Tag Archives: Gregory of Nyssa

Moses and the Quest for God

Historians today, looking at Moses, ask what does “real” history say about him? When did he live and what are the facts of his life? The 4th century mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, in his classic work “The Life of Moses asks a different question: What can we learn from Moses about how God calls us? How can we see our own journey to God in him?

We want to see God. In the 120 years of his life Moses sought God and is an example how God leads us to himself. 

Exodus 2,1-15 is an account of Moses’ first 40 years. His Jewish mother puts him in the Nile river in a little boat ( the word for boat in Exodus is the same word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark) They’re years not without danger, but Moses–like all of us – is placed on the river of life, with a mission from God and the protection of God.

Moses’ adoption by Pharoah’s daughter brought him the wealth of Egypt. He makes his way to God with human gifts as well as divine gifts, and so do we. We’re blessed with gifts,  human and divine, and we must use them.

Moses’ first forty years end with the killing of the Egyptian and his subsequent flight to the mountainous desert of Midian. There, Moses meets God alone in the burning bush and choses to stand with God. If we want to see the face of God, we’re called to face the burning mystery of God and choose to stand with him.

Then, at eighty years, Moses begins the next stage of his life: leading his people through the desert to the promised land. Eighty years old– hardly a good time for something like that, isn’t it? 

For Gregory, though, Moses’ life is an inward journey, not so much of events, as a journey of desire, and the journey of desire is a constant journey–an ascent– that never ends or grows old in this life. It’s not ended by sickness or the cessation of our active lives and responsibilities.  Here’s how Gregory describes it:

“…the great Moses, becomes ever greater, he never stops his ascent, never sets a limit to his upward course. Once setting his foot on the ladder that God sets up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceases to rise higher, because there was always a step higher than the one he attained…though lifted up through his lofty experiences, he’s still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for what seems beyond his capacity… asking God to appear to him, not according to his capacity, but according to God’s true being.

“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul who loves the beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty that’s seen to what ‘s beyond; it always kindles the desire for what’s hidden from what’s now known. Boldly requesting to go up the mountain of desires the soul asks to enjoy Beauty, not in mirrors, or reflections, but face to face. “ (Gregory of Nyssa)

“Old men ought to be explorers

Here or there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.” T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

An Immense Sea

View_of_Cliffs_of_Moher
Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

I wonder if St. Gregory of Nyssa ever stood at a place like this. He must have:

“The feelings that come as one stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts.

“When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord and live.
“To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of man?
 “It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.”

Moses and the Quest for God

Moses

120 years old. That’s how old Moses was when he died, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, which we’re reading today at Mass.

Biblical exaggeration we wonder? Maybe. Yet scientists said recently life expectation in our society might be heading to 120 in the future, so perhaps we need to look at Moses a little more closely. Our society is aging.

The 4th century Cappadocian mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, in his classic study “The Life of Moses” considers Moses, not mainly as a leader of the Israelites, but rather as a example of the way God calls all of us. His life shows us our way to God.

Gregory divides the life of Moses’ 120 years into 3 parts. The first part of his life (Exodus 2, 1-15) is marked by dangers. Pharaoh has decreed that all Jewish new born boys be killed, but Moses is taken by his mother after his birth and placed in the river in a little boat ( the word for Moses’ boat in Exodus is the same word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark) In the river of life, Moses is protected by God and has a mission to fulfill. We too have been placed in the river of life, in God’s boat as it were, and have a mission to fulfill.

Adopted and brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses enjoys the gifts of Egypt. Like him, we’ve been given many gifts in life. We have to use them well, wherever they come from. Gregory writes. That’s a way to make the journey.

Moses’ first forty years end with the killing of the Egyptian and his subsequent flight to the desert of Midian. Choosing to stand with his own people Moses chooses to stand with God. In life we’re constantly called to make this same crucial choice. If we wish to see the face of God, we must choose it.

The next forty years Moses spends in solitude in the mountains of Midian where he lives a simple virtuous life, which prepares him to meet God in the burning bush. Then, at eighty years, he’s sent on to the next stage of his life: leading his people through the desert to the promised land.

Eighty years old– hardly a good time to begin such a momentous task. But Gregory of Nyssa sees Moses’ life as an inward journey, rather than an outward one. This is more than an historical journey. It’s a journey that doesn’t stop, defying age and the circumstances of life. One is never too old, or too young, for this inner journey. Gregory describes it beautifully in “The Life of Moses.”

“…the great Moses, becoming ever greater, never stopped his ascent, never set a limit to his upward course. Once setting his foot on the ladder that God set up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because there was always a step higher than the one he attained…though lifted up through such lofty experiences, he’s still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for what seems beyond his capacity… beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity, but according to God’s true being.

“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul who loves the beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty that’s seen to what ‘s beyond; it always kindles the desire for what’s hidden from what’s now known. Boldly requesting to go up the mountain of desires the soul asks to enjoy Beauty, not in mirrors, or reflections, but face to face. “ (Gregory of Nyssa)

In his final instructions to his people before his death, Moses does not offer words of human advice gathered from his years. He leaves no memoirs, no recollections. God will be with his people as God was with him. Beyond land or treasures of human conquest, they will see the face of God.

Is It Possible To See God?

Can we, poor creatures we are, know God and enter God’s presence, the inaccessible God? Can our hearts be pure enough to see God? St. Gregory of Nyssa asks that question in his commentary on the beatitude “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

The “Hand of the Word” help us attain it.

“Does the Lord really encourage us to do something that is beyond our nature and our powers to accomplish? Surely not. Look at the birds: God has not created them without wings. Look at sea creatures: God has not designed them as land animals. Wherever we look, the law of each creature’s being does not demand that it should do something that it is beyond its own nature to do.

“Let us reflect on this and not despair of the purity of heart that the Beatitude speaks of. John, Paul and Moses did not, in the end, lack the sublime blessing of seeing God. Paul said There is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just judge, will render to me; John lay on Jesus’ breast; and Moses heard God say to him, I have known you above all. It is certain that those who said that the contemplation of God was beyond human power were themselves blessed. But blessedness comes from the contemplation of God, and seeing God is something that comes to those who are pure of heart. It follows logically that purity of heart cannot be an unattainable thing.

“So if some, with Paul, truly say that the contemplation of God is beyond human power, yet the Lord himself contradicts them by promising the sight of God to those who are pure of heart.”

We shouldn’t set our sights low.

Seeing God

St. Gregory of Nyssa has a beautiful reflection in today’s readings on the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

He begins by saying that “It does not say that it is blessed to know something about the Lord God, but that it is blessed to have God within oneself. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“I do not think that this is simply intended to promise a direct vision of God if one purifies one’s soul. On the other hand, perhaps the magnificence of this saying is hinting at the same thing that is said more clearly elsewhere: The kingdom of God is within you. That is, we are to understand that by purging our souls of every illusion and every disordered affection, we will see our own beauty as an image of the divine nature.

“Our own beauty as an image of the divine nature,”

We are sharers in the divine nature. We’re not God, who is transcendent, inaccessible, beyond our minds and knowing, but we can “see” God in ourselves, our own image, as we are purified from our illusions, our sins, our disordered love. Like many early eastern theologians, Gregory appreciates the basic goodness of human nature restored by the grace of the Redeeming Christ. No demeaning of humanity here.

The saints goes on:

“And those pure in heart are blessed because, seeing their own purity, they see the archetype reflected in the image. If you see the sun in a mirror then you are not looking directly at the sky, but still you are seeing the sun just as much as someone who looks directly at it. In the same way, the Lord is saying, although you do not have the strength to withstand the direct sight of the great and inaccessible light of God, if you look within yourselves once you have returned to the grace of the image that was placed in you from the beginning, you will find in yourselves all that you seek… the sight of God.”

Going a step further, can the saint’s words apply also to creation itself? If our created world as well as our human world mirrors God, aren’t we meant to see God there too? If it is marred and disfigured by human greed and loses its place as a sacrament of God’s presence, does the beatitude about purifying the human heart also extend to renewing and purifying creation?

Following Jesus, our Teacher

Jesus Christ is the teacher of the ages. His Sermon on the Mount offers a lasting wisdom,  and so he speaks to us as well as to the people of his time. It’s up to us to listen to him and keep our eyes on him, even as others vie for our attention with their wisdom and their wishes. Like sheep, our eyes and our attention are on the next step we take; we have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and turn to see where he is leading us;

Here’s a selection from St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Office of Readings for today:

 

“We shall be blessed with clear vision if we keep our eyes fixed on Christ, for he, as Paul teaches, is our head, and there is in him no shadow of evil. Saint Paul himself and all who have reached the same heights of sanctity had their eyes fixed on Christ, and so have all who live and move and have their being in him.

As no darkness can be seen by anyone surrounded by light, so no trivialities can capture the attention of anyone who has his eyes on Christ. The one who keeps his eyes upon the head and origin of the whole universe has them on virtue in all its perfection; he has them on truth, on justice, on immortality and on everything else that is good, for Christ is goodness itself.

The wise, then, turn their eyes toward the One who is their head, but the fool gropes in darkness. No one who puts his lamp under a bed instead of on a lamp-stand will receive any light from it. People are often considered blind and useless when they make the supreme Good their aim and give themselves up to the contemplation of God, but Paul made a boast of this and proclaimed himself a fool for Christ’s sake. The reason he said, We are fools for Christ’s sake was that his mind was free from all earthly preoccupations. It was as though he said, ‘We are blind to the life here below because our eyes are raised toward the One who is our head.’”