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St. Gregory of Nyssa.

"If only we could learn from experience before having it"

--On Virginity, 3

The youngest of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory (c.335-c.395, Feast Day Marcia 9, dark with pointed beard), imbibed Hellenism and moral values from siblings Basil and Macrina. A church lector at 20, he briefly resigned to marry one Theosebeia (her name indicates Christian parentage) and pursue rhetoric.

Appointed (372) Bishop of Nyssa, he was unequal to administrative problems and the Arian rivals, being deposed in 376. Regaining authority (378--triumphally recounted, Letter 10), he attended a Nicaean synod at Antioch, visited his dying sister, and off-loaded the unwanted See of Sebaste onto brother Peter.

Assuming Basil's mantle, he (with Gregory Nazianzen) routed the Arians at the Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, May-July 381). He subsequently delivered funeral orations on Princess Pulcheria and Empress Flacilla (385-386) before embarking on a decade of ecclesiastical 'trouble-shooting' (e.g. in Jerusalem and Arabia) and lecture tours, dying soon after a final Constantinople Nicene synod appearance (394)--the 787 Council of Nicaea proclaimed him 'Father of Fathers'.

"Ask a man for change, he philosophises on the Begotten and the Unbegotten; ask the price of bread, you are told 'the Father is greater, the Son inferior;' ask if the bath is ready, they say the Son is made from nothing"--On the Divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit 3.

A versatile writer (filling volumes 44-46 in Migne's Patrologia Graeca), Gregory's style (though praised by Photius) is modernly judged inferior, rating but one paragraph in George Kennedy's Greek Rhetoric under Christian Emperors (1983). But he was a phrase-maker, e.g., coining the image of the devil's baited hook; in any case, for Gregory the Message was the Medium.

Before 379 he wrote only the ascetic treatise (others would follow) On Virginity, influenced by Origen and Methodius, reviving the latter's description of Christ as 'Archiparthenos' (Chief of Virgins). Dogmatic works included polemics against various heresies and heretics, the compendious Catachresis (Editor: the misapplication of a word or phrase) (a defence of principal Trinitarian tenets), and a Platonic Dialogue between himself and Macrina, whose Life he also composed--"A gem of hagiography" (Johannes Quasten).

Biblical exegeses embraced both the Old Testament (developing Basil on Genesis and the Psalms, homilies on Ecclesiastes and The Song of Songs, a Life of Moses that adapted the 'Royal Road' of Numbers 20.17 to the Mystical Path leading to unity with Christ, a short tract on the Witch of Endor that prefigures Byzantine interest in demonology) and the New Testament (Lord's Prayer, Beatitudes, 1 Corinthians).

His most important ascetic work, save On Virginity and Macrina's Life, was What Is A Christian? Answer: "Imitator of the divine life. A short piece On Admonitions stresses the need for congregations to accept church discipline.

Sermons ranged from liturgical (especially that delivered on Christmas Day 386) to eulogies of martyrs and saints ("Those who behold his relics embrace them as though the living body, as though he were present and complete"--Homily on St. Theodore) to denunciations of usurers and parents who defer children's baptisms and a plea to cherish the poor.

Thirty Letters commingle autobiography, church activities, and social matters; 25, on how to build a cruciform martyr's shrine, is a key text for early Christian architecture and art.

Except for his Origenism and allegorical tendencies, Gregory followed Basil in his Trinitarianism, Christology, Mariology, and handling of pagan literature. But, he blazed new Christian trails in anthropology and the sciences (especially medicine), eschatology (selectively using Origen), and above all mysticism, of which he was nicknamed 'The Father' and which cast a long spell over Western mediaeval successors with (e.g.) his image (On The Song of Songs, 10) of man's beatific vision as "a divine and sober intoxication, stepping outside of himself." "True perfection never rests, always reaching unfettered for the better"--On The Christian Ideal, 24.

FURTHER READING:

* H. Musurillo, From Glory to Glory: Gregory of Nyssa's Mystical Writings (1961);

* Meredith, The Cappadocians (1995);

* M. Azkoul, St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Tradition of the Fathers (1995);

* 33.400 'Google' sites, including his Catholic Encyclopedia entry.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritis Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary.

From a treatise by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, bishop

(Patrologia Graeca 46, 254-255)

The Christian is another Christ

No one has known Christ better than Paul, nor surpassed him in the careful example he gave of what anyone should be who bears Christ's name. So precisely did he mirror his Master that he became his very image. By a painstaking imitation, he was transformed into his model and it seemed to be no longer Paul who lived and spoke, but Christ himself. He shows his keen awareness of this grace when he refers to the Corinthians' desire for proof that Christ was speaking in him; as he says: "It is no longer I who live: it is Christ who lives in me."

Paul teaches us the power of Christ's name when he calls him the power and wisdom of God, our peace, the unapproachable light where God dwells, our expiation and redemption, our great high priest, our paschal sacrifice, our propitiation; when he declares him to be the radiance of God's glory, the very pattern of his nature, the creator of all ages, our spiritual food and drink, the rock and the water, the bedrock of our faith, the cornerstone, the visible image of the invisible God. He goes on to speak of him as the mighty God, the head of his body, the Church, the firstborn of the new creation, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the firstborn of the dead, the eldest of many brothers; he tells us that Christ is the mediator between God and man, the only begotten Son crowned with glory and honour, the Lord of glory, the beginning of all things, the king of justice and of peace, the king of the whole universe, ruling a realm that has no limits.

Paul calls Christ by many other titles too numerous to recall here. Their cumulative force will give some conception of the marvelous content of the name "Christ", revealing to us his inexpressible majesty, insofar as our minds and thoughts can comprehend it. Since, by the goodness of God, we who are called "Christians" have been granted the honour of sharing this name, the greatest, the highest, the most sublime of all names, it follows that each of the titles that express its meaning should be clearly reflected in us. If we are not to lie when we call ourselves "Christians", we must bear witness to it by our way of living.
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Title Annotation:Fathers Of The Church VIII
Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1108
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