There are doctors of the Church who plumb the spiritual depths, like St. John of the Cross. Then there are thinkers who attain once unimagined speculative heights, like John Duns Scotus. Others are great interpreters of Scripture. Think St. Jerome or St. Cyril of Alexandria.
St. Gregory of Nyssa was all of the above.
Gregory lived in a time of great turmoil and triumph in the early Church. He was born in 335, when the Church was only just beginning to come to grips with the titanic implications of having gone from a persecuted sect to an established state religion in the span of years, thanks to Constantine. And during most of his life the Church was consumed with the battle against one of its first great heresies, Arianism. Within a century of his death, the Roman Empire would breathe its last, leaving the Church on its own—better off, some might say.
Perhaps fitting for a Father so committed to orthodoxy, his life was bookended by the first two great councils of the Church: the Council of Nicaea, held in 325, preceded his birth by a decade and the Council of Constantinople, in 381, concluded a little over a decade before his death.
Gregory was one of three Cappadocian Fathers, a triumvirate of orthodoxy that towered over the life and theology of the Church in modern-day Turkey. The other Cappadocians were his brother, St. Basil the Great, and a friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory of Nyssa was the youngest of the three. He was appointed bishop of Nyssa by his brother and would later write a book, the Hexaemeron, on the six days of creation, as an expansion upon his brother’s work on Genesis.
Gregory of Nyssa stood on the shoulder of giants but was himself a big thinker in his own right.
Gregory had a rare gift for blending intense, contemplative exegesis of Scripture with Platonic philosophy and Christian theological reflection. The character of this thought is well exemplified in one of his best known ideas, the concept of apocatastasis (Greek ἀποκατάστασις), which is inspired from the words of Scripture. In Acts 3:21, Luke writes of Christ that heaven must receive Him “until the times of universal restoration (apocatastasis) of which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.”
In the able hands of Gregory, apocatastasis became an all-encompassing concept that explained human origins, history, and destiny. The term referred to man’s restoration to his original state before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. It therefore also described man’s return to paradise and his resurrection in the end times. (In this definition, I’m particularly indebted to the synopsis offered in the Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa.)
Gregory was particularly concerned that in the end times, with the final defeat of the devil, that God “may be all in all,” as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:28. Gregory’s thinking on this matter has sometimes been mistakenly confused with his mentor Origen’s position on universal salvation, but Gregory was far too sophisticated and careful a theologian for that. But just how could evil come to an end and how could God be “all in all” if there is an eternal hell?
Here’s a possible solution Gregory offers in his description of hell as contrasted with heaven:
We shall be like God so far that we shall always contemplate the Beautiful in Him. Now, God, in contemplating Himself, has no desire and hope, no regret and memory. The moment of fruition is always present, and so His Love is perfect, without the need of any emotion. So will it be with us. God draws “that which belongs to Him” to this blessed passionlessness; and in this very drawing consists the torment of a passion-laden soul. Severe and long continued pains in eternity are thus decreed to sinners, not because God hates them, nor for the sake alone of punishing them; but “because what belongs to God must at any cost be preserved for Him.” The degree of pain which must be endured by each one is necessarily proportioned to the measure of the wickedness.
God will thus be “all in all”; yet the loved one’s form will then be woven, though into a more ethereal texture, of the same elements as before (On the Soul and the Resurrection, argument summary).
So much theology is packed into those two paragraphs—the nature of God, God as love, the impassibility of the divine, the meaning of the beatific vision, and, of course, eschatology, the theology of the end times. Gregory’s interpretation of hell is especially compelling. Today, it has become easy for atheists and nonorthodox believers to dismiss belief in hell on the basis of a caricature. We think of a lake of fire, the devil with the pitchfork tormenting sinners. It seems so quaint. So medieval. Like the Wizard of Oz, there seems little to scare behind all the smoke and mirrors.
But Gregory sees into the true reality of what hell is: simply separation from God, in which those so-condemned suffer because they are eternally denied (by their own choice in this life) fulfillment of their desire for God.
Desire for and union with God itself was another area of much original thinking by Gregory. It is common to think of our journey to God as somewhat linear: through prayer, mortification, devotion, and the sacraments our desire is for God is kindled and sated—in part in this life, and in full in the next through the beatific vision.
But for Gregory it was not so simple. As with the concept of apocatastasis, Gregory’s thought in this area was shaped by Scripture, particularly Philippians 3:12-14:
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.
Taking his cue from St. Paul, Gregory argued that the spiritual life is both linear and cyclical: we do reach God but we also never strop straining forward towards Him either. (This idea is known as epectasis, which corresponds to the italicized words above.)
Otherwise, Gregory worried that we might be belittling God: since God is infinite beauty, our desire for Him could never be exhausted, according to Gregory. As he put it, “This True Beauty the insolence of satiety cannot touch” (On the Soul and the Resurrection). Gregory argued that once we have come close to God our encounter with Him only causes us to desire Him ever more. The glass is never half full or half empty: instead it is always growing larger and being filled again and again each time. We thus attain the end for which we were created and, in so doing, long for it ever more.
In St. Gregory of Nyssa, we certainly have a fitting companion for such a joyful journey to an end which never ends.