Reading the Fathers: Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Life of Moses’, Part One

If Rene Girard was right about mimetic desire being an observable anthropological truth and not just a hermeneutic tool then we should find it everywhere. The Holy Fathers and saints of the church should have already understood it, if perhaps only in an apophatic way. While they might not have specifically named desire as always-contagious, they would have developed an Orthodox phronema which sketches out the negative space around mimesis, telling us how we can live in such a way that we do not fall prey to it.

So I decided to go looking in the Fathers for this Orthodox mimetic insight. I expected to find the subject dealt with in the mystical-ascetic way typical of our theology. In this type of theology the central question is always: “How can we dispose ourselves to co-operation with the uncreated grace (energy) of God?”

And what do you know! Today I began reading St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses and this passage appears (emphasis mine):

45. The people as a whole were incapable of enduring what was seen and heard [the glory of the LORD on Mt Sinai]. Therefore, a general request from all was brought before Moses that the Law be mediated through him, on the ground that the people would not doubt that whatever he commanded in keeping with the teaching from above was a divine command. So when all went down to the foot of the mountain, Moses alone remained and showed the opposite of what was expected of him. Whereas all other men feel confidence in the face of fearful things when in the company of their associates, Moses was more courageous after he had been left by himself. From this it became clear that the fear which had encompassed him at the beginning was an emotion not in keeping with his character but was experienced out of sympathy for those who were terrified.

46. Since he was alone, by having been stripped as it were of the people’s fear, he boldly approached the very darkness itself and entered the invisible things where he was no longer seen by those watching. After he entered the inner sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he was in company with the invisible. He teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and (lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible) believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.

There is so much to comment on in this short passage from Gregory of Nyssa.

  1. The Israelites demand mediation when they are confronted with the glory of God, and experience fear. This even occurs after they have been initiated, purified, prepared and so on.
  2. Moses “showed the opposite of what was expected of him” – namely he was not afraid. Why should he have been afraid? Because the pagan gods with which the ancient world were familiar were violent, capricious and horrifying. “Communion” with them could go very badly, and the Israelites were making a halfway bet that Moses would be sacrificed.
  3. But Moses already knew God by this point, having spoken with him extensively during the Exodus from Egypt. He knows YHWH is a God of salvation, not violence. So why is he afraid? He catches the desire to fear God from his countrymen, out of “sympathy”, as Gregory of Nyssa puts it.
  4. Once Moses was alone he became more confident, and was able to approach the “very darkness itself” without fear, to speak with the ineffable God face to face, as with a friend. It is from this point that God gives the law, namely the commandments, through which we are to purify ourselves of sin and passion.

I’ll post more excerpts as I read, but you can see where Gregory is going already:

  • Unlike the Israelites of Moses’ time, God mediates himself to us through his only-begotten Son, Christ Jesus. As such, the Christian is able to go up to the mountain of the LORD to dwell in the divine “darkness” as Moses did, without fear. However, as Gregory of Nyssa notes, to truly know who God is we have to experience him “unmediated” by social relations. This is what happens in prayer, and is what we call Deification. God wants to speak to us as friends.
  • The law, which was given to Moses from inside the cloud of unknowing, is therefore not just a set of moral precepts, prohibitions and so on. It is something given from inside the centre of the unknowable, uncircumscribable God himself. So there is no opposition between the commandments of God, which among other things prevent mimetic desire from running rampant (do not covet…) and the ascent to mysticism.
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