Introductory Note:

Gregory of Nyssa (331–396) was one of the great “fathers” of the Church. He lived in the fourth century, a time when the persecution of the Christians was coming to an end. Gregory was one of three Greek Cappadocian fathers (the other two were Gregory’s brother, St. Basil, and their mutual friend, Gregory of Nazianzus).

He has been called “one of the most powerful and most original thinkers ever known in the history of the Church” (Louis Bouyer). His writings have had a great influence on the spirituality of the Eastern church. He was well versed in Greek philosophy, notably Platonism and Stoicism, but the basis of his thought was rooted in the Bible.

Gregory believed that the main use of the Bible was not for historical reflection but rather for growth in virtue. He and the other Church fathers used the Bible and its characters to teach us how to grow closer to God, how to “elevate” the soul to God. He saw the spiritual life as a race in which we, like St. Paul, “forget . . . what lies behind and strain . . . forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13).

The following excerpts are taken from Gregory’s most famous work, The Life of Moses. It was written in response to requests for guidance in living the virtuous life. For Gregory, perfection is discovered in continual striving—a perpetual progress rooted in the infinite grace of God.

—Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

The Divine Race

At horse races the spec­ta­tors intent on vic­to­ry shout to their favorites in the con­test, even though the hors­es are eager to run. From the stands they par­tic­i­pate in the race with their eyes, think­ing to incite the char­i­o­teer to keen­er effort, at the same time urg­ing the hors­es on while lean­ing for­ward and flail­ing the air with their out­stretched hands instead of a whip. 

They do this not because their actions them­selves con­tribute any­thing to the vic­to­ry; but in this way, by their good will, they eager­ly show in voice and deed their con­cern for the con­tes­tants. I seem to be doing the same thing myself, most val­ued friend and broth­er. While you are com­pet­ing admirably in the divine race along the course of virtue, light­foot­ed­ly leap­ing and strain­ing con­stant­ly for the prize of the heav­en­ly call­ing, I exhort, urge, and encour­age you vig­or­ous­ly to increase your speed. 

Ready Obe­di­ence

Since the let­ter which you recent­ly sent request­ed us to fur­nish you with some coun­sel con­cern­ing the per­fect life, I thought it only prop­er to answer your request. Although there may be noth­ing use­ful for you in my words, per­haps this exam­ple of ready obe­di­ence will not be whol­ly unprof­itable to you. For if we who have been appoint­ed to the posi­tion as fathers over so many souls con­sid­er it prop­er here in our old age to accept a com­mis­sion from youth, how much more suit­able is it, inas­much as we have taught you, a young man, to obey vol­un­tar­i­ly, that the right action of ready obe­di­ence be con­firmed in you.

The Per­fect Life

So much for that. We must take up the task that lies before us, tak­ing God as our guide in our trea­tise. You request­ed, dear friend, that we trace in out­line for you what the per­fect life is. Your inten­tion clear­ly was to trans­late the grace dis­closed by my word into your own life, if you should find in my trea­tise what you are seeking. 

I am at an equal loss about both things: it is beyond my pow­er to encom­pass per­fec­tion in my trea­tise or to show in my life the insights of the trea­tise. And per­haps I am not alone in this. Many great men, even those who excel in virtue, will admit that for them such an accom­plish­ment as this is unat­tain­able. As I would not seem, in the words of the Psalmist, there to trem­ble for fear, where no fear was, I shall put forth for you more clear­ly what I think.

Ever Run­ning the Course of Virtue

The per­fec­tion of every­thing which can be mea­sured by the sens­es is marked off by cer­tain def­i­nite bound­aries. Quan­ti­ty, for exam­ple, admits both con­ti­nu­ity and lim­i­ta­tion. The per­son who looks at the num­ber ten knows that its per­fec­tion con­sists in the fact that it has both a begin­ning and an end. 

But in the case of virtue we have learned from the Apos­tle that its one lim­it of per­fec­tion is the fact that it has no lim­it. For that divine Apos­tle, great and lofty in under­stand­ing, ever run­ning the course of virtue, nev­er ceased strain­ing toward those things that are still to come. Com­ing to a stop in the race was not safe for him. Why? Because no Good has a lim­it in its own nature but is lim­it­ed by the pres­ence of its oppo­site, as life is lim­it­ed by death and light by dark­ness. And every good thing gen­er­al­ly ends with all those things which are per­ceived to be con­trary to the good. 

Stop­ping in the Race 

Just as the end of life is the begin­ning of death, so also stop­ping in the race of virtue marks the begin­ning of the race of evil. Thus our state­ment that grasp­ing per­fec­tion with ref­er­ence to virtue is impos­si­ble was not false, for it has been point­ed out that what has been marked off by bound­aries is not virtue. 

I said that it is also impos­si­ble for those who pur­sue the life of virtue to attain per­fec­tion. The mean­ing of this state­ment will be explained.

The Divine One is him­self the Good (in the pri­ma­ry and prop­er sense of the word), whose very nature is good­ness. This he is and he is so named, and is known by this nature. Since, then, it has not been demon­strat­ed that there is any lim­it to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an oppo­site, we hold the divine nature to be unlim­it­ed and infi­nite. Cer­tain­ly who­ev­er pur­sues true virtue par­tic­i­pates in noth­ing oth­er than God, because he is him­self absolute virtue. Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire par­tic­i­pa­tion in it, and since this good has no lim­it, the participant’s desire itself nec­es­sar­i­ly has no stop­ping place but stretch­es out with the limitless.

The Unat­tain­able Commandment

It is there­fore undoubt­ed­ly impos­si­ble to attain per­fec­tion, since, as I have said, per­fec­tion is not marked off by lim­its: The one lim­it of virtue is the absence of a lim­it. How then would one arrive at the sought-for bound­ary when he can find no boundary?

Although on the whole my argu­ment has shown that what is sought for is unat­tain­able, one should not dis­re­gard the com­mand­ment of the Lord which says, There­fore be per­fect, just as your heav­en­ly father is per­fect. For in the case of those things which are good by nature, even if men of under­stand­ing were not able to attain every­thing, by attain­ing even a part they could yet gain a great deal. 

Becom­ing God’s Friend

Since the goal of the vir­tu­ous way of life is the very thing we have been seek­ing, it is time for you, noble friend, to be known by God and to become his friend.

This is true per­fec­tion: not to avoid a wicked life because like slaves we servile­ly fear pun­ish­ment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards, as if cash­ing in on the vir­tu­ous life by some busi­ness-like arrange­ment. On the con­trary, dis­re­gard­ing all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friend­ship as the only thing dread­ful and we con­sid­er becom­ing God’s friend the only thing wor­thy of hon­or and desire. This, as I have said, is the per­fec­tion of life.

As your under­stand­ing is lift­ed up to what is mag­nif­i­cent and divine, what­ev­er you may find (and I know full well that you will find many things) will most cer­tain­ly be for the com­mon ben­e­fit in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Bible Selec­tion: Philip­pi­ans 3:12 – 21

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not con­sid­er that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: for­get­ting what lies behind and strain­ing for­ward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heav­en­ly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think dif­fer­ent­ly about any­thing, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Broth­ers and sis­ters, join in imi­tat­ing me, and observe those who live accord­ing to the exam­ple you have in us. For many live as ene­mies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruc­tion; their god is the bel­ly; and their glo­ry is in their shame; their minds are set on earth­ly things. But our cit­i­zen­ship is in heav­en, and it is from there that we are expect­ing a Sav­ior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will trans­form the body of our humil­i­a­tion that it may be con­formed to the body of his glo­ry, by the pow­er that also enables him to make all things sub­ject to himself.

From Devo­tion­al Clas­sics, edit­ed by Richard Fos­ter and James Bryan Smith (Harper­Collins, 2005). Used with permission. 

Pho­to by George Hiles on Unsplash

Text First Published December 1992 · Last Featured on January 2023

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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