Gregory of Nyssa on Perfection

As promised here is a quote from Gregory of Nyssa. This is taken from “From Glory to Glory,” a quote from “On Perfection.” Note how he looks upon the changeable state of our mortal condition as a positive. This was a radical concept in his day where the Greek ideal of changelessness dominated the idea of perfection. (See last post.)

“For man does not merely have an inclination to evil; were this so, it would be impossible for him to grow in good, if his nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary. But in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good; as it changes, more and more into the divine. And so … what appears so terrifying (I mean the mutability of our nature) can really be a pinion in our flight towards higher things, and indeed it would be a hardship if we were not susceptible of the sort of change which is towards the better. One ought not then to be distressed when one considers this tendency in our nature; rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory, and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation.”

We see, therefore, that Gregory defines perfection as progress itself, and this progress can never have a limit. This is because God is limitless in His perfection. The divine nature “draws human nature to participate in His perfection, because of divine transcendence it must always be superior to our nature to the same degree” (Commentary on the Canticle). This means that the closer we get to God, the bigger He appears to our souls. And this is true even when we pass on to eternity. We will never become tired, never board, because our souls will always be reaching for God, embracing our discovery of Him with ecstasy and delight, only to realize that there is more and more.

We might think that this is an eternity of loving the unattainable; like holding a carrot on a stick just in front of a rabbit. Would this be an eternity of endless searching and therefore sorrow?
Gregory would say no! The soul is like the bride that realizes that she will always discover more; her desire is at each moment fulfilled, but longing continually expands the soul to receive more. It is hard for us, in our mortal, fallen, condition to understand such vital movement when we so easily weary. However, Gregory teaches that our spirit, especially free from our mortal bodies, never wearies, but is endowed with an eternal capacity for God.

This is, I believe, a biblical model for perfection. However, another biblical motif that is associated with perfection is the idea of “rest.” Gregory’s model is a relentless motion towards God. How does this jive with our deep longing for rest, the seventh day of creation, for which we were made? How do we understand rest and motion?

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