Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Beauty Will Save the World

Continued from here.

According to Gregory of Nyssa, virginity is a sign to us of spiritual detachment, which is itself the restoration of the human creature to a state of order, purity, and peace. The goal of detachment is contemplation of the perfect and infinite beauty of God and participation in it.

Evangelicals are not known for their attention to beauty. The other transcendentals, truth and goodness, have a clear place, but at least on a popular level, beauty rarely seems to make an appearance. The reason for this lies to a certain extent in our Protestant heritage. The Reformers were eager to strip away the aura of mystery that seemed to give so much power to the priests. Beauty was regarded by many as suspicious and deceptive, and so it was divided from truth. Today we waver between iconoclasm and spectacle.

Gregory is one of the first and greatest theologians of divine beauty, and perhaps we may look to him to begin to recover a robust doctrine. To discuss the beauty of God is to enter into another theological conversation too vast for me, so I will content myself for the most part with describing Gregory’s use of the language of beauty, as Gregory invokes the very archetype words can never truly capture.

Gregory asserts at the beginning of the treatise that virginity is extraordinarily beautiful. The physical beauty of mortal man and woman will fade with age, but the beauty of virginity arises from pure union with Beauty Itself, and is therefore imperishable. Indeed, all natural beauty is ordained to be transitory, but the virginal soul draws in contemplation from beauty’s eternal fountainhead.

This raises many questions. First of all, what is this “Beauty Itself”?

The Metaphysics of Beauty

Beauty is the luminous aspect of the Good, which is itself another name for Being (God).

Visible beauty is only a shadow cast by it, and aesthetic sensibility a mundane expression of our true natural longing for Beauty Itself. A gorgeous painting can be copied or described accurately in terms of color and form, but Beauty never can. It is formless and has no discrete qualities, for it is nothing less than Being Itself. All lesser beauties may be found by analogy within it, and we catch glimpses of it inherent within these particular beauties, yet it remains inexhaustible.

It is utterly transcendent of the senses. Though human reason can attest to its magnitude, it cannot in its finitude capture the fullness of Beauty. No language can pin it down. For this reason, according to Gregory, the Psalmist was moved in the presence of Beauty to cry that all men are liars (Ps 116). We can never realize the totality of this beauty; we will eternally grow in understanding of it, forever finding new depths.

Beauty as an aspect–if not simply another name–for the Good is rooted in scripture. In the Greek Bible (LXX and New Testament), agathos (good) and kalos (beauty) are closely associated, often synonymous. For instance, in John 10, “the Good Shepherd” is in Greek ho poimēn ho kalos, and in the Genesis creation account, God saw that all things were kalos.

That God is the kalos means, to a philosophical mind like Gregory’s, that God is both Good Itself and Beauty Itself. All beings participate in God for their existence, and so all things participate in Good and Beauty. A creature can no more choose to extinguish beauty in itself than it can choose to extinguish its own existence.

The unity of Good and Beauty with Being reveals that all beings are good and beautiful solely because and insofar as they participate in Good and Beauty. Nothing then owes its beauty to itself; all beauty springs from infinite Beauty. The Eternal Logos has translated uncreated glory into the limited vocabulary of creation, harmonizing created being with Being Itself. What has not been corroded by the shadow-reality of evil is wholly beautiful, and even that which bears the infection is, on some submerged level, worthy of admiration. It is only our subjective impressions that cause us to take pleasure in one thing but not in another.

Three Kinds of Beauty

I think here we may some draw helpful distinctions. These are not true ontological categories, but rather three perspectives from which we may view Beauty in its unity: creaturely beauty, sacramental beauty, and divine beauty.

It must be admitted that Gregory was not interested in creaturely beauty as such. He wrote very little about aesthetics, which is perhaps for the best given the typical weakness that even the greatest theologians have shown when approaching the subject (e.g., Aquinas).

Nevertheless, as Gregory’s metaphysics requires us to believe that all things to some extent participate in Beauty, he implicitly affirms the value of creaturely beauty. Above all, creaturely beauty is purposeful, aimed at heavenly beauty. Gregory makes this quite clear in his first homily on Ecclesiastes: “Sensible life is given to this [human] nature so that knowledge of appearances may lead the soul to recognize invisible reality.”

Taken in itself, material beauty is insufficient, even meaningless. But matter is not self-existent, and so it has tremendous meaning. Right contemplation of material beauty will lead one toward what it “imitates” or “images”: transcendent Beauty. Indeed, the highest revelation of this truth is Jesus Christ, who in flesh is the “image” of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Material beauty serves–in the case of Christ, perfectly–to incarnate spiritual beauty.

Third Homily on Ecclesiastes

“Art reveals through imitation that which is invisible and whatever can then be seen is a cause for admiration and beauty.”

Religious art can make this connection transparent. Gregory once remarked that he could not walk by a painting of the binding of Isaac without tears coming to his eyes. Another place, he declared that depictions of martyrs on the walls of churches “speak” to the congregants as assuredly as if they were living orators. Icons imitate holy originals; the Christian, in his turn, is led to imitate the originals through the ministry of the icon. Thus, centuries prior to the iconodule theology of the Damascene, Gregory seems to suggest that icons are an important link on a mimetic chain stretching from the Divine Archetype into matter.

And so genuine material beauty is also sacramental beauty. A sacrament is something that is bigger on the inside, the presence of the extraordinary in the ordinary, such as the eucharistic feast. Yet all reality is sacramental in some sense, as the presence of God is all-penetrating. To Gregory, beauty binds together things above and things below. That the whole world resounds with the glory of God is no figure of speech; all of nature, though captive and wounded by evil powers, remains the incorrigibly good creation of God, always drawing from him its being and, hence, its beauty.

This sacramental beauty, wherever it may be found, at once manifests and conceals within it the holy mystery of the infinite presence. The golden chain that descends from the Divine also leads back up to him.

But the anagogical nature of sacramental beauty requires that we sacrifice our attachments to material beauty as such. Divine beauty, or Beauty, is infinitely transcendent of all earthly beauties; creation is only beautiful in a secondary sense, by analogy. So great is the distinction between created and uncreated natures that the finite created can never truly be beautiful in a sense that could compare to the infinite uncreated. In our fallen bodies, we can get no further than incarnate beauty, but we were meant to soar with the angels in the light of Beauty Itself.

The Contemplation of Beauty

How then can can so lofty a beauty be contemplated? I think Gregory proposes three conditions: detachment, understanding, and divine grace.

On Virginity

“As those who have slipped and fallen heavily into mud, and have all their features so besmeared with it, that their nearest friends do not recognize them, so this creature has fallen into the mire of sin and lost the blessing of being an image of the imperishable Deity.”

At one time, humanity was beautiful in the image of the Archetype. We were also completely free; this even contributed to our beauty, that we could, by virtue of our rational free will, by no outward necessity, choose the ultimate Beauty that lay within and without.

However, we regrettably used this freedom to “discover” or “create” evil, which is beauty’s antithesis. As we closed the windows of our souls, the light could no longer penetrate, and we began to die. No longer in contact with Beauty, our own spiritual beauty became disfigurement. We cannot totally destroy that original beauty, but it now lies buried deep within us under countless accretions of darkness, which must be removed if the beauty is to shine once more.

We must, therefore, reverse this condition. We must look into our inner selves, where the image of God remains. Gregory uses Christ’s parable of the lost drachma to illustrate this point. The Kingdom of God is within each of us, but it is lost like the woman’s coin. We must light the candle of our reason and sweep away the dust of sin, until we have found that which bears the image of the Divine King.

This is detachment or virginity. It is the state of the soul with windows open for the wind of the Spirit and the Uncreated Light to enter. We must release earthly loves and obsessions and focus wholly on what lies above. The “temporal and transitory medium” of our senses (matter) must convey us beyond itself. The life of the flesh is a good gift from God through which we may receive him, but it poses danger for those without the perspicacity to navigate beyond. Moreover, we must leave behind all preconceptions and all images of what lies before us. Once Beauty has been seen in its fullness, our preconceptions will be shown to be lies, our images idols. We must get out of the boat to walk upon the water.

In order to see so far as the infinite, the incorporeal eye must be cleared of all that would obscure its gaze. Purged by detachment and trained by temperance, this eye may at last gain sight of the Good that lies behind and beneath and within all things, in which all things live and move and have their being.

Even as we grow in detachment, we must teach our eye understanding. Not the physical eye as such, which is incapable of seeing the invisible God. Material eyes are fixed downwards to the stuff of their own existence. It is the eye of the mind that we must relearn to use.

We have grown lazy and fallen into the habit of only looking at the surface of things. We enjoy material beauty superficially and unreflectively, as nothing more than a disconnected sensory peculiarity. Our enjoyment of a rose, say, becomes merely a passing sensual pleasure, interchangeable with any of a variety of other pleasures to be indulged in, or bought, or achieved through worldly success.

But Gregory asks us, even as we see the rose in all its spectacular particularity, to see deeper. He asks us to see in its mortal beauty a refraction of the eternal, absolutely simple, and all-comprehending light of Existence. In the movement from sensual to intellectual contemplation, we may pass through the rind of the thing, into its sweet interior. We find the signs of a Beauty “whose secret the whole creation sings.”

Once we have glimpsed the world of essences, we find that material beauties whet our appetite for Beauty but do not satisfy it. Our minds have been awakened to the yearning of our nature, to the most primitive and basic desire of the soul. Yet between us and our heart’s desire there lies a terrible gulf. The infinite inequality of man and God tempts us to despair. Beauty is a prize that cannot be reached by means of time or space, for it is no part of the creaturely world. How can dust touch the Divine?

This is impossible, apart from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit ministers our sanctification by grace, cleansing us of all impurity and earthly attachments, teaching us to fly with his wings.

The Journey to Beauty

If we have attained the receptive, virginal state of detachment by the help of the Spirit, and now see with understanding, we will find that Beauty has come to us; indeed, it was always with us. We can now see that its rays reach even to our inmost beings. Gregory declines to go into details about this process, as it will be different for each person. But we do not lack guidance; there are the scriptures and the lives of the saints, and these are filled with useful instruction.

As the mind is swept clean of its earthly murk and entanglements, it finds itself gradually illuminated by contact with the Light, until it is polished like a precious gem, and may shine forth with celestial radiance that is at once its own and yet arises from outside of it. Only sin can dim it, interfering in the communication of the archetypal Beauty to the soul. But one who has endured the fiery work of the Spirit and achieved virginity can see the Beauty clearly with the eye of the soul, and loves the Beauty with an inconceivable love, fearing only to be parted from it.

Commentary on the Song of Songs

“The person looking at the divine, invisible beauty will always discover it anew since he will see it as something newer and more wondrous in comparison to what he had already comprehended.”

This state of perfection is dynamic (epektasis). The spiritual union of Beauty and the soul is generative; the soul that receives the Divine Light also receives in itself the Divine fecundity and abundant, creative existence.

As Gregory liked to point out, our souls are like mirrors. Once they have been cleansed or purged, they are capable of receiving the “image” of Beauty. And they are living, growing mirrors, eternally increasing their capacity. As they capture more and more of Beauty, they commensurately take on the likeness of it. The beauty in the mirror is at once like and unlike that which it reflects; it is undeniably a true likeness, but it is dependent on the original. The source of its beauty is not itself, but that to which it is held up.

From the movement of contemplation of “things below” to contemplation of “things above,” there proceeds a new understanding of “things below.” Nature has been transfigured to our sight, revealing its hidden riches sacramentally present. We also have new apprehension of our own true selves. As Gregory wrote in his homily “Concerning Those Who Have Died,” “whenever the soul contemplates its archetype, it sees itself clearly.” We cannot really know ourselves until we have known the Archetype in whose image we were made.

In the restored cosmos, we will be immersed in divine sublimity. Even our bodies, in their resurrected and spiritual state, will partake of this beauty. This is a great mystery; though still at an infinite distance from the fullness of divinity, they will nevertheless be far closer to the divine than what we today see and understand as human.

According to Gregory in “Concerning Those Who Have Died,” when death itself is destroyed,

only the divine beauty according to which we have originally been formed will remain. Here is light, purity, incorruptibility, life, truth, and so forth. The sons of day and light do not fail to shine with purity and incorruptibility…. One grace illumines all who have become sons of light…. They will have one mind in him because his grace will radiate through them. As a result, each person will show kindness to his neighbor, rejoice to see his neighbor’s beauty, and sadness will cease to exist because evil will reveal its own deformed state.

To sum up Gregory’s theology of beauty:

  1. Beauty itself is the same as the Good, which is the one source of all existence (God).
  2. All earthly things derive their beauty, as they do their being, by participation in the One Beauty.
  3. That One Beauty, while sacramentally present (immanent) in all creation, is at the same time infinite and transcendent of creation.
  4. To see Beauty then requires a purified heart, which can be achieved only by the work of the Holy Spirit and by detachment.
  5. To see Beauty is to love it, and to be united with it in love, transformatively and generatively.

Toward a Doctrine of Beauty

It is arguable that Gregory’s theology of beauty is weighted too much toward the transcendent at the expense of the material. And this is a critique I could agree with. After all, the incarnation did not occur to lift us out of the flesh but to glorify that flesh. We can never leave behind the incarnate Logos in our journey toward the Divine, because the Word is not only with God–the Word is God. The very depths of the Divine are present in the person of the God-man, who has assumed human nature. That said, I think Gregory’s theology finds its balance in his statements on the beauty of Christ in On Perfection.

Moreover, I think that today few evangelicals are in danger of Platonic hatred of the body and matter. As healthy and positive as the “incarnational” movement can be, in Christian art and culture (and I genuinely believe it is), it can be twisted into anti-intellectualism, spiritual inertia, utilitarianism, or, worst of all, “relevance.” We may be tempted to deny in our enjoyment of creation that we need anything more; we may be suspicious of reason apparently detached from immediate experience.

We avoid this by remembering that incarnation is not fundamentally about the physical and everyday: it is about matter only insofar as matter becomes more than itself, insofar as it is sacramental. Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that we cannot be satisfied with the pleasure we take in the external aspect of things. He teaches us, vitally, that true contemplation of beauty is not really about ourselves or the object contemplated. It is about joining to something that outweighs the whole universe, something we can only behold through the mystical approach of the soul in purity.

I will conclude again with the assurance that we were created for this beauty. As St. John Damascene wrote,

God, who is good, and greater than any goodness, was not content with the contemplation of himself, but desired that there should be beings benefited by him, who might share in his goodness: therefore he created from nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a reality visible and invisible. And he created him envisaging him and creating him as a being capable of thought, enriched with the word, and orientated towards the spirit.

As it is the privilege of creation to share in the life of its Creator, so it is our privilege to share everlastingly in divine beauty. Christ himself promised us that those who follow the way of his Cross will shine like the sun without fading. To cultivate a pure heart in which to receive divine beauty should be not merely a duty, but our highest joy.

Commentary on the Song of Songs

“Elijah’s example shows us how our mind is taken up in a fiery chariot and raised on high to that heavenly beauty…. We will not despair from drawing near to the stars, I mean from considering divine things which illumine our souls by heavenly, spiritual utterances.”

* * *

I have here discussed Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity in respect to three prominent themes: marriage/virginity, detachment, and beauty. My aim has been in part to increase my own understanding of Gregory, and in part to introduce those not yet able to appreciate the original works to some of (to me) the most intriguing aspects of Gregory’s thought. I hope that any reader with better familiarity with Gregory’s thought than I will take the time to correct me where I have erred.

I have an idea in mind for a blog project related to Gregory’s treatise On the Soul and the Resurrection. It would be a rather big project, but possibly worth attempting. Having time to write these articles is an unexpected benefit of teaching English overseas.

I am obliged in this post to The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, edited by Lucas Seco and Giulio Maspero, for its summary and clarification of Gregory’s understanding of goodness and beauty, as well as the online translations by Richard McCambly of Gregory’s homilies on Ecclesiastes and “On Those Who Have Died,” available here.

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