Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Be Ye Detached

Continued from here.

Detachment. When was the last time your pastor urged you to be “detached”? Despite its present obscurity, the word has a rich history within Christianity. To understand it, one must first understand a whole complex of doctrines about the natures of God and man. Discussing this concept is actually far more daunting than my previous article on virginity.

It is also far more important, as it is to detachment that Gregory of Nyssa primarily refers by his use of the term “virginity.” So let us start with a definition.

Detachment (apatheia) is complete liberty. Detachment is the ability to think, act, and function apart from the demands of our desires and appetites. Detachment is perfect, undivided attention, and total receptivity to divine influence. Therefore, detachment is an integral part of being worked to the image of God and participating in his life. Detachment is not indifference or “otherworldliness” or self-absorption. Detachment is death to self. Detachment is spiritual peace.

It is detachment that is taught by such verses as Matthew 6:19-20, Romans 8:5-131 Corinthians 9:24-27, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, Galatians 5:13-25, and Colossians 3:5. Lust, gluttony, avarice, anger, and vanity are the enemies of detachment, but detachment pays them no mind, for it stands above all fleshly concerns.

The Greek term apatheia, “without passion,” was first and most universally applied by the Church Fathers to God, because he is literally without passions. What are passions? Technically, passions are ordinary impulses and reactions, irrational movements within the soul that incline or impel one to this or that action. They take the form of emotions or appetites or temptations. For instance, when the body signals that it wants food, there is a corresponding urge in the consciousness that, in extreme cases (such as hunger or addiction), will not let the mind rest until the stomach is fed and the impulse is temporarily satisfied. To take another example, when the world intrudes on one in a particularly unpleasant manner, there is a corresponding impulse to rage or sadness that would have the reason consent to lash out in anger or cry.

“So firmly are men’s vices linked together by their very nature; when one of them has gained the mastery of a soul, the rest of the train follow.”

Passions are fleshly, reactive, and in fallen man, disordered. Most of us live as if we were no more than ganglia of passions, unthinkingly conceding to their every demand, mistaking them for our real selves. Though God by his perfect, incorporeal, and immutable nature cannot contain these fluctuating inner movements, and nor can the angels, they are very much a part of being human and having a body.

But some of the Church Fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa, also applied apatheia to man, in the positive sense of equanimity adapted from the Stoics. A man is dispassionate not insofar as he lacks the passions, but insofar as he is unsubject to their tyranny. A man has attained apatheia when he is no longer tossed about by his passions like a leaf on the wind; he has returned to a primal order of soul in which the reason guides and nurtures the passions toward God. As many of the Church Fathers also used “passions” simply in the sense of sinful or disordered impulses, i.e., in their fallen state, the term apatheia gained added levels of meaning.

When referring to God, we usually translate apatheia as “impassibility.” When referring to man, “dispassion” or “detachment” is common. One historical translation of apatheia into Latin (John Cassian’s) is simply puritas cordis, purity of heart, a translation Gregory might well favor.

Again, detachment is not spiritual indifference (“apathy”), which was regarded by the Church Fathers as sinful and labeled acedia (sloth). Detachment is instead a purified state in which the fiery love of God can burn unquenched and virtue can be cultivated.

“Temperance… looks not to the afflicting of the body, but to the peaceful action of the soul’s functions.”

The means to detachment is temperance, or moderation in all things. Temperance (sophrosyne) is essentially self-control directed to bodily virtue. One is temperate when one learns to deny desire for excess: too much food, too much drink, unlawful sex, etc. Temperance, then, entails a firm hold on one’s desires, and it is necessary for the health of mind and body. Temperance is the aim of askesis, discipline, and on it the freedom of apatheia rests. This freedom is not the uninhibited ability to follow after the passions, which are deceitful and enslaving, but rather a context in which the true self is allowed to be itself, and the reason master rather than slave.

The fruit of detachment is a heart in accord with God. The passions and energies of the soul have been wrestled down through temperance and turned with new order, concentration and vigor on their proper object, God. As the soul now dispassionately and uninhibitedly contemplates God, the purified eros of the soul is drawn out toward the divine light. In a single movement, as it were, the soul is lifted toward that light, and the fire of divine love descends and penetrates the now-receptive soul. This intense union between God and man so fills and enlivens the man that he enjoys and participates in God’s own love for all creation.

This is, of course, the end to which man was created. It is a universal love surpassing all human sentimental bonds, because it is God’s own love. And, the great mystics and theologians of the Christian tradition would have us believe, it is afforded by detachment, which is itself born of renunciation.

This is certainly Gregory of Nyssa’s teaching in On Virginity. Gregory envisions a state in which no fleck of worldly anxiety intrudes, and the passions (in their positive sense) are grafted into the virtues as the whole person grows toward God. This is what he means by virginity.

In my last post, I suggested that Gregory chose virginity as a metaphor because virgins are living symbols of beatitude. That it is detachment primarily that is meant here by the metaphor is abundantly clear. In fact, even when Gregory is attacking marriage as the enemy of true virginity, he does not seem to be thinking in sexual terms. A careful reading of the treatise shows that Gregory does not regard sexual passion as the primary passion to be escaped by physical virginity, but the desire for wealth and honor that comes with marriage and “settling down” on worldly terms. Moreover, although Gregory does describe “virginity” as something that can be negated by the slightest taint of sin, this negation is not necessarily permanent. The state of virginity is restored whenever the soul repents and again lives in purity.

This virginity is no less difficult a teaching when our attention is shifted away from the outward sign to the heart of the matter. Those few evangelicals who are aware of the doctrine of divine impassibility are often uncomfortable with it; how much more so might they protest that the detachment here described sounds more Buddhist than Christian. Aren’t our emotions, desires, and enjoyment of earthly pleasures created by God and basically good? What then is this nonsense of Gregory’s that to enjoy God we have to stop enjoying everything else?

These are the hurdles of the Classical Christian understanding of detachment, as I see them:

  1. The implicit affirmation that perfection is possible in this life
  2. The negative perspective on “passions” and earthly pleasures in general
  3. The implicit affirmation of ascetic rigors that seem to us excessive

“All whose instinct and will have found their level in virtue are beautified with this perfect purity of the uncorrupted state.”

It would be of little use to review in detail the theological conversation surrounding whether or not Christ actually intended perfection in this life to be an achievable goal when he told us to “be perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Let it merely be said that it was the assumption of the Church for centuries that not only is it possible for grace-filled humans to achieve victory over sin, but some have actually done so.

This is, admittedly, a qualified perfection. Holy persons can never be completely invulnerable in this life to sin and temptation; they are still in need of the grace of God, and they have not yet passed into the bodily fullness of resurrected life. The perfect even, in their humility and self-knowledge, are most profoundly aware of their own need for ceaseless repentance (understood not as an act but as an attitude). But they have so disciplined themselves in humility that sin fails at every turn to gain a foothold in their lives, and they are free to enjoy abundant communion with God. Those who persevere in this state to death and embody the grace-filled life for others to imitate may be canonized saints by the Church.

Martin Luther, believing that the human will as such is incapable of choosing the good even in a state of grace, rejected the doctrine of perfectibility. Protestants have generally followed him, though the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition is an obvious exception.

Gregory of Nyssa, however, is one of the foremost Patristic expositors of this doctrine; he is even quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an authority in the relevant section (¶2015). Gregory teaches a dynamic view of perfection. There is no final, static perfection in this life or the next; rather, once we have achieved one level of perfection, we always find there is another yet before us, for the Bridegroom is infinite and alone truly perfect. This is deification or theosis, which is not about eliminating sins primarily but about growing to the likeness of God. In Gregory’s thought, this process and life within perfection begins with sanctified virginity, or detachment.

So for the sake of following Gregory’s thought deeper, let us pass over the arguments at present and assume that yes, perfection in some sense–qualified, but no less real–can be achieved in this life by the grace of God. Most of us should at least be able to agree (despite Luther) that God wishes us to strive mightily in our sanctification; whether or not perfection is achievable in this life, the perfect Christ is still the source and target of the working out of our own salvation.

But even Gregory would agree that perfection is difficult, even humanly impossible. It requires above all sleepless vigilance over one’s mind, that no unclean thought enter and lure the soul into sin. For the reason to acquire this posture of vigilance and control of soul and body, it must learn to heel the passions and concentrate the energies at its disposal, which is the essence of detachment.

This brings us to asceticism, which is every bit as difficult a doctrine as perfection for evangelicals, and even more threatening. If we agree that temperance is a virtue, and there seems abundant scriptural evidence for this, we are left with the uncomfortable fact that the Church’s typical prescription is not only demanding, but quite explicitly intended to remove many pleasures from our grasp.

But these pleasures are inherently good, one might argue. Food, wine, comfort, sex–are not these things created for our enjoyment? Is it not a terrible waste to forgo them, just as bad as overindulgence?

Such calculations would be meaningless to the early ascetics, however. They believed that the disorder of our desires in this “body of death” means that our pleasures are rarely innocent. Indulged, they feed the chaos of the passions and make one vulnerable to sins, not merely of excess (gluttony, lust, etc.), but of anger and envy (at deprivation), sloth, and vanity. Anyone who has honestly, intently, and prayerfully inspected his or her own soul will find that most of its pleasures are idolatrous, sought before God, instead of God, or apart from any thought of God.

We must remember to hold together the truths that everything that exists is good and that nothing that exists is good in itself save Being itself. Therefore, as Aquinas wrote, only God can be sought for his own sake; aught else is sin. All things, even the demons, are good at the core of their existence, for existence itself flows from God and is good; but sin by definition is choosing something less than the perfect good. Yes, pleasure is good, but pleasure that looks no further than the flesh is evil, because it is a distraction from the Good Itself rather than a means to it. We must learn to take pleasure wholesomely, that is, as a means to communion with God.

But can we do this? Those who would deny perfection might certainly deny this. We can agree that everything we do and feel is affected by sin; agreed, our pleasures are often vain and self-serving. But as long as we are bound to this flesh, is any other state possible for us?

Well, yes. This is the very aim of asceticism: purgation of the whole man. Even the dying flesh may be subjugated. Ascetics do not hate creation; they love it more intensely than the fleshly man can possibly imagine, but this is because they love it for God and through God. This state can only be acquired by commensurate renunciation, by crucifying one’s own desires that one may possess the mind and will of Christ.

Abba Arsenius

One of my favorite of the sayings of the Desert Fathers is the following:

Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, ‘Bring me some.’ He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.

These monks train themselves to survive on only water and a little bread, sleeping on hard cots, spending the day in prayer and labor. Abba Arsenius, however, learned by asceticism the way of sanctified sensuality. The delicious fruits had no hold on him; nevertheless, he could take great pleasure in the barest amount, eating just enough to praise God for their flavor. These monks in their extreme deprivation were more awake, more sensitive to the pleasures afforded by this life, because they had learned to depend upon and prioritize the source of all earthly pleasures. They had achieved that gratitude which is the basis of all healthy enjoyment.

But this leads us to the next point. Granted, renunciation is necessary, or at least the traditional Christian way, to purgation of the senses and ordering of the passions. However, we may still be uncomfortable with the methods of asceticism. Today we tend to smile or scoff at the exorbitant mortifications and dramatic gestures of renunciation exhibited by saints of previous eras. They took Christ too literally, we might think, or, did they not realize they were saved by grace and not works? For instance, how could living on top of a pillar for 37 years possibly be construed as serving Christ? (I actually have no intention to defend the peculiar choices of the stylites here, but I think they make the point.) To take a tamer example, why is so much of the church calendar given to weekly and annual fasting?

It should first be noted that the Christian tradition has always cautioned ascetics against excessive mortification. There is no “heavenly credit” acquired for damaging the body or psyche by overburdening either, and true ascetics have always been wary of the pride that can accompany great feats of endurance. Gregory himself thinks it wise to insert some words of caution in On Virginity against the false temperance that obsesses with detailed accounting and pointless bodily affliction. Asceticism is supposed to free the mind to turn upwards to heaven, not focus it back downwards. Ascetics who glory in grand and dangerous mortifications may have missed the point of their asceticism; they are like those condemned by Apostle Paul for obsessing over arbitrary severity to their transitory physical bodies rather than paying mind to the heavenly body of Christ (Col. 2:16-23).

But let us assume that we are dealing here not with the special rigors of the monastic vocation, but with ordinary Christians who, according to the Church, should be engaging in regular, even daily forms of minor asceticism and denial of the passions, as a necessary part of spiritual growth. Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, all are expected to purify themselves by various corporate and personal disciplines as they are able.

“If one single approach to sin is such an awful thing that you deem it safer not to take in hand at all this loftier aim, how much more awful a thing it is to make sin the practice of a whole life….”

Ascetics of all kinds are spiritual athletes, learning to grow strong in the cosmic war against sin and death, on the battle-lines drawn through their own souls. They are guarded by Christ through spiritual fathers and counselors; they confess to them and heed their advice, pursuing nothing willfully, but only as their spiritual father thinks best for their health and growth. Sometimes the mortifications they pursue seem to us excessive; but, truly, that is not for us to judge. It is different for each individual as he works out his salvation; each has his own strengths and weaknesses, blindnesses, and pitfalls. This is why, in Gregory’s opinion, each of us is in need of a personal guide, a man whose holy example we may follow and whose advice we may heed.

The path of asceticism which leads to perfection is difficult and dangerous. Missteps can be disastrous, and pride always threatens. But Gregory believes we are under divine mandate to pursue it, whatever the cost. It is far better to try and fail than to remain complacent in one’s sins.

He spells this out at the end of his treatise. Using Pauline language, Gregory insists on the incompatibility of sin and the reign of Christ. To be crucified with Christ is to die to sin; anything less is unfaithfulness.

How can you, who are not crucified to the world, and will not accept the mortification of the flesh, obey Him Who bids you follow after Him, and Who bore the Cross in His own body, as a trophy from the foe? How can you… present your body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, when you are conformed to this world, and not transformed by the renewing of your mind, when you are not walking in this newness of life, but still pursuing the routine of the old man?

It is by virtue of our high calling that we must not be satisfied with less than complete sanctification.

How can you be a priest unto God, anointed though you are for this very office, to offer a gift to God; a gift in no way another’s, no counterfeited gift from sources outside yourself, but a gift that is really your own, namely, the inner man, who must be perfect and blameless, as it is required of a lamb to be without spot or blemish? How can you offer this to God, when you do not listen to the law forbidding the unclean to offer sacrifices?

What is demanded of us in the Christian life is sacrifice. We are a race of priests, and our first offering is ourselves. We should strive to present God with a sacrifice worthy of him, which is the perfection of his own creation, as was long intended, prepared for union with himself. What more can we want of our existence than that final vision, that eternity of self-giving? Should we seek any other blessing? What could possibly compare?

[B]ecome crucified with Christ, a holy priest standing before God, a pure offering in all chastity, preparing yourself by your own holiness for God’s coming; that you also may have a pure heart in which to see God, according to the promise of God, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

This is the justification for all the hardship and deprivation of asceticism, the way of death to self and one’s passions, the way of the Cross. Purgation has nothing to do with arbitrary rules and penalties, or a ledger of sins and virtues we must balance. It has everything to do with taking every moment and every particle of our existence captive for Christ. Purgation is freeing oneself to become the divine creature purposed from eternity, making our eschatological hope present in time.

Only by descent may we ascend. Detachment, or virginity, is the putting down of all things in death that they may be taken up again in life. In detachment, the soul emerges from the forest of false ideals and pursuits, and, blinking in the sunlight, is astonished to see not only the glory of the heavens, but its own true self reflecting them. It rediscovers the innocence of its first father. It passes wholly into beauty, and to the beautiful all existence is beautiful.

I will meditate on this beauty in the last part of this series.

“He too who has taken his share in the true priesthood and placed himself beside the Great High Priest remains altogether himself a priest for ever, prevented for eternity from remaining any more in death…. Indeed, the crown of every hope, and of every desire, of every blessing, and of every promise of God, and of all those unspeakable delights which we believe to exist beyond our perception and our knowledge—the crowning result of them all, I say, is… [to] see God.”

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