A Guide for the more fleshly-minded: Gregory of Nyssa on erotic and spiritual desire

Thumbnail Image
Lawson, Richard T.
Issue Date
Gregory of Nyssa , Celibacy , Marriage , Erotic desire , Spiritual desire
This thesis highlights the theme of desire in the work of the fourth-century bishop and theologian Gregory of Nyssa. In light of four of Gregory's most important works (On Virginity, Homilies on the Song of Songs, The Life of Moses, and On the Soul and the Resurrection), this thesis notes the numerous ways in which desire is both a critical theological analogy and a spiritual practice. Using a wide range of analogies and images, Gregory describes desire as an integral dimension of the spiritual life. Furthermore, the ultimate human desire is for the Triune God. Gregory's treatise on celibacy, On Virginity, is a detailed description of the spiritual meaning of this way of life. Gregory's knowledge of celibacy came in part from his brother Basil's establishment of a monastic community in Asia Minor. However, this treatise does not dismiss marriage (and hence erotic desire) as a spiritual practice. Perhaps writing with his own marriage in mind, Gregory describes the tragedies and joys of married life. Both celibacy and marriage find their meaning, Gregory argues, in relation to God. Homilies on the Song of songs is a rich, fast-paced commentary upon the biblical Song of Songs. The Homilies are highly kataphatic, providing numerous examples of the prominence of analogy for Gregory. Erotic desire is analogous to spiritual desire. Gregory of Nyssa also reminds his audience that erotic desire mirrors spiritual desire only in part; spiritual desire -and ultimately the divine nature -cannot be limited to erotic desire. Thus, Gregory of Nyssa highlights both God's imminence and God's transcendence. The Life of Moses is the locus classicus for Gregory's description of divine transcendence. Here Gregory develops the Pauline concept epektasis. Humanity's desire for God continually expands throughout life and into eternity. This dramatic expansion of desire is made possible by the fact that the transcendent God is the ultimate human desire. Therefore, human desire for God never reaches a limit or an end. The expansion of human desire, however, is not synonymous with the expansion of human knowledge. The soul's journey into God's presence is a journey into darkness, not light. The darkness is Gregory's 'image' for both the limitations of the human mind and the transcendence of the divine nature. The Life of Moses is, then, an important source for the apophatic within spiritual theology. In his On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory develops this theme of the soul's eternal progression into God's presence, and yet even here he emphasizes the apophatic dimension of human knowledge. Because God's nature and hence eternal life are transcendent realities, speculation about the exact nature of the resurrection needs to be restrained. Gregory warns against the assumption that eternal life is a simple continuation of bodily life, specifically questioning in a subtle way the permanence of gender and certain aspects of material life. Gregory's use of analogy here (and in the other three books) also informs his method of scriptural interpretation by which he highlights the connection and the distinction between the literal and the spiritual. Gregory's theological vision is, paradoxically, a vision of a human nature rooted within the material world and within time. This is one reason why Gregory of Nyssa becomes an important resource for an Anglican spiritual theology in dialogue with a world questioning the meaning of desire, beauty, bodies, and gender.