Orthodox America

  St. Gregory of Nyssa


Commemorated January 10


Love is the foremost of all excellent achievements and the first of the commandments of the Law…the life of God consists in the eternal practice of love; and this life is wholly beautiful, possessed of a loving disposition toward beauty and never receiving any check in the practice of love. And because beauty is boundless, love shall never cease. (On the Soul and the Resurrection).

This Holy Father came from an illustrious and holy Cappadocian family that included his sister, St. Macrina, and his brother, St. Basil.

After an early experience of desert monasticism, he was consecrated bishop of Nyssa by his brother. Active in the Second Ecumenical Council (381) against the Arians, St. Gregory of Nyssa spent the last decade of his life exercising vigorous church leadership.

Like Blessed Augustine of Hippo (see below), St. Gregory was a prolific writer; but, also like Blessed Augustine, he was sometimes subject to mistakes, notably in his erroneous teaching concerning "universal salvation." This, however, did not prevent him from being accepted as a father and teacher of the Orthodox Church. Among his dogmatic works are The Great Catechism and The Making of Man. In these and his other works, as one commentator writes, "his mind hovers over immense fields of vision" (Robert Payne, The Holy Fire), making his Orthodox writings simply magnificent and filled with insight, as in the following brief passage:

"You are pleased because you are handsome, because your hands move quickly, because your feet are nimble, because your curls are tossed by the wind and your cheeks show a downy beard....You look at such things, but you do not look at yourself. Let me show you as in a mirror your true image.

"Have you ever witnessed the mysteries of the cemetery? Have you seen the heaps of bones tossed hither and thither? Skulls without flesh on them, fearful and ugly, the sockets empty. The grinning jaws and the limbs strewn about. Look at these things: there you will find yourself. Where, then, is the flower of youth?... Where, in all these bones, are the things that make you proud?" (On the Beatitudes, I)

Even in these images of death, one cannot help but sense St. Gregory's exuberant delight inhumanity and the nobility of man--that crown of God's creation which He formed, not from any necessity, but "in the superabundance of love."

"For needful it was that neither His light Should be unseen, nor His glory without witness, nor His goodness unenjoyed, nor that any other quality observed in the Divine nature should in any case lie idle, with none to share it or enjoy it. If, therefore, man comes to his birth upon these conditions, namely to be a partaker of the good things in God, necessarily he is framed of such a kind as to be adapted to the participation of such good. For as the eye, by virtue of the bright ray which is by nature wrapped up in it, is in fellowship with the light, and by its innate capacity draws to itself that which is akin to it, so was it needful that a certain affinity with the Divine should be mingled with the nature of man, in order that by means of this correspondence it might aim at that which was native to it .... In truth this has been shown in the comprehensive utterance of one expression, in the description of the cosmogony, where it is said that man was made in the image of God." (The Great Catechism, V)