Discussion Questions and Introduction 
to Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses

"And if we consider the cause of our life, that He came to create man not from necessity, but from the free decision of His Goodness, we say that we have contemplated God by this way, that we have apprehended His Goodness--though again not His Essence, but His Goodness.  It is the same with all other things that raise the mind to transcendent Goodness, all these we can term apprehensions of God, since each one of these sublime meditations places God within our sight.  For power, purity, constancy, freedom from contrariety--all these engrave on the soul the impress of a Divine and transcendent Mind."
--Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon 6 on the Beatitudes

Important Ideas in Gregory's Thought

  1. God cannot be comprehended by human definitions; thus, one can only speak of what God's nature (phusis) is not
  2. God's substance (ousia) is unknowable, while his energies (energeiai), that is his divine actions in creation, can be known by the "spiritual" senses ("pure in heart") This division in how God presents himself is comparable to the western notion of the  ontological and economic Trinity.
  3. God is present in both his ousia and his energeiai
  4. Therefore, Gregory stresses apophatic theology (via negativia) instead of cataphatic theology (via positivia). God is known more by stripping away our false notions of who he is over meeting him in the images of the created order. We begin with the light only to discover the darkness.
  5. The world is contingent in its being. Nothing except God truly exists. What we call the physical is really a convergence of how qualities appear to us for God's purposes.
  6. The human being is a body-soul. The nous (sometimes translated mind) is a higher quality which evinces aspects of transcendence, dignity, and freedom that the rest of the created order does not. This is because humans are the imago dei. Consciousness is finally unexplainable.
  7. Theosis, sometimes called divinization, is the goal of salvation. Indeed, it is salvation.
  8. Everything must move toward perfection, so every being will eventually turn back towards the ultimate attractiveness of God.
  9. Apokatastasis, the ultimate restoration of all things, suggests that damnation is remedial and therefore temporal. 
  10. Epekstasis, which produces self-transcendence, is the continually striving of our selves for what is higher and more perfect.
  11. Moderate apatheia (indifference) is necessary for fighting against the corrupted passions, though in the end this must be transcended by a passionate striving after complete virtue.
  12. Eros is the ecstatic expression of agape. The soul finally knows God via the union of love rather than knowledge (theoria).
  13. Desire is better than fulfilled pleasure for it teaches the soul that there is always more to God.
  14. However, human knowledge falsely seeks to possess its prey, while true contemplation is a submission to the gift given. 

Exploratory Questions

  • How trustworthy a source is experience in general?
  • Can we experience God? If so, how?
  • Should we believe in mystical experiences? Why or why not?
  • Can something be actual yet unexplainable?
  • Can something be non-sensory and non-cognitive?  
  • Can we define or explain God?
  • Can we talk about the "spiritual" without images or analogies?  
  • Can one be perfected in this life or the next?

Content Questions (First Day's Reading)

  1. In the prologue, how does Gregory describe the race towards perfection?
  2. In Book 1, how does he imagine the years of Moses prior to confronting Pharaoh?
  3. Why are Moses' miracles described as military actions and strategies?
  4. How does he describe the people's reaction to the theophony at Mt. Sinai?
  5. How does he describe the making of the tabernacle?
  6. What prompts the people's rebellion and idolatry?
  7. In Book 2, how does Gregory distinguish true and barren education? How are we to respond to false teaching and heretical doctrine?

   8.      Why does the burning bush explain the mystery of the Virgin? (37ff.)
   9.      Why does Gregory adopt idea of the good and bad angel of human nature?
  10.    When is one ready to instruct others?
  11.    Why is Pharaoh's heart hardened?
  12.    What is the cause and outcome of Gehenna?
  13.    Why does Gregory think the death of the Egyptian firstborn is typological? (56ff.)
  14.    How does he allegorize the departure from Egypt?
  15.    What does the wealth of Egypt represent?

(Second Day's Reading)

  1. How does the Holy Spirit act as our guide to freedom?
  2. Why are the waters of baptism both life and death to us?
  3. Why does manna offer us a lesson on the incarnation?
  4. What is needed to truly approach the contemplation of Being (God)?
  5. What does Gregory understand the darkness to represent?
  6. Compare and contrast the meaning of the heavenly and earthly tabernacles.
  7. What do the priestly garments and the tablets of stone represent?
  8. What does Moses' experience with the cleft in the rock teach us?
  9. What are the destructive results of envy?
  10. How does the brazen serpent point to Christ and the cross?
  11. Why is it arrogant to seek to take the priesthood to one's self?
  12. What does the encounter with Balaam and the Moabite women teach about the spiritual life?
  13. How does Gregory describe the perfection of Moses?
  14. What does he conclude at the end of Life of Moses?

"Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud.  But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness."
--Commentary on Canticles

Three Theophonies in Life of Moses

  1. The Burning Bush--knowledge, education, light
  2. Mt. Sinai--darkness, silence, mystical awareness
  3. The Cleft of the Rock--epekstasis--there is always more hidden out of reach


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding