Gregory of Nyssa was born at Caesarea in what is now Turkey around the year 330 and died in the year 394. He was one of the three ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, along with his brother Basil and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. He was introduced to the spiritual life by his elder sister Macrina who exercised a formative influence upon him, particularly in terms of her ascetic and Scriptural focus. It was she who, after the death of their father, converted the household into a monastery and convent on one of the family estates. The three siblings and their friend are now sometimes referred to as the ‘Cappadocian four’, giving an indication of the mutual influence that each one had in the development of the theological and spiritual life of their day. They shared a concern for the the Holy Trinity, raising up the role of the Holy Spirit in the threefold life of God, and thus in the life of the church and the Christian. In the year 379 both Gregory’s brother Basil and his sister Macrina died, and this deeply affected him; but out of this darkness emerged a profound spirituality. For Gregory, God is met not as an object to be understood, but as a mystery to be loved.
As it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
The ‘Cappadocian Four’ – Gregory of Nyssa, his brother Basil, their sister Macrina and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, played a key role in the discussions about the nature of the Christian faith in the 4th Century. They connected the rational thinking about what might have seemed the abstract doctrine of the Holy Trinity with the lived-out experience of the Christian life, through the encounter with the Holy Spirit. Their thinking shaped the doctrinal discussions in the Church, and engaged with the philosophical issues of the day about the nature of God. Macrina helped to keep the group rooted in the daily living out of the spiritual life, with her development of the local monastic and convent community.
Two brothers, a sister and a friend wrestled together in the faith.
They entered into a dialogue with those within and outside the Church who held a range of different views. I give thanks for this wrestling and dialogue, rooted in the liveliness of the renewed inner spiritual life.
They point to the God who is both unchanging and yet present in different ways in different times and places.
I give thanks for the holy life that stays focussed on God in the midst of all the changes and turmoil of the world, yet doesn’t seek to duck out of wrestling with the world.
Mysterious yet ever-present God, as I give thanks for Gregory and Macrina, help me to listen to the words of the wise, in my brothers, sisters, and friends.
Renew in me the fruitfulness of wrestling in prayer. Keep me faithful in theological engagement with my contemporaries outside the faith.
Holy God, one in three and three in one, You are both shrouded in mystery And yet close to the human spirit. Holy Spirit, draw near to my heart That I may receive your wisdom Live in your strength And speak your words of truth. Amen
The Revd Elizabeth Welch is minister at Clapton Park United Reformed Church, Hackney, London.