Perfection of the Virtuous Life — The Life of Moses

Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection. The introductory post can be found here, and part two here.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Life of Moses, as the title suggests, is an allegorical interpretation of the life of Moses to demonstrate the Christian journey. Following and interpreting the events of Moses’ life gives Christians a framework for understanding the call to follow God.[1] Even though Gregory is focused on the life of Moses, he introduces and frames his analysis of Moses through the lens of Philippians 3:13:14 wherein, “that divine Apostle [Paul]…ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come.”[2] Moses’ life is an example of this continuous race of virtue as he walks with God and ascends to meet God on Mount Sinai. Indeed, in Gregory’s interpretation, Moses never stopped in his climb up Sinai to meet God, because “once having set foot on the ladder which God set up, he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.”[3]

Jean Daniélou suggests that in Gregory’s writings there are three ways or paths of the Christian life.[4] While Daniélou focuses primarily on the Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, the same pattern can be seen in The Life of Moses, so I will use his categories as I interact with this text. Moses saw God in three different ways, the first being when God revealed himself in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3). This is the “way of light” and is the way for beginners or those who have not yet encountered God. This way is marked by purification, where Moses has to take off his sandals, (“divests himself of the earthly covering”) in response to seeing “the true light and the truth itself.” This purification means that Moses (and those who encounter this first “way of light”) will be “able to help others to salvation, to destroy the tyranny which holds power wickedly, and to deliver to freedom everyone held in evil servitude.”[5]

The second way is the “way of grace.” Where the “way of light” is revelation of the knowledge of God, the “way of grace” is “an experience of His presence.”[6] In The Life of Moses this is represented by God’s guiding Moses and the people of Israel through a pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:21). God is present with Israel in their exodus and He does not abandon them.  Gregory interprets this cloud as “the grace of the Holy Spirit who guides toward the Good those who are worthy.”[7]

The third way is the “way of darkness.” This is the realization that there are limits to knowing God, and that God, though He has revealed Himself, is still incomprehensible and unknowable. This darkness, while negative, is at the same time authentic, for it “is a positive reality that helps us to know God.”[8] This “way of darkness” occurs when Moses ascends Sinai, approaching the mountain that is covered in smoke and darkness (Exodus 20:18-21). Gregory understands that it seems to be counterintuitive that God can be seen in the darkness[9] but concludes that it is in meeting God in the darkness that Moses is invited into the very presence of God, and sees the “tabernacle not made with hands”[10] which will become the template for the tabernacle that Israel is commanded to build (Exodus 25:40).



 

[1]Gregory’s use of the life of Moses as a template for understanding the spiritual life is not unique in the Patristic Period. Philo and Clement of Alexandria, for example, also used  the life of Moses as a template for their exploration and explanation of the nature of the spiritual life.

[2] LoM I, 6.

[3] LoM II, 227.

[4] Jean Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, trans. Herbert Musurillo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 23–32.

[5] LoM II, 26.

[6] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 25.

[7] LoM II, 121.

[8] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 32.

[9] LoM II, 162.

[10] LoM II, 167.

 

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