Gregory of Nyssa

bishop of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), also known as Gregory Nyssen, was bishop of Nyssa, Cappadocia, from 372 to 376 and from 378 until his death. He is venerated as a saint in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism. Gregory, his elder brother Basil of Caesarea, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

As, when one torch has been fired, flame is transmitted to all the neighbouring candlesticks, without either the first light being lessened or blazing with unequal brilliance on the other points where it has been caught; so the saintliness of a life is transmitted from him who has achieved it, to those who come within his circle.


  • Evil will come to nought and will be completely destroyed. The divine, pure goodness will contain in itself every nature endowed with reason; nothing made by God is excluded from his kingdom once everything mixed with some elements of base material has been consumed by refinement in fire.
  • As virtue is a thing that has no master, that is, is free, everything that is free will be united with virtue.
  • Indeed, it was for this that intelligent beings came into existence; namely, that the riches of the Divine blessings should not lie idle. The All-creating Wisdom fashioned these souls, these receptacles with free wills, as vessels as it were, for this very purpose, that there should be some capacities able to receive His blessings and become continually larger with the inpouring of the stream.
    • Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection
  • People who look down from some high peak on a vast sea below, probably feel what my mind has felt, looking out from the sublime words of the Lord as from a mountain-top at the inexhaustible depth of their meaning.
    • Homilies on the Beautitudes VI: 1, tr. S. Hall, in H. R. Drobner and A. Viciano (edd.), Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes: An English Version and Supporting Studies (Brill, Leiden, 2000).
  • 'I got me slaves and slave-girls.' For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or, rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God's?
    • Homilies on Ecclesiastes; Hall and Moriarty, trs., de Gruyter (New York, 1993) p. 74.
  • Every concept that comes from some comprehensible image, by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the Divine nature, constitutes an idol of God and does not proclaim God.
    • The Life of Moses; translation, introd. and notes by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson ; pref. by John Meyendorff Page 96 (1978 ed).
  • If we truly think of Christ as our source of holiness, we shall refrain from anything wicked or impure in thought or act and thus show ourselves to be worthy bearers of his name. For the quality of holiness is shown not by what we say but by what we do in life.
  • We shall be blessed with clear vision if we keep our eyes fixed on Christ, for he, as Paul teaches, is our head, and there is in him no shadow of evil...As no darkness can be seen by anyone surrounded by light, so no trivialities can capture the attention of anyone who has his eyes on Christ. The man who keeps his eyes upon head and origin of all the universe has them on virtue in all its perfection: he has them on truth, on justice, on immortality and on everything else that is good, for Christ is goodness itself.

On Virginity

De virginitate
full text online: Translated by William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

Chapter 10

  • Just as, in the case of the sunlight, on one who has never from the day of his birth seen it, all efforts at translating it into words are quite thrown away; you cannot make the splendour of the ray shine through his ears; in like manner, to see the beauty of the true and intellectual light, each man has need of eyes of his own; and he who by a gift of Divine inspiration can see it retains his ecstasy unexpressed in the depths of his consciousness; while he who sees it not cannot be made to know even the greatness of his loss. How should he? This good escapes his perception, and it cannot be represented to him; it is unspeakable, and cannot be delineated. We have not learned the peculiar language expressive of this beauty. … What words could be invented to show the greatness of this loss to him who suffers it? Well does the great David seem to me to express the impossibility of doing this. He has been lifted by the power of the Spirit out of himself, and sees in a blessed state of ecstacy the boundless and incomprehensible Beauty; he sees it as fully as a mortal can see who has quitted his fleshly envelopments and entered, by the mere power of thought, upon the contemplation of the spiritual and intellectual world, and in his longing to speak a word worthy of the spectacle he bursts forth with that cry, which all re-echo, "Every man a liar!" I take that to mean that any man who entrusts to language the task of presenting the ineffable Light is really and truly a liar; not because of any hatred on his part of the truth, but because of the feebleness of his instrument for expressing the thing thought of.

Chapter 11

The climbing soul, leaving all that she has grasped already as too narrow for her needs, will thus grasp the idea of that magnificence which is exalted far above the heavens. But how can any one reach to this, whose ambitions creep below?
Divine good is not something apart from our nature, and is not removed far away from those who have the will to seek it; it is in fact within each of us, ignored indeed, and unnoticed.
  • Now those who take a superficial and unreflecting view of things observe the outward appearance of anything they meet, e.g. of a man, and then trouble themselves no more about him. The view they have taken of the bulk of his body is enough to make them think that they know all about him. But the penetrating and scientific mind will not trust to the eyes alone the task of taking the measure of reality; it will not stop at appearances, nor count that which is not seen among unrealities. It inquires into the qualities of the man's soul.
  • The man of half-grown intelligence, when he observes an object which is bathed in the glow of a seeming beauty, thinks that that object is in its essence beautiful, no matter what it is that so prepossesses him with the pleasure of the eye. He will not go deeper into the subject. But the other, whose mind's eye is clear, and who can inspect such appearances, will neglect those elements which are the material only upon which the Form of Beauty works; to him they will be but the ladder by which he climbs to the prospect of that Intellectual Beauty, in accordance with their share in which all other beauties get their existence and their name.
  • For the majority, I take it, who live all their lives with such obtuse faculties of thinking, it is a difficult thing to perform this feat of mental analysis and of discriminating the material vehicle from the immanent beauty, … Owing to this men give up all search after the true Beauty. Some slide into mere sensuality. Others incline in their desires to dead metallic coin. Others limit their imagination of the beautiful to worldly honours, fame, and power. There is another class which is enthusiastic about art and science. The most debased make their gluttony the test of what is good. But he who turns from all grosser thoughts and all passionate longings after what is seeming, and explores the nature of the beauty which is simple, immaterial, formless, would never make a mistake like that when he has to choose between all the objects of desire; he would never be so misled by these attractions as not to see the transient character of their pleasures and not to win his way to an utter contempt for every one of them. This, then, is the path to lead us to the discovery of the Beautiful. All other objects that attract men's love, be they never so fashionable, be they prized never so much and embraced never so eagerly, must be left below us, as too low, too fleeting, to employ the powers of loving which we possess; not indeed that those powers are to be locked up within us unused and motionless; but only that they must first be cleansed from all lower longings; then we must lift them to that height to which sense can never reach.
  • The climbing soul, leaving all that she has grasped already as too narrow for her needs, will thus grasp the idea of that magnificence which is exalted far above the heavens. But how can any one reach to this, whose ambitions creep below? ... He therefore who keeps away from all bitterness and all the noisome effluvia of the flesh, and raises himself on the aforesaid wings above all low earthly ambitions, or, more than that, above the whole universe itself, will be the man to find that which is alone worth loving, and to become himself as beautiful as the Beauty which he has touched and entered.
  • Our Lord says, to those who can hear what Wisdom speaks beneath a mystery, that "the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). That word points out the fact that the Divine good is not something apart from our nature, and is not removed far away from those who have the will to seek it; it is in fact within each of us, ignored indeed, and unnoticed while it is stifled beneath the cares and pleasures of life, but found again whenever we can turn our power of conscious thinking towards it.

Chapter 12

Impatience to remain any longer in ignorance of evil would be but the beginning of the long train of actual evil.
  • When we have torn off the coatings of this life’s perishable leaves, we must stand again in the sight of our Creator; and repelling all the illusion of taste and sight, take for our guide God’s commandment only, instead of the venom-spitting serpent. That commandment was, to touch nothing but what was Good, and to leave what was evil untasted; because impatience to remain any longer in ignorance of evil would be but the beginning of the long train of actual evil. For this reason it was forbidden to our first parents to grasp the knowledge of the opposite to the good, as well as that of the good itself; they were to keep themselves from “the knowledge of good and evil,” and to enjoy the Good in its purity, unmixed with one particle of evil.

Chapter 16

  • The habit which many have got into must be as far as possible corrected; those, I mean, who while they fight strenuously against the baser pleasures, yet still go on hunting for pleasure in the shape of worldly honour and positions which will gratify their love of power. They act like some domestic who longed for liberty, but instead of exerting himself to get away from slavery proceeded only to change his masters, and thought liberty consisted in that change. But all alike are slaves, even though they should not all go on being ruled by the same masters, as long as a dominion of any sort, with power to enforce it, is set over them.
  • Is it not want of reason in any one to suppose that when he has striven successfully to escape the dominion of one particular passion, he will find virtue in its opposite?

Chapter 18

The love of gain, which is a large, incalculably large, element in every soul, when once applied to the desire for God, will bless the man who has it.
  • The master of a private dwelling will not allow any untidiness or unseemliness to be seen in the house, such as a couch upset, or the table littered with rubbish, or vessels of price thrown away into dirty corners, while those which serve ignobler uses are thrust forward for entering guests to see. He has everything arranged neatly and in the proper place, where it stands to most advantage; and then he can welcome his guests, without any misgivings that he need be ashamed of opening the interior of his house to receive them. The same duty, I take it, is incumbent on that master of our "tabernacle," the mind; it has to arrange everything within us, and to put each particular faculty of the soul, which the Creator has fashioned to be our implement or our vessel, to fitting and noble uses.
  • The love of gain, which is a large, incalculably large, element in every soul, when once applied to the desire for God, will bless the man who has it.
  • Slaves who have been freed and cease to serve their former masters, the very moment they become their own masters, direct all their thoughts towards themselves so, I take it, the soul which has been freed from ministering to the body becomes at once cognizant of its own inherent energy.
  • The good and eatable fish are separated by the fishers' skill from the bad and poisonous fish, so that the enjoyment of the good should not be spoilt by any of the bad getting into the "vessels" with them. The work of true sobriety is the same; from all pursuits and habits to choose that which is pure and improving, rejecting in every case that which does not seem likely to be useful, and letting it go back into the universal and secular life, called "the sea" (Matthew 13:47-48), in the imagery of the Parable.

Chapter 24

  • As, when one torch has been fired, flame is transmitted to all the neighbouring candlesticks, without either the first light being lessened or blazing with unequal brilliance on the other points where it has been caught; so the saintliness of a life is transmitted from him who has achieved it, to those who come within his circle.

On Infants' Early Deaths

That nothing happens without God we know from many sources.
full text online
  • Virtue is achieved by its seekers not without a struggle; nor is abstinence from the paths of pleasure a painless process to human nature.
  • One of two probations must be the inevitable fate of him who has had the longer lease of life; either to combat here on Virtue’s toilsome field, or to suffer there the painful recompense of a life of evil.
  • Man was made in the image of God; that like, I take it, might be able to see like; and to see God is ... the life of the soul.
  • With the eye in a natural state sight follows necessarily ... In the same way the life of blessedness is as a familiar second nature to those who have kept clear the senses of the soul.
  • If a single luminary can occupy everything alike that lies beneath it with the force of light, and, more than that, can, while lending itself to all who can use it, still remain self-centred and undissipated, how much more shall the Creator of that luminary become “all in all,” as the Apostle speaks, and come into each with such a measure of Himself as each subject of His influence can receive!
  • That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is Reason, and Wisdom, and Perfect Goodness, and Truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with His Truth.
    • Variant translation: Nothing reasonable fails in reason; nothing wise, in wisdom; neither virtue nor truth could admit of that which is not good.
  • The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue.
  • Now that all the distractions of the material life had been removed, Macrina persuaded her mother to give up her ordinary life and all showy style of living and the services of domestics to which she had been accustomed before, and bring her point of view down to that of the masses, and to share the life of the maids, treating all her slave girls as if they were sisters and belonged to the same rank as herself.

Commentary on the Song of Songs


As translated by Richard A. Norris, Jr. (2012)

  • My hope is that by the right process of inquiry and discernment, once the text has been cleansed of its obvious literal sense by undefiled thoughts, the philosophy hidden in the words may be brought to light.
    • p. 3

As translated by Margaret M. Mitchell in Paul, the Corinthians and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (2010)

  • ἐπειδὴ δέ τισι τῶν ἐκκλησιαστικῶν παρίστασθαι τῇ λέξει τῆς ἁγίας γραφῆς διὰ πάντων δοκεῖ καὶ τὸ δι' αἰνιγμάτων τε καὶ ὑπονοιῶν εἰρῆσθαί τι παρ' αὐτῆς εἰς ὠφέλειαν ἡμῶν οὐ συντίθενται, ἀναγκαῖον ἡγοῦμαι πρῶτον περὶ τούτων τοῖς τὰ τοιαῦτα ἡμῖν ἐγκαλοῦσιν ἀπολογήσασθαι, ὅτι οὐδὲν ἀπὸ τρόπου γίνεται παρ' ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ σπουδάζειν ἡμᾶς παντοίως θηρεύειν ἐκ τῆς θεοπνεύστου γραφῆς τὸ ὠφέλιμον·
    • Since some ecclesiastics deem it right to stand always by the literal meaning of the holy scripture and do not agree that anything in it was said through enigmas and allegories for our benefit, I consider it necessary first to speak in defense of these things to those who bring such accusation against us, because in our view there is nothing unreasonable in our seriously studying all possible means of tracking down the benefit to be had from the divinely inspired scripture.
  • ὥστε εἰ μὲν ὠφελοίη τι καὶ ἡ λέξις ὡς εἴρηται νοουμένη, ἔχειν ἐξ ἑτοίμου τὸ σπουδαζόμενον, εἰ δέ τι μετὰ ἐπικρύψεως ἐν ὑπονοίαις τισὶ καὶ αἰνίγμασιν εἰρημένον ἀργὸν εἰς ὠφέλειαν εἴη κατὰ τὸ πρόχειρον νόημα, τοὺς τοιούτους λόγους ἀναστρέφειν.
    • If indeed the literal meaning, understood as it is spoken, should offer some benefit, we will have readily at hand what we need to make the object of our attention. But if something that is said in a hidden fashion, with certain allegories and enigmas, should yield nothing of benefit according to the readily apparent sense, we will turn such words as these over and over in our mind.
  • ὧν τὴν διὰ τῆς ἀναγωγῆς θεωρίαν εἴτε τροπολογίαν εἴτε ἀλληγορίαν εἴτε τι ἄλλο τις ὀνομάζειν ἐθέλοι, οὐδὲν περὶ τοῦ ὀνόματος διοισόμεθα, μόνον εἰ τῶν ἐπωφελῶν ἔχοιτο νοημάτων·
    • When it comes to the insightful reading of such passages that comes via the elevated sense, we shall not beg to differ at all about its name—whether one wishes to call it tropologia, allegoria, or anything else—but only about whether it contains meanings that are beneficial.
  • Paul ... calls the process of shifting away from material matters and toward spiritual matters a “turning to the Lord” and “taking away of a veil.” In all the different tropes and terms for the theoria-meaning, Paul instructs us in a single form of teaching: it is not necessary always to remain in the letter, on the grounds that the immediately apparent meaning of the things said in many instances causes us harm in the pursuit of the life of virtue. But it is necessary to pass over to the incorporeal and spiritually intelligible reading with insight, with the result that the more corporeal meanings are converted to an intellectual sense and meaning, in the same way that the dust of the more fleshly significance of what is said is “shaken off.” This is why Paul says, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” since oftentimes with biblical narrative, it will not provide us with examples of a good life if we stop short at the simple events.
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