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Hans Urs von Balthasar
Becoming and the Immanent Infinite in Gregory of Nyssa

From, Presence and Thought - An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa, tr. Mark Sebanc, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995, pp. 37-45

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F TIME constitutes the foundation of material being, this physical movement is itself founded on a primordial movement, a metaphysical movement, so to speak, which is common to all creatures: namely, the passage from nothingness to existence. "Already the transition from nonbeing to being is a movement and a change."[1] "Only uncreated Nature is incapable of movement. All the rest is subject to change, because, without exception, it began by way of an alteration, when it was drawn by divine power from nonbeing to existence."[2] But we know already that this "beginning" of being should not be understood in a temporal way, time being a category of created being. The being that comes to be does not cease to become, or, rather, it is quite entirely becoming. The idea of change that comes into play here is therefore subjacent to all its being: "Since it possesses the beginning (ἀρχή) of its being by way of change, it is impossible that it should not be entirely variable (τρεπτός)."[3] For the material creature, this perseverance in change is precisely time. For the spiritual being, on the other hand, it is participation in the cause of being not only insofar as it is source but also insofar as it is end. Since its existence is, so to speak, a continuous effort to maintain itself in being, its perfection consists of a perpetual effort toward God. This effort is the spiritual participation in God: "Creation stands within the realm of the beautiful only through a participation in that which is the best. It has not begun merely at one point or another to exist, but at every moment it is perceived to be in its beginning stages on account of its perpetual growth toward that which is the best."[4] It follows from this that, just as the finitude of material being engenders a certain eternity of emanation, albeit in the horizontal scheme of the quantitative and of number, similarly the finitude of spiritual being, which by its participation in God as source and as end constitutes itself in a nature that is opposed to God, engenders an aspiration that is even more appropriately infinite, a vertical ascent that is limitless: "Never will the soul reach its final perfection, for it will never encounter a limit, . . . it will always be transformed into a better thing."[5] The reason for this infinite becoming is the very infinity of the source, which the creature seeks to be reunited with: "Since the First Good is infinite in its nature, communion with it on the part of the one whose thirst is quenched by it will have to be infinite as well, capable of being enlarged forever."[6] Thus, there are two forms of becoming, the two of them together yielding the total formula for the analogy of being. One of these two is the horizontal movement of created being, which is to say, its foundation of nothingness, which separates it eternally from God, inasmuch as pure potentiality (time) is in itself κένωμα καὶ οὐδέν [emptiness and nothingness].[7] The other expresses the ascending movement of becoming,[8] which is the innate idea and desire for God in the creature.[9] We shall be obliged to show farther on in this essay in what way these two aspects are linked and inseparable in all of created being. Let it suffice at this point merely to have adverted to this fact.

At this point we must examine more closely the specific character of these two forms of becoming, and particularly that of material becoming, whose immanent infinity has not yet been clearly revealed to us. We had even, in a contrary sense, identified time and limit. But if it is true in a general and abstract fashion that material being is the movement between a beginning and an end, both of which transcend it, we also noticed that this limitation was bound to be conceived as an utterly intrinsic characteristic, which is applied to each of its moments and each of its elements. It has existence only as a perpetual transition between two extremes that are not it.

This material and fleeting [ῥοώδης] life of bodies, which advances in a perpetual movement, possesses force of being in virtue of the very fact that it never ceases to move. But the situation may be likened to a river. A river that follows its course is able to show that the bed in which it flows is always full but that it is never the same water staying in the same place, inasmuch as one part of the stream withdraws from any given place while another part draws near. Similarly the matter of this life changes within the context of a certain movement and a certain flux, even while it admits opposite impressions within a state of perpetual transition. Thus it is impossible for it to cease from this process of alteration, but [in place][10] of the possibility of remaining at rest it possesses an untiring movement through a change of similar [qualitiesJ. And if ever it ceased to move, it would at the same moment cease to exist.

Thus must fullness empty itself and emptiness fill itself. Sleep must succeed waking. "None of this can have indefinitely long duration. Rather each state must yield place to another, for by such substitutions nature restores itself."

If the forces of the living being are in a perpetual tension, members that are excessively stretched will end up being broken and torn of necessity. Contrariwise, a prolonged loosening of the body will produce a fall and a dissolution of the organism. For nature, the power of continuance, therefore, consists of the art of touching the two extremes at the right moment [κατὰ καιρόν] and in the right measure [μετρίως]. And, by a perpetual transition toward the opposite, it takes its rest in a series of pairs.[11]

And not only that which is alive but rather the whole world also is conceived according to this law. "Divine artistry was capable, by way of rest and movement, of giving becoming to nonexistent things and continuity to beings."[12] "Stability" is given to the earth, and "movement" is given to the heavens, so that creation may find itself moving between the extremes (μεταξὺ τῶν ἐναντίων κτίσις) . On all sides creation is threatened by an excess (ὑπερβολή) of movement or of rest, but it is also in itself the fruit of these extremes ("for that which appears in this world is none other than the result of movement and stability"). In dissociating them, creation unites them (μιγνὺς ἅμα καὶ διαιρῶν) and thus produces the great kinship of all beings.[13] But the extremes themselves are not exempt from contradiction. The heavens, which appear to be pure movement, possess at the same time, the immobility of nature. The earth, on the other hand, which is apparently pure stability, undergoes alterations of substance. Divine Wisdom had two equally profound reasons for this. One of them was so that no part of the world might remain without contact with the others but rather that "each part might incline toward the other" "and that all of creation might be united with a view to the same harmonious aspiration [συμπνέοι πρὸς ἑαυτὴν ἡ κτίσις]". The second reason, which proceeds immediately from the first, is so that no part of the universe may be taken for divine, neither the heavens on account of their immutability nor the earth on account of its stability. But with a mixture of contrasts in the one and the other, all appearances of divinity were bound to disappear.[14] Everything in this world is essentially relative. Everything holds together only by being counterbalanced by an opposite "excess". All the beauty of the world, all its worth, all that harmony that arises from the rhythm of becoming, is founded on those elements in it that are, properly speaking, opposed to the divine.[15] Polytheism arose when men marveled at the world, no longer in its entirety, but rather in its parts,[16] whereas the words of Genesis "and God saw that it was very good" can be applied only to the whole.[17] For the good is never one of the oppositions, since the latter are only "good" in relation to one another.[18] It is the continuity of the whole (συνεχές ἐστι τὸ πᾶν ἑαυτῷ) that leads without any slackening from one extreme to the other (οὐκ ἔχει τινὰ λύσιν ἡ ἁρμονία) and that ties opposites together indissolubly (οὐκ ἀπέσχισται τὸ πᾶν τῆς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν συναφείας).[19] It is this world full of "vicissitudes, of transmutations of all kinds",[20] that caused God to utter the phrase λίαν καλόν (very good) . For the perfection of this universe is a symphonic perfection that requires a diversity of sounds and instruments in order to form a rhythm and a harmony that are at once multiple and unique.[21] In this immense mixture (τοῦ παντὸς κρᾶσις), the mutual touching of the elements (αὐτὴ ἑαυτῆς ἁπτομένη) produces that unique stability that is ordered and invariable rhythm (διά τινος τεταγμένου τε καὶ άπαραβάτου ῥυθμοῦ), "a veritable song of praise for the unapproachable and unspeakable glory of God".[22] In this system of harmonious agreement, each quality emphasizes, by its very opposition, the other quality, "in such a way that there arises in movement that which is stable and in tranquillity that which is perpetually in movement". Incarnated in this universal fellowship of feeling (συμπάθεια πάντων) is the pure idea of music (ἡ πρώτη τε καὶ ἀρχέτυπος καὶ ἀληθής ἐστι μουσική), which the Wisdom of God has itself composed.[23]

Man is by the constitution of his body a microcosm. His harmonious proportions are an image of the music of the world. And since "all that is in accordance with nature is dear to nature", man recognizes himself in music as in a mirror (ἀναθεωρεῖ ἑαυτὴν ἡ φύσις).[24] In the polyphonic melody of becoming, the soul perceives, as it were, an echo of the divine infinity to which she aspires, and she risks letting herself be seduced by its very beauty. This time, it is a seduction, no longer by a part of the world that has been erected into an absolute, but by the song of becoming in its wholeness.

However, when the infinite soul would like to take her fill of the infinite becoming of the world, she realizes that she is like a man "who pursues the shadow of his head. She ends up running after something that is ungraspable."[25] For all sensual delight that is material is extinguished with the achievement of the pleasure. The sensual delight must be interrupted "in order that the desire for enjoyment might return".[26] Thus it is that desire is perpetually recovered by means of disgust.[27] Material infinity resembles "the building of sand castles by a child. The pleasure the child takes in constructing them dies out coextensively with his joy in doing such work . . . , and the sand collapses, leaving no trace of the things that were made with such painstaking care."[28] "Even as those who write in the medium of water might work hard to sketch things with their hand . . . but nothing remains on the surface of the water, . . . the same applies to all quests and all activities that pursue sensual pleasure."[29] The soul would like to give the illusion of orderly progress toward an end. "But, like beasts that toil at a millstone, we turn round and round, our eyes blinkered, tethered as we are to the millstone of this life. . . . I shall enumerate to you the following round of things: hunger, satiety, sleep, waking, evacuation, repletion. Always one follows the other, and the other follows the one, and then again the other, and never does this round of activities have an end, until such a time as we escape from this millstone."[30] The soul would still like to give herself the illusion that her infinite desire alone causes her to rise up in some way. But she is "like those who scale a sandy slope. Even if they look like they are traversing great tracts of ground on foot, they tire themselves to no avail. Each time the sand slides to the bottom, in such a way that there is a great effort of movement but no progress."[31] We cannot stop the flowing current of becoming and appropriate to ourselves the thing that is happening: "None of these passing things belongs to us. How do we hold that which is dissolving and flowing away from us? If it is true that what is spiritual and immaterial remains, but that matter passes away in a perpetual alteration and flux, he who lets go of what is stable must himself end up swept away by the current of what is unstable, and he who loses the stable and the unstable finds himself betrayed by both of them."[32] But in that case how should one behave in the face of this symphonic arrangement of the world? A sense of the relativity of each of its elements must be reacquired so that their transparency might then be seen. Only those who are foolish wish to erect sensible things around themselves like a wall that blocks their view of the spiritual things beyond it.[33] In this case only, true spiritual thirst is transformed into a kind of sickly thirst, like that suffered by those who have been bitten by a snake,[34] and desire becomes cursed like the water vessel of the Danaides,[35] so that, at long last, there is nothing left in the soul but shame.[36] Thus the mold in which the bricks are baked is found each time to be empty and burning hot.[37] The miser - and whoever would like to put a stop to becoming in order to seize it is a miser -  resembles the sea in the immensity of his desire, since rivers flow down to the sea without surcease, and yet the sea never becomes more full on this account.[38] Everything in this world that appears to have absolute perfection is in fact defective in that it possesses something more perfect: "Terra stat in aeternum! [the earth stands eternally!] But what is more tedious than this fixity without movement? The sea is stirred up with boundless movement - yet what is more meaningless?"[39]

BalthasarBut in contemplating this world, is man not contemplating himself? "O men, when you consider the universe, you are comprehending your own nature!"[40] The same limitation by way of extremes is to be found in the life of the spirit. In this realm, too, there reigns "a certain harmony that results from opposites",[41] a vital eurhythmy (ἡ τῆς ζωῆς εὐρυθμία) that is the fruit of a just measure that falls between too strong a tension of the strings and their excessive looseness.[42] For "all the tendencies of our soul are mutually opposed without possible union. They terminate one in the other and are limited one by the other."[43] Thus there is no particular virtue that can be perfect in itself: "It is impossible for an aspect of virtue, separated from the others, to be capable of being designated as a perfect virtue on its own."[44] Only a true synthesis is no longer a kind of immanent harmony of the parts between each other, as in the material world. Unity can come only from a more fundamental aspiration, from a more ardent spiritual becoming, which snatches the soul from the horizontal plane of matter in order to elevate her to God, the infinite good, who is alone capable of freeing her from an unachievable concern for what is immanently infinite. "For this is the supreme success of mutability, namely, progress in the good, where, in a happy state of alteration, we find ourselves ceaselessly transformed in the direction of that which is the most divine. In this case, what appeared formidable - I mean the mutability of our nature - is thus revealed to us as the eagle's wing that will carry us toward greater things."[45] This wing is love, which alone establishes "equilibrium between the too much and the too little",[46] for it goes beyond the whole region of relative oppositions and surges up toward the infinite good, in which "one cannot hope for satiation or experience distaste, but where aspiration does not slacken in communion and where desire retains all its ardor in the fullness of joyful possession."[47] "He who receives in himself what he desires is full of the desired thing. For in this instance it is not as it is in the filling up of a body that empties itself after having been filled. The drink does not remain inactive in it. But the divine source, if it penetrates someone, transforms by its agency the one who touches it and transmits to him its own power."[48] This power is the power to be always more desirous, "for God has no end. And thus there is no other possible outcome. The desire of the one who participates can have no rest [στάσις], because such a one has soared up into the indeterminate and the infinite."[49] Whence we have the definition of created spirit: "To wish ever to possess more fully the beautiful is perhaps the perfection [τελειότης] of human nature."[50] This is a quite dynamic definition, the complete meaning of which will be revealed in the second part of this study. It suffices for us at this point to understand that the infinity of created spirit is ineluctably opposed to the infinity of matter, just as it is opposed to the infinity of God. It is ineluctably opposed to quantitative infinity, which is the infinity of number, of emptiness (κένωμα καὶ οὐδέν), of time, and thereby of the finite itself, just as it is opposed to the uncreated infinite, "which is eternally that which it is, always equal to itself, above all growth and all decline, incapable of receiving a new goodness".[51] Between desire without satiation and possession without desire, created spirit realizes that paradoxical synthesis of a desire that can only grow in joy, because the infinity of the object loved increases and rejuvenates (ἀνανεάζουσα) in it for all eternity (εἰς τὸ ἀΐδιον)[52] an impetus that tends (τόνος) toward an end that cannot be attained.[53] Thus the mystical works of Gregory of Nyssa are all built on the idea of a perpetual surpassing of self "Always higher, always greater than oneself." The life of Moses, the commentary on the Song of Songs, and the sermons on the beatitudes are mystical ascents without any possible end (in this they differ essentially from the ascents of a Saint Teresa). Since the object is infinite, the journey toward it is also infinite. All limited computations henceforth disappear. Once the soul has arrived at a new summit, it is as if she had not yet taken her first step.[54] ...


PHYSIS: Timaeus, Genesis, The Making of Man


[1] De hom. op. 16; I, 184 C.

[2] Catech. 6; II, 28 D.

[3] Catech. 21; II, 57 D; cf. 8; II, 40 AB: "Having begun to exist directly as a result of change, it always goes forward by means of alteration."

[4] C. Eunom. 8; II, 797 A.

[5] C. Eunom. 1; II, 340 D.

[6] lbid.

[7] In hexaem. I, 80 C.

[8] Cf. Erich Przywara, Analogia entis (Munich, 1932), 73ff.

[9] "The notion of the divine lies in all men naturally" (De beat. 5; I, 1249 D). Obviously we are not dealing here with innate ideas in the sense of modern philosophy (cf. J. Bayer, Gregors von Nyssa Gottesbegriff [Diss., Giessen, 1935], 8), but rather in the sense of the Stoics (Cicero: De nat. deor. II, 12). Cf. Heinemann, Poseidonius metaphysische Schriften II, 125ff., 172.

[10] The Greek text needs to be corrected.

[11] De hom. op. 13; I, 165 AC.

[12] Ibid. 1; I, 128 C.

[13] Ibid., 128 C - 129 B.

[14] Ibid., 129 C - 132 A.

[15] It will be recognized without difficulty how fundamentally opposed this vision of the world is to that of Pseudo-Dionysius, where all the beauty and worth of the cosmos issue from the immanence of the ἕν (One), from Participation in the supreme Unity.

[16] C. Eunom. 5; II, 682 B.

[17] De mortuis III, 500 BC. Cf. In hexaëm. I, 92 CD.

[18] De mortuis III, 500 CD.

[19] In Eccles. 7; I, 724 D.

[20] In Christi resurr. 3; III, 672 D.

[21] "The ordered regulation of the whole universe is a kind of musical harmony that is richly and multifariously tuned internally according to a certain order and rhythm. It is a harmony that is never separated from this symphonic order, even if many differences are visible in its individually existing parts" (In Ps. 3; I, 440 C).

[22] Ibid., 440 D - 441 A.

[23] Ibid., 441 B-C.

[24] Ibid., 444 A.

[25] De beat. 4; I, 1245 A.

[26] Ibid., 1244 D.

[27] In Eccles. 2; I, 648 D.

[28] Ibid. 1; I, 628 CD.

[29] Ibid. 4; I, 677 D - 680 A.

[30] Or. de Placilla. III, 888 D.

[31] Vit. Moys. 405 CD.

[32] In Cant. 2; I, 804 BC.

[33] De an. et res. III, 21 D - 24 A.

[34] In Eccles. 8; I, 737 A.

[35] De beat. 4; I, 1244 B.

[36] The phenomenon of modesty and shame occupied Gregory's attention many a time: In Ecdes. 3; I, 650 D; In Ps. 4; I, 447 A; De an. et res. III, 92 B.

[37] Vit. Moys. I, 344 A.

[38] In Eccles. 1; I, 628 C.

[39] Ibid., 625 A - 628 A.

[40] Ibid., 625 B.

[41] Catech. 6; II, 25 C.

[42] In Ps. 3; I, 444 ABC.

[43] In Cant. 5; I, 873 D.

[44] De beat. 4; I, 1241 CD.

[45] De pert Christ. forma III, 285 BC.

[46] De beat. 5; I, 1252 B.

[47] In Eccles. 2; I, 648 D - 649 A.

[48] In Ps. 5; I, 452 BC.

[49] Vit. Moys. I, 301 AB.

[50] Ibid. 301 C.

[51] In Cant. 6; I, 885 D.

[52] C. Eunom. 8; II, 792 D.

[53] Vit. Moys. I, 401 AB.

[54] In Cant. 6; I, 892: "It learns that it is as far from having reached its end as those who have not yet undertaken their first faltering steps."

    Cf. by Gregory of Nyssa: The Mystery of the Cross  Christ is always born in our soul  Everything shares in the Beautiful  Everything that is free will be united with virtue

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