Platonism and Mystic Theology (Gregory of Nyssa)

by Dr. Klitos Ioannides

As published in In Focus, Vol. 11, No 3, Sept 2014 

The late Professor at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki Vassilios N. Tatakis in his book Issues of Christian and Byzantine Philosophy writes in connection with our topic: “The entire Christian thought is fundamentally an interpretation of Christian doctrine. It is an inexhaustible work in content. Nobody has dared or will ever dare support the view that with his hermeneutic effort he has exhausted the concept of God. The same applies to many concepts of Christianity…” “…the works of the Fathers of the Church are mainly hermeneutic. They believed that they were commentaries and annotations on the divine Discourse of the Scriptures; commentaries and annotations whose aim was to achieve an understanding of faith, a transition from faith to knowledge and to provide a logical structure to that which, in its nature, is incomprehensible. This is the drama of human reason: to strive to grasp that which transcends it. And in this cause Christian thought has reached real accomplishments, which have enabled man to grasp, by intelligence as far this can be done, the meaning of his relation to God but also of the concept of God Himself…” “In its origin Christian thought is mystical (a transcendental truth). In its development it may be logical, dialectical, “knowledge of the divine essence”, as Basil the Great puts it “an awareness of its incomprehensibility…” “When Basil the Great says that you feel that God is incomprehensible, then you should know that you are near the divine essence, that you have grasped it in some way. Once the Christian writers came to deal with the rational structure of faith, they soon realised that they had to eliminate from their work all possible subjectivism and grasp religious essence objectively as far as possible. For this reason they resorted to Greek thought, which had at its disposal for this kind of work not only abundant material, but also the scientific methods, the tools of reasoning.”

This paramount need of the Fathers led them to Platonism i.e. to the study of the works of Plato and the Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Porphyrius, and Proclus without, of course, ignoring Aristotle, the Stoics and other important representatives of Greek thought. It is here that lies the magnificence of the productive meeting of Christian thought with Greek thought. And it is not fortuitous that Clement of Alexandria thinks that in the Church there are two Old Testaments: that of the Greeks and that of the Jews, both of them offering education in Christianity. And Justin, the Martyr, the philosopher and student of ancient discourse and classical wisdom, considers that whatever was well said belonged to the Christians. Commenting on the tuition he received from a Platonic philosopher he says: “I attended his teachings as regularly as I could and as a result I made progress. Every day I progressed even more. Understanding the incorporeal beings captivated me to the highest degree. The theory of forms gave wings to my spirit, so much so that very soon I came to believe that I had become wise. Indeed I was so foolish as to entertain the hope that I was going to see God, for this was the aim of Plato’s philosophy.”

After all Clement of Alexandria, who too was a persistent student of ancient discourse, spoke of the divine darkness that Moses entered. Following the allegorical course of the Alexandrian School, Clement will tell us that this darkness corresponds to the ineffable and immaterial ideas of being, as God is not, in any case, found in darkness or space, but beyond space and time and the properties of living creatures. The ineffable and immaterial ideas are a Platonic discovery and a Platonic philosophical formulation. Thus, Hellenism did not die in the first centuries of Christianity, even if fanaticism had killed and hacked into pieces the exquisite philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria. Some aspects of Hellenism died after it had allowed its assimilation by the new spiritual currents, which it hellenised and subsequently fertilised creatively, remaining intact and intellectually incorruptible against the spirit of man and its conscious self. Hellenism, discourse and thought, absorbed by the Greek Fathers, who studied in Athens (Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzenus), Antioch (John Chrysostom), Alexandria (Clement, Origen, Athanasius the Great, and others) has, since the 2nd century, been maintained in its most striking characteristics within Christianity. This was achieved through the dialectical method (theory, revelation, distancing from perceptions, reason and ecstasy) but also through the allegorical method (the Cave in Plato’s Republic, place above heaven and movement of the heavens in Phaedrus, spiritual geography in Phaedo, creator in Timaeus), but also through Aristotle, the Stoics, Plotinus and neoplatonism, lamblichus and the mysteries (theurgy), Euripides’ Bacchae and many others (see Festougière, Jean Daniélou, Nock, V.N. Tatakis).

Greek thought through its eminent representatives, with Plato in the lead, trains and prepares the Christian candidate for truth. Thus, the valuable seeds of the Gentiles, as Justin used to call them, blend and come into harmony with the revelation of God, which takes place in Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, as it reveals itself dynamically and in the form of flames at the sacred loft in Jerusalem, on the holy day of the Pentecost.

Naturally, Greek lights illuminate the beginning of the road towards the Truth. And Greek lights also attend the completion of this difficult and full of suffering road towards the revelation of God. With the power of the Trinity and the help of the Holy Ghost, as power from above, the Christian fighter can be saved by the Socratic self-knowledge as well. The prodigal son came to himself and rising he went back to his father. Self-knowledge guided him towards knowledge of God and the mystery of God. Both routes entail an odyssey! In both cases, the faithful need the light of the Gospel and the Grace of God.

A lesson of paramount importance is, according to the Athenian Teacher Plato, the sight of the Supreme Good, which ‘can hardly been seen’ and according to Aristotle the Stagyrite, it ‘can be grasped only slightly.’ The eye of the soul is brought back from the nocturnal day to the true day, i.e. it comes back to the eternal Being (Aεί Όν, Republic) and the eternal Forms through the dialectical orientation and the mental sight of beings. We have been coming across the same revelatory spirit in Christianity too in the form of pure Platonism, since the time of Clement of Alexandria, the only difference being in the content which becomes deeply existential and redeeming.

Salvation is achieved through knowledge, which, in its Christian dimension, is knowledge of God. It is the knowledge that defines both man as well as the form and content of his life. Knowledge in its Christian expression is no longer the work of man. It is the work of faith in truth, which is the result of revelation. The truth of the Gospel decisively transcends human reason. For this great achievement – mastery of his, man has, as his assistant, faith and the grace of God.

Faith in God, as experience of truth and superlative knowledge, is intuitive, direct knowledge. It is the intuitive, direct knowledge of the saints, the venerable fathers and mystics, capable of putting reason, perception and dialectical research behind it. It concerns the transcendence of the human limits, aiming at a prophetic glance at and a prophetic hearkening to the divine will through the soul. It is about a true ‘Gethsemanean’, incandescent experience, an ascent to a mystic Sinai and an incessantly blazing bramble-bush, a holy, spiritual furnace. At the ultimate limit of this spiritual inversion and metamorphosis, deification with God awaits the purified and enlightened believer.

Man has been created in the image and likeness of God i.e. he is a living creature that has the possibility of being deified; and he is deified to the degree his nature allows him. (‘…becoming like the divine as far as we can’, Plato in Theaetetus), (‘a flight of the one and only to the One and Only’, Plotinus), (‘let the One and Only come to the one and only’, Symeon the new theologian).

The message of the Gospel, the ‘good word’ on Easter Sunday, requires of man renewal and rebirth. (A mystery of death and regeneration; the Eleusinian Mysteries; a grain that falls upon the soil; a mystery of death and resurrection; the Christian baptism). However, in the Greek world view (Weltanschauung) man is the measure of all things (Protagoras), although Plato’s grand attempt was to prove that God is the measure of all things. He inverted the entire sophistic attempt and argument and turned it from an anthropocentric to a theocentric one. From the sophistical, relativistic anthropology he directed things to the Republic and the Laws, to theology (speaking of God and divine nature) and the redemption of the citizen and the city. However, man’s guiding reason remains a debtor to the dialectic of both the ascent and the descent, but also to the state of the viewer of the Forms and the state of the actor (character-forming) philosopher king in the drama of the world. If the philosopher viewer of beings, skilled in dialectic, descends from the world beyond the senses, he does it unwillingly, while the Lord does it willingly. Accursed He willingly accepts the bitter chalice of being put to death on the cross and buried in the earth in order to offer, as the lamb of God, blessing and salvation to the race of mortals.

The Platonic discourse transcends itself in the bacchic ecstasy and the conjectural myth, as well as in the best of bonds, which is the analogy of knowledge (Timaeus) but also of allegory. In the Christian thought the soul of the believer dashes towards the other world, the order of things in heaven (St. Paul); it continuously ‘grazes in the meadows’ of God’s word. The heart is warmed by its attraction to the Being and struggles incessantly, through prayer and the eucharist, so as not to fall from the state of Being. In spirit and in truth, and with deep and unwavering faith, he is led, at times, to the martyrdom of blood (the route of the slain lamb) and, at times, to the martyrdom of consciousness (the route of the faithful who unite with God and suffer in God). The lover of God and mystic discovers that he is a spirit created in the image and likeness of God, which from a potential being becomes an actual being, loving his brother and the Holy Ghost, which is God, as revealed to the Samaritan woman by the Lord at Jacob’s well. Thus, with the living water, that bounds to life eternal he can quench his thirsty soul in the wilderness and overcome his possible existential impasse.

Faith and revelation lead the soul to the hereafter and the knowledge of Being (God to Moses), which is at the same time the salvation of man’s being, who is worthy of the grace of God.

The teachers of moral philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Zeno of Citium, and others) have taught us that virtue is knowledge. Many have been calling this view into question till the present day. Christianity has proclaimed that faith is the power that saves. Faith directs the impetus of the soul upwards (“let us hold our hearts up high, let us set them before Christ the Lord,” says the priest at some stage during the Orthodox mass) and, at the same time, while the soul is directed towards the absolute through faith, the latter (faith) acts as a guiding force in the will and acts of man.

Through faith the Christian finds truth and also through faith he is led to depth and height. Faith turns logos (reason) to logos beyond its limits and saves it from the danger of becoming illogical logos. Faith gives wings to logos and through the parabolic paradox of the Lord, the Christian faithful achieve the transvaluation of values and a beneficent change of God’s right hand. The knowledge of the Christian faithful is the force which guides the movement of the soul towards God and it undergoes renewal by the trinity of Persons Itself. For this reason, both the apologists and the Fathers of the Church as well consider themselves philosophers, i.e. seekers of the truth, in this case, not in the manner of Socrates or Plato. They are philosophers in Jesus Christ. Not in the manner of Aristotle but in the manner of ‘a fisher’ as St. Gregory Palamas puts it.

Naturally faith should not be blind. Man, being a rational and free spirit should guide his steps towards the light of God, which is ineffable and incomprehensible.

The human spirit advancing from reason to revelation (direct knowledge-faith) is not needful of arguments and rational proofs. Revelatory truth, coming first, as Aristotle used to put it, does not need to be proved, it cannot, in any way, take any proof. It belongs to the area of the incomprehensible, of that which comes from somewhere else and cannot stand any test (Elytis) and which only through illumination and revelation can be conceived. “Whatever you conceive in the flash of a lightning, remains pure and refined forever” (Elytis).

The ineffable is familiar in Platonism. In Christianity it takes on a mystical content. It becomes metaphysical theology and mysticism accompanying what is incomprehensible to reason, i.e. discursive geometrical thought. The ineffable, being a revelation and a third Pauline heaven, i.e. a heavenly product of the Kingdom of Heaven, comes into the language of the Christian Fathers, the philosophers in Christ, as inspiration from above, a god-inspired annotation of the revelation, a New Testament and an excellent commentary by the saints of the Church, blessed by the grace of God.

The exchange of the Greek and Christian spirit is of great significance. Greek views are christianised and Christian truths are hellenised. The lofty philosophy of the gentiles comes to be related to the truth of the Gospel. The Platonic Good (Aγαθόν), the Idea of ideas, the non-hypothetical principle, cannot but differ only in form and grammar (gender) from the Good (Aγαθός), which in the language of Christ is God Himself. The encounter of the Greeks and Christians led to achievements of fundamental importance to Western Culture. The combination of the two ways of thinking constitutes the quintessence of the Western World.

Let us give an apt example of this fertile and creative encounter of the Greek and Christian spirit, as it was elaborated and formulated by St. Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Basil the Great, especially through his hermeneutic commentary on the Song of Songs and the Life of Moses. The Platonic and Plotinic references can be counted in tens. Also, in tens can be counted the references to Marcus Aurelius, Philo the Judaean philosopher, Origen, Porphyrius, Poseidonius and other gentile as well as Christian authors.

These works have been restored by contemporary science and the books by Cardinal Jean Daniélou, Vassilios N. Tatakis, Vladimir Lossky, Paul Eudokimov and many others. They are excellent and useful reference books for anyone who wants to probe into the magnificent encounter of the Greek and Christian spirit.

Let us go back to Gregory of Nyssa:

Georgios Pisides, referring to St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, in his Greek Patrology, describes him as “most mystical.”

Apart from his family environment, which was strictly Christian, and his close relations with his brother St. Basil of Caesareia and St. Gregory of Nazianzos, Gregory of Nyssa left us a significant hermeneutic and at the same time theological work, pervaded by a mystical language and an intensive pursuance of knowledge of and union with God.

In his first texts that refer to chaste life, as well as his hermeneutic and mystical commentary on the Life of Moses and the Song of Songs, which he wrote when he was of a mature age, we come across an authentic and pure mystical experience. In the theologian, the Christian philosopher and thinker exists, in harmony, the mystic and nostalgic seeker of God.

Following the tradition, which had behind it Clement and Origen, he formulated a mystical theology, which rested entirely on the theological dogma of the Greek Orthodox East. From apathy (freedom from passion) he was led to speculation and from there to mystical ecstasy. Having achieved purification from his passions, he directed the movement of his soul to the illumination of the mind and the vision of the transcendental world. From the speculation of the heavenly and divine mysteries, he is led by the power of divine love and the assistance of the grace of the Holy Ghost to divine vision and the union with God.

Defining, in an agitated by heresy and controversy 4th century, the divine essence as inaccessible to speculative knowledge and the speculative soul, St. Gregory of Nyssa communicated with it only with the assistance of the grace of God as presence of God. He began a mystical life, which was indissolubly connected to the mysteries of the Church: baptism, anointment, the Holy Communion, and the infinite love of Christ the Saviour.

The mystical course towards the divine darkness, the transcendental divine reality for every creation, goes through specific and definite stages, capable of transforming and reforming the human existence into an entity that accepts the favour from above, thus restoring the original beauty lost after the Fall. The various steps in spiritual life, without being linear but multi-dimensional, with the possibility of intersecting and complementing one another, allow the mystical traveller to direct his struggle towards the desert and the mystical Sinai of the soul, forever gazing at the promised land.

The return to paradise goes through baptism, i.e. the purification of oneself from every passion, the final outcome of which is freedom from passion that goes hand in hand with the speculation of the divine mysteries and ecstasy within the living God. At every stage there takes place within man the restoration of the original in God’s image, which culminates in ecstatic love and passionate desire, the union and merging with God.

In the Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa, God is made fully known through the darkness of the unknowable (“He made darkness in order to cover Himself” says David in his psalms). At the first or second meeting of Moses with God, Moses sees God in the light of the blazing bramble-bush. He arrives in Sinai, in the darkness of the unknowable – the mystical darkness – having abandoned every kind of sense or knowledge. In the mystical Sinai man, in the name of Moses, is accompanied by the unknowable and the invisible within which is God.

According to the Bishop of Nyssa, God resides beyond man’s noesis (understanding) and knowledge. The spiritual ascent of the mystic reveals the absolute lack of knowledge of God’s essence and nature. In its fervent desire for union with the heavenly father the soul grows incessantly, comes out of itself and transcends its limits in order to unite with God. Thus, the steep ascent becomes an endless and eternal track, an unquenchable nostalgia.

This is the love of the love-smitten maiden in the Song of Songs, who continuously stretches out her arms to catch him who remains illusive, to invoke her beloved, who remains out of reach and inaccessible. And when she approaches, she realises that this union is unattainable and that the mystical ascent knows no end.

More analytically, the mystical theology of Gregory of Nyssa, the whole spiritual life of man is a mystery of death and resurrection. It concerns the deeper meaning of baptism which, according to Paul the apostle, means death with Christ and simultaneous resurrection with Him. In this way the “new man” is born in replacement of the “old man”, the mortal and the sinner.

When the soul distances itself from every attachment to evil, writes St. Gregory of Nyssa, it has the desire to turn to the source of light, by means of the mystical kiss. And the mystical kiss gives it back its beauty. Having gone through the illusive world of phenomena, the soul makes its way to the shadow. There, it gets shrouded in the divine night. At this point of time it is approached by the divine Bridegroom, who never manifests himself.

The first stage, that of baptism, i.e. the purification of the soul from ignorance, illusion and sin, in the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, is defined as distance, departure, alienation, separation from evil and error. Sensual life is brought to an end by participation in the mysteries of the Church, the presence of the incarnated Word (Logos) and the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Life in accordance with the mysteries, true mystagogy, leads the soul to the peaks of mystic life, to sober intoxication.

In the allegorical language, the Judaeans, the sinful men that we all are, must die in the world of passions like the Egyptians in their attempt to cross the Red Sea, so that we may receive illumination. The mystery of the water, baptism, offered by Christ, involves purgation from passions and, at the same time, illumination of the soul. In the Life of Moses baptism (the mystery of the water) is identified with the blazing bramble-bush. Moses divests himself of the ‘shoes’ of passions and advances to the holy place of light. The leather robes of the Genesis, in which were dressed our fallen ancestors, Adam and Eve, are removed and, through baptism, the purified are now clad in the white, brilliant garments of imperishability offered by Christ. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” says the Sermon on the Mount.

The path to the lost paradise, always according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, goes through the vanity of the unsteady, transient and ephemeral things of this world; it goes through desolation, alienation and the solitude of illusive phenomena. The invisible beauty resembles, says St. Gregory, the cloud that darkens all phenomena and inures the soul to the secrets of heaven. The cloud, which manipulates the soul is, in the language of the scriptures, that, which guides the Jews in the desert of Sinai. It has to do with the soul’s stripping of its illusions of the phenomenal, the ephemeral world and to its being accustomed to the speculation of the mysteries of the spirit. The candidate to divine life becomes a speculator of beings, illumined by divine knowledge and things eschatological, a true observer of the mysteries of God.

The second stage, that of the enlightenment of the mind, which took the biblical name of cloud, comes between the light of the blazing bramble-bush and the mystical darkness of Mount Sinai, the divine night, the ascent to the city of the angels, the return to the lost paradise. It passes through the vision and speculation of the supernatural, of the transcendental beings, and becomes openness and frankness of mind, gift of the spirit, freedom from necessity and love of God. This is the return of the misled, prodigal son, to his Father’s home.

In the economy of salvation, the vision of the heavenly ark or the city of the angels does not, for the enamoured soul, mean also an approach to the infinite ocean of divine essence. Every time the soul thinks that it reaches the end, it gets disappointed, it finds itself at the beginning. The disappointment of the mystic is the joy of the cross that leads to Life and resurrection. Mystical life is nothing else than an endless quest for God. The burning soul goes into ecstasy, gets intoxicated, and feels hurt in the embrace of the true presence of its divine lover, who remains permanently hidden, but also nearby.

The perception of the divine presence, the awareness of grace, comes first in the third stage of the mystical union. And the more God is revealed, the more passion and desire (έρως) for the divine grows and knowledge is transformed into divine love. The original image, the first and final reality of man, is restored. The mysteries of the sanctum of God, the true knowledge of God, the ineffable and secret words are conceived and solemnly celebrated in the innermost parts of the soul.

Nevertheless, God remains unattainable, inconceivable, inaccessible, immeasurable, hidden in the brilliant and supernatural darkness. Mystical life, according to St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, resembles the divine night, which the bridegroom of the soul approaches without being seen; he remains invisible. This is the sober intoxication with the mysteries of the blood and body of Christ, the Eucharistic, mystical transcendental union with the love of the incarnated Word (Logos). It means an enduring oblivion of the finite world and an extension towards the infinite and immutable world of God’s calling.

Translated by Costas Hadjigeorgiou


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