Saturday, March 9, 2019

Knowing By Loving

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the greatest theologians of the fourth century. His mystical, contemplative work, The Life of Moses, reveals and conveys a depth of understanding of who God is--insight into the mystery of the Holy Trinity--that has held up to inquiry and scrutiny and all of the theological development that has taken place over the last 1600 years. But, like so many great minds of the early church, he almost wasn't.

Gregory hated his role as bishop. His older brother, Basil of Caesarea, needed a trustworthy colleague in a difficult time, and so he appointed Gregory as Bishop of Nyssa. Gregory called his ordination "the worst day of his life." Earlier, he had become a Christian as a quiet contemplative who was overwhelmed when the relics of some martyrs were transferred to his family's chapel. The faith he practiced was one of awe and reverence not power and control. He did not want to lead others in the faith. He preferred a secular life with a quiet, internal faith, but that choice was taken from him. (Don't we all love our older siblings?)

His work as bishop was not universally successful. Not a gifted manager, Gregory was accused of mishandling the church's funds. Although he would be acquitted, he preferred to run away into hiding, where he stayed for two years until a new emperor was ruling Rome. Even after he came back, he did not flourish. There was something about being asked to serve in a capacity that he hadn't chosen for himself that stifled not only his leadership but his faith.

And then his brother died. Although not close to Basil, he was shocked by the news. Soon after, he received the difficult news that his sister Macrina was dying. So he quickly went to her side and spent two days talking with her about death and the soul and the resurrection. And there he discovered his true ministry--leading the church as pastor and teacher and writer and bishop by contemplating the nature of God. It was love and devotion that had drawn him to the Christian faith, and it was love and devotion that gave his faith meaning.

In the gospel lesson appointed for the feast of Gregory of Nyssa (John 14:23-26), Jesus says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." But he wasn't just speaking those words to his disciples. He said them in response to a question. Judas (not Iscariot), trying to understand his master's peculiar teaching, asked, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?" And Jesus' response was love. Those who love Jesus will keep his word and the Father will love them and the Father and Son will come to them and make their home in them, and the Holy Spirit will lead them to that truth. The world cannot know who God is because the world does not know love. And we know God because we love with true devotion.

During the season of Lent, we are reminded that to know God is to love God and to love God is to know God. We journey with Christ into the wilderness and down the road that leads to rejection, suffering, and death as an expression of our own devotion and love. God reveals God's self to us not in a purely mental operation but through a devotion of the heart, soul, body, and mind. The journey we take is not a burden but a freedom. Each of us, in our own way, follows the path that leads to our true self as one made in the image of God. When we give God our fullest love, we, like Gregory, find our true place in God, equipped to serve the one we love.

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