Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Gregory of Nyssa on the Mystery of the Human Person

I've begun doing daily readings from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary. This is a daily reading book that my husband used and enjoyed last year and has now passed on to me. (He loves books that provide daily readings, and I'm in the throes of ordering a couple of such books for him...late this year...thanks to an Amazon gift certificate we received for Christmas.)

One of the things I always enjoy about reading the church fathers is the recognition that I'm listening to a faithful voice from a very long time ago. We are connected across the span of time because of our shared faith in Christ, and that connection runs deep. At the same time, a remarkable amount of distance exists because of the very fact of so much time between the writer's life and my own -- though sometimes I'm amazed that it feels smaller than I think, because so much about being human stays the same. Still, I love that the "clean sea breezes of the centuries" blow between us, as C.S. Lewis puts it so beautifully in his encouragement to read old books (which you can find in his introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation). I need those breezes. I need perspectives significantly older than my own.

I love that the ancient writers often have a healthy and wonderful sense of mystery about the human person, something that I think we've lost a little bit in our efforts to understand, explain, and control so much in a time when science holds sway. This isn't, by the way, an anti-science polemic. I love the fact that we've been given minds to ask questions and that, in our curiosity and our yearnings to know more, we've learned so much about the world over the years. It's also fascinating to me that the more we learn, the more we still have to learn. The complexities of life are so rich and full, we can never get to the end of knowledge.

Still, there's a humility and a wonder in some of the church fathers that's just so refreshing. This week the breviary has been focusing on excerpts from Gregory of Nyssa's The Creation of Man. I got a chuckle when I read this line:

"The Apostle Paul says 'Who has known he mind of the Lord?' (Rom. 11:34)...To this I would add, 'Who knows his own mind?'

Gregory goes on to reflect on the fact that not only is God's nature beyond our comprehension, but that we, made in his image, are also pretty incomprehensible. In other words, I think he's saying that we shouldn't be too easily frustrated by our own complexity and how hard it can be to understand our own selves (and others). Our very complexity is part of our reflection of God's nature, which is even more unfathomable (again, in a deep, good, mysterious sense) than our own. Our intellect "remains a mystery" he says, and he doesn't seem all that worried about it. Our mind "has many parts and many components...How does it comprehend knowledge? How are its different elements brought together? The mind is a single entity, not a compound. How it is divided among the various senses? How does this diversity in unity arise? How unity in diversity?" (Hint: he sees in this mysteriousness our resemblance to the Trinitarian God.)

I love that Gregory asks questions that are still, for all our advances in science and medicine, still being asked. I love that he seems genuinely serene as he asks them. And not just serene, filled with wonder and amazement before the mystery of human beings who are made in the image of God who is also mystery, beyond our comprehension, and yet willing to reveal himself, to draw near and make himself known.

(Funny p.s.: my spellchecker suggests the word "humanitarian" in place of "Trinitarian" ~ apparently the latter is not in its dictionary. And it suggests "patriotic" for "Patristic.")


Erin said...

Sounds like good reading! :) I've been reading a lot of snippets from early church fathers online the last couple years and have found Gregory of Nyssa a fascinating figure with a lot of good reflections. I think a sense of mystery is a difficult but excellent thing to maintain in this modern age. There seem to be so many answers nowadays, but the questions remain just as important as ever.

Beth said...

I really like both Gregorys, Basil, and of course Macrina. It seemed to be an amazing time in the church when they were all living and writing!