The Purifying Fire of Divine Love // Gregory of Nyssa on the Purification of the Soul

Some of you are aware that I’m in the midst of writing a book with NavPress (scheduled to release 2020). The book is about the way in which a life of engagement with the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – shapes us to be people of faith, hope, and love. In some ways, it is a kind of theological roadmap for the spiritual journey, in both its heights and its depths.

Anyway. The last couple weeks I’ve been working on a chapter about the experience of the Holy Spirit not simply as water that quenches our thirst, but as fire that burns – indeed as the Fire behind the many fires that do burn in our lives. It’s been a fun and at times vexing chapter to write.

In any event, I was reminded as I was writing that one of my theological faves, the brilliant 4th century bishop Gregory of Nyssa, has some profound thoughts on this subject. Last year I read a little treatise of his called On the Soul and the Resurrection in which he devotes two chapters to the process of purification by Divine Love. I was moved enough by the chapters that I decided to write a summary of them last fall…

…and am now posting that summary here. It’s pretty quote-heavy – which was, of course, the point. I was trying to track with Gregory’s thought as much as I could. I resourced a bit of it today for the chapter I’m writing and am offering it to you for your own enrichment :). I haven’t read a ton of Gregory, but I suspect that those who know his work well would say that these chapters represent him at his theological, pastoral, and literary best… it’s good reading.

Hope you enjoy,

Andrew

For Gregory, union with God and the purification of the soul are two ways of describing the same process.

In On the Soul and the Resurrection chapters 6 and 7 he describes this process in some detail. The story of the rich man and the poor man in the book of Luke provides a window into it. While the poor Lazarus has been freed from concern over the fleshly life he has left behind, the rich man is “not yet released from fleshly attachment” (p. 75). Nyssa sees in this an instruction on the spiritual life, writing:

…the Lord seems to be teaching that we who are living in the flesh ought as much as possible to separate ourselves and release ourselves from its hold by the life of virtue, so that after death we may not need another death to cleanse us from the remains of the fleshly glue. Then, as if chains have been broken away from the soul, its course may become light and easy towards the good, when no bodily weight drags the soul to itself (pp. 75-76).

The “passions” of the present, earthly life for Gregory need to be burned off of the soul so that it can enter into its rest–that is, loving union with God.

He anticipates an objection: if “passion” with all of its yearnings and desires, is burned off of the soul, then with what will that “purified” soul desire God? What will be left? He answers:

…the faculty of contemplation and discernment is proper to the godlike part of the soul, since by these we comprehend even the divine. So, you see, if our soul should become free of its attachment to the irrational emotions either by our effort in this life or by the purification hereafter, it will in no way be hindered from the contemplation of the beautiful.

And why is that? Here we come to a core principle in Gregory: that “like attracts like.” If and when the soul is made beautiful by the Beautiful itself, that is God, it will increasingly find itself drawn into and at rest within God himself:

For beauty has in its own nature an attractiveness for everyone who looks at it. So if the soul becomes clean of all evil, it will exist entirely in beauty. The divine is beautiful by its own nature. The soul will be joined with the divine through its purity, adhering to that which is proper to it. If this should happen, there will no longer be a need for the impulse of desire to lead us toward the beautiful. He who passes his life in darkness will desire the light; if he should come into the light, attainment will replace desire (p. 77).

When this occurs, the soul will become a kind of looking-glass through which the individual, beautified by its contact with the Beautiful itself, gazes at God:

Therefore the soul will not receive any disadvantage in respect to participation in the good, if it should be freed from these impulses. It will go back to itself and see clearly what is in its nature, and through its own beauty it will look upon the archetype as if in a mirror and an image. We can say truly that the accurate likeness of the divine consists in our soul’s imitation of the superior Nature (p. 78).

But we are, let it be noted, at this moment not in a state of “attainment.” Life this side of union with God is a life of longing and desire for what we lack–namely, God and his beauty, his goodness, his perfection, which is the ground and goal of all things. Gregory describes the perfection of the divine Nature:

But the Nature which exceeds every good conception and surpasses every power, because It needs none of those things which are thought of as good, being Itself the fullness of good things, and because It is not in beauty by participation of some beauty, but is Itself the nature of the beautiful (whatever the mind may assume the beautiful to be), does not even admit the impulse of hope in Itself, for hope operates only in respect to what is not present…Since, then, the divine Nature surpasses every good, and the good is dear in every way to the good, for this reason, looking at Itself, It both wants what It has and has what It wants, not receiving anything from outside into Itself (p. 79).

And so, for Gregory, the inner life of the Triune God is, to use the words of St. Paul, “blessed forever”, always wanting what It has and having what It wants–fullness in and of Itself. Our own blessedness consists in our everlasting eschatological participation in that fullness of life that is God. There, memory will fade as our soul is engulfed in “occupation with the enjoyment of good things” (p. 79)–namely, God.

As yet we journey towards said engulfment, for Gregory it is a matter of great obviousness that the process of becoming one with the divine Nature is not easy or painless. In point of fact, it is quite painful, for our souls are weighed down with all kinds and sorts of impurities–evils that must purged by the fires of divine love. He writes:

But if the soul is light and simple, with no bodily weight holding it down, its progress towards the One who attracts it becomes pleasant and easy. If, on the contrary, it is fastened to the material condition with the nails of passionate attachment, it will probably experience something like what happens to the bodies which are buried by debris when buildings collapse in earthquakes…some such experience I think will happen to the soul, when the divine Power by Its love for mankind draws Its own out from the irrational and material debris. For it is not out of hatred or vengeance for an evil life (in my opinion) that God brings painful conditions upon sinners, when He seeks after and draws to Himself whatever has come to birth for His sake; but for a better purpose He draws the soul to Himself, who is the fountain of all blessedness (p. 83).

Purification–which is none other than the experience of divine love drawing the soul to itself–hurts because we are mired in “passionate attachment.” The love that should have been reserved for God alone and directed rightly towards the neighbor has been fused to lesser things, warped and pulled out of shape, thus corrupting the soul. Gregory likens the process of purification to a goldsmith working with metal:

…inevitably the pure metal is melted along with the base admixture. When the latter is consumed, the former remains. In the same way when evil is consumed by the purifying fire, the soul which is united to evil must necessarily also be in the fire until the base adulterant material is removed, consumed by the fire (p. 84).

No part of the human soul, the human life, will, according to Gregory, avoid the fire, for our God is a consuming fire of love. And though his love falls on us only and ever for our good, nevertheless, the process is not easy or painless. The pain, the judgment, for Gregory, is not punitive. It is redemptive and restorative. He notes:

…the divine judgment…does not primarily bring punishment on sinners. As our discourse has just shown, it operates only by separating good from evil and pulling the soul towards the fellowship of blessedness. It is the tearing apart of what has grown together which brings pain to the one who is being pulled (p. 84).

How much pain need we endure? The answer should by now be obvious:

…the measure of pain is proportional to the quantity of evil in each person. For it is not likely that the one who has gone far in forbidden evils and the one who has fallen into moderate transgressions will be distressed equally as they are purified from their wretched condition. Probably that painful fire is kindled more or less hotly depending on the quantity of matter, and it burns as long as it has fuel…for evil must be altogether removed in every way from being, and, as we have said before, that which does not really exist must cease to exist at all. Since evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice, when all choice is in God, evil will suffer a complete annihilation because no receptacle remains for it (pp. 84-85).

God will have his good creation cleansed of evil, and if we choose (for we may) to cling to our evil, misusing the freedom whereby we were intended to abandon ourselves to the Good, who is God, then we will fall into non-being, we will suffer “annihilation”–for, according to Gregory and the better part of the Great Tradition, evil has no essential being.

This, for Gregory, is the reason for moral and spiritual rectitude in this life–we are preparing ourselves for the union of our freedom with the great Freedom, for our will with God’s will, for our spirit with God, who is spirit. “Hence those who are released from evil will be in the divine Nature, so that, as the apostle says, ‘God may be all in all.’” (p. 86). In this state of eschatological blessedness, God become our total environment. He writes:

…the divine Nature will become everything for us and will replace everything, distributing itself appropriately for every need of that life. This is clear from the divine sayings, that God becomes a place for the saints, a house, a garment, nourishment, drink, light, wealth, dominion, and every concept and name of the things which contribute to the good life for us. He who becomes all will also be in all. In this the apostle seems to me to teach the complete annihilation of evil. If God will be in everything which exists, evil obviously will not be among the things which exist; for if one should suppose that evil existed, how would it remain true that God is ‘in all’? If evil is excluded, not all things are included. But He who will be ‘in all’ will not be in what does not exist (pp. 86-87).

This is where Gregory’s theology reaches some of its most staggeringly beautiful heights. Of the souls that endure the purifying fire of divine Love, the process of “stretching out” towards and into that love never ends, for by its very nature it never can end. Though he does not use the word, “epektasis” is clearly in view:

Our rational nature came to birth for this purpose, so that the wealth of divine good things might not be idle. A kind of vessels and voluntary receptacles for souls were fashioned by the Wisdom which constructed the universe, in order that there should be a container to receive good things, a container which would always become larger with the addition of what would be poured into it. For participation in the divine good is such that it makes anyone into whom it enters greater and more receptive. As it is taken up it increases the power and magnitude of the recipient, so that the person who is nourished in this way always grows and never ceases from growth. Since the fountain of good things flows unfailingly, the nature of the participants who use all the influx to add to their own magnitude (because nothing of what is received is superfluous or useless) becomes at the same time both more capable of attracting the better and more able to contain it. Each adds to the others: the one who is nourished gains greater power from the abundance of good things, and the nourishing supply rises in flood to match the increase of the one who is growing. Those whose growth is not cut off by any limit will surely continue to increase in this manner (pp. 87-88).

This is one of the excellent reasons why we need “resurrection bodies.” Our currently bodily existence weighs us down. We will need to be outfitted with bodies both light enough and durable enough for the soul’s endless pursuit of God. He concludes chapter 7:

For although this bodily covering is now dissolved by death, you will see it woven again from the same elements, not indeed with its present coarse and heavy texture, but with the thread re-spun into something subtler and lighter, so that the beloved body may be with you and be restored to you again in better and even more lovable beauty (p. 88).

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