Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Orthodox Monasticism 26 – St Barsanuphios on St Gregory of Nyssa

Questions 604 –605

Question 604


Question of the same and of other brothers to the same Great Elder [Barsanuphios].

Those who believe these things concerning the pre-existence [of souls] do not shrink from saying of St Gregory the Theologian [of Nazianzus] that he himself also writes in his works an exposition concerning the pre-existence—in his homilies ‘On the Birth of the Lord’ and ‘On the Day of Easter’. They explain certain passages according to their own heart and overlook those things which there are clearly said concerning the first creation of Man, the creation of his soul and body, according to the tradition of the Church. For St Gregory speaks thus:

Wishing to demonstrate this, even one animal from both—I mean the invisible and the visible natures—the artisan Word creates Man; and from the material nature taking the already subsistent body and having placed a breath from himself in it, the Word knows an intelligent (noera) soul and image (icon) of God.

And in the passages which follow one will find many things spoken clearly and without any doubt to the hearer concerning Man, created from the already subsisting material and from the soul given by God. In these passages St Gregory also greatly praises the nature of Man and calls the salvation of the body and the soul a gift worthy of God—not, as they say, that the soul is clothed with the body for the sake of condemnation, being punished for its previous sins.[1] And in many other various writings of his, his intention is made clear, entirely clarifying this dogma.

And concerning St Gregory [of Nyssa], the brother of [St] Basil the Great, they are gleeful, for they say that he said the same thing and that he speaks concerning the pre-existence [of souls], also misinterpreting certain passages of his. However, he clearly, in Chapter 30[2] of his treatise ‘On the Making of Man’, powerfully combats the dogma of the pre-existence and refutes it, as do the Blessed David, those in the circles of St John and St Athanasios, and all the remaining luminaries and teachers of the Church. This same St Gregory of Nyssa speaks clearly concerning the Restoration (apokatastasis) but not concerning this [proposition] that they espouse—Hell ceasing, Man is going to be restored (apokathistemi) to the [state] that he was in from the beginning, to being pure minds—; but St Gregory [merely] says this, that Hell will cease and come to an end.

Therefore, Father, say why such a man does not speak correctly as one would expect from a holy man who has been found worthy to speak from the Holy Spirit?

For certain of the Fathers and teachers also disagree concerning Paradise, not saying that it is sensible (aisthetos) [i.e. a material, perceptible reality], but intelligible (noetos) [i.e. a spiritual reality not perceptible to the senses]. And in [connection with] other chapters of Scripture it is possible to find the disagreement of certain persons [who are interpreting]. Therefore, we ask, clarify these things for us, Master, so that having been enlightened by you we glorify God and do not doubt our holy Fathers.


Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. Amen.

Brothers, it is opportune to say with the Apostle: ‘I have become foolish, but you have forced me.’ For I am also forced for your sakes to investigate those things which are beyond my measure and to speak those things which do not benefit my soul—not to say that they harm it. We have left Paul who says, ‘Let all wrath and temper and blasphemy be removed from you together with all vice.’ I myself say: ‘together with gluttony and fornication and avarice and the remaining passions’, concerning which we are obliged to mourn night and day and to cry unceasingly, so that through the multitude of our tears, the stain of all these things be washed away and we be able from soiled to become pure; from sinners, righteous; from dead men, living—and instead we pass our time in one word for which we are going to give an apologia. For he says: ‘You will give to each according to his works.’ And again: ‘We must present ourselves before the judgement seat of Christ so that we may each one obtain our reward for what we have done in the body, whether good or bad.’

Concerning these things we must be zealous, concerning the things over which our Fathers were zealous, those in the circle of Abba Pimen and their successors. This zeal has the practice of being accounted to be of no consequence, the practice of not measuring oneself, the practice of being reckoned as dust and ashes. The other zeal has the practice of considering oneself a gnostic (gnostikos), the characteristic of bringing one to pride, of accounting oneself to be of consequence and of measuring [oneself] in everything, of standing off from humility. Forgive me. Perhaps you are idle and for that reason you come into these things? If things are this way, go down into the market until the Master of the House comes and takes you on in his vineyard. If there were a thorn in your heart concerning that frightful meeting, you would not be occupied with these things. The Prophet forgot to eat his bread and we waste our time and are indifferent and fall from one thing into another? God does not demand from us these things, but sanctification, purification and humility.

But since I was not of a mind to leave you in the midst of tempting thoughts (logismoi), and I was oppressed to ask God to give me an answer of spiritual assurance concerning this, being constrained by both I chose oppression for myself so that I might free you from oppression, recalling him who says: ‘Bear the burdens of one another.’ And listen to the answer of spiritual assurance from God, which came to me three days before you wrote[3] your question. May all the Fathers, all the saints who have pleased God and the righteous men and the genuine servants of God, pray for me. But do not think that, even if they were saints, they were able to comprehend genuinely all the depths of God. For the Apostle says: ‘We know in part and we prophesy in part.’ And again: ‘To whom it is given through the Spirit’, the one thing and the other—and not all those things in one man but some things in one way and other things differently. However, the one and the same Spirit operates all things. Knowing the things of God, that they are incomprehensible, the Apostle cried, saying: ‘O the depth of the wealth and wisdom and knowledge (gnosis) of God! O how unsearchable his judgements and untraceable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has become his counsellor?’ And the rest.

Contriving, then, to become teachers of their own accord or being forced to come to this by men, they made very great progress, even beyond their teachers, and being filled with spiritual assurance composed new dogmas, at the same time, however, remaining in the possession of the traditions of their teachers, lessons that were not correct. And after these things, progressing and having become spiritual teachers, they did not ask God about their teachers, whether they spoke through the Holy Spirit; but, treating them as wise men and gnostics (gnostikos), they did not discern their words; and so the teachings of their teachers were mixed together in their own teachings; and they spoke at one time from the teachings that they learned from their teachers, and at another time from the genius of their own mind; and thus their words were written in their name. For receiving from others and progressing and being improved, they spoke through the Holy Spirit, if they were spiritually assured with something by it; and they spoke from the lessons of the teachers who were before them, not discerning the words, whether they were obliged through entreaty and prayer to be spiritually informed by God with assurance whether they were true. And the teachings were mixed together; and because they were spoken by them, they were written in their names.

When you hear from one of them that he heard from the Holy Spirit what he is saying, this is an answer of spiritual assurance and we are obliged to believe. When he speaks concerning those words and you do not find him saying this, then it is not from an answer of spiritual assurance but it is from the lessons of his first teachers; and paying attention to their knowledge (gnosis) and wisdom, he did not ask God concerning these things if they were true.

Behold! You have heard all of my foolishness. Quiet down then and be occupied with God; and, ceasing from vain talk, pay attention to your passions, concerning which passions you will be required to give an account in the Day of Judgement. For concerning these things you will not be required: ‘Why did you not know these things or learn these others?’ Well, weep and mourn, trace the steps of our Fathers, Pimen and his successors, and run that you win the prize, in Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be the glory to the Ages. Amen.

Question 605


Father, you really are a guide of the blind, and a light in Christ to those who have been darkened, and the truth has been made clear to us through you. For we now find even in the books of the Elders[4] that there was a certain great Elder who used to speak from ignorance that the bread that we partake of is not the body of Christ but a symbol (antitypon), and if he had not asked God about it first, he would not have known the truth.

And another, he also a great Elder, thought that Christ is Melchizedek, and only when he asked God did God reveal [the truth] to him. But forgive me, Father, for the sake of the Lord. I am being daring asking about those things which are beyond me. But since through your saintliness our God has enlightened us in the way of truth, a way free of deception (aplani), I ask that [the matter] be made completely clear concerning this [issue], so that our mind and infirm heart[5] be purified through the discussion of these things. For what reason did God allow such men as these[6] to be deceived? Even if they did not ask, why was this [correction of their doctrinal errors] not given to them in grace for the sake of destroying the damage that would occur to their subsequent readers? For if even these saints were not impeded as concerns correct faith and virtue, yet even so those who like me are slack and negligent but who look toward these saints’ believability for the sake of [their own] faith are quite easily damaged severely here, not knowing the very things you said, that the saints were not able to comprehend the mysteries completely, and that they did not ask God for an answer of spiritual assurance whether these things were true.

Therefore, clarify this also for me, compassionate Father, as you stoop to my infirmity.


Child, God did not allow such men as these to be deceived for he who allows someone to be deceived is he who is asked concerning the way and does not speak the truth. They, then, did not ask God concerning this so that they might receive the truth from him. If, however, you say, ‘Why did God not prevent them by grace for the benefit of those reading those things after them,’ you could also say this concerning every sinner: ‘If God knew that, if he sinned, so-and-so would set an example for many, why did God not prevent him by grace so that many not be damaged through him?’ And life is found to be compelled for men. And what therefore prevents God from saving every man in this way?

For why—are there not sayings in Scripture that are a stumbling-block to the uneducated and to those who do not know the spiritual sense of Scripture? Are we therefore obliged to say: ‘Why did God not speak the spiritual sense of Scripture openly so that people might not be damaged, but instead God left to the saints of various times the work of interpreting the things sought?’ For this reason there are teachers and explainers, as the Apostle says.

Do not be deceived, then, concerning the men you asked about. For if they had asked God, they would have received. For he says: ‘Everyone who asks receives and he who seeks shall find.’ Just as God has made known the road of life through the Prophets and Apostles, thus each saint has spoken partially. And God has not spoken through one man only, but if this man has left something out then that man has spoken by the will of God. And God has acted thus in the case of the saints after those. And if the first say something doubtful, the last allegorize, so that God is always glorified through his saints—for he is the God of the first and the last. To him be the glory to the Ages. Amen.

[1] As we have seen, in the Origenist system the body is given to the mind on account of the sin of the mind in the ‘movement’.

[2] In today’s editions of ‘On the Making of Man’, Chapter 28.

[3] All questions and answers to St Barsanuphios were in writing. Abba Seridos, the Abbot of the monastery, brought the written questions to his cell, heard the answers orally from St Barsanuphios and wrote down those answers when he returned to his own cell. St Barsanuphios assured him that he did not need to take notes because God ensured that he remembered everything correctly.

[4] The questioner would be referring to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[5] The questioner is not a heart patient. He means his inner spiritual centre.

[6] I.e. authors such as St Gregory of Nyssa.

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