Step by Step: St Gregory of Nyssa on the Life of Moses

While we might say the ‘golden age of Christian mysticism’ took place in the West after 1100, the roots of this tradition are far older. Today I’d like to go back over seven hundred years before the time of St. Bernard and St. Hildegard and spend some time with St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose Life of Moses provided a paradigm for understanding the experience of God which is still used, and useful, to this day. Specifically, I’d like to focus on a small piece of this paradigm that I think is particularly wise in our present moment.

The lens through which Gregory looks at Moses’ life is his longing for God. Moses is held up as an example less because of his particular exploits than because, no matter what circumstance he found himself in, he always sought to meet God in it. He never stood still, but was always taking the next step, moving on to the next right thing with God. As St. Gregory notes:

“For this reason we also say that the great 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. Once having set foot upon the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.” (The Life of Moses II.227)

Much of Christian theology, particularly in the West, has been dominated by the question of the minimum requirements for salvation. And so you get the big theological debates about grace and works and ‘justification’ and so on. But the East, led by figures like St. Gregory of Nyssa, has generally been more interested in the maximum potential of salvation. Instead of framing the question of salvation as being “in or out,” Gregory frames it as a never-ending process of being ever more united to God. No matter where we are or how far we’ve come, there is always more to be discovered, more to be experienced. Every step we take reveals another step beyond, yet leaves us more energized and motivated to take that next step forward.

Moses’ life was not easy. It involved difficult questions of identity and belonging, intersections privilege and marginalization, seasons of exile and home-making, experiences of solitude and community, feelings of despair and joy, and of frustration and thanksgiving. And yet, as St. Gregory reminds us, in each of those circumstances, Moses kept going. He was never complacent in success or defeated in disappointment, but always looked for the next right response, the next right thing, the next right step up the Mountain where we meet God face-to-face in brilliant darkness and cloud of light.

To be honest, I had planned on this reflection being mostly on what Gregory says a few paragraphs later, about the infinite beauty of God that draws us beyond what is present into what await us in our union with God. But, as I’ve been writing, it’s become clear that that’s not the part of the story we need to hear right now. These are not mountaintop days. These are “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” days. While we can — and must — look forward to better days to come with hope and expectation — just as we eagerly anticipate the fullness of life in God’s Kingdom — we still must live today in the messy, hard, rough-and-tumble here-and-now.

Life doesn’t have a fast-forward button. The only way through it is through it, one day, one step at a time, whether in light or in darkness, with clear skies or fog so thick we can’t see the two steps up the path. Like Moses, we are called to persevere, to keep on the journey, from one next right thing to the next, moving from from messy glory to messy glory, and trust that the one who calls us is faithful.

May God grant us all the courage to show up each day with perseverance and longing, to take that next step forward with God in trust, faith, hope, and expectation, and, most of all, love. Amen.

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