On Perfection(1) by Gregory of Nyssa Introduction

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On Perfection(1)


Gregory of Nyssa


Gregory of Nyssa's treatise On Perfection is addressed to a monk named Olympios who asked direction for attaining perfection. The treatise, which is in the form of a letter, is based almost exclusively upon Paul's great Christological texts which Gregory sets forth as the best guide to imitate Christ. As the treatise unfolds, we see a picture of sanctification which is both a result of human effort and God's good grace. Fellowship (koinonia) in Christ's name, the "one name by which we are called Christians"(J.174), is perceived by Gregory as a gift to which we thankfully(2) respond by our "determination" (spoude). Saint Paul is set forth as the "especially sure guide"(3) that is, he is a model or "imitation (mimeis) of Christ by a life according to virtue" (J.196).

On Perfection falls into one of the five so-called ascetical treatises: On Christian Profession, On the Christian Mode of Life, On Correction and On Virginity. Among these works, On Virginity (Gregory's first) is closely related to On Perfection since both treatises deal with the topic of perfection. We might add to this list the Life of Macrina where Gregory's ascetical doctrine is developed. The notion of perfection(4) (teleiotes) is classic: among the ancient Greeks it was considered as something stable, achieved, and not subject to change. In order to find God, perfection in itself, soul must purify itself of all foreign elements (Plato) and thus come to resemble or imitate the divine archetype. As opposed to Plato, Gregory develops the original insight that perfection lies in progress itself. This is a bold step since progress had for the Greek mind the notion of movement and hence instability and imperfection. As Jean Danielou points out(5) , Gregory associates change with created nature, not evil, and human nature is therefore called to change perpetually according to free choice(6): This crucial fact of Gregory's anthropology and spirituality must never be forgotten in order to appreciate his contribution to Christian mysticism. The soul's essence is a participation which always grows but is never achieved; it must consent, that is, practice virtue (arete). Gregory skillfully shows how the virtues employed "in the civil war within our nature" (J.184) are related to manifest Christ, the true light:
We learn that our life must be enlightened by the rays of the sun of righteousness emanating for our illumination. By them works of darkness are banished that we may walk becomingly in the day. (On Perfection, J.185)
To find this God dwelling within us as described by Gregory of Nyssa, the soul must, as was noted above, apply "determination" (spoude). Nevertheless, the gratuity of God's communication in Christ is required which is different from the Platonic concept of the soul's self-perfection of all foreign elements. Virtues are not performed according to right reason but according to imitations of the divine attributes implanted in man's nature whereby he is the image of God. For Gregory, "virtue" has a richer significance than it has for Western theology. In its positive aspect it is enlightenment or illumination by God and a communication of his own holiness: "Virtues are the rays (hai aktines) of the sun of righteousness" (J.185)(7). The soul resembles God in that it has infinite movement; it is a question of finding a movement to imitate the divine immutability which Gregory sees in his notion of progress. This central insight presents a stability, a continuity, or imitation of God. We have a fine statement of the soul's infinity as related to movement and virtue in the Life of Moses:
The perfection of everything which can be measured by the senses is marked off by certain definite boundaries...But in the case of virtue, we have learned from the Apostle that its limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit...It is undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection since, as I have said, perfection is not marked off by limits: the one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit...for the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness(8).
With this passage in mind it is interesting to read the following sentence from On Perfection: "Now the most beautiful effect of change is growth in the good since a change to things more divine is always remaking the man being changed for the better" (J.213). The present state of our human nature has a tendency towards evil that must be countered by the practice of virtue much like an athlete(9). Although man has this penchant towards evil, he is called by being created in grace to participate in the divine life which is from above. Gregory indirectly stresses this otherness or gratuity in his enumeration of thirty-two names of Christ in J.175-76. It is significant that most titles deal with the foundational aspects of reality: first-born, first-fruits, principle of created beings. Although Gregory states his intention of considering Christ's titles in the order which he has listed them, he does not attribute significance to the order which seems to be lacking. All these names, of course, are based on the name of Christ, the "one name worthy of our belief" (J.174).
With Christ, the "principle of created beings," as the basis of our perfection, Gregory sees our growth in virtue as a transformation "from glory to glory" (J.214). This is perhaps the phrase for which Gregory of Nyssa is most famous, summing up as it does his entire doctrine of perpetual growth. This "mutable immutability," as Danielou puts it(10), is not necessarily restricted to our choice between good and evil; there can be change within the realm of the good in the sense of progress or a continual movement to a higher good. By this continual, progressive transformation in the good, Gregory answers the question "How, then, can what is fixed and stable in the good be realized in a mutable nature?" (J.213). As Ronald Heine points out(11), there are two basic presuppositions underlying the structure of thought about change in the Life of Moses : man cannot avoid changing either for the better or for the worse, and can control the direction of this change by his free choice. Moses or the Christian soul is always moving forward in the good, hence, always changing, but never alternating between good and bad. Therefore, Gregory transcends the Platonic duality of mutability/immutability, a major step in the history of Christian spirituality:
This indeed is most paradoxical of all: how the same thing is both rest and movement. For he who ascends in no way stands still and he who stands still does not ascend; but in this connection ascending takes place through standing still. This is so because the more a man remains firm and unchanging in the good, the more does he accomplish the course of virtue...using his stability as a sort of wing and furnishing his heart with wings for the upward journey through firmness of the good(12).
Since the continual transformation to the better as movement "from glory to glory" is never real stability, it does not imply a falling backward. Hence continual progress and true stability can be identical, and it is on the basis of this understanding that man can have a permanence in the good. It is the foundation of man's freedom that he bears the image of God, differing inherently from his archetype in being subject to change. Such change which Plato had seen as a sign of distance from the archetype is presented by Gregory as the means by which man can regain likeness to his archetype by the positive exercise of freedom.
In light of what has just been said regarding perfection and change, Gregory offers the monk Olympios an outline for perfection as a creative promise where God's fatherhood is not inaccessible but is manifested in Christ as confronting and removing all barriers. Such divine perfection is the creative gift of the Father's Self, the "good news" within our reach. As bishop of Nyssa, Gregory combatted the Eunomian heresy by not only emphasizing the divine nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but by definitely establishing the incomprehensibility of God; he stressed that our knowledge of God is the result of his presence in us by grace, the domain of the mystical life.
To show the relationship between God's incomprehensibility, a favorite theme of the Greek Fathers and our human sphere of existence, Gregory provides a clue in his use of Heb 1.3: Christ as "the splendor (apaugasma) of glory and stamp (charakter) of God's nature" (On Perfection, J.187). One biblical root of apaugasma is Wis 7.25: "for she [wisdom] is the breath of the power of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty." The fluidity of words in this passage, plus those of verse 22 ('subtle, lively, clear, undefiled') receive a certain stability and contour in charakter. Both words, apaugasma and charakter, give expression to the mystery of beauty where an axis is found to express the personhood of Christ: his generation (passivity) corresponds to charakter, while his reflection (activity) is linked to the dynamic apaugasma. With regard to Christ's hypostatic union with his Father, Gregory says in On Perfection:
In explaining the Son's undivided union with his Father and envisioning him together with the limitless, eternal Father as boundlessly eternal, Paul calls him the "splendor of glory" and "very stamp of the Father's substance": by "splendor" union is shown, and by "stamp," equality...He who understands God's splendid nature has likewise understood his splendor, and he who comprehends with his mind the substance's greatness has indeed measured God's substance in his manifested stamp. For this reason Paul calls the Lord "the form (morphe) of God" (Phil 2.6); he does not diminish the Lord by the notion of a form, but by showing God's greatness in a form by which the Father's majesty is understood, by no means does his majesty exceed its own form nor is it found apart from his stamp. (J.189-90)
Here we have a synthesis of apaugasma and charakter in morphe, "form," the double act of measurement--God in man and man in God--that descends and ascends(13) and takes shape in us according to Gal 4.19: "until Christ be formed, morphothe, in you." This object of beauty, the subject so often treated in Gregory's works, is revelation, God's beauty appearing in man and man's beauty found in God through the Incarnation which brings man from a monologue to a dialogue in God's "marvelous light."
One title belonging to Christ is "head of his body, the Church" (J.175). With Christ's appearance, the Church-form is posited: "If we consider the head as pure, it befits each limb (that is, the members of the Church) to be united with the head in purity; if we consider the limbs to be pure by reason of the head's essence, this purity is indeed perfected under such a head" (J.198-99). Christ's form is not seen in isolation much like a painting, for the vertical form of Christ's descent is illegible without the horizontal form of the Church which is metamorphosed, like Paul himself, "from glory to glory." Shortly after Gregory treats of the connection between head and members, he refutes those heretics who "maintain that the Only-Begotten God...is a work of God" (J.200). The eschatological theme of head/limbs makes no sense if its form is broken or misinterpreted by heretics or those who make a selective disjoining of parts (limbs). They may carefully analyze each part in itself, such as one aspect of Christ's form, but they cannot make a whole from these disjointed parts.
Close to the beginning of On Perfection Gregory singles out Christ's kingly power, for it sets the stage upon which the Church's mystical body is developed later in J.197-200: "Thus all the power of these other names [of Christ] is contained in the word 'kingship,' and he who understands the elements contained in it knows the force which encompasses them individually" (J.177). The problem of Christian living is metaphysical: a name does not determine what an object really is, rather its underlying nature is made known by a suitable name. "A name has no substance it itself, but the underlying nature--whatever that happens to be--is signified by the appropriate meaning of a name...If anyone names himself after Christ, it is necessary to see what this name demands for persons taking it upon themselves and then to be conformed to it" (J.177-78).
Apatheia lies at the center of Gregory's insight of being conformed to Christ, the goal or habitual participation in the divine life(14). In the treatise On Perfection apatheia represents the divinity in a creature: "But a state free from passion (apatheia) looks to the author of detachment" (apatheia)(15) (J.212). While the presence of apatheia lets us know that God's essence is inaccessible, here it serves to manifest our "likeness to the prototype." Gregory's words from On Perfection may be compared to what he has to say on the subject in his Commentary on the Song of Songs:(16)
For the rays of that true, divine virtue shine forth in a pure life by the out-flow of detachment (apatheia) and make the invisible visible to us, and the inaccessible comprehensible by depicting the sun in the mirror of our souls...from the virtues we obtain knowledge of the good which transcends all understanding just as the beauty of an archetype can be inferred from its image.
Jean Danielou points out(17) two forms of apatheia: one is eschatological or the stripping of mortality and sexuality on the biological level; the other is not destructive but uses passions for the restoration of the destroyed order in the soul, that is, to submit them to nous (mind, intelligence). Thus in the words of the Life of Moses, "what is mutable and subject to passions was transformed into impassibility through its participation in the immutable"(18).
At first sight this passage looks as if Gregory had in mind Plato's ascent from the material existence to the world beyond this one which is not subject to corruption. Within Plato's doctrine we find alongside the contemplation of beauty in its corporeal form the contrary tendency to ascend from all incarnational forms in order to attain beauty in itself. This anti-incarnational trend of spiritualization is offset in On Perfection (J.197) by Gregory's admirable depiction of Christ's passion which anticipates medieval writers in their devotion to his humanity. Christ, the "archetypal image of God," allows us to behold all his qualities and adorns us with its "splendid form" to express the invisible God through patience. Our (Christian) contemplation of this image is opposed to the distanced (Platonic) consideration of the world of the forms. Paul states that such theopia is the metamorphosis of the beholder into the image he beholds (2Cor 3.18, 'from glory to glory,' cited in J.214). Theopia occurs when our human existence is spread out, so to speak, under the image offered by God and Christ, the image of the invisible God, and unfolds into the person contemplating it with the consequence of our being established in apatheia or virtue. Such was the metamorphosis of Paul who assumed Christ's form.
On Perfection explicitly asserts that Christ, "mediator between the Father and those who have lost their inheritance" (J.205), did not only receive the "first fruits of our common nature through his soul and body, "but he will also admit us "to share in his divinity" if we are clean from sin. No mention is made here of any physical contact(19) between limbs and head, but assimilation is made on the basis of the mediator's purity: "(the Christian) will be admitted to partake of the divinity by the mediator after having become pure to receive its purity" (J.205). This assumption of human nature as "first fruits" shows that Christ had a concrete human phusis, an individual manhood which extended to all our human nature. As Reinhard Hubner has pointed out, the Incarnation touches all humanity by means of Christ as aparche(20). Just as Adam had imperfectly showed the ideal man, Paul's thought as later developed by Irenaeus and Gregory manifests the tendency to stress humanity as a whole, not the individual. Just as all mankind has partaken of Adam's sin, so is it restored in Christ:
Christ brought the Spirit's grace upon the first fruits of our nature so that all those born into life from a spiritual rebirth might bear the name of "brothers of the first born" through water and the Spirit. On Perfection, J.202.
As well as treating the relationship between head and limbs (member of the Church) in On Perfection, Gregory's other short treatise(21) treats the matter more carefully with regard to the notion of subjection (hupotage). Let us parallel two passages from both treatises:
A Treatise on First Corinthians 15.28:

Unity then means to be one body with [Christ], for all who are joined to the one body of Christ by participation are one body with him. When the good pervades everything, then the entirety of Christ's body will be subjected to God's vivifying power. Thus the subjection (hupotage) of this body will be said to be the subjection of the Son himself as united to his own body, that is, the Church. (PG44.1317A)

On Perfection:

The entire head has the same nature and substance as the body under its subjection (to hupokeimeno), and the individual members as a whole partake of a single unity effecting a full cooperation among the limbs in every activity. (J.197)

The first passage stresses subjection of the Church's body to Christ with the good pervading all limbs or members to make them equal. This equality means that each limb retains is proper distinction or function in Christ yet all are the same in relation to the head. Once all the limbs are pervaded by Christ, a "second subjection" occurs, that is, of Christ to the Father: "When every creature has become one body and is joined in Christ through obedience to one another, he will bring into subjection his own body to the Father" (A Treatise on First Corinthians 15.28, M.1320A). Gregory thus interprets Paul's notion of subjection as "human nature in its entirety" (1320B) under the twofold subjection of Christ and to the Father. Christ comes from his vision of the Father and always has it "at his back," so to speak, while he is always on his way back to the Father. As coming from the Father, he is always caught up in the act of incarnation or bringing vision into existence and of contemplation into action. As returning to the Father, Christ is forever handing man over (subjecting) to God. Being this twofold movement from God to man and from man to God, Christ is the very center of the New Covenant, the perfect correspondence between God and man.
The second passage (On Perfection) stresses the unity of head and body which cooperate in action. Each limb as eikon is the expression or "equipment"(22) of man with the divine power signifying the original perfection of each one's phusis so that eikon and homoiosis become synonymous: Homoiosis as applied to man is clear, that is, it is the sum of the uttermost possibilities of man's likeness to God not only by nature but the whole supernatural life of which man is capable. A quotation from On Christian Profession clarifies this:
If we who are united to him by faith in him are called by a name (Christian) surpassing those which explain his incorruptible nature by means of this name, it must in consequence be identical in us. (PG 46.241D-44)
Gregory then proceeds in this treatise, which is akin to On Perfection, to speak of links of a chain joined together with Christ as link forming a circle and identifies the meaning of Christianity as "imitation of the divine nature" (244C). The notion of a circle (perfection) may also be equated with the balance between eikon and homoiosis in each limb: such is another way of looking at subjection and the modelling of ourselves on Christ's form (morphe) with its twofold composition of descent and ascent. This keeps in line with the theme dear to the Greek Fathers of knowing God's incorruptible nature. "The word 'kingdom'" contains the reality of all the other names (of Christ, J.177)." Gregory singles out this term in Perfection which is consistent with the notions of subjection and balance of eikon and homoiosis. His stress on the development of eikon and its consequence for his teaching on virtue rests not so much on individual persons but on humankind as a whole as eikon, the subject of On the Making of Man. The main ingredient of knowledge of God through our eikon is faith leading to a relationship with Christ: "The beginning of erecting this exalted life is faith; upon such a foundation we lay the principles of our life" (On Perfection, J.193). This life is a succession of inner ascents from which new horizons continually open out from our practice of asceticism. Thus while Gregory makes a distinction between asceticism and mysticism, he sees a continual passage from one to the other(23).
Gregory ends his treatise On Perfection with the very world "perfection" just as he began it (in verbal form). In his Life of Moses, the bishop of Nyssa points out the similarity between "end" and "goal" (telos), a term closely connected with "perfection" (teleiotes):
I mean by "goal" that for the sake of which everything is done; the goal of agriculture is the enjoyment of its fruits; the goal of building a house is living in it; the goal of commerce is wealth; and the goal of striving in contests is the prize. In the same way, too, the goal of the sublime way of life is being called a servant of God(24).
The telos of life according to virtue is beatitude, but since God is "blessed" in the truest sense, we are blessed by participation in him, and both the definition of human beatitude and the telos of life according to virtue consists in assimilation to God: "the characteristics of the true Christian are the same we apply to Christ. We imitate those characteristics we can assume while we venerate and worship what our nature cannot imitate" (J.178). The "restless concentration"(25) upon our heavenly goal restores us to the angelic life (isaggelos, or better, life on the same plane as the angels). Such is the dynamic, on-going process of our epektasis, a movement toward the good which is not circumscribed by any limit(26). On Perfection closes with mention of a "wing," our mutable human nature, which serves "for flight to better things" (J.213). We may parallel such a wing with the angels' wings who continually fly upward "from glory to glory" (J.214). While Gregory may present himself to the monk as an unworthy example of perfection, he suggests that the ideals of the Christian life, while lofty, are attainable but only with a genuine struggle. The Christian must take courage, for change is a guarantee of progress in the spiritual life: by daily growth (the Christian) always becomes better and is always being perfected (aei teleioumenos) yet never attains perfection's goal (pros to peras tes teleiotetos)(27).
* * * *

A note on the text, On Perfection: The critical text is found in De Perfectione, vol. 8, #1, edited by Werner Jaeger (Leiden, 1952), pp.173-214. It is represented within the translation by the letter "J" followed by the appropriate page number. The text by J.P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol.46, cols. 252-85 (Paris, 1858), is represented within the translation by the letter "M" followed by the appropriate column number.

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