The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (March 2013)
In the past few weeks I’ve been reading everything from George Weigel’s new book Evangelical Catholicism, the early works of Joseph Ratzinger, and books related to strategic planning for my diocesan ministry.
However, when time has permitted I’ve also been revisiting a spiritual classic by the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa, entitled The Life of Moses. Some years ago I taught a class in this text and was fortunate enough to then travel to Turkey and visit Cappadocia, a region renowned for its Christian antiquity and its spectacular fairy chimneys. It brought to life the various influences on Gregory as he composed his vita in the late fourth century (c.390AD).
In the publishing world, a ‘classic’ is often defined as a text that remains in print, a text that enjoys sustained readership in the public domain. However, within the Christian tradition the classic is much more than this – it is a text which occupies a privileged place in the community’s reception of the Gospel. These classics of our faith are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on the revelation it promotes. Classics invite the reader to engage with this commitment in the context of their personal faith and elicit anticipation of the presence of God in their own story.
While there are many rich insights to draw from Gregory’s classic, it is perhaps best known for the way in which it addresses the concept of ‘Christian perfection’. While the language of ‘perfection’ has given way to the contemporary language of ‘holiness’, the ideal of spiritual excellence remains the same. While there is scant mention of ‘perfection’ in Scripture the pericope of Matthew 5:48 is well known, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus speaks of loving one’s enemies, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’.
Note that the Greek form of ‘perfect’ is teleios. The meaning or connotation of teleios is ‘completeness’, a sense of maturity and wholeness in relationship to the Father. So the Scriptures hint at a perfection which involves not only ethical uprightness or moral excellence but more fundamentally a sense of total belonging to God.
What the Life of Moses brings to the notion of Christian perfection is its dynamism. Gregory begins with affirming the infinity and incomprehensibility of God. This inexhaustibility has a spiritual implication for Gregory: the virtue of the Christian life is none other than participation in the same infinite God, a journey toward the divine life that is never-ending.
Thus, for Gregory the life of perfection is not static but ever moving and without boundary, ‘[it] has no stopping place, but stretches out with the limitless’. Perfection is to undertake the journey of incessant transformation into the likeness of God. Our adoration and anticipation of God can never cease because we cannot reach the end of this mystery.
Gregory captures this notion of perfection in his noun epektasis. It is drawn from Philippians 3:13 in which the Apostle Paul, described as forever running on the course of virtue, never ceases “straining toward those things that are still to come”. It is in this epektasis, this “straining toward”, that the Christian believer lives and realises perfection, not in some momentary triumph or even in the stoic eradication of desire. In fact, Gregory affirms the importance of desire in our very growth in goodness, calling for the education and nurturance of our longings toward ever-deeper participation in the life of God.
Gregory also points to a dynamic in Christian spirituality in which the infinite beauty and goodness of God is our constant satisfaction and yet, at the same time, the source and inspiration of our unceasing desire:
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. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied.
Thus, like Moses, who glimpses only the back of God on Mount Sinai, our longing is continually fulfilled and yet never satisfied in the incomprehensible presence of the divine (cf. Exodus 33:18-21). It is in this very tension that the perfection of the Christian life is unveiled, as a lifelong project of knowing God in our midst and searching for God in our future.
In a world which seeks perfection it can hold on to, a perfection that can be jealously possessed or put on show, the spiritual vision of Gregory of Nyssa provides a more authentic, Christian understanding of the perfect life. It is a vision which is at once able to recognise the full reality of our imperfection as well as every spiritual advance – every thought, word and deed of faith – as a new and perfect beginning in our inexhaustible pilgrimage with an inexhaustible God.
The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West (Jan 2013)
Over the summer we drove to Melbourne to introduce our newborn son to his extended family. I meant to take a book with me but left without one, only to be given an anthology of work by the Australian author Morris West by my father-in-law.
Morris West was born in St Kilda and was a Christian Brother for some twelve years. He left the order in 1941 and went on to become one of Australia’s most talented writers of fiction. He died in 1999.
Rather than begin with his best known work, The Shoes of a Fisherman, I started with The Devil’s Advocate. It is a good read and, like the best authors, West writes from the ‘inside’ with a familiarity and intimacy with his subject which won’t be lost on Catholic readers.
West’s writing, which is both seamless and poetic, brings into relief the spiritual foundations of Christian identity which can be obscured by and even lost in the mere performance of religious duty. It brought to mind the counsel of Pope Benedict on the difference that love makes (cf. Deus Caritas Est #18). Throughout The Devil’s Advocate the greatness and mediocrity of Catholic culture is also set before us, an ecclesial culture which at its best expresses, and at its worst obscures, the life of the Gospel which is its essence.
The book tells the story of Blaise Meredith, a priest of twenty years who is dying of cancer and charged with the final task of testing the case of a deceased man for canonisation. As the Devil’s Advocate, it is Meredith’s responsibility to scrutinise this dead man’s life, his writing and actions through the testimony of witnesses in a small township of northern Italy. From this he is to make his recommendation.
The deeper spiritual significance of Meredith’s experience is clear – he is rebuilding the life of a dead man and, in reality, the dead man is himself. With his future in this world ‘a brief empty prospect spilling over into eternity’ (p.14), the reader sympathises with the protagonist as he works out his salvation with all the regret, questioning and hope that conversion involves.
The estrangement Meredith experiences as a minister, one who has fallen into a closed circle of duty and so become a virtual stranger from others – and therefore himself, is well captured by his poignant response to two lovers who embrace longingly on a train platform:
Looking at them, Blaise Meredith was touched with a vague nostalgia for a past that had never belonged to him. What did he know of love but a theological definition and a muttered guilt in the confessional? What meaning had his counsel in the face of this frank, erotic communion, which by divine dispensation was the beginning of life and the guarantee of the human continuum? Soon, this very night perhaps, these two would lie together in the little death out of which a new life would spring – a new body, a new soul. But Blaise Meredith would sleep solitary, with all the mysteries of the universe reduced to a scholastic syllogism inside his skull-case… He had withdrawn himself from the human family. These two were thrusting forward to renew it and perpetuate it (p.28-29).
Meredith’s isolation recalls for all leaders in the Church the risk of loveless duty and routine behaviour; what can present as faithful service can be, in fact, a sign of contradiction if ministry lacks the empathy and solidarity which Catholic spirituality and communion demands. This need of sensitivity and sociality is not to be confused with sentimentality or a ‘cuddle-in-the-corner’ ecclesiology but it does underscore ministry as a relationship not a status. We are only too aware in our parishes and communities when lay and ordained ministers have become, as Pope Benedict puts it, ‘merely “proper”, but loveless’.
Both the work of conversion and the Church’s mystery are central to The Devil’s Advocate (West writes memorably of the latter, ‘It was the hardest community in the world to live in – yet all its members wanted to die in it’ p.31). Through its pages West brings his principle character through the inevitability of death into the genuine possibility of life and communion. For this paschal pilgrimage West’s book is well worth a read if you’re looking for something engaging and meaningful to read in the coming months.