Gregory of Nissa: a Talk by Edward Hallinan

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-390) is one of the great Cappadocian Fathers: Saint Gregory of Nyssa, his elder brother Saint Basil the Great (c.329/300-1st January 379) and their friend, Saint Gregory Nazianzos (c.328/329-389/390). They are known as the Cappadocians because they all lived in Cappadocia in what is now central Turkey. But, as Dom Sylvester[1] pointed out, there is, in fact, a fourth Cappadocian Father, Saint Amphilochios (c.345-395). Saint Amphilochios, the first cousin of Saint Gregory Nazianzos and the Spiritual son of Saint Basil the Great, was Bishop of Iconium (the modern Konya) from 373. They rank amongst the world’s most sublime mystical writers of any Tradition, for they write from the very Heart, the very Essence of Christianity, which is the same as the Heart, the Essence, of all Traditions and, accordingly, their work is Universal in its meaning.

As Dom Sylvester said many times, the Theology is the same as that of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, as is what they say about our meaning and purpose and the responsibilities that meaning and purpose entail. Since the overall theme of these talks is ‘What it means to be Human’, the focus of this talk will be upon that aspect of Saint Gregory’s work. This necessarily means that other major themes which recur throughout his work will have to be omitted, such as his exposition of the meaning and importance for the mystical life of the paradoxes of the ‘Luminous Darkness’, ‘Sober Intoxication’ and ‘Stasis and Kinesis’, which is Epectasy, wherein not only do stillness and movement co-exist, but the one cannot exist without the other and which, within the stillness of fixity in God, is the movement of constant progress within Sainthood of which Saint Paul speaks: ‘forgetting that which is behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before’ (Philippians 3.13) and which, he says, is the  movement ‘from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord’ (II Corinthians 3.18).

The writings of the Cappadocians are concerned with the inner, Spiritual, esoteric meaning of the Sacred Texts and with the implications therein for each and every person. What is of importance is not the literal and historical meaning but the hidden, inner meaning; that is, what the words and the events mean for us. The importance of the Nativity and the Crucifixion, for example, lies in their profound esoteric meaning of the Spiritual Births (the Nativity) of God into the soul and of the soul back into God, which latter takes place by way of the Spiritual Crucifixion whereby we are crucified to, that is, we die to, the affirmation of ourselves, which affirmation is shirk (polytheism) and which is the same as the ‘dying before we die’ of the Prophet Muhammad. In this they are heirs of Philo of Alexandria (c.20-25 BCE to 50-51 ACE), whose influence on the whole of Spirituality was profound, and of Saint Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215), who passed it on to his pupil and friend, Origen (c.185-254) and from Origen to his pupil and friend, Saint Gregory Thaumaturgos (c.213-270) who, in his turn, transmitted it to Saint Macrina the Elder (died 340), the paternal grandmother of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and from Saint Macrina to the Cappadocians, whose heirs include Saint Benedict, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart and Dom Sylvester.

The Cappadocians belong to two of the most remarkable families in the whole history of Spirituality, fourteen of whom are canonised Saints. Amongst these is a group of five exceptional women, three from the family of Saint Gregory of Nyssa and two from the family of Saint Gregory Nazianzos. The five women are: Saint Macrina the Elder, Saint Emmelia, Saint Macrina the Younger, Saint Nonna and Saint Gorgonia. Saint Emmelia married Saint Macrina the Elder’s son, Saint Basil the Elder. Saint Emmelia and Saint Basil had ten children, one of whom died in infancy. Of the nine remaining, five are canonised Saints (Saint Macrina the Younger, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Naucratios and Saint Peter of Sebaste). Accordingly, Saint Emmelia is known as ‘the Mother of Saints’. The eldest of her children is Saint Macrina the Younger (c.327/328-379). Saint Gregory always refers to Saint Macrina the Younger as the ‘Teacher’.

From the family of Saint Gregory Nazianzos are his mother, Saint Nonna (c.274/275-5th August 374), and his elder sister, Saint Gorgonia. Saint Nonna married Saint Gregory the Elder (c.275/275-1st January 374); all three of their children are canonised Saints (the third and youngest is Saint Caesarios of Nazianzos). Saint Gorgonia was married and lived with her husband, Alypios, in Iconium (Konya).

Because these women lived in the same place at the same time and both because they were remarkable women in their own right and because of the extraordinary influence they exerted upon the Cappadocian Fathers, they constitute certainly one of the most remarkable, if not even the most remarkable, group of Saintly women in Spiritual history. Perhaps, such was their influence, it may indeed be permissible to speak of not three, not four, but nine Cappadocians.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa is commemorated in the Eastern Churches on 10th January and in the Western Churches on 9th March. At present, the exact site of Nyssa is unknown. Whilst some sources in Turkey identify Nevshehir with Nyssa, it is, in all probability, too far south to have been Nyssa.

The Singleness of Being  – with the implications of what it means to be
Truly Human within the context of the works of Saint Gregory of Nyssa

The Singleness of Being, the Unity of Existence, lies at the heart of the life and works of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, and of which his works constitute the most sublime exposition ever committed to writing. It also lies at the very heart of the lives and works of the Cappadocians, as, indeed, it lies at the heart of the lives and works of the great mystics of all Traditions, which in Origin are one. Just as Meister Eckhart, an heir of the Cappadocians, said that he only really ever gave one sermon since all his sermons were about the same thing, so Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi and the Cappadocians are talking about the same thing; the language may be different, but as Mevlana Jalalu’ddin Rumi said, the bottles (language) may be different, but the wine is the same.

The Wine, as Dom Sylvester said, is that God is the Origin, Source, Actuality, and, therefore, the Truth both of ourselves and of the whole of creation. Therefore, the Truth, both of ourselves and of the whole of creation, is God as our, and its, Origin, Source and Actuality. Accordingly, both we and the whole of creation exist not as Beings, for Being belongs to God, but as becomings, and by becoming is meant Being on loan, actualised in the movement of Self-Gift, which God Himself is and which, in Christian Spirituality, is called the Holy Spirit.

Saint John said, ‘God is Love’ (I John 4.8), and the Love which God is, Agape in Greek, is the giving of self. In, and as Love, for, as Saint Gregory says, God ‘has no need of becoming'[2], God gives Himself to Himself as Himself. In this movement of Self-Gift we are created and fashioned according to the condition of our Original creation in the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God (Genesis 1.26), which is known as the First Birth, the Birth of God into the Soul.

Bulent Rauf said, ‘Love is the movement of Beauty’, thus, the movement of Self-Gift is God’s Self-Gift of Himself to Himself as Himself as Sheer Absolute Beauty.  The condition of our Original creation as according to the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God is, therefore, our creation as according to God’s own perfect image of Himself, as He Himself always and forever is within Himself, as Sheer Absolute Beauty.

Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi says of the condition of our Original creation:
The perfect man is such a pure, clean, absolute mirror that God, Who is Absolute Beauty, sees His Ipseity unconditionally therein.[3]

And Saint Gregory says:

He did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which you can see in the created universe. You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true Light; and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity. Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens can fit into the palm of God’s hand; the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of His hand (Isaiah 40.12). And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in His palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you, nor is He cramped as He pervades your entire being, saying: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them.’ [II Corinthians 6.16.][4]

And again, referring to God as the Actuality both of ourselves and the whole of creation, Saint Gregory says:

It does not seem to me that the Gospel is speaking of the firmament of heaven as some remote habitation of God when it advises us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, because the divine is equally present in all things, and, in like manner, it pervades all creation and it does not exist separated from being, but the divine nature touches each element of being with equal honor, encompassing all things within itself. And the prophet teaches this saying, ‘even if I am in heaven in my thought, even if I examine what is below the earth in my calculation you are present, even if I extend the intellectual part of my soul to the boundaries of being, I see all things in the power of your right hand,’ for the text is as follows: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there. If I take the wings of the dawn, or settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall guide me, and your right hand hold me fast.’ [Psalm 139 8-11.] It is possible to learn from these words that not being separated by choice from God is the same as living in heaven.[5]

‘Not being separated by choice from God is the same as living in heaven.’ Therein lies the crux of the matter. We are created in the Movement of Self-Gift, and God is His Self-Gift of Himself to Himself, which Movement takes place, as Saint John and Bulent Rauf both say, in Love, for God is Love (I John 4.8). The Love of God is completely free of any element of compulsion. Accordingly, we are free (as Saint Gregory says here, and Dom Sylvester said) to ‘resent’ our True Nature; to ‘resent’ the fact that both we and the whole of creation exist not as beings, but as becomings actualised by, and in, the Movement of Self-Gift, and to choose, of our own free will, to affirm ourselves rather than God. By so doing, we determine over God by compelling Him to appear in us and to act in us as ourselves in us as in His own perfect ‘image’ only. For, by affirming ourselves rather than Him (which is the meaning of the words ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ within the works of Saint Gregory), whilst we retain the ‘image’, which can never be effaced, and which, accordingly, remains hidden within us, unknown and unacknowledged, we lose the ‘likeness’, which is the constant, conscious awareness, resulting from the emptiness of self, of the ‘image’ within. Thus, the ‘likeness’ is the same as ‘not being separated by choice from God’ and ‘is the same as living in heaven’ because by affirming God, thereby being empty of ourselves, we return, in the restoration of the lost ‘likeness’ to the ‘image’, to the condition of our Original creation as according to both the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God. This is the Second Birth, the Birth of the soul back into God.

Saint Gregory talks about this process in his exposition of the Spiritual meaning of the parable of the missing piece of silver (which Saint Gregory calls the ‘lost drachma’). The parable is as follows:

Either what woman having ten
pieces of silver, if she lose one piece,
doth not light a candle, and sweep the
house, and seek diligently till she
find it?
And when she hath found it, she
calleth her friends and her neighbours
Together, saying, Rejoice with me; for
I have found the piece which I had lost. (Luke 15.8-9)

Saint Gregory says:

The human effort extends only to this: the removal of the filth which has accumulated through evil and the bringing to light again the beauty in the soul which we had covered over. It is such a dogma that I think the Lord is teaching in the Gospel to those who are able to hear wisdom when it is mysteriously spoken: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17.21.] This saying shows, I believe, that the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who choose to seek it, but is ever present in each individual, unknown and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we turn our attention back to it…I think this is what the Lord was suggesting in the search for the lost drachma. The rest of the virtues which the Lord refers to as drachmas are of no use, even if they are all present in the soul, if the soul is bereft of the one that is lost…Then He tells us to look for the lost drachma in our own house, i.e., in ourselves. Through this parable, He suggests that the image of the King is not entirely lost, but that it is hidden under the dirt…Once this has been swept away…that which is being looked for becomes visible…the great image of the King which the Creator implanted in our hearts from the beginning is uncovered and brought to light, then these faculties turn towards that divine joy and merriment, gazing upon the unspeakable beauty of what has been recovered…who [now] look to the beautiful and the good and do everything for the glory of God…This concern, then, for the finding of what is lost is the restoration to the original state of the divine image which is now covered.[6]

Thus, Saint Gregory says, we lose the ‘likeness’ because ‘through our gluttony we filled ourselves voluntarily with the opposite, I mean we tasted disobedience to the Word of God’.[7] Here, Saint Gregory discusses the Spiritual meaning of ‘gluttony’, which is the affirmation of ourselves rather than God, by means of which we lose the ‘likeness’ thereby taking our nourishment from ourselves rather than from God. That is, we determine over God by choosing to allow Him to appear in us and to nourish us as ourselves in His own perfect ‘image’ only, rather than as Himself in us as in His own perfect ‘image’ and ‘likeness’, for as Saint Gregory points out, Christ said  ‘my meat is to do the will of the Father’ (John 4.34). Saint Gregory also says, with Saint Paul, what ‘is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour’ is that He ‘will have all men to be saved, and come unto the knowledge of the truth’ (I Timothy 2.3-4).[8] Thus, by affirming ourselves we disobey the wish of God that ‘all men be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth’.

Having lost the ‘likeness’ by way of ‘disobedience’, our return to the condition of our original creation as according to both the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God, through the restoration of the lost ‘likeness’ to the ‘image’, takes place by way of the opposite of disobedience, that is, by way of obedience. And as Dom Sylvester said many times, obedience is the same as submission, and submission and obedience is and are, the same as, and is and are what is meant by, Islam. That is, submission is obedience, is Islam.

It is affirmed in all Traditions that unless we submit to God, to the Divine, by way of obedience, it is not possible for us to recover that which we have lost, the ‘likeness’. The Second Birth, the birth of the soul back into God, can take place, and can only take place, by way of submission/obedience/Islam. The Principle of complete and perfect submission to God is embodied in the woman of whom God says in the Holy Qu’ran that ‘she is chosen, purified and chosen above all the women in all the worlds’ (Sura III, The Family of Imran) and whom Saint Gabriel greeted with the words: ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women’ (Luke 1.28), the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whose words at the Annunciation that Principle reaches a truly sublime expression:

Behold the handmaid of the Lord:
Be it unto me according to thy word. (Luke 1.38)

Just as without Mary’s free and willing consent, submission/obedience/Islam, that which followed, the blowing-in of the Spirit and the birth consequent to it, could not have taken place so, equally, unless and until we submit with the submission and obedience/Islam of Mary at the Annunciation, the Annunciation of the Birth of the soul back into God cannot take place in us, neither can the birth consequent to the Annunciation; which Annunciation is the Annunciation to us both of the Birth of God into the soul and of the soul back into God. It is for this reason that Mary is said to be ‘Platytera ton Ouranon’ (‘wider than, more spacious than, the heavens’), and, accordingly, the ‘Dwelling-Place of the Uncontainable’. This is equally True of each and every person as according to the condition of our original creation in both the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God, but for so long as we have lost the ‘likeness’ it is True in potential only. It can be True for, and of us, in actuality also, as the passage from Saint Gregory quoted earlier in this talk indeed tells us, but when, and only when, we too submit and obey with the submission and obedience of Mary for then, and only then, the Uncontainable God is ‘contained’, but only by Himself and, by way of Self-Gift, by Himself in us now as in His own perfect ‘image’ and ‘likeness’.

Thus, Mary is universal in her meaning and belongs to all those, irrespective of race, creed, nationality or whatever, who say to God with her:[9]

Behold the handmaid of the Lord:
Be it unto me according to thy word’.

Moreover, since Mary is the Pure Place in which the Uncontainable God dwells in Himself in His own perfect ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ she is the soul in its True condition, and the purified soul which has returned to that condition, and the means whereby the soul may return to that condition by restoring the lost ‘likeness’ to the ‘image’. In this sense, Mary belongs to everyone.

As such, Mary is the embodiment of, and a sublime demonstration for each and every person of, the Principle and Meaning of Spiritual Virginity and, therefore, of Spiritual Purity and Spiritual Chastity, which, as Saint Gregory says, has nothing to do with abstaining from sex. The Virgin/Pure/Chaste soul is the soul empty of self irrespective of whether the one in whom this condition exists is involved in a sexual relationship or not. This is, indeed, a whole theme in itself, which, due to the constraints of time, it is possible, to mention but briefly here. However, in his Treatise On Virginity (a sublime exposition of Spiritual Virginity), Saint Gregory says:

Let no one think that virginity is so small and cheap that it can be thought of as attainable through a slight control of the flesh. Since ‘everyone who commits a sin is a slave of sin’, [John 8.34] i.e. turning to evil in any matter and situation somehow enslaves a man…it is fitting for the one aiming at the great goal of virginity to be uniformly virtuous and for purity to be evident in every aspect of his life.[10]

In this, Saint Gregory is in complete agreement with both his contemporaries and his Spiritual ancestors, in the Eastern Church; for, as Saint Gregory says, ‘the goal of the soul which honors virginity is to be filled with God.'[11] Such an one, Saint Gregory says, has realised and fulfilled within herself or himself the meaning of the Beatitude ‘blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5.8) as, indeed, they have realised and fulfilled within themselves the meaning of Christ’s words ‘You, therefore, are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5.48), for they too have said with David: ‘A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me, and with a guiding spirit sustain me’ (Cf. Psalm 51.10-11).[12]

However, just as Mary, both Spiritually and literally, was both Virgin and Mother, whose Virginity was in no wise compromised by her Motherhood, rather, indeed, the one required the other for its completion, fulfilment and real-isation, so too must the Virgin Mind, for her completion, fulfilment and real-isation, also be a Wife and Mother. Mind as both Virgin and Wife/Mother refers to pure reception (Mind as Virgin) and the pure transmission (Mind as Wife and Mother) of the Divine Revelation in each instant without any interference whatsoever, for when and if, and only when and if, we are empty of self, we allow God to appear in us (Mind as Virgin) and to act in us (Mind as Wife and Mother) as Himself in us now as in His own perfect ‘image’ and ‘likeness’, which He Himself is. God Willing, we shall return to this shortly.

In his Sermons on ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, writing about the opening words of the prayer, ‘Our Father, Who art in Heaven’, Saint Gregory refers to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32), the meaning of which he says is essentially the same as the parable of the missing piece of silver. What he says about this parable is of profound importance both for what it does indeed mean to be Truly Human, and for the responsibility this entails:

But the words [Our Father Who art in Heaven] seem to me to indicate a deeper meaning, for they remind us of the fatherland from which we have fallen and of the noble birthright which we have lost. Thus in the story of the young man who left his father’s home and went away to live after the manner of swine, the Word shows the misery of men in the form of a parable…and he does not bring him back to his former happiness until he has become sensibly aware of his present plight and entered into himself, rehearsing words of repentance. Now these words agree as it were with the words of the prayer, for he said, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee’. (Luke 15.21). He would not have added to his confession the sin against Heaven, if he had not been convinced that the country he had left when he sinned was Heaven. Therefore this confession gave him easy access to the father who ran towards him and embraced and kissed him…And he put on him the robe, not another one, but the first robe, of which he had been deprived by his disobedience…The ring on his hand, because of the carved stone, signifies the regaining of the Image…Thus the return of the young man to his Father’s home became to him the occasion of experiencing the lovingkindness of his Father; for this paternal home is the Heaven against which, as he says to his Father, he has sinned. In the same way it seems to me that if the Lord is teaching us to call upon the Father in Heaven, He means to remind you of our beautiful fatherland. And by thus putting into your mind a stronger desire for these good things, He sets you on the way that will lead you back to your original country.[13]

He was not aware of his present plight because he had lost the ‘likeness’ and, in so doing, the young man had gone ‘out of himself,’ out of, that is, his True self, and it is only when he becomes aware of his plight that he is able to return to himself, to his True self, in the restoration of the lost ‘likeness’ to the ‘image’, as Saint Gregory also says elsewhere:

For what happened corporeally in the case of the immaculate Mary, when the fullness of the divinity shone forth in Christ through her virginity, takes place in every soul spiritually giving birth to Christ, although the Lord no longer effects a bodily presence. For, Scripture says: We no longer know Christ according to the flesh,’ [Cf. II Corinthians 5.16] but, as the Gospel says somewhere, He dwells with us spiritually and the Father along with Him. [Cf. John 14.23][14]

Thus, he returns to his True Fatherland, his True Homeland, the country of his True Origin, which is the Land of ‘Our Father, Who art in Heaven’ and which is ‘the Land of the Living’. This prayer, this parable, this exposition is, and are, truly Universal for God is ‘Our Father’ precisely because He is the actuality, and, therefore, the Truth both of ourselves and of the whole of creation; which means that He is the ‘Father’ of each and every person, irrespective of race, creed, colour, nation or whatever, as He is the ‘Father’ of each and every creature and of the whole of creation. Thus, each and every person, each and every creature, indeed the whole of creation is our fellow countryman, our compatriot, and herein, perhaps, lies the true meaning of Patriotism, for regardless of whatever nation a person may apparently belong to, that person’s True Homeland is the same as ours: the Land of ‘Our Father, Who art in Heaven.’

Saint Gregory reminds us that we are commanded, by ‘Our Father,’ first to hear that the Lord our God is one and to love the lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might (Deuteronomy 6.5, 10.12 and 30.6) and secondly, after that, to love our neighbour as ourself (Leviticus 19.18), which commandments were repeated by Christ (Matthew 22.37-40, Mark 12. 29-31, Luke 10.27), and of which Christ said ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22.40), and ‘there is none other commandment greater than these'(Mark 12.31). Saint Gregory says that:

If the first is not there, clearly the second will not be present. For, if one does not love God with all his heart and all his soul, how can he care wholesomely and guilelessly for the love of his brothers, since he is not fulfilling the love of the One on whose account he has a care for the love of his brothers?[15]

‘Our Father’ Who commands us to do this, is also the Father of our neighbour, our brother, our compatriot. Thus, since the same is Essentially true of each and every person and, therefore, we are Essentially one soul, perhaps we may also say with Mevlana Jalalu’ddin Rumi to Him, and perhaps also to our ‘brother’ our ‘neighbour’, our ‘compatriot’ (as also to, and of, each and every creature as well as to the whole of creation) the ‘other’ who is, in fact, no other:

Thou didst contrive this ‘I’ and ‘we’ in order to play the game of worship with Thyself,
That all ‘I’s’ and ‘thou’s’ might become one soul and at last be submerged in the Beloved.[16]

The Prodigal son is each and every person who has not recovered the lost ‘likeness’ and, in each and every case, ‘Our Father’ longs and yearns, for has He not indeed said, ‘My yearning for them is greater by far than their yearning for me’ (and Bulent Rauf said that “it is up to us to prove Him wrong”), to rush towards each and every person, each and every Prodigal son, to embrace and to kiss her or him, and to dress her or him in the first robe and to place the ring on the finger and to say to each and every one ‘for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ (Luke 15.24)

For Saint Gregory, as also for Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, our prime responsibility is to real-ise who we Truly are and, therefore who our neighbour Truly is and, accordingly to know the creation as it Truly is. This is not only our prime responsibility; it is, in fact, our sole responsibility, as Lois Lang-Sims so beautifully says. Quoting from Plato’s The Republic: ‘Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge, and seek and follow one thing only'[17], Lois Lang-Sims says:

It [the Way] is to be found in the essential teachings that have come down to us through the great religious traditions. It is to be found in the testimony of the true mystics of those same traditions, whose knowledge, acquired in humility, transcends all apparent differences between the various systems of ritual, symbolism and myth. It is to be found, above all, insofar as we pay attention to the inner voice that speaks with certainty within the heart…[it is] the essential message of religious tradition, which is always and everywhere the same: the purpose of our lives, our societies, our world, is One Thing Only – to return, as swiftly and surely as we can, to God.[18]

In a series of three Treatises written over a number of years, ‘On What It Means To Call Oneself A Christian’, ‘On Perfection’ and ‘On The Christian Mode Of Life’, the latter believed to have been written in the last years of his life,[19] Saint Gregory poses and answers the question ‘what does it mean to call oneself and to be a Christian?’ His answer is both remarkable and wonderful, for, he says, truly to be a Christian, a person must be able to say with Saint Paul ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Galatians 2.20)[20], and our whole life, in every single thought, word and deed, in each and every instant, should be ‘a testimony'[21] to that, for, Saint Gregory says, ‘Being something does not result from being called something.'[22]

‘If, therefore,’ Saint Gregory says:

Someone puts on the name of Christ, but does not exhibit in his life what is indicated by the term, such a person belies the name and puts on a lifeless mask… For it is not possible for Christ not to be justice and purity and truth and estrangement from all evil, nor is it possible to be a Christian (that is, truly a Christian) without displaying in oneself a participation in these virtues.[23]

Accordingly, Saint Gregory says, if a person is truly to be called a Christian then  ‘every word, deed or thought’ must ‘look to Christ’. And if not, then such a person is not truly a Christian, for such a person ‘rejects Christ by what he thinks, does, or says.'[24]
Saint Paul says:

I am crucified with Christ:
nevertheless I live; yet not I, but
Christ liveth in me…
I do not frustrate the grace
of God. (Galatians 2.20-21)

In saying, ‘I am crucified with Christ’, Saint Paul, and Saint Gregory with him, is referring to the inner, Spiritual meaning of the Crucifixion, as our Crucifixion whereby we die to self, which results in the Second Birth, the Birth of the soul back into God. Thus, we too ‘do not frustrate the Grace of God’, for we no longer ‘frustrate’ the Wish of God to greet us as He greeted the Prodigal son.

So, in order truly to be a Christian, according to Saint Gregory’s definition, it is necessary to return to the condition of our Original creation. To return, that is, as Saint Gregory so aptly puts it, to our ‘original good fortune.'[25] It is impossible for us to real-ise and fulfil this meaning within ourselves without also being a Muslim, within the context in which Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi uses the word, and according to its meaning. For, as has already been mentioned, Dom Sylvester said many times, submission is obedience and submission/obedience is, and are, the same as, and is, and are, what is meant by, Islam. In similar vein, J.G. Bennett wrote:

I really had thought that, at our last meeting, I had succeeded in conveying to Emin Bey that my aim and hope is to become that which a good Muslim should be and that for me it is the same as a good Christian or a good Buddhist.[26]

One might, perhaps, also add a good Hindu or a good Taoist, for it is not possible to be a good Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Taoist, without being in complete and perfect submission/obedience/Islam to God. Perhaps then, we re-cognise that, whatever our faith may be, we all drink from the same source for, whilst the bottles may appear to be different, as Mevlana Jalalu’ddin Rumi so beautifully put it, the wine inside them is the same. As Lois Lang-Sims also says (and her words apply equally to Saint Gregory of Nyssa):

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away: behold all things are become new.’ [II Corinthians 5.17.] These words employ the Christian formula to describe a state of being that may be described in as many other ways as there are holy traditions to provide those ways. The formula contains reality, but it does not constrain the reality… The words we have quoted are a description of the birth of God in the soul and of the soul in God’.[27]

In his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Saint Gregory refers to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 29-37). Saint Gregory says that the man who fell among thieves and robbers is, again, us; that the Good Samaritan is the Word, the inn to which the man (we) is (are) taken is ‘the inn of His loving providence’ and that all who enter therein ‘receive within themselves that which receives them, as the Word Himself has said: ‘he abideth in me, and I in him’ (John 6.57).  Accordingly, ‘Man, then, receives within himself the Lord Whom nothing can contain.’ Saint Gregory then says that the two coins given to the innkeeper represent the two Commandments mentioned above, of which, he says:

We must not merely accept the two coins (I mean our faith in God and a good conscience with respect to our fellow man), but we must by our own good deeds cooperate in the fulfilment of these two commandments.[28]

As Christ says – and He says it to each and every person – in response to the reply that the neighbour of the man who fell among thieves is the one who showed mercy: ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’ (Luke 10.37.) Therein, as Saint Gregory says, lies our responsibility.

All of which brings us back to Mind as Virgin and as Wife. If, and when, and only if and when, we have recovered the lost ‘likeness’ and are clothed once more in the ‘first robe’ then we are also clothed in what Saint Gregory sometimes calls the ‘Virtues’ and sometimes the ‘Energies of God’. In either case, what Saint Gregory calls the ‘Virtues’ or the Divine ‘Energies’ is the same as the Divine Names of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. Being clothed with the ‘Virtues/Energies’ is the same as being clothed with the Divine Names, and which are, accordingly, received, by way of – and only by way of – Self-Gift, by Virgin Mind and transmitted to our neighbours, our compatriots and to the creation by Mind in her capacity as Wife and Mother, as Saint Gregory says:

Everybody knows that the function of bodily union is the creation of mortal bodies, but that life and incorruptibility are born, instead of children, to those who are united in their participation in the Spirit. Excellent is the apostolic saying about this, that the mother blessed with such children ‘will be saved by child-bearing,’ [I Timothy 2.15] just as the psalmist utters in the divine hymns: ‘He establishes in her home the barren wife as the joyful mother of children.'[Psalm 113.9] The virgin mother who begets immortal children through the Spirit truly rejoices and she is called barren because of her moderation.[29]

And again, Saint Gregory says:

Birth comes, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ [John 1.13] alone. This occurs when someone through the life-giving quality of the heart takes on the incorruptibility of the Spirit and begets wisdom and justice and holiness and redemption. It is possible for everyone to become a mother in reality in this respect, since the Lord says somewhere: ‘The one doing my will is my brother and my sister and my mother.’ (Cf. Matthew 12.50; Mark 3.35)[30]

For when, and only when, we have returned to the condition of our Original creation what flows through us and out to our ‘neighbour’, our ‘compatriot’ as well as to the creation is, as Saint Gregory affirms, the Divine Love, the Divine Mercy, the Divine Compassion, the Divine Justice, which means not only giving to each and every person exactly what is needed but also giving to each and every instant exactly what it requires, and so on with all the ‘Virtues’, the ‘Energies’, the Qualities and the Names of God.

For example, in his Sermons on the Beatitude ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’, Saint Gregory says that the ‘merciful’ of the Beatitude are, first and foremost, those who show mercy upon themselves when the soul becomes aware of ‘what it once possessed, and from what state it has fallen'[31] by seeking to recover the lost ‘likeness.’ So, each and every person who seeks to ‘know themselves in order to know God’, is the merciful whom Beatitude Itself calls ‘Blessed’. What follows from this, Saint Gregory says, is that not only do we obtain mercy in having our desire fulfilled but ‘the fruit of mercy becomes itself the possession of the merciful'[32], in that by way of, and only by way of, Self-Gift, what flows through us and out from us, is the Divine Mercy, the Divine Compassion. For, as Saint Gregory says, ‘unless mercy soften the soul, man cannot arrive at healing the ills of his neighbour.'[33]

As it is with ‘merciful’ so is it equally with all the ‘Virtues/Energies/Names’. To give just one more example, in the Sermon on the Beatitude ‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’, Saint Gregory says that the ‘peacemaker par excellence’ is the one who ‘pacifies perfectly the discord’ within herself or himself between the inner and the outer, the Spiritual and the material, the Divine and the human, so that the two, whilst retaining each its integrity, function perfectly as one, because the lower, now that the veil of self has been removed, is in complete submission/obedience to the higher and thus ‘what appears is the same as what is hidden, and what is hidden is the same as what appears.'[34]

Thus, that which was formerly seen as other, thereby being the source of discord, is now known and witnessed, both within ourselves and within the whole of creation, as we and it truly are, as no other. This results in the absence of discord and the presence of Harmony, of Peace, for, as Saint Gregory says, ‘peace is the harmony of dissonant parts'[35] and we now Witness, as Joseph Campbell says, ‘that there is the peace of eternal being within every aspect of the field of temporal becoming.'[36], and it this Peace, the Divine Peace, which, as Saint Gregory says, now flows into us, through us and out into our ‘neighbour’ and the whole of creation:

Peace is indeed the greatest of joy-giving things; and this He wishes each of us to have in such measure as to keep it not only for himself, but to be able to dispense from the overflow of his abundance also to others. For He says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. Now a peacemaker is one who gives peace to another; but one cannot give to another what one does not possess oneself. Hence the Lord wants you first to be yourself filled with the blessings of peace, and then to communicate it to those who have need of it.[37]

And, Saint Gregory continues:

Therefore He wants the grace of peace fully to abound in you like the pleasant scent of sweet spices that fills the air around it with its own fragrance, so that your life may heal the sickness of others.[38]
Saint Gregory talks a lot, for example, throughout the Sermons on the Beatitudes, about the profound difference this all makes not only to our own lives but also, accordingly, to the way in which we respond to our ‘neighbours’ and to the creation. He would be in complete agreement with Dom Sylvester when he said (as he said many times) ‘it is not necessary for the Saint to be a scientist, but it is necessary for the scientist to be a Saint.’ One may, of course, replace ‘scientist’ with any other profession or occupation.

I am going to conclude with another quotation from Saint Gregory. But before I do, I would like to recall Saint Gregory’s words in the parable of the ‘Lost Drachma’ about what happens when, and if, we find that which we had lost, for then, he says, we gaze ‘upon the unspeakable beauty of what has been recovered’. Bulent Rauf once asked, ‘what does the Saint see?’ His answer consisted of just one word: ‘Beauty’. So, as both Saint Gregory and Bulent Rauf say, to be Truly Human means to see Beauty, which is indeed relevant to the quote in question. It is short, but it goes to the very heart of the life and works of Saint Gregory, as indeed, I venture to suggest, it goes to the very heart of the life and works of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. It is a sublime statement of what it means to be Truly Human and, therefore, of the responsibility entailed within that. Saint Gregory says to Him, to God:

But Thou art truly beautiful. Thou dost subsist for all eternity in the very essence of Beauty, remaining forever what Thou art…Thou dost extend Thy beauty over the entire eternity of Thine existence. This is Thy love for man.[39]


[1] Dom Sylvester Houédard, O.S.B. (1925-1992). Dom Sylvester, a Benedictine monk from Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire and friend of Bulent Rauf and of Chisholme, was a man of such monumental learning that, on one occasion when he was walking by, Dr. Ralph Austin, (formerly lecturer in Arabic in the University of Durham, and an authority on Islamic mysticism) remarked with profound respect ‘There goes the whole of medieval Christendom’. His profound learning was combined, as in Bulent Rauf, with an equally profound humility. Whenever he spoke or whatever he wrote, he would move from Saint Benedict, to Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi; from the Cappadocians to Meister Eckhart; from Saint Augustine to Saint Thomas Aquinas; from Philo of Alexandria to the Buddhist Masters ‘without effort and as if naturally’ (as in the Twelfth Degree of Humility in the Rule of Saint Benedict) because for him there was no difference in meaning. Thus, Dom Sylvester once gave a seminar on a sermon of Meister Eckhart filled with references to Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi and illustrated by a Buddhist icon.


On a visit to the tomb of Mevlana Jalalu’ddin Rumi in Konya, someone once said to Bulent Rauf  ‘You must love Rumi very much to come every year’, to which Bulent Rauf replied ‘No’. The person was astonished, whereupon Bulent Rauf said, ‘We love what Rumi loves and what Rumi loves, loves Rumi’. Bulent Rauf and Dom Sylvester both love what Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi loves and what Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi loves, loves Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, loves Bulent Rauf, loves Dom Sylvester. Accordingly, both Bulent Rauf and Dom Sylvester are, in the very highest sense and meaning of the expression, Men of God. Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi wrote:

Oh marvel! a garden amidst fires!
My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

[The Tarjumán Al-Ashwáq. A collection of Mystical Odes by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, trans. by Reynold A. Nicholson, (London: Theosophical Publishing House Ltd, 1978 repr.), p 67.]

Bulent Rauf and Dom Sylvester Houédard: two men who knew indeed the marvel of a garden amidst fires, whose hearts truly were capable of every form and truly were a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, a temple for idols and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran; who truly did follow the religion of Love; whose religion and faith did indeed consist in following Love’s camels whatever way they take and who are, accordingly, in the very highest sense and meaning, friends of God and, therefore, God’s friends.

[2] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes. Included in Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes, Trans. and annotated by Hilda C. Graef, Ancient Christian Writers, The Works Of The Fathers In Translation, No. 18 (New York, N.Y./ Ramsey N.J.: Newman Press, Paulist Press, 1954) Sermon 3, ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’, p.112.
[3] Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, Kernel Of The Kernel, in Ismail Hakki Bursevi’s Translation [into Ottoman Turkish] of Kernel Of The Kernel, translated into English by Bulent Rauf, (Sherborne House, Sherborne, Cheltenham: Published on behalf of the Beshara Trust by Beshara Publications, n.d.), p.46.
[4] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, included in From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings. Selected and with an Introduction by Jan Daniélou, S.J. Trans. and ed. by Herbert Musurillo, S.J. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), pp.162-163.
[5] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, To Call Oneself A Christian, included in The Fathers Of The Church, A New Translation, vol. 58, St Gregory Of Nyssa Ascetical Works. Trans. by Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 1999 reprint), p.87.
[6] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, included in The Fathers Of The Church, chapter 12, pp.44-45. Also included in Nicene And Post Nicene Fathers, vol. v, Saint Gregory Of Nyssa Dogmatic Treatises, etc. Trans. with Prolegomena, Notes and Indices by William More and Henry Austin Wilson, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979 reprint), chapter XII, p.358. Also included in From Glory to Glory, pp.114-115.
[7] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, op.cit. p.116.
[8] ibid. p.124.
[9] See also what the Benedictine monk, ‘a most saintly man’, said to Mr. Bennett (J.G. Bennett): ‘that he found nothing strange in the assertion that Mary should undertake to unite all who worship God in purity of heart’, after Mr. Bennett had been told by Christ, in a vision, that ‘It is my Will that my Church and Islam should be united’. When Mr. Bennett asked who could accomplish this? The reply was ‘Mary’.  Witness: The Autobiography of John G. Bennett, (London: Turnstone Books, 1975 edition), p.347.
[10] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, included in The Fathers Of The Church, chapter 18, p.59. Also included in Nicene Fathers, (XVIII), p.364.
[11] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On The Christian Mode Of Life, included in the Fathers Of The Church, p.133.
[12] ibid, pp.132-133.
[13] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer, Sermon 1, in The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes, pp.41-42.
[14] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, chapter 2, p.11. Also included in Nicene Fathers, pp.344-345 in a slightly different translation: ‘What happened in the stainless Mary when the fullness of the Godhead which was in Christ shone out through her, that happens in every soul that leads by rule the virgin life. No longer indeed does the Master come with bodily presence; “we know Christ no longer according to the flesh” [II Corinthians 5.16]; but, spiritually, He dwells in us and brings His Father with Him, as the Gospel somewhere tells.’ [John 14.23]
[15] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On The Christian Mode Of Life, p.148.
[16] Jalalu’ddin Rumi from the Mathnawi, Book I, ll. 1776 et seq. quoted by R.A. Nicholson in Rumi Poet and Mystic. Translations, Introduction and Notes by Reynold A. Nicholson, (London: Mandala Books, Unwin Paperbacks, 1978), p.34.
[17] Lois Lang-Sims, One Thing Only, A Christian Guide to the Universal Quest for God, (New York, N.Y: Paragon House, First Edition, 1988), p.7.
[18] ibid. pp.1 & 2.
[19] All three Treatises included in Fathers Of The Church: On What It Means To Call Oneself A Christian, pp.79-89, On Perfection, pp.93-122, On The Christian Mode Of Life, pp.125-158. For the dating of the latter, see Virginia Woods Callahan in her Introduction to On The Christian Mode Of Life, p.126 where she says that it is believed to have been written after 390.
[20] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, included in The Fathers Of The Church, p.96.
[21] ibid.p.98.
[22] ibid.p.98.
[23] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, To Call Oneself A Christian, p.85.
[24] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, p.120.
[25] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, To Call Oneself A Christian, p.85.
[26] J.G. Bennett, Journeys in Islamic Countries, (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bennett Books, First Bennett books Edition, 2000), p.233.
[27] Lois Lang-Sims, One Thing Only, p.134.
[28] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, from the Commentary on the Canticle, Sermon 14, included in, From Glory to Glory, pp.279-281.
[29] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, p.48. Also included in, Nicene Fathers, XIII, p.359.
[30] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, ibid. p.50. Also included in, Nicene Fathers, XIII, p.360.
[31] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, Sermon 5, ‘Blessed are the merciful…’, pp.138ff.
[32] ibid. p.139.
[33] ibid. p.132.
[34] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, Sermon 7, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’, p.165.
[35] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, p.103.
[36] Joseph Campbell, The Masks Of God, IV vols., (London: This edition first published by Souvenir Press (Educational & Academic) Ltd., 2000), vol. II, Oriental Mythology, p.82.
[37] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, Sermon 7, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’ pp.158-159.
[38] ibid. p.160. See also On Perfection, pp.102-103.
[39] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Canticle, Sermon 4, included in From Glory to Glory, p.173.


The Singleness of Being within the context of the work of St. Gregory of Nyssa

by Edward Hallinan