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Wednesday'a Audience - Gregory of Nyssa on Perfection

9/9/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

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"God Continually Expands the Possibilities of the Soul"


VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 9, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Wednesday at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The Holy Father continued his reflection focused on St. Gregory of Nyssa.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters!

I offer you some aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa's teaching, which we already talked about last Wednesday.

First of all, Gregory of Nyssa shows a highly elevated sense of man's dignity. Man's aim, says the bishop-saint, is to make himself like God, and he reaches this end above all through love, knowledge and the practice of the virtues, "luminous rays that come down from the divine nature" ("De beatitudinibus" 6: PG 44,1272C), in a perpetual and dynamic adherence to good, like a runner stretching forward.

Gregory uses, to this end, an effective image, already present in the Letter of Paul to the Philippians: "épekteinómenos" (3:13), which means "stretching oneself out" toward that which is greater, toward the truth and love.

This representative expression indicates a profound reality: The perfection we seek is not something that is conquered once and for all; perfection is a permanent journey, a constant commitment to progress, because complete likeness to God can never be achieved; we are always on the path (cf. "Homilia in Canticum" 12: PG 44,1025d).

The story of each soul is that of a love which is totally fulfilled, and at the same time open to new horizons, because God continually expands the possibilities of the soul, so as to make it capable of ever greater good. God himself, who placed the seeds of good within us, and from whom comes every initiative of holiness, "forms the block of clay … polishing and cleaning our spirit, forming Christ in us" ("In Psalmos" 2:11: PG 44,544B).

Gregory is careful to clarify: "It is not the result of our efforts, neither is it the result of human strength to become like the Deity, but rather it is the result of God's generosity, who even from his origin offered to our nature the grace of likeness with him" ("De virginitate" 12:2: SC 119,408-410).

For the soul, therefore, "it is not a matter of knowing something about God, but in having God within us" ("De beatitudinibus" 6: PG 44, 1269c). As Gregory notes, "divinity is purity, it is freedom from the passions and removal from all evil: If all these things are in you, God is truly in you" ("De beatitudinibus" 6: PG 44,1272C).

When we have God within us, when man loves God, through that reciprocity that is part of the law of love, he wants what God himself wants (cf. "Homilia in Canticum" 9: PG 44,956ac), and therefore cooperates in forming the divine image within himself, so that "our spiritual birth is the result of a free choice, and we are parents of ourselves in some way, creating ourselves as we want to be, and forming ourselves through our will according to the model we choose" ("Vita Moysis" 2:3: SC 1bis,108).

To ascend to God, man must be purified: "The path, that leads human nature to heaven, is nothing more than separation from the evils of this world. … Becoming like God means becoming just, holy and good. … If therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), 'God is in heaven' and if, according to the prophet (Psalm 72:28) you 'belong to God,' it necessarily follows that you must be there where God is, from the moment that you are united to him. Because he has commanded that, when you pray, you call God Father, he tells you to become like your heavenly Father, with a life worthy of God, as the Lord commands us more explicitly in other passages, saying: 'Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!' (Matthew 5:48)" ("De oratione dominica" 2: PG 44,1145ac).

In this journey of spiritual ascent, Christ is the model and the master, who shows us the beautiful image of God (cf. "De perfectione Christiana": PG 46,272a). Looking at him, each one of us discovers ourselves to be "the painter of our own life," in which our will undertakes the work and our virtues are the colors at our disposal (ibid.: PG 46,272b).

Therefore, if man is considered worthy of Christ's name, how must he act?

Gregory responds in this way: "[He must] always examine his inner thoughts, his words and actions, to see if they are focused on Christ or if they are far from him" (ibid.: PG 46,284c).

Gregory, as we mentioned earlier, speaks of ascent: ascent to God in prayer through purity of heart; but ascent to God also through love of neighbor. Love is the ladder that leads us to God. Therefore, he heartily encourages each one his listeners: "Be generous with these brothers, victims of the plight. Give to the hungry that which you deny your own stomach" (ibid.: PG 46,457c).

With great clarity Gregory reminds us that we are all ...

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