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.

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The Anchor, the Bear, and the White Horse

The Saints of November 23

Today I would like to write about three saints who, in one place or another, share this day: a bishop, a missionary, and a soldier.

November 23 is, here in the Republic of Georgia, a public holiday, the Feast of St. George or Giorgoba. Although Georgia does not actually derive its name from the saint, St. George is one of its best-loved heavenly patrons. According to legend, St. Nino, the evangelizer of Georgia and the country’s other major patron saint, was a relative of George, and established his feast day here as November 23; the rest of the Christian world observes St. George’s Day in April or May, and the Georgians have a secondary celebration then as well.

We decided not to go to church this morning, in part because we were warned that it would be unusually full of people. But our host father turned the TV to a channel showing the ceremonies at Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi, which happens to be one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Everything was red and white and gold. The ancient and bent Georgian patriarch Ilia II, an acolyte carrying the long red train of his mantle, slowly circled the church, censing the icons with trembling hands, while a large men’s choir sang hymns in traditional polyphony.

Later, our host parents drove with us into the hills behind our village. There is a crumbling road that runs along a ridge. Along it are placed a convent, cemetery, and series of shrines. The road ends at a hilltop monastery that commands the view in all directions. Today we stopped at a round stone building that was half-ruined, apparently an old shrine to St. George. Though there are few houses within easy walking distance, many people from the villages below had come, some even with live chickens to slaughter. They were coming and going, crossing themselves and burning candles. It was a unique look into local religious practice.

November 23 is a notable day in western liturgics as well, being the feast of “Pope” St. Clement I. St. Clement’s Day was at one time quite popular in England as a minor holiday, especially among metalworkers, who regarded him as a patron. It is also the feast of St. Columbanus, an eminent Irish Catholic missionary to Europe in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. The Orthodox Church observes St. Clement’s feast in a day or two, while St. Columbanus is little known in the east.

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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.

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Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Marriage, Sexuality, and Evangelical Purity Culture

Continued from here.

At eleven months married, I am hardly an expert on the subject of marriage in general. I think, moreover, that an assessment of my own married experience as compared with Gregory’s terrifying description would miss the point. On the other hand, for me as much as for Gregory, it would seem that virginity is forever beyond my grasp. I am contentedly attached to a wife, and at this point I am considering no career option that would allow me to withdraw wholly from worldly affairs, as desirable as that sounds.

If On Virginity is to apply to me, I must take into account both the distinctions Gregory draws between marriage and virginity and the continuity between them. Though it would be unjust to water down the force of his hard teaching, the “virginity” metaphor is fluid enough that I am not totally excluded. Gregory’s secondary affirmation of a chaste marriage includes both warnings and implicit praise.

But I will return to the subject of marriage. Having admitted that sexual purity is only a part of “virginity,” it nevertheless seems a natural place to start to apply (or dispute) his teaching. And here it seems fair enough to point out, as many others have, the unfortunate status of virginity in evangelical culture.

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Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity: Introduction

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.”

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The Doors of the Sea: A Review

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

In the long history of Christianity, theodicy is comparatively young. Different generations find different doctrines more troublesome. Once, pagan philosophers looked askance at Christianity’s affirmation of the body and material creation; the idea that base physical matter could be brought into union with the Absolute was repugnant to them. Today, Christianity must contend with a different set of assumptions. The Enlightenment taught us to think of the cosmos as a vast machine; if it is so, and if it is designed and maintained by God, why doesn’t it always bring about goodness and justice, but often chaos and evil? The problem of human suffering tends to provoke a negative response to the theist’s portrait of reality. Its prominence as an object is probably due to the fact that it provokes a moral and visceral rather than merely intellectual reaction. It is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.

The Doors of the Sea is a short book (just over a hundred pages) expanded from an article written by David Bentley Hart in 2004 for the Wall Street Journal. Hart was prompted, as usual, by observations about the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists and serious deficiencies in the understanding of both sides. In The Doors of the Sea, he starts by reviewing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the impression it made in the press. Some nontheist journalists, he noted, insensitively used this tragedy as an opportunity to bash the Christian belief in a good God; simultaneously, some Christians offered untimely (and, Hart believes, misguided) remarks about all suffering being permitted as a part of God’s perfect plan.

Hart finds neither position satisfactory. The prominent nontheist critiques he quotes do not begin to understand either philosophical theism or Christian theology, he remarks, but they cannot be simply dismissed. Beneath the false dilemmas they pose, between divine goodness and divine omnipotence, they point to a real moral horror at evil and desire for justice that Christianity itself inculcated into western civilization. These feelings are legitimate and deserve a better and more coherent response from Christians than they normally receive.

Hence, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)

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Life of Anthony

Lessons from Athanasius’s Life of Anthony

The Desert Fathers, among students of Christian spiritual literature, have a name for both wisdom and alienness. They were among the earliest Christian monastics, leaving the increasingly secure and prosperous life of Roman Christians for poverty, celibacy, and spiritual warfare in the wildernesses of Egypt. Their most enduring legacy has been a large body of concise but often difficult quotations concerning the spiritual life and the trials of the soul seeking perfection. Today these collected sayings, odd and profound, have received several translations into English.

St. Anthony was among the earliest and greatest of the Desert Fathers, and his biographer was St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius contra mundum, the irascible fourth-century champion of orthodoxy. As the Christian world was troubled by the rise of heresies among the bishops and the often clumsy involvement of the state in doctrinal disputes, Athanasius, possibly during one of his several exiles, wrote eagerly of the holiness and deeds of Anthony as an example of perfect piety not only to the growing monastic movement, but to the whole Church. The Life of Anthony was completed around 360 and was translated into Latin soon after. Athanasius makes good reading; he is concise, engaging, and easy to understand. The Life was a much-read classic throughout late antiquity and the middle ages, inspiring thousands to seek the monastic life. Continue reading