When Catholics speak of conversion, we usually mean the journey of our hearts, minds, and souls to God—not an instantaneous experience, a sudden surge of faith and emotion, or a bolt of supernatural lightning that seals us forever as the elect.
The idea of faith as a journey is well illustrated in the lives of some of the twentieth century’s greatest apologists. Thomas Merton climbed the “seven story mountain.” C.S. Lewis went from the Church of Ireland to atheism to high Anglicanism. Malcolm Muggeridge, a prominent British journalist, spent most of last century on his path to conversion, ending in the Church in the early 1980s. Muggeridge described it as finding his “resting place.”
Our hearts are restless till they find rest in You, wrote St. Augustine in his Confessions, so many centuries earlier.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said this—and much more.
Gregory, a Cappadocian Father who was roughly a contemporary of Augustine, would have agreed that when we find God our restlessness comes to an end and is replaced with a special kind of peace he called parrêsia. But we do not “rest” in the sense that our spiritual journey is over. How can this be? Here’s one way Gregory describes it his treatise, Against Eunomius, speaking of creation in general:
[T]he creation attains excellence by partaking in something better than itself; and further, not only had a beginning of its being, but also is found to be constantly in a state of beginning to be in excellence, by its continual advance in improvement, since it never halts at what it has reached, but all that it has acquired becomes by participation a beginning of its ascent to something still greater, and it never ceases.
Gregory is here speaking of creation in general, but humanity is undoubtedly at the fore: Gregory viewed mankind as the king of the created order. Now read the above words again carefully. Gregory is not simply saying that we continually grow in God while on this earth—something that is axiomatic among faithful Catholics today. His statement is that we are “constantly in a state of beginning to be in excellence” since we never halt at what we have reached. In other words: progress is never-ending—there is no end to the growth of even the most spiritually advanced.
For Gregory, this applies as much, perhaps even more, to saints as to the rest of us. And it holds true not only on earth, but even more so in heaven. As theologian Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco puts it, “Perfection does not consist in reaching an end, but in running without end” (from The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa.)
This idea, known as epectasis, is borne out of Gregory’s deep philosophical reflections about the ultimate nature of reality. It is also directly taken from St. Paul’s words in Philippians 3:
It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ. Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus (verses 12 to 14).
In the above text, the phrase straining forward in Greek reads as epekteinomenos, a form of the verb epekteinomai, which means to stretch out to or towards. This word, which only appears once in the New Testament, is actually a composite of three parts: epi (upon), ek (out of) and teinō (to stretch). (Epectasis is the noun form.)
Each part is essential to understanding what the term means. To reach God indeed involves a “stretching” of oneself, given the gap that exists between the human and divine. It is a stretching that calls us to step “out of” ourselves, to “forget” ourselves, to use Paul’s language. And this stretching out is not a blind reaching out into the darkness in the hope that we might find something or someone there. It is a stretching out “upon” the One Who is there. There is a confidence, even certitude, reflected in the term. Indeed, this one word signifies much about what we believe about the human condition, God, and how the two are related. Perhaps that is why it proved so fruitful in the hands of a great thinker like Gregory.
Now, Gregory is certainly not saying that we never reach God, that the divine life is unattainable even for great saints like Paul. Instead, he is positing a paradox: after we have found God, we continue to seek Him anew. To restate this in modern terms, in loving God, one at once has both the thrill of the chase and sheer delight of the catch.
And this is not to say that we go in circles, both seeking and finding God in some nonstop cycle that seemingly goes nowhere. Rather, as explained Mateo-Seco, it’s a process of constant progress. Each encounter with God only expands our capacity to experience Him more, deepening our desire for God. “The more one reaches it, the more one desires it. The desire for God brings with it the joyous paradox of reaching that which is desired, thus amplifying the capacity of a new desire,” writes Mateo-Seco.
Gregory’s ultimate concern here centered on the divine attributes. He was wary of any account of the spiritual life that did not maintain a profound respect for and vivid awareness of God’s infinity and transcendence. Gregory argued that our experience of God, who is infinite goodness and love, could never be exhausted. To say otherwise, he suggested, is insulting to God. In his treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory remarks that the “the insolence of satiety cannot touch” the “True Beauty” of the divine.
Put simply, Gregory is saying that God’s infinity and transcendence means that we can never reach Him with any sense of finality. There is no end point, no goal post, no finish line. There is no limit to God and His love. This is why the journey never ends, even for those who have “found” God, even for great saints like Paul and Gregory of Nyssa.