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St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Father of Mystical Theology

January 10, 2013

a-135[1]By Thomas Colyandro

St. Gregory of Nyssa – whose feast day is January 10 in the Orthodox and Roman Churches (March 9 in the Roman Martyrology) – is the father of mystical theology.  He was born in 330 as the younger brother of St. Basil and St. Macrina; spent several years in secular work before entering the monastery built by his brother; and was consecrated bishop of Nyssa in 371.  While St. Gregory authored and delivered numerous theological, catechetical, and Scriptural masterpieces, his most important contribution is in the area of spirituality.

Among St. Gregory’s greatest works is The Life of Moses, which is an exegetical text on the book of Exodus that concentrates on the life of Moses as an allegory for the mystical journey into God.  What makes this work unique is how St. Gregory uses darkness instead of light to explain the possibility of intimacy with God.

To understand the juxtaposition between light and darkness in St. Gregory it is helpful to remind ourselves what Sacred Scripture says about light in John 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God […].  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  In other words, man receives the light of God, which causes man to know that (1) God exists, (2) God is communicating with him, and (3) God is inviting him into an utterly real and intimate closeness.

The next step in understanding why St. Gregory uses darkness instead of light to describe what happens as man approaches God, it is important to remind ourselves what Sacred Scripture tells us about darkness in Exodus 24:15-18:  “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.  […] And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”

In other words, while the darkness is a representation of the incomprehensibility of God, the cloud itself is both the manifestation of the presence of God, and the physical and spiritual place of closeness with God.

“For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and incomprehensible, and there it sees God.  This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness” (The Life of Moses, #163).

Thus, for St. Gregory, while the gift of light enlightens man to God’s existence and presence in the world, the gift of darkness elucidates the image and likeness of intimacy with God.  This should serve as a reminder to us that prayer is far more than the words.

So during this Year of Faith, ask yourself: are you willing to climb the mountain as Moses did?  Are you willing to step into the darkness where God can be found?

Let us pray for each other so that we may all decide to live our lives in this way.

Thomas Colyandro, Ph.D. (cand.) is a professor for Catholic Distance University and the author of two books, including: The Judas Syndrome: Seven Ancient Heresies Return to Betray Christ Anew. He is completing his doctoral dissertation on the mystical theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa, and working toward a certificate from the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge University. He holds masters’ degrees in divinity and theology from the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Texas, a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and a certificate from the Harvard-MIT Public Disputes Program.

From → Year of Faith

  1. Debra Schlatter permalink

    Thank you for this! How very beautiful. I love to read about these truths altough it seems that I forget them quickly. So thank you again for this reminder that God is light, but He is surrounded by a darkness that can be penetrated by prayer. Debra S.

  2. Sean permalink

    Good post . . . a thing to note is that St. Gregory helped formulate and seal, along with St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Basil, the doctrine on the Trinity, and this is especially enlightening since mystical theology and dogmatics or systymatics do not always end up joined at the hip. Some greats who carried on this merger in subsequent eras in the Church were: St. Bernard, St. Bonaventaure, St. Thomas Aquinas (Yes, he was a mystic), St. John of the Cross, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. They all, like St. Gregory before them speak of this darkness and incomprehensibility of God. The term came to be know as apophatic theology. Other early proponents of this merger were Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor who influenced greatly the thought in the High-Middle Ages.

    Along with the current calls for a return to the thought of the Fathers (Vatican II and recent Pontificates) this aspect of the Father’s thought is often disregarded. Because these thinkers influenced such greats as Aquinas, we should not only revisit their works but also include the Medievals in this current Resourcement.

    I bet most of your readers never even heard of the work of St. Gregory mentioned: “The Life of Moses.” We are all too caught up in trying to please the current trends in academia, instead of listening to the voices of wisdom in the Church. May we fulfill the wishes of the Council Fathers and the last few Popes and incorporate a true ressourcement (Patristic and Medieval) into our studies.

  3. colin kerr permalink

    As amazing and significant as Nyssa was, I would call Origen the ‘father of mystical theology.’ Nyssa the grandson.

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