Gregory of Nyssa, the most mystical of the Cappadocian Fathers

As I said yesterday, when I realized that Evagrius Ponticus was a student of one of the Cappadocian Fathers, I decided that I should read the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa before Evagrius, rather than the other way around. So that’s what I’m doing, and here, therefore, is an introduction to Gregory.

First, who are the Cappadocians? They were a fourth century monastic community which produced three towering figures of Christian theology and mysticism: Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. These authors were engaged in the key issues and controversies of the time, from helping to define the orthodoxy of the Holy Trinity (an effort which would culminate in the formation of the Nicene Creed), to defending Christian theology and spirituality in ways that would speak to the intellectuals of the Empire, all of whom would have been schooled in Greek philosophy. They are called the Cappadocian Fathers because they all come from Cappadocia, a province in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) — which, incidentally, was bordered to the north by the region of Galatia, which was inhabited by Celts (and to which Paul wrote his Epistle to the Galatians).

Although arguably all three of the Cappadocian Fathers are mystics, generally Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c. 395) is considered the “most” mystical of the lot. He was the youngest of the three and was Basil’s biological brother; His desire to be a monk was continually thwarted by his more activist elder brother, who arranged for Gregory to be consecrated bishop of the Cappadocian city of Nyssa in about the year 371. His episcopate was marred by conflict with the Arians (a leading heresy of the time, which led to the formation of the Nicene Creed and the doctrine of the trinity) but in 379 he was unhappily elected Bishop of another Asian community, Sebaste. In his later life he apparently travelled widely, preaching and participating in church councils.

As a mystic, Gregory is perhaps most important as a neoplatonic Christian, who wrote about God’s infinity and therefore ultimate unknowability. For Gregory, we who seek god move from ignorance to illumination, back into a darkness as we seek the ultimately incomprehensible God. Here we can see a precurser of the western model of Purgation, Illumination, and Union as the three stages of the mystical life. His apophatic spirituality influenced the leading fifth century mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and through him influenced the entire subsequent flowering of negative mysticism, including The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. As the Wikipedia article on Gregory puts it, “It is only through not-knowing and not-seeing that God can, paradoxically, be known and seen.”

Like Origen before him, Gregory used Biblical allegory to explore his mystical theology; specifically, events in the life of Moses. Thus it is that the book I’m reading of his is The Life of Moses. Gregory also is one of many mystics who commented on the Song of Songs.

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  • gfunksouljah

    The Cappadocian Four

    Though she did not write like the others of the Cappadocian circle, it is worth noting that Macrina, Basil & Gregory of Nyssa’s oldest sister, was considered a teacher among the entire circle of Cappadocian “Fathers”. Along with her mother, she began a monastic community in their home.

    While she leaves us no written record to explore, it is far more than interesting to consider her impact—doctrinally and spiritually—upon those who had such an influence upon our doctrine of the Trinity.

    • Carl McColman

      Re: The Cappadocian Four

      Right you are. St. Macrina the Younger appears to be yet another example of a woman who exerted tremendous influence through her personal relationships, and yet who remains easily overlooked because she did not leave to posterity written works as did her brothers.