Notes on the Homilies of St. Gregory of Nyssa. From: St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes. Trans. and Annotated by Hilda C. Graef, Newman Press. NY, NY 1954
St Gregory in his homilies on the Beatitudes begins by taking note of the setting in which Jesus delivers them. In the Gospel of Matthew it is after they have ascended a mountain that the Lord opens his mouth to speak. According to St. Gregory being atop the mountain signifies:
- The loftiness of the teaching that the disciples are receiving.
- “This mountain leaves behind all shadows cast by the rising hills of wickedness; on the contrary, it is lit up on all sides by the rays of the true light, and from its summit all things that remain invisible to those imprisoned in the cave may be seen in the pure air of truth.” (p.85)
- From the summit the Word of God Himself points to everything Beautiful, True, and Good – “…so that hope may contemplate them from the height of the peak.” We are here given a panoramic view of the fullness of life to be had in following the way of Christ, in a vision of what may become, as we freely choose to participate in the ways of grace.
- Atop the mountain is also fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. If we are weak through sin, let our feeble hands and weak knees be strengthened, as the Prophet instructs us. For when we have reached the summit, we shall find Him who heals all illness and languor, who takes up our infirmities and bears our diseases.” (p.86)
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. Gregory points out that if we had heard of a great treasure hidden somewhere difficult to obtain, we wouldn’t prefer lying around doing nothing to the grave struggle that would have to be endured for the sake of obtaining the treasure. We would even ask others to help us find it. So, he says, we also ought to help each other to find the treasure hidden in the words of the Lord. We ought to struggle to help one another with many prayers, as we would help the treasure seeker with many hands.
This is a wise and beneficial undertaking because while the reward of material treasure diminishes when there are more people involved in digging it up, this is not the case with regard to virtue. The whole community, the whole body benefits, each individual benefits, all to the extent that they are able, in pursuing virtue:
“For the distribution of virtue is such that it is shared out to all who seek after it, and yet is wholly present to each, without being diminished by those who share in it.” (p.87)
There is a great treasure within these words: Blessed are the poor in Spirit…
Firstly it is important to consider – What is beatitude? What does it mean to be blessed?
- “Beatitude, in my opinion, is a possession of all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.” (p.87)
- It’s opposite is misery. “Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings.”
- The only truly wholly blessed thing, is the Divinity Itself.
- “….The one thing lovable which is always the same, rejoicing without end in infinite happiness. Even if one has said about It all one can, yet one has said nothing worthy of It. For the mind cannot reach that which IS; even if we continue to think ever more sublime thoughts about It, yet no word can express what is meant.” (pgs. 87-88)
- The beatitude of man consists in his regaining his former beauty in the image and likeness of God. In this way he will have a share, as far as is possible to our nature, in all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want. This eternal, incomprehensible, beatitude is infinitely beyond the bounds of human nature to possess in its fullness, human nature which is subject endless change, and suffers constant need.
- “But as He who fashioned man made him in the image of God; in a derived sense that which is called by this name should also be held blessed, inasmuch as he participates in true beatitude. For as in the matter of physical beauty the original comeliness is in the actually living face, whereas the second place is held by its reflection shown in a picture; so also human nature, which is the image of the transcendent beatitude, is itself marked by the beauty of goodness, when it reflects in itself the blessed features. But since the filth of sin has disfigured the beauty of the image, He came to wash us with His own water, the living water that springs up to eternal life. And so, when we have put off the shame of sin, we shall be restored once more to the blessed form” (p.88)
- He will become truly and fully himself, enslaved to nothing lesser than himself, but truly free, only as a slave of Christ Who manifests the restored image of man in full communion with God, and with other men.
- Just as an expert painter could describe to the ignorant the formal characteristics of beauty. That a face must have a certain proportion, the hair a certain glow, eyes that convey depth and mystery “…every detail through which beauty becomes perfect.” Thus the true and best artist of human being, Christ our God, describes for us in words what it is to be truly beautiful; and firstly, he says – Blessed are the poor in spirit.
There are two kinds of riches:
- Riches of virtue are a blessing,and are to be pursued. Material wealth is to be rejected.
- “…for the one is gain to the soul, whereas the other is apt to deceive the senses. Therefore the Lord forbids laying up the latter, because it serves only as food for moths and attracts the wiles of burglars.” (p.89)
Analogously, there are two kinds of poverty:
- Poverty of virtue, and poverty of vice.
- “If a person is poor in temperance, in the precious asset of justice, in wisdom or prudence; or if he is found completely lacking in any other such great treasures, he is most wretched and pitiable, because he is poor in the things of true value. On the other hand, if a man is voluntarily poor in all that has to do with wickedness, if he has no diabolical treasures hidden in his inner chamber, but is fervent in spirit, he lays up for himself the treasure of poverty in evil. He is the man whom the Word presents as enjoying that poverty which is called blessed, whose fruit is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (p.89)
Poverty of spirit
But now, as was said above, humanity can never attain to direct likeness, to the fullness of divine beatitude when it is constantly subject to passions, and change, humanity cannot by any means become uncreated. “Man can by no means whatever imitate the purity that is without passion.” (p.90) One is reminded of the prophet’s words, all our righteousness is as filthy rags before Him. (Isa. 64:6) and the words of the Lord: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10) So that even the riches of virtue, and poverty of wickedness, would not in the end be considered blessed, for they fall far short of genuine imitation of the divine, or genuine sharing in the divine life. But there are ways given to us of sharing and authentically imitating the divine.
- “There are, however, things belonging to the Godhead which are set up for the imitation of those who wish. Now what are these? It seems to me that by poverty of spirit the Word understands voluntary humility.” [emphasis mine] As an example of this the Apostle adduces the poverty of God when he says: Who for us became poor, being rich, that we through his poverty might be rich. Now everything else that is being contemplated in the Divine Nature surpasses the limits of human nature; but humility is connatural and as it were a brother to us who walk on the ground, who are composed of earth and again dissolve into earth. If, therefore, you imitate God in what is possible to your nature, you will yourself have put on the blessed form.” (p.90)
- Yet humility is not easy to acquire. And since we are, in an absurdly ignorant fashion, often walking around with a rather arrogant, and conceited attitude, forgetful of our own mortality, and because of the degree to which are susceptible to temptation and a change to the worse, the Lord places this beatitude first, ahead of all others.
- “He removes pride, the root of evil, from our character by counseling us to imitate Him who became poor of His own will, who is the truly Blessed One.”
- “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Phillipians 2:5-7)
- “What greater poverty is there for God than the form of a servant? What more humble for the King of creation than to share in our poor nature? The Ruler of rulers, the Lord of lords puts on voluntarily the garb of servitude. The Judge of all things becomes a subject of governors; the Lord of creation dwells in a cave; He who holds the universe in His hands finds no place the inn, but is cast aside into the manger of irrational beasts. The perfectly Pure accepts the filth of human nature, and after going through all our poverty passes on to the experience of death. Look at the standard by which to measure voluntary poverty! Life tastes death; the Judge is brought to judgment; the Lord of the life of all creatures is sentenced by the judge; the King of all heavenly powers does not push aside the hands of executioners. Take this, He says, as an example by which to measure your humility.” (p.91)
In this way, by remembering the voluntary poverty of Christ we can spur ourselves on to humility. There is also another equally valid way of rousing ourselves: by directly attacking our pride and demonstrating its absurdity.
- If we trace our lineage as human beings, follow the pedigree, we arrive at the conclusion that we a related fundamentally to clay, that even beasts step on. “The high dignity of the proud is related to bricks.”
- Look at both ends of your life, rather than at the middle. Look how it begins, and how it ends, rather than at the pleasing form of youth that is already passing away. (p.92)
- Go to the burial ground and look at the heaps of bones. Realize that “If you have seen these things, you have seen yourself.”
- These things are said to the youth, but what of the middle-aged who still obstinately remain proud? “Who are settled in years, but whose moral life is unsettled.” Who are “high-minded” at the height of their office or careers. They are just like actors parading on a stage, blown up by conceit like bubbles, intruding into the authority of divine power – “And they do not even realize who is the true Master of human life, who determines the beginning as well as the end of existence.” “How then can a man be a master of another man’s life, if he is not even master of his own? Hence he ought to be poor in spirit […] let him consider that we are all equal by nature, and not exalt himself impertinently against his own race on account of that deceptive show of office […]” (94-95)
Poverty of spirit also means abandoning love of material wealth.