Gregory of Nyssa was the brother of St. Basil the Great, St. Peter of Sebáste, and St. Macrina, and the son of St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmélia, and the grandson of an earlier Christian sainted martyr, yet when he grew up, Gregory of Nyssa wanted to be a professor of rhetoric. He would later be persuaded by St. Gregory of Nazianzus to leave such “paltry and ignoble glory” and enter into his true calling within the Church. We are thankful and blessed that he did.
He is known as the “Father of the Fathers,” “a pillar of the Church,” and one of the three “Cappadocian Fathers” along with his brother Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. (In seminary, we referred to them as the Capp Daddies.) They are responsible for much of our understanding the Holy Trinity and other early theological matters.
Gregory was truly one of the great theologians of the church, but he was also one with a deep and often mystical faith. He is said to have been “enchanted with Christ and dazzled by the implications of his Passion,” and it was only through such a relationship with Christ that he was able to so fully articulate the nature of God. Even so, he was also able to speak in such a manner that the laity could also encounter God through his words. For example, there is his parable of the dancing ape.
On a stage in ancient Alexandria, an ape dressed up as a woman and danced to the amusement of the audience. In fact, the ape did such a remarkable job that the audience truly believed that it was a woman. However, one day, someone through some almonds onto the stage and the ape tore off it’s costume and scrambled around for the food, thus revealing it’s true nature.
Some say that this is too crude of a story to have been worthy of St. Gregory of Nyssa, but it is one he wrote to describe hypocrites within the Christian faith. All appears well until some occasion for sin is presented, then the hypocrite discards their Christian mask, revealing their true nature as they scramble about, fulfilling their sinful desires.
Gregory calls us to a much deeper and more sincere faith than this. A faith that has us pursuing friendship with God. In his work, Life of Moses, he wrote that the Christian is not one who avoids sin because, like a slave, they fear punishment; nor is a Christian to avoid sin like a mercenary whose only desire is a reward. Instead, the Christian avoids sin “fearing the only thing to be dreaded: to lose the friendship of God, and in having only one desire, i.e., God’s friendship, in which alone man’s spiritual life consists. And this is to be obtained by fixing the mind only on divine and heavenly things.” We are to be so enchanted with Christ and dazzled by the implications of his Passion that we have no desire to lose God’s friendship by chasing after almonds and those other sinful desires.
Gregory of Nyssa’s contribution to the Christian faith is far too great to even begin to summarize in just a few words, but if we can learn to be “enchanted with Christ” as he was, then we will have learned enough.