Unsatisfied: The Language of More in St. Gregory of Nyssa

Of all the metaphors for the mystical pursuit of God, the most common is that of love. In fact, mystics and theologians would alike point out that since God is Love, the metaphor actually works the other way around: it’s not that the experience of God is like falling in love but rather that all of our experiences of human love are a small taste of the fullness of love that we experience when we are united with God.

But this analogy points to a potential pathology in our longing for God. For just as we can become addicted to being in love instead of actually loving, or love the trappings of romance — gifts, flowers, dates, sex, companionship — but never actually love another person, so too can we easily fall into a trap of loving our experiences of God more than God.

I’ve been thinking about this concern since reading The Life of Moses. The other day, we saw how St. Gregory of Nyssa held up Moses as a paradigm of the spiritual life, not because he was a miracle-worker but because he kept seeking more: “Once having set foot upon the ladder … 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). A few paragraphs later, Gregory continues:

“He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken…” (II.230).

So for St. Gregory of Nyssa, Moses is an example for us because he is never satisfied, always wanting more. But is this really a good thing? As Christians we are meant to be suspicious of “the disease of more” and are called to be grateful for what we’ve been given. As we’ve already seen in this series on the mystics, St. John of the Cross for one was deeply suspicious of any kind of spiritual materialism, saying: “Many beginners are discontent with the spirituality God has given them. They go around melancholy and petulant because they cannot access the consolation they crave in their spiritual practices. They are greedy” (Dark Night 1.3). And so I’d like to spend a few minutes today interrogating this language of ‘more’ in the life of faith.

The answer to this problem is actually simple: We should always want “more” of God, to know God better, to be ever-more united to God. But we have to be careful not to confuse the specific ways we experience God — the trappings of religious experience — for the actual experience of God. I’ve already written about this briefly, but it bears a closer examination, because I think it can be very nuanced. A story from my own experience might be helpful in highlighting both the problem and the nuance.

I first fell in love with God in my late teens and early twenties. Those early years were full of powerful experiences and consolations: God met me in prayer and worship and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was regularly brought to tears and filled with joy at church services. I was insatiable and unsatisfied. I wanted more, always more of this God who was changing my life and giving me joy. But, with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, I know that there was more to it than just wanting more God. Yes, I was longing for God — unquestionably — but I was also addicted to the consolations, to the feelings of the spiritual highs.

The truth is that at that point in my life I was just beginning to learn to like who I was. I still felt like I was fundamentally made wrong and frustrated that God wasn’t fixing me. My brother and sister had both long ago moved away and started their own families, and my parents were separated, and as they figured out what their new normal was going to look like and who they were going to be in this next act of their lives, they both disappeared for a time in their own ways. I had friends but always felt like I was on the margins — in part because of a lifetime of always being the ‘new kid,’ in part because they probably legitimately felt like I was holding parts of me back, but mostly because I felt hollow inside; I felt like I was on the periphery because I had no centre.

And so, as much as I did honestly long for God, I was also unhealthily attached to those spiritual highs. They were only time I experienced joy, the only time I felt relief from my pain, the only time I felt full. It makes sense that I would latch on to those feelings and experiences. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Our natural inclination, of course, is to grab on: to help ourselves and build ourselves up.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, 46). This was me. And this is the heart of St. John of the Cross’s concern with spiritual acquisitiveness: not that consolations are bad — not in the least — but that they can be confused for the Beloved.

My only quibble with St. John is that, as my own story suggests, I think it’s more nuanced than he lets on. We can legitimately long for God and be overly attached to our experiences or tools at the same time. That’s why God is patient with us and leads us on, not allowing us to be content with experiencing and knowing God in the same way. And I think that’s exactly what St. Gregory actually meant by holding up Moses’ example: not just that he always longed for more of God, but also that he was always willing to meet God in whatever came next. He didn’t insist on staying on the mountain where he met God in the burning bush, but was willing to be moved forward by God into what had to come next.

Picking up from where we left off in the Life of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa says, to this point:

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.

And the bold request which goes up to the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy the Beauty not in mirrors and reflections, but face to face” (Life of Moses, II.231f).

What he’s saying here is that, whether we know it or not in our attachment to what is, we are always called to something deeper, more loving, more beautiful.

And this is the hope and the challenge of the “moreness” of knowing God. We are always called to more. But not more spiritual things — not the selfish love of self or the selfish love of God, as St. Bernard would have phrased it — but more God plain and simple, the selfless love of God and selfless love of self in God. We are always called out of our smallness into God’s bigness, out of our ideas into the truth, out of our illusions and into reality, our of our “love” and “beauty” and into Love and Beauty. But this isn’t a journey from A to B; it’s a journey from A to Z (we might even say, from Alpha to Omega) in which every letter in between has its beauty and purpose.

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