St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses

December 10, 2013

The Life of Moses
St. Gregory of Nyssa
(Paulist Press, 1978) [c.380]
208 p.

To read the Church Fathers is a long-standing objective toward which I have made little progress; this is my first exposure to St. Gregory of Nyssa. His The Life of Moses is, I am told, generally considered to be a good example of the practice, common to many of the Fathers, of the “spiritual interpretation” of Scripture, wherein the literal meaning of the text is enriched by allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings as well. (Here is a brief primer.) Gregory’s approach in this book is largely moral: he takes Moses as the archetype of the virtuous man, and argues that meditation upon the events of his life is helpful to those who wish to be virtuous themselves.

To this end, he first summarizes the principal plot points in Moses’ life in a straightforward manner and then, rather like Proust writing À la recherche du temps perdu, returns to the beginning and tells the story again, but this time extending and elaborating the details, reading the life largely in allegorical and moral terms. For example, Moses’ relationships with his true mother and with his adoptive mother (Pharaoh’s daughter, of course) Gregory reads as an allegory for the relationship between study of Scripture and profane study. Or, in other place, he compares the fire which burns but does not consume to Christ in the womb of the Virgin: “the flower of her virginity was not withered in giving birth”.

Spiritual interpretation is, on many points, at odds with the general mindset of modernity, and it has fallen out of favour. Distinctively modern ways of reading Scripture, such as historical criticism, are far removed from what Gregory here advocates. Something like spiritual reading survives as an aspect of practices such as lectio divina — this, at least, was the reference point that kept coming to my mind as I was reading — but it is otherwise rare today. We are inclined to see it as arbitrary, capricious, irresponsible, wayward, fanciful, and so on. Such criticisms might be just another way of stating our prejudices. As David Bentley Hart argues in the video which is linked below, the practice was not as arbitrary as it might seem; there were criteria for assessing the value of a particular reading. Reading the Scriptures spiritually has advantages, too, which we should not overlook: it encourages an imaginative and contemplative engagement with Scripture, and so serves as a devotional, as well as a theological, labour.

The most arresting idea which I found in this book was Gregory’s doctrine of eternal progress in the spiritual life. As God is without limit, our desire for God is properly without limit, and there can therefore be no limit to our journey toward and into the life of God. God is goodness, truth, and beauty, realities which we can never exhaust. Moses desired to see God, and he was not satisfied with half-measures:

He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.

Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.

And the bold request which goes up the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy the Beauty not in mirrors and reflections, but face to face.

And later he summarizes the same idea:

This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied.

This image of the eternal voyage as an allegory of the spiritual life is a wonderful one. We desire, and because the transcendental realities which we desire are infinite, our desire only grows stronger on satiety. “Further up and further in!”


I learned of The Life of Moses from this address by David Bentley Hart on the subject of interpretation of Scripture:

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