon a better birth into the realm of light, however much the unwilling tyrant is distressed, and we can be seen with pleasure and be given life by the parents of this goodly offspring, even though it is contrary to the design of the tyrant. (The rational faculties are what become the “parents of … virtue.”)

 

When we lay bare the hidden meaning of the history, Scripture is seen to teach that the birth which distresses the tyrant is the beginning of the virtuous life. I am speaking of that kind of birth in which free will serves as the midwife, delivering the child amid great pain. For no one causes grief to his antagonist unless he exhibits in himself those marks which give proof of his victory over the other. [19]

Who is the tyrant except Satan? And just as the birth of the male Hebrews struck fear into Pharaoh, so the thing which Satan fears most is the beginning of the virtuous life. For us, to choose by our own free will to enter “a better birth.” To make a new beginning with God, to turn aside from living for our own pleasures and selves and to live for the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Gregory reminds us that it isn’t easy – childbirth is painful. But as St. Paul said:  “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:12).

 

2. Secular education and knowledge

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(Photo by Susan Yin, Unsplash (accessed 10th February 2021)

Since the daughter of the king, being childless and barren (I think she is rightly perceived as profane philosophy), arranged to be called his mother by adopting the youngster, Scripture concedes that his relationship with her who was falsely called his mother should not be rejected until he had recognized his own immaturity. But he who has already attained maturity, as we have learned about Moses, will be ashamed to be called the son of one who is barren by nature.

 

For truly barren is profane education, which is always in labour but never gives birth. For what fruit worthy of such pangs does philosophy show for being so long in labour? Do not all who are full of wind and never come to term miscarry before they come to the light of the knowledge of God, although they could as well become men if they were not altogether hidden in the womb of barren wisdom? [20]

Most of us spend years of our lives in education, pursuing knowledge, degrees, new skills. St. Gregory was himself highly educated in philosophy and Greek rhetoric, working as the equivalent of a lecturer at a university. And yet he calls this “profane” education “barren” – without “fruit”. It’s the “knowledge of God” that truly gives us light.

Although this seems negative, St. Gregory teaches that profane knowledge can be a useful tool for us:

“…for there are certain things derived from profane education which should not be rejected when we propose to give birth to virtue. Indeed moral and natural philosophy may become at certain times a comrade, friend, and companion of life to the higher way, provided that the offspring of this union introduce nothing of a foreign defilement.”.[21]

Provided we are careful not to take to heart what is not the Truth – the knowledge and skills we learn in the world can be a wonderful tool for our personal spiritual development and for service (provided it doesn’t consume us!)

Now after living with the princess of the Egyptians for such a long time that he seemed to share in their honours, he must return to his natural mother. Indeed he was not separated from her while he was being brought up by the princess but was nursed by his mother’s milk, as the history states. This teaches, it seems to me, that if we should be involved with profane teachings during our education, we should not separate ourselves from the nourishment of the Church’s milk, which would be her laws and customs. By these the soul is nourished and matured, thus being given the means of ascending the height.

While Moses had been adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, he was initially being nursed by his own mother, Jochebed (Ex. 2:9). If Pharaoh’s daughter represents profane knowledge (indeed Moses “was educated in all the wisdom of the Egytpians) (Acts 7:22)) than his true mother, the one who taught him in the little time she had with him foundational beliefs about who God was, represents sacred knowledge. And St. Gregory warns us not to leave sacred knowledge which we obtain from our Mother the Church while we pursue our secular education and careers. Our Church has a vast trove of spiritual treasure – are we nourishing our souls with the same effort and concentration as we do our degrees? [22]

3. Let us be faithful to the Hebrew and fight the Egyptian

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(Photo by Tanner Mardis, Unsplash (accessed 10th February 2021)

Years later as a fully-grown man, Moses sees an Egyptian beating some of his Hebrew brothers (Ex 2:11-13). Looking “this way and that” and thinking no one could see him, he struck the Egyptian and killed him, burying him in the sand. The matter is, of course known, and Moses flees Egypt.

St. Gregory looks into the spiritual meaning of this text:

It is true that he who looks to both the profane doctrines and to the doctrines of the fathers will find himself between two antagonists. For the foreigner in worship is opposed to the Hebrew teaching, and contentiously strives to appear stronger than the Israelite. And so he seems to be to many of the more superficial who abandon the faith of their fathers and fight on the side of the enemy, becoming transgressors of the fathers’ teaching. On the other hand, he who is great and noble in soul like Moses slays with his own hand the one who rises in opposition to true religion.

 

One may, moreover, find this same conflict in us, for man is set before competitors as the prize of their contest. He makes the one with whom he sides the victor over the other. The fight of the Egyptian against the Hebrew is like the fight of idolatry against true religion, of licentiousness against self‐control, of injustice against righteousness, of arrogance against humility, and of everything against what is perceived by its opposite.[23]

He compares Moses slaying the Egyptian in support of his Hebrew brothers, to the contention between true believers and heretics. c.390AD when St. Gregory wrote this, the Church had recently been deeply divided in faith over Christological controversies. And sadly today, we have more denominations than you can shake a stick at. Let us also fight to defend the true Christian doctrine of Orthodoxy, “which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers.” [24]

One may, moreover, find this same conflict in us, for man is set before competitors as the prize of their contest. He makes the one with whom he sides the victor over the other. The fight of the Egyptian against the Hebrew is like the fight of idolatry against true religion, of licentiousness against self‐control, of injustice against righteousness, of arrogance against humility, and of everything against what is perceived by its opposite.

 

Moses teaches us by his own example to take our stand with virtue as with a kinsman and to kill virtue’s adversary. The victory of true religion is the death and destruction of idolatry. So also injustice is killed by righteousness and arrogance is slain by humility.

 

The dispute of the two Israelites with each other occurs also in us. There would be no occasion for wicked, heretical opinions to arise unless erroneous reasonings withstood the truth. If, therefore, we by ourselves are too weak to give the victory to what is righteous, since the bad is stronger in its attacks and rejects the rule of truth, we must flee as quickly as possible (in accordance with the historical example) from the conflict to the greater and higher teaching of the mysteries.

The battle is also personal! Let’s pray that God gives us the strength to fight the good fight of entering through the “narrow gate” (Mat 7:13).

See you in the next installment of contemplations from St. Gregory!

 

References

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, preface by John Meyendorff. (New York, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978).

[2] Margaret Beirne, Spiritual Enrichment through Exegesis: St Gregory of Nyssa and the ScripturesPhronema 27, 2012 2: 83-98.

[3] Jean Daniélou, p. ix; cf. Jaeger Warner, Two Rediscovered Works of Ancient Christian Literature: Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius. (Leiden, 1954, p.143.)

[4] Book I, 2

[5] Basil, Letter CCIV, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8:245. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.)

[6] It was said that upon his enthronement as bishop only seventeen Christians lived in Neocaesarea; upon his deathbed, all the city was Christian except for seventeen pagans.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae Junioris, Patrologia Graeca Vol. XLVI:960-1000. Edited by JP Migne. (Paris, 1863.)

[8] Gregoire de Nysse: Traité de la virginité. Edited by Michel Aubineau. Sources Chrétiennes Vol. 119:29-82 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1966)

[9] Von Josef Stiglmayr, Die Schrift des hl. Gregor von Nyssa Über die Jungfräulichkeit, Zeitschrift für Askese und Mystik, 1927, 2:339.

[10] Jean Daniélou, Le mariage de Grégoire de Nysse et la chronologie de sa vie, Revue d’Études Augustiniennes et Patristiques, 1956, 2(1–2):71–78.

[11] Gregory of Nyssa, The Sacred Writings of Gregory of Nyssa. Translated by Henry Austin Wilson. (Loschberg, Germany: Jazzybee Verlag: 2012), 3.

[12] Liviu Petcu, The Doctrine of Epektasis. One of the Major Contributions of Saint Gregory of Nyssa to the History of Thinking. Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 2017 (73): 771-782.

[13] Book I, 2

[14] Book I, 15

[15] Book II, 5

[16] John Meyendorff in Preface of The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa, Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. (New York, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978).

[17] II, 321.

[18] II, 4.

[19] II, 5.

[20] II, 10-11.

[21] II, 37.

[22] II, 10-11.

[23] II, 13-14.

[24]  St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion.

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