Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory of Nyssa

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

"A Pillar of Orthodoxy"

Apolytikion (Dismissal) Hymn of the Saints. Fourth Tone

O God of our Fathers, ever dealing with us according to Thy gentleness: take not Thy mercy from us, but by their entreaties guide our life in peace.

Kontakion of Saint Gregory. Second Tone

REjoicing with the Angels and taking delight in the Divine Light, Gregory of Nyssa, the vigilant mind, the God-inspired hierarch of the Church, and wisdom's revered hymnographer, intercedeth unceasing for us all.


Our Holy Father among the Saints, Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 335--after 384) was bishop of Nyssa and a prominent theologian of the 4th century. He was the younger brother of Saint Basil the Great and friend of Saint Gregory the Theologian. He is commemorated on January 10th.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa was raised in a very pious (and large) Christian family of ten children; his grandmother Macrina the Elder, his mother Emily, his father Saint Basil the Elder, his sisters Macrina the Younger and Theosevia, and his brothers Basil and Peter of Sevaste have all been recognized as Saints. He received a good education and taught rhetoric at one point. In 372 A.D., his brother St. Basil the Great ordained him the bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia (in present-day Turkey).

Saint Gregory and Saint Basil both spent much effort defending the Faith against the attacks of the heretical Arians. He was twice deposed from his See because of false accusations made by heretics. He was finally restored in 378 A.D.

The next year, 379 A.D., his brother Saint Basil the Great died. As the two were extremely close, Saint Gregory was very grieved at his loss. To honor his brother, Saint Gregory wrote his funeral oration and then completed Saint Basil's Hexaemeron ("Six Days"), a series of nine sermons, delivered during Great Lent, which described and elaborated upon the Genesis account of the world's creation in six days. The following year, Saint Gregory's sister Macrina also dies, and Saint Gregory wrote a hagiography detailing her life.

About this time Saint Gregory attended the Council of Antioch, a local Synod, in which he zealously defended Orthodoxy. The Council was called to refute a heresy which denied the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos (Mother of God). The Council also forbade worship of her as God or part of the Godhead. Saint Gregory was simultaneously continuing to fight Arianism. He also attended the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, which added the final section concerning the Holy Spirit to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

For the rest of his life, Saint Gregory continued to attend Church Councils, discuss doctrinal matters, and combat various heresies. He reached old age and finally reposed in the Lord near the end of the 4th century.

Saint Gregory's influence on Church Doctrine has remained important, and while influenced by the work of Origen (who was eventually condemned by the Church centuries after his death), his writings are prominent among the early Church holy Fathers.



Saint Gregory is remembered above all for two major contributions to theology. The first is his doctrine of the Trinity, a development of the theology of Saint Basil the Great and their mutual friend Saint Gregory Nazianzus. Following Saint Basil's lead, Saint Gregory argues that the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity can be understood along the model of three members of a single class: thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Three in the same way that Peter, Paul and Timothy are three men. So why do we not say there are three Gods? Saint Gregory answered that, normally, we can distinguish between different members of the same class by the fact that they have different shapes, sizes, and colors. Even if they are identical, they still occupy different points in space. But none of this is true of incorporeal beings like God. Even lesser spiritual beings can still be distinguished by their varying degrees of goodness, but this does not apply to God either. In fact, the only way to tell the Three Persons apart is by their mutual relations--thus, the only difference between the Father and the Son is that the former is the Father of the latter, and the latter is the Son of the former. As Saint Gregory puts it, it is impossible to think of one member of the Holy Trinity without thinking of the others too: they are like a chain of three links, pulling each other along.


Saint Gregory's second main contribution is his spiritual theology. He is the first Christian theologian to argue for the Infinity of God. Origen, often called a major influence on Saint Gregory, had explicitly argued that God is limited, an essential notion in Platonism, since to be limited is to be clearly defined and knowable. Saint Gregory, however, argues that if God is limited He must be limited by something greater than Himself; He is therefore without boundaries. The idea had already been developed by neoplatonic philosophers, especially Plotinus, another important influence on Saint Gregory, but he is the first Christian to defend it, apart from some hints in the work of Saint Irenaeus.

Accordingly, Saint Gregory argues that since God is Infinite He cannot be comprehended. In contrast, Origen had spoken of the spiritual journey as a progression of increasing illumination, as the mystic studies Scripture and comes to learn more about God.


Saint Gregory of Nyssa speaks of three stages of spiritual progression: initial darkness or ignorance, then spiritual illumination, and finally a darkness of the mind in contemplation of the God Who cannot be comprehended. (See apophatic theology.)

Like earlier authors, including the Jewish Philo of Alexandria, he uses the story of Moses as an allegory for the spiritual life. Moses first meets God in the burning bush, a Theophany of Light and illumination, but then he meets Him again in the cloud, where he realizes that God cannot be seen by the eyes. Ascending Mount Sinai, he finally comes to the "Divine darkness", and realizes that God cannot be known by the mind either.


Related to this is Saint Gregory's idea of epektasis or constant progress. Platonic philosophy said that stability is perfection and change is for the worse; in contrast, Saint Gregory's described the ideal of human perfection as constant progress in virtue and godliness. In Saint Gregory's theology, God Himself has always been perfect and has never changed, and never will. Humanity fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, but rather than return to an unchanging state, humanity's goal is to become more and more perfect, more like God, even though humanity will never understand, much less attain, God's transcendence. This idea has had a profound influence on the Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding theosis or "divinization".


"When we lay bare the hidden meaning of the history, Scripture is seen to teach that the birth which distresses the tyrant is the beginning of the virtuous life. I am speaking of the kind of birth in which free will serves as the midwife, delivering the child amid great pain. For no one causes grief to his antagonist unless he exhibits in himself those marks which give proof of his victory over the other."--The Life of Moses

"A greedy appetite for food is terminated by satiety and the pleasure of drinking ends when our thirst is quenched. And so it is with the other things...But the possession of virtue, once it is solidly achieved, cannot be measured by time nor limited by satiety. Rather, to those who are its disciples it always appears as something eve new and fresh."

"The soul has followed Moses and the cloud, both of these serving as guides for those who would advance in virtue; Moses here represents the Commandments of the Law; and the cloud that leads the way, its spiritual meaning. The soul has been purified by crossing the Sea; it has removed from itself and destroyed the enemy army. It has tasted of the waters of Marah, that is, of life deprived of all sinful pleasure; and this at first had seemed bitter and unpleasant to the taste but offered a sensation of sweetness to those who accepted the wood. Next it enjoyed the beauty of the palm trees of the Gospel and the springs; it filled itself with living water, that is, the rock. It took within itself the bread of Heaven. It overwhelmed the foreign host--a victory due to the extended arms of the lawgiver, which thus foreshadowed the mystery of the Cross. Only then can the soul go on to the contemplation of transcendent being."

"But we see how man, in the web of sins, often abusive of creation, does not act in a regal fashion. For this reason, in fact, in order to obtain true responsibility toward creatures, he must be penetrated by God and live in His Light. Man is a reflection of that original beauty which is God: "Everything created by God was very good," writes the holy bishop.

And he adds: "The story of creation witnesses to it (cf. Genesis 1:31). Man was also listed among those very good things, adorned with a beauty far superior to all of good things. In fact, what else could be good, on par with one who was similar to pure and incorruptible beauty?...Reflection and image of Eternal life, he was truly good, no he was very good, with the shining sign of life on his face" (Homilia in Canticum").

Man was honored by God and placed above every other creature: "The sky was not made in God's image, not the moon, not the sun, not the beauty of the stars, no other things that appear in creation. Only you (human soul) were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect, likeness of incorruptible beauty, mark of true divinity, vessel of blessed life, image of the true light, that when you look upon it you become that which he is, because through the reflected ray coming from your purity you imitate He Who shines within you. Nothing that exists can measure up to your greatness". (Homilia in Canticum).

"Man has as his end the contemplation of God. Only in Him can he find his fulfillment. To somehow anticipate this objective already in this life, he must work incessantly toward a spiritual life, a life in dialogue with God. In other words -- and this is the most important lesson that Saint Gregory of Nyssa gives us--man's total fulfillment consists in holiness, in a life lived with God, that, in this way, becomes luminous for others and for the world."

(Source: OrthodoxWiki)

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George