St. Gregory’s Spiders

All that man pursues in this life has no existence except in the mind, not in reality; opinion, honor, dignities, glory, fortune: all these are the work of life’s spiders. …

But those who rise to the heights escape, with the flick of a wing, from the spiders of this world. Only those who like flies, are heavy without energy remain caught in the glue of this world and are taken and bound, as though in nets, by honors, pleasures, praise and manifold desires, and thus they become prey of the beast that seeks to capture them.

St Gregory of Nyssa

from Commentary on the Psalms

Biographical Notes on St Gregory by Thomas Merton from The Ascent To Truth 1951

Gregory Bishop Of Nyssa (in Asia minor), is at once the most important and the most neglected of the early christian mystical theologians.  He was the brother of St. Basil the Great, who introduced monasticism into Asia Minor, whence it was to pass to Europe. The two brothers, together with with another Gregory, Bishop of Nazianz, formed a powerful triad.  They saved the church in the age of its greatest peril–for theirs was the century of Arianism.  And since Arianism denied the divinity of Christ, its triumph would have meant the extinction of Christian Mysticism.  For Christian mysticism would be impossible without the Incarnate Word, and without a Trinity of Persons in the unity of Divine Nature. Both these doctrines were denied by the Arians.  The consequence of such denial, in mysticism, reduces contemplation to the level of poetry, or at best of pantheism.  St. Gregory of Nyssa was born in Cappadocia (part of modern Turkey) about 355 A.D., when the fervor of the Desert Fathers was at its height.  A man of literary tastes, he first married and settled in the world, but later he entered the monastery founded by his brother St. Basil, on the banks of the river Iris.  There he gave himself to prayer, asceticism, and the contemplative study of theology.  In 371 Saint Basil, who had meanwhile become Bishop of Caesarea, consecrated Gregory Bishop of a nearby city called Nyssa.  Although Gregory did not come up to his brother’s expectations as an administrator, he distinguished himself by his theological writings and by his preachings against the prevalent Arian heresy. His was certainly not at age in which contemplatives were tempted to imagine that questions of dogma were mere matters of speculation and therefore had no essential role to play in an “affective” monastic spirituality.  It was, in fact, contemplatives–Saint Athanasius, Saint Basil, the two Gregorys–and the monastic order as a whole who saved Christian theology in the fourth century.

Saint Gregory is the true father of Christian apophatic mysticism, but this distinction of his has been forgotten since the appearance of a certain Christian Platonist of the fifth century, whose works were falsely ascribed to Denis (Dionysius the Areopagite, converted by Saint Paul at Athens in the Apostolic Age). This Pseudo-Dionysius, as he is called, was a follower of Proclus, the last of the great Neo-Platonists (fifth Century A.D.), but in his reconciliation of Platonic ideas with Christian faith he was also following in the footsteps of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who had died at the end of the fourth century.  Since they were supposed to spring from the Apostolic Age, the works of Pseudo-Dionysius acquired such prestige that all subsequent apophatic Christian Mysticism has rested on him.  In actual fact, Gregory of Nyssa was not only the true fountainhead of this mystical tradition but was also perhaps a greater philosopher and theologian than Pseudo-Dionysius. Two great followers of Saint Gregory of Nyssa share with him the honor of laying the foundations of mystical theology. The were both hermits at Nitria, in the Egyptian Desert. On was Saint Macarius of Alexandria, the other Evagrius Ponticus.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa played such an important part in the Second General Council of Constantinople that communion with him was henceforth a proof of strict orthodoxy.  His greatness as a dogmatic theologian has never been forgotten.  His mystical and ascetical works have always been well known in the oriental church. Only in our own day have they been rediscovered by the west.

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