Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments
Monday, June 8, 2009

Life of Moses

For a larger version of the picture above, see here. I picked a picture of Charlton Heston as Moses, rather than Michelangelo’s statue, or some other image, because he has a strong cultural identification with that role, and with Ben-Hur, and with heroic roles generally. Theodore Roberts, who played Moses in the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, has no such identification going for him.

The Life of Moses, by Gregory of Nyssa, uses Moses as a model for the spiritual life. This translation, which I’m hawking over on the right, has an introduction that sets Gregory in the context of the encounter of Hellenistic and Christian thought in the late 4th century. There is a book by Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture, that deals in considerable detail with Gregory and the Cappadocian fathers who dealt with these issues. Pelikan’s book is rather dry, and may bore some readers. Others may find it exciting. I started, but didn’t finish it, though I may go back some day. A somewhat more approachable book by Pelikan that covers the same period is the first volume of his Christian Tradition. Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which is highly readable and enjoyable, provided the inspiration for Pelikan’s massive study. Newman is one of the great ornaments of the 19th century church and a master of English prose. Anything that he writes is worth reading. A modern attempt to integrate faith within the context of science can be found in Edith Stein’s Knowledge and Faith. Stein was a German Jew who was a student of Husserl, and after a period as an atheist converted to Catholicism, and became a Carmelite nun. She died in Auschwitz on11/9/1942, and was canonized by JPII. I read Knowledge and Faith a few years back, and am afraid I don’t really know enough about Husserl or phenomenology to really appreciate it. John Paul II wrote the encylical Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason) about the relations of faith and science/reason. Amazon has two books that come up in relation to Fides et ratio. The reviews indicate that they are good. And don’t forget, if you have trouble staying awake while reading these books, you can always buy the Mystic Monks coffee that’s being hawked over on the left.

Gregory provides a justification for the “baptism” of Hellenistic thought. When I thought I would have the motivation to finish my book on the anti-Darwinists I had a large table that listed authors who attempted to syncretize Greco-Roman thought with Christianity. (See here. Table on pages 9-10). As we move along, we’ll be looking at how Gregory integrates Greco-Roman thought, and at his spiritual teachings.

Gregory uses a quadripartite structure in which he provides:

An introduction. The history (or historia). The contemplation (theoria), or spiritual meaning. The conclusion.

The life itself is divided into two books. Book I, is a brief summary of the life of Moses. Book II, is mainly the spiritual application of the principles found in the life.

I’ll be referring to passages by Book and paragraph number.

Gregory pre-dates Pseudo-Dionysius by a century of two, but he strikes some of the themes that will be enunciated by Dionysius and by later saints. The first theme that emerges is that of the infinite. “But in the case of virtue we have learned from the Apostle that its one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit” (I, 5). Now in thinking about the infinite we can run into a mathematical and theological convergence. There is an interesting book on this convergence, The Mystery of the Aleph by Amir Aczel, that focuses on the efforts of Cantor and Godel to understand the nature of infinity. For now, however, it will do to think of infinity in Anselm’s term as that than which nothing can be greater. So perfection is endless, and the pursuit of virtue is endless. Since virtue, and the good are infinite, it is impossible to say anything that fully expresses these qualities, so we are in the realm of negative theology again. We saw this a little while ago in our discussion of Pseudo-Dionysius.

In I, 7 Gregory says “The Divine One is himself the Good (in the primary and proper sense of the word), whose very nature is goodness.” In this we recognize the first name that was given to God by Dionysius in The Divine Names.

In I, 12 Gregory says that men and women should look to male and female models respectively to be directed in virtue, and in 15 he uses Moses “as our example for life in our treatise.” It’s not clear whether Moses is to be the model for men only, or for both men and women.

Gregory adheres to the idea, which we find in Milton’s Paradise Lost, that the pagan gods were demonic beings, and that the actions of sorcerers were due to those same demons. Referring to the encounter with the magicians of Egypt, when the staff of Moses turned into a serpent and devoured those of the magicians, he says, “The rods of the sorcerers had no means of defense nor any power of life, only the appearance which cleverly devised sorcery showed to the eyes of the easily deceived” (I, 24). Sorcery is a sham, an illusion, and though we saw the magicians’ staffs turn into snakes, the snakes had no real life in them.

Gregory’s take on the ten plagues is that the Jews did not suffer from the plagues, only the Egyptians did. So when the river turned to blood, the Jews drew out pure water, while the Egyptians got the bloody water. On the last plague, he says, “Salvation was assured to them by the shedding of the blood” (I, 28). It’s not clear at this point whether he means the salvation of the passover, or the later salvation that comes from Jesus.

In I, 46 we get a passage that bears a distinct resemblance to John and The Dark Night/Ascent.

“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 intimate 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.”

Like John in the Dark Night/Ascent Moses abandons the purely intellectual approach, and proceeds by faith, which is, as John teaches, the proximate means to union with God.

Gregory begins his contemplation of Moses by remarking that “Everyone knows that anything placed in a world of change never remains the same but is always passing from one state to another, the alteration always bringing about something better or worse” (II, 2). It would appear that Gregory is referring to Heraclitus and the eternal flux, but the editors refer to Plato’s Laws.

Gregory sees Pharaoh’s daughter as “profane philosophy” (II, 10). After his life with the princess Moses returned to his natural mother, by whom he was nursed. This teaches Gregory, “that if we should be involved with profane teachings during our education, we should not separate ourselves from the nourishment of the Church’s milk, which would be her laws and customs” (II, 12). So the Catholic or Christian youth who cuts himself off from the Church during his college years, commits a grave error. This idea of using the pagan education within the Christian context is brought out again in II, 17. “And if we must again live with a foreigner, that is to say, if need requires us to associate with profane wisdom, let us with determination scatter the wicked shepherds from their unjust use of the well—which means let us reprove the teachers of evil for their wicked use of instruction.

When Gregory talks about the burning bush he makes this point about the sandals, “Sandaled feet cannot ascend the height where the light of truth is seen, but the dead and earthly covering of skins,which was placed around our nature at the beginning when we were found naked because of disobedience to the divine will, must be removed from the feet of the soul” (II, 22).

Pharaoh is conceived of as an atheist. (II, 35). The pagan wives of Moses is allegorized, following the example of Philo, because “there are certain things derived from profane education which should not be rejected when we propose to give birth to virtue” (II, 37). Gregory gives some examples of the worth of pagan philosophy, and its deficiencies, in II, 40.

Moses, before he had dwelt in Midian, was unable to proclaim deliverance to his people. After his sojourn in Midian, he was. Gregory concludes from this “That he who has not equipped himself by this kind of spiritual training to instruct the multitude must not presume to speak among the people” (II, 55).

The clay which the Jews are to use for the bricks is mud and water, which symbolize the “pleasures of the stomach and the table or &hellip pleasures of wealth.” These pleasure can never satisfy because the space that receives them is continually emptied. (II, 60-1).

Gregory asserts that the plagues affected only the Egyptians, not the Jews (II, 66). I’m not sure I recall reading this in the Bible. However, to Gregory the point is to draw a parallel to the urban environment of his own day, “One can also see the same thing happening now in populous cities where people are holding contradictory opinions. To some, the stream of faith from which they draw by means of the divine teaching is fresh and clear, but to others, who live as the Egyptians do and draw by means of their own evil presuppositions, the water becomes corrupted blood.”

It is the Egyptians’ free will that brings the plagues upon them. “Let us not draw the conclusion that these distresses upon those who deserved them came directly from God, but rather let us observe that each man makes his own plagues when through his own free will he inclines toward these painful experiences” (II, 86). This relates to the problem of evil that we discussed in Pseudo-Dionysius, and elsewhere.

On the death of the firstborn, he sees it in spiritual terms as a command to destroy “the first birth of evil” (II, 90). He repeats the teaching as “When through virtue one comes to grip with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil” (II, 92).

Gregory sees the Egyptians as evil and the Israelites as virtuous, therefore we cannot require “the firstfruits of virtue’s offspring to be destroyed,” instead the destruction of the Egyptians’ firstborn is more conducive to the cultivation of the Israelites (II, 100).

When he gets to the beginning of the Exodus, he considers the passover meal, and contends that “the letter looks to some higher understanding, since the Law does not instruct us how to eat” (II, 105). This is all spiritualized so that it reminds of the transience of life, or self-control, or other virtues.

On the wealth of Egypt, he says: “It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who ‘borrows’ from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason” (II, 116).

Gregory says that those newly established in the faith may lose hope due to temptation. To combat this they need a leader whose heart “speaks with God.” Gregory asserts that “the voice which is melodious and ascends to God’s hearing is not the cry made with organs of speech but the meditation sent up from a pure conscience” (II, 118).

When he deals with the crossing of the Red Sea, the military opponents are transformed into “the various passions of the soul by which man is enslaved. For the undisciplined intellectual drive and the sensual impulses to pleasure, sorrow, and covetousness are indistinguishable from the aforementioned army” (122).

Even after the baptism through which Pharaoh’s army is escaped, it is still possible to bring along elements of it. “Take for instance the one who became rich by robbery or injustice, or who acquired property through perjury, or lived with a woman in adultery&hellip. Does he think that even after his washing he may continue to enjoy those evil things which have become attached to him&hellip” (128).

The manna in the desert is a symbol of the Incarnation (139). The corruption that ensues when manna is gathered and saved for the next day is symbolic of covetousness, which engenders worms. The covetous person will be faced with the worms in the future life (142). While the fact that the extra manna gathered on the day of preparation is preserved indicates that there is a time to be grasping. Once we have passed beyond the preparation of this life, i.e., in the future life, it will be useful.

When Moses is on the mountain no irrational animals are to be found. To Gregory this signifies “that in the contemplation of the intelligibles we surpass the knowledge which originates with the senses” (156). Contemplation is not done by the senses. The one who wishes to enter into sublime things “must first purify his manner of life from all sensual and irrational emotion” (157). Here we have the purgative way, and the first of the dark nights, the night of sense, in which the senses and emotions are mortified.

In the post on The Wisdom of the Desert I linked to The Mountain of Silence. This is a book about the monks on Mt. Athos, and it’s an interesting book, and much that the monks say is appealing and valid. The monks mention the three ways (purgative, illuminative, and unitive), and seem to be aware that there is a mystical tradition in the West, but at the same time they also seem to feel that theirs is the most completely developed tradition. Gregory is one of the Eastern fathers, and is influential in that tradition, but he is also recognized and venerated in the West.

In 162 Gregory asks “What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it.” Here we have the apophatic doctrine of Pseudo-Dionysius and St. John of the Cross. “Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible” (163). It is because it is incomprehensible that “The divine word at the beginning forbids that the Divine be likened to any of the things known by men, since every concept which comes from some comprehensible image by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the divine nature constitutes an idea of God and does not proclaim God” (166). The ineffableness of God is also symbolized in the concealment of the ark of the covenant by the wings of the cherubim (181). This idea of the image of God and its relationship to graven images, and to casting off the false ideas of God is something that we discussed in our post on Green Pastures.

Gregory finds symbolism even in the vestments of the priests. Speaking of blue he says, “it requires that he who would be a priest to God also bring his own body to the altar and become a sacrifice,not by being put to death, but by being a living sacrifice and rational service (191).

Aaron is Moses’ brother, and his helper, but he is also the maker of the golden calf. Gregory says that “One kills such a brother by destroying sin, for everyone who destroys some evil that the Adversary has contrived in him kills in himself that one who lives through sin” (211). Lets be clear here. Gregory is talking about killing evil within the self, not killing some other person.

We mentioned the infinite earlier in this post. Now infinity has been known to drive men (Godel for one) bonkers. Take the counting numbers (integers). There are an infinite number of integers. There are also an infinite number of prime numbers. You would think that since prime numbers fall within all numbers that there would be fewer, but they too are infinite. There are also an infinite number of odd and an infinite number of even numbers. George Gamow has an interesting book on this topic. Gregory, who has said that progress in virtue is infinite, says that Moses “as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course” (227). This continual growth is linked to the beautiful. “Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype” (231).

As with John of the Cross intellect is not enough. “True Being is true life. This being is inaccessible by knowledge” (235). Gregory does not formulate it as John does, but it would appear that for Gregory as for John, it is faith that is the proximate means of union with God.

Gregory interprets the grapes brought by the spies as a symbol of the passion (268), and the rock struck by Moses as repentance (270).

When Gregory speaks of the Royal Way, he refers to the doctrine of the mean, which we saw in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (288).

When he deals with Balaam and the Daughters of Moab, he describes the attack of the Adversary (Satan) as an ambush (291). The daughters of Moab represent licentious women (298). This licentiousness is punished through the priesthood (313).

For Gregory, “the goal of the sublime way of life is being called a servant of God” (317). “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire” (320).

Next month, I’ll be doing Bonaventure from The Classics of Western Spirituality. I’ll be doing at least one of the works from that volume.