St. Gregory of Nyssa was until recently the least recognized of the three Great Cappadocian theologians. He was not a man of exceptional worldly learning and political acumen like his older brother Basil, nor was his theology as rigorously explored and influential as that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Lately he has received more attention for his influence on the Christian mystical tradition, his total opposition to slavery, and his ambiguous leanings on apokatastasis. But Gregory was much more than these peculiarities.
Gregory came from a distinguished Cappadocian Christian family whose members included not only great scholars and rhetoricians, but saints and martyrs and proto-monks. He was a quiet man but a brilliant thinker, well-versed in Greek philosophy, staunch in his defense of the Nicene formulation of the Trinity. He was deeply influenced by Origen, but rejected heretical Origenism wherever its doctrines contradicted those of the church. His prose is simple and beautiful, typically shunning ornate formulas but showing great literary craft and a gift for analogy. During his lifetime he was widely honored by the orthodox as a champion of the faith; the Second Council of Nicaea (787) later called him “father of fathers.”
That said, On Virginity may seem an odd choice for commentary out of his large body of writings, compared with, say, his magnificent treatises on the Trinity. On Virginity is thought to be one of his earliest works, and lacks the significance or maturity of other writings. Moreover, to some, on first glance, On Virginity would seem to represent the worst rhetorical excesses of the early Christian ascetic movement. Though he was probably married himself (such is the majority view among scholars), Gregory skewers marriage with every weapon at his disposal in a lengthy and memorable diatribe.
Nevertheless, even as a married person, I found this book remarkable and beautiful in many respects. I have been wanting to review some Christian classic, and this seems a worthy place to start that is not wholly above my theological abilities. Moreover, Google gave me a present the other day when I searched for articles on this book. On the first page there was an article on an eleventh-century translation of On Virginity into Georgian by St. Euthymius the Athonite, subsequently edited by another significant Georgian Athonite, St. George. Georgia has a rich tradition of translation that I will have to discuss sometime. I am probably the only person who cares about this accidental connection, but I was rather happy to have found it.
It is necessary to keep several things in mind as one reads On Virginity. First and most importantly, virginity is not primarily meant in its literal sense, but as a metaphor for purity and detachment, particularly suitable for one writing to monks. Marriage, or the secular life, with all its cares and attachments, embodies the opposite lifestyle, one that does not permit elevation of the soul. Literal or outward virginity is, so Gregory thinks, a picture of (and a particularly successful road to) the true virginity that must be sought by all Christians.
Second, Gregory is not providing a comprehensive guide to the Christian life or a complete theology. He is simply taking the concept of virginity and running with it as an exhortation. When he speaks of salvation, like other early Christian writers he is not speaking of the initial regeneration of baptism, but of what we would today call sanctification, which he nevertheless takes far more seriously than one normally hears sanctification taken today (more on this later). He is describing the soul’s road to union with God in this life, marked out by Christ, which every Christian is obliged to pursue.
Once I have summarized this treatise, I wish to respond to it on three fronts and (probably) in three different posts:’
- As it concerns marriage and sexuality
- As it concerns asceticism and divinization
- As it concerns God
Summary of the Text
Gregory opens by lauding virginity as a prize to be sought and strained for. He points out that the Divine life is virgin in every respect of the term: the persons of the Trinity are totally passionless and incorruptible. Christ’s human birth was as apart from fleshly passions as was his generation from the Father. As virginity was blessed as the means of God reaching down to us, so virgin souls are made able to rise into the pure and holy dance of the Divine life. As we grow toward the likeness of God, we, too, must be virgins.
Gregory confesses that he is unable to live in the complete virginity he praises, which may be an indication (if taken literally) that he was indeed married, or it may just refer to his being forcibly invested with the responsibilities of a bishopric, at a perpetual distance from his preferred lifestyle of the contemplative monk. The secular life, he explains, is not all it is cracked up to be, and men willfully blind themselves to its dark side.
Here he begins his famous anti-epithalamium.1 Marriage is primarily sought after for the companionship it promises; but even presuming a thoroughly happy relationship between partners, such happiness is always overshadowed by fear of death. Even if one’s wife survives childbirth, one is constantly in fear for one’s children. The sweetness fades as physical decay sets in, but one is afraid to be left alone by the other’s demise. All parting is difficult. Great pain, in one form or another, is inevitable; Gregory even suggests the reader pick up a book of law and find there the sorts of shocking crimes that occur within marriage, apparently enough to warrant legislation.
For the virgin, however, death is not fearful, for it threatens no separation from the Beloved. The virgin does not compete with others for worldly riches or glory, or any other perishable folly; he or she is lifted up above such things, concerned only with virtue and wrapped in peace. Whether rich or poor, suffering or comfortable, the virgin realizes that such states are irrelevant, and rather than seek self-gratification (thus attaching oneself to a whole chain of vices), the virgin seeks what is unchangeable and beyond the emotional and sensual world. For those caught in the secular life, a flight to virginity is called for; one must climb out of the stream of temporal concerns in order to contemplate eternity. Or rather, Gregory clarifies, one must elude the feelings and attachments the flesh produces, and live for one’s spirit, to bring it closer to the Father.
To do this, one must cease one’s obsession with sensual things. One must stop rooting in the mud and look up at the sky, and realize that the beauty that lies there is higher than any beauty to be found below. “Virginity of the body” is one aid to this, by making one accustomed to refusing the flesh’s demands. Gregory cites Elijah and John the Baptist as Biblical examples of virgin souls, concerned neither with marriage nor with clothing nor with sustenance, but seeking first the kingdom. This single-minded concentration alone will allow one to attain to the knowledge of love of God; the soul distracted by all manner of worldly business will find its attention diffused and dissipated long before it is capable of contemplating God.
Gregory at this point thinks it wise to note that he in no way wishes to deny that the institution of marriage may be a means of God’s blessings. But man knows this by instinct, whereas virginity lies athwart the natural impulses, and thus requires exhortation. Gregory cautions that it would be wrong to go too far, and declare marriage evil. If properly subordinated to heavenly pursuits, and not used as a license for unrestrained sexual indulgence, an honorable marriage can in fact turn to advantage. But unless the sexual life of a marriage is appropriately balanced with prayer, there is always a danger that it will feed the sensual at the expense of the spiritual.
Gregory argues that one with weak control of his sexual urges would often do better to fight such temptations where he is rather than rush into marriage where he will find them tested even more fiercely. Not all have the gift for marriage, but all may choose the path of virginity and never pass near the dangers marriage poses to one’s ability to devote one’s love purely to God. Perseverance will produce resilience and even pleasure in time.
It is impossible, Gregory reflects, to communicate to the self-indulgent what true goodness, what ineffable beauty, is made available to the pure. The passions produce blindness; and how is one to explain sunlight to a man born blind? It is beyond all powers of language.
[T]o see the beauty of the true and intellectual light, each man has need of eyes of his own; and he who by a gift of Divine inspiration can see it retains his ecstasy unexpressed in the depths of his consciousness; while he who sees it not cannot be made to know even the greatness of his loss. How should he? This good escapes his perception, and it cannot be represented to him; it is unspeakable, and cannot be delineated…. Who compares the Sun to a little spark? or the vast Deep to a drop? And that tiny drop and that diminutive spark bear the same relation to the Deep and to the Sun, as any beautiful object of man’s admiration does to that real beauty in the features of the First Good, of which we catch the glimpse beyond any other good.
The more we realize the greatness and incomprehensibility of this good, the more we are tempted to despair of ever attaining to it. There is likewise much danger that the mind, unable to recognize the highest good by sensible qualities, will be mislead as to the object of its search.
So Gregory points out that trusting to the outward appearance of something will never give us more than superficial understanding of it, as, for instance, in the case of a person. All things are, in a sense, bigger on the inside. To understand beauty, we must push past beautiful things to beauty in its essence; but only the purified mind can see the Form of Beauty through its instantiations. Most men, daunted by the limitations of their senses, give up searching for Beauty, and instead are lost in love of money, fame, art, food, or other substitutes. These things must be left behind as unworthy of our love; the indwelling Holy Spirit must grant one true detachment from things below in order to climb so high as is Beauty itself, and to be transformed by it.
[T]here is but one vehicle on which man’s soul can mount into the heavens, viz. the self-made likeness in himself to the descending Dove, whose wings David the Prophet also longed for…. He therefore who… raises himself on the aforesaid wings above all low earthly ambitions, or, more than that, above the whole universe itself, will be the man to find that which is alone worth loving, and to become himself as beautiful as the Beauty which he has touched and entered, and to be made bright and luminous himself in the communion of the real Light.
This is virginity, a return to innocence. Gregory likens the soul to a mirror which must be cleaned before, held up to Beauty, it can itself be a thing of beauty. A soul that has detached itself from all worldly passions, even from all lesser goods, will feel a burning passion for Beauty itself, which unlike worldly things is constant and unchangeable; its eye purged, the soul will be able to see it from afar. The process by which this detachment takes place, Gregory notes, is attested to in scattered form in the scriptures and the lives of the saints; this, then, is his interpretation of these authorities.
Man was originally created perfect, without weakness or passion, with a reason and free will in God’s likeness. Evil was born in man’s will, as man shut his eyes, so to speak, to the glory of the Divine Spirit, plunging himself into darkness. From the first sin, evil spread like rust over the souls of all subsequent humanity, completely concealing the likeness and fine workmanship of the Creator. Although to wipe away this stain is to return to one’s nature, humans are unable to accomplish this of themselves. The divine likeness nevertheless remains within, hidden; this is the meaning of “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
To clear away the accumulated mire of sin that envelops the divine image, we must return to the original innocence of man before the fall, and be with Christ in purity. Gregory suggests that this may occur in stages, in reverse of the chronology of the expulsion from Eden. First we must put off marriage, which Gregory believes was only truly instituted (in its literal sense) after the expulsion, to ameliorate the pain of death. Second, we must withdraw from toil over the land. Third, we must cast off the dead skins which are worldly wisdom. Fourth, we must get rid of the fig leaves, which represent shame. Finally, standing again naked before God, we must follow his first commandment: to seek only good, and leave the evil untasted. Untouched by evil, we may enjoy God continually, as if we had been snatched back to Paradise.
But there is still a problem, Gregory notes. Paradise is for the living, but we are dead in sin. If we belong to the kingdom of death, how can we come to be in the country of life? Our flesh is bound to death, yes; but the Spirit of God is incorruptible and life-giving, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Therefore, those who are born of the Spirit ought not to live in the way of the flesh, which is the way of death. Virginity promises a way devoted to the spirit and therefore to life. The married bring forth children who are also subject to death and thus perpetuate death’s reign over a dying race; virgins, however, “have drawn within themselves the boundary-line of death.” The virgin can be no tool of the expansion of death’s empire, but marriage’s consolations all end in grief, widowhood and orphanhood. The spiritual children of virginity, however, wisdom and righteousness and other good things, swallow up death. Virgins live wholly for God and prefigure the future age in which there is no marriage.
But virginity is not some once-for-all achievement. It is a condition of the soul that, beyond mere abstention from evil, brings the soul into perfect union with God and does nothing that might imperil that union, for the slightest spot is enough to make one less than perfectly pure. Any competing affection must be extinguished, lest it lead the soul into unfaithfulness; light cannot dwell with darkness.
Yet so many think they have found freedom by exchanging slavery to one passion with slavery to another. There is no virtue in anything that is contrary to God; the path of virtue is narrow, lying between the extremes of vice, which are all equally bad. Partial virtue is like the incomplete foundation of a tower, or a partial suit of armor, or the ring of gold in the pig’s snout. The perfection of virtue is virginity.
Gregory uses another metaphor to explain why the slightest spot on virtue is so consequential for the life as a whole. The master of a house will take care to keep it in order for when guests arrive, lest anything which is dirty or out of place bring shame. Just so, we ought to keep in order the tabernacles of our minds. All the passion of our love must be secured for God as if placed within a clean shrine. Anger must be trained like a watch-dog to only respond to the incursions of sin, which is desirous of plundering the house. Courage and confidence must be our weapons against such intruders, and hope and patience staffs on which to lean when we grow weary. Sorrow is to be kept for times of repentance, and righteousness as a rule to measure all our dealings. Love of gain, “which is a large, incalculably large, element in every soul,” must be turned toward God. Wisdom and prudence must live with us as advisers.
Those who do not live so, but reverse the natural order and purpose of their soul’s faculties, are like a man who puts on his helmet backwards; unable to see, his life in battle will be short. Proper judgment and sobriety are afforded only by proper ordering of the soul, which, when achieved completely, will render the road to God surprisingly easy, for the soul has really set forth from slavery into freedom. It will find powerful energies it did not realize it possessed, because they were so scattered and directed to the flesh. Such liberty is achieved only by total purity, which consists of separating the good and useful habits and pursuits from those which merely burden us down. The latter we must relinquish to the secular world, as the fisherman throws inedible fish back into the sea.
Each fares according to the disposition which he carries with him; one walks lightly enough, the other is dragged into the deep water. For virtue is a light and buoyant thing, and all who live in her way fly like clouds, as Isaiah says, and as doves with their young ones; but sin is a heavy affair, sitting, as another of the prophets says, upon a talent of lead.
This lofty state of purity is generative, and so is a kind of spiritual marriage. Paul numbered many converts among his spiritual children; the womb of the Virgin Mary herself was blessed with the birth of Christ in its virginity. The flesh cannot bring forth such spiritual fruits; with the whole outward man, it is doomed to decay and die. The soul alone, the inward man, can be restored and made fruitful by a marriage incompatible with fleshly marriage, but only possible by virginity. No one can serve both the sensual man and the spiritual man. As an earthly suitor will preen himself and make the most of his distinctions and wealth, one seeking spiritual marriage will attend to the health of the soul and boast before God in spiritual riches only.
Men and women alike are welcomed to this spiritual union with an immortal Bridegroom; but only the pure may embrace purity itself. The one bound to sensual pleasure is vulnerable to excess and lust; those, however, who restrict their indulgence in such pleasures achieve a tranquility and satisfaction in temperance that form a good ground for reaching further toward the Divine. Temperance in gratitude seeks only satisfaction of need, not superfluous delights; nor is it, on the other hand, a rigorous accounting, which may turn the mind wholly on regulating or afflicting the body. This latter error distracts one from the contemplation of God which is the whole goal of temperance. Our self-mastery must be orderly, swinging neither into indulgence nor to immoderate mortification. Temperance ultimately has no interest in the body one way or the other: it seeks only to afford the peaceful operations of the soul.
Gregory does not feel there is any need to provide here rules for temperance, due to the many instruction manuals already in circulation “for the benefit of those who love details.” Moreover, the best advice on temperance is simply to practice it, and if possible find a spiritual teacher and guide. One cannot be one’s own instructor in a foreign language, Gregory reminds the reader; nor does each doctor have to reinvent medicine and experiment with every drug to find out what is healthful and what harmful. It is a wise and appropriate measure, accordingly, to seek out someone who has already mastered the way of virginity. Alone and ignorant, even if naturally adept at spiritual disciplines, one is easily felled by pride or any of a number of dangerous and unhealthy extremes.
Gregory thinks that his own generation has managed to furnish ample examples of holiness for young seekers to follow; a saint is like a burning torch, lighting up all others that come within his circle. One may identify such people by their complete insensibility to secular ambitions and the desires of the flesh, but great liveliness as regards virtue. Let such a one, Gregory urges, become the beacon of your life. “Imitate his youth and his gray hairs,” his combination (at whatever age) of youthful energy for the good and the wisdom of the old. Holy men have been tempted as we, yet are conquerors and thus qualified to give us aid.
[T]hey sailed across the swelling billows of existence upon this tree of life [temperance], as upon a skiff; and anchored in the haven of the will of God; enviable now after so fair a voyage, they rest their souls in that sunny cloudless calm. They now ride safe themselves at the anchor of a good hope, far out of reach of the tumult of the billows; and for others who will follow they radiate the splendour of their lives as beacon-fires on some high watchtower. We have indeed a mark to guide us safely over the ocean of temptations; and why make the too curious inquiry, whether some with such thoughts as these have not fallen nevertheless, and why therefore despair, as if the achievement was beyond your reach? Look on him who has succeeded, and boldly launch upon the voyage with confidence that it will be prosperous, and sail on under the breeze of the Holy Spirit with Christ your pilot and with the oarage of good cheer. For those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters do not let the shipwreck that has befallen some one else prevent their being of good cheer; they rather shield their hearts in this very confidence, and so sweep on to accomplish their successful feat.
Though the journey to holiness is perilous, it is better to have tried and failed than not tried at all. It is, in fact, demanded of us. We are commanded to present our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.” We are priests, yet our sacrifices, that is ourselves, are blemished. If we do not follow Christ, to be crucified with him and so die to the world, we are not worthy to enter into that eternal vision of God which is the highest beatitude possible. We must prepare for the vocation that awaits us with God’s coming, that of a deathless and holy priesthood before the Almighty, by cultivating a pure heart. Blessed indeed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. So St. Gregory closes.
1. For a discussion of the rhetorical merits and intents of this treatise, see Morwenna Ludlow, “Useful and Beautiful: A Reading of Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity and a Proposal for Understanding Early Christian Literature,” Irish Theological Quarterly 79, no. 3 (August 2014): 219-240.