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Gregory’s way to Eleusis

Monday, 3 Oct 2016

Gregory of Nyssa on Dr John Dunn. Plotinus was confused,taking the Eleusinian metaphors of Plato literally and then explaining away the resultant dilemma of fracturedness, separateness and apartness from the One that a subject-object relationship entails.

Gregory was aware of the literalist's dilemma. His response would not be through the metaphors of original poetry such as Dante would later employ, but rather through biblical analogy, especially in his In Canticum canticorum (Homilies on the Song of Songs; hereafter Homilies).

In employing allegory, Gregory acknowledged that he faced opposition from forces opposed to anything but a literal reading of the text, exegetes who ‘do not agree that Scripture says anything for our profit by way of enigmas and below-the-surface meanings’1 (a phraseology that represents Gregory’s carefully neutral way of saying
what allegory means as he understood it).

Allegory for Gregory implied an idea of how a biblical text ‘works’ and an understanding of the human relationship to God, and allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures as Gregory saw it played a central role in the maturation of this relationship; in other words, it had, in practice, as Gregory saw the matter, a transfigurative function.

A bride seeking her lover was allegorised as the experience of returning to the One. This key to the allegory was not for everyone and in this respect it recognisably borrowed a methodology from the parables of Jesus. He addressed his audience in Homily 1 as people ‘who have “taken off “ the old humanity with its deeds and lusts like a filthy garment and have clothed [themselves] … in the lightsome raiment of the Lord.’ He says, indeed, that they have ‘“put on” our Lord Jesus Christ himself,and with him have been transfigured for impassibility and the life divine.’2

Recalling our earlier examination of Jesus’ parables, these are the ‘insiders’ to whom the key to the allegorisation will be given, leaving the outer shell of the story (in this case about a bride and her lover) to the ‘outsiders’.

Allegory notoriously means saying one thing and conveying another at the same time; in the words of Trypho’s De tropis (On Tropes),‘Allēgoria is speech which makes precisely clear some one thing but which presents the conception of another by way of likeness.’3

What Trypho did not say, and Gregory would have to add to make his practice clear, is that the latter perceived the secondary reference not merely as having to do with something other but as having to do with something of a different order.

As the confusion faced by Plotinus illustrated, the movement from one type of reference to another is, in fact, as we have seen, a movement from perceptible to immaterial reality, and the difficulty this creates is that ideas and language adapted to the description of perceptible phenomena are not well adapted to expressing truth at the level of the supranatural.

In explaining the purpose of the allegorisation, Gregory emphasised that the Scriptures say what they say ‘for our profit’ and that what the exegete seeks in the Scriptures is ‘that which is profitable.’4He further explained what he meant by ‘profitable’: it was ‘teaching that guides those who pay careful heed to it toward knowledge of the mysteries and toward a pure life,’5 a characterisation that dwelt, as one might expect, on the correlative themes of initiate and knowledge and at the same time evoked the idea of growth, of a progressive transformation.

But who was to be transformed? Was Gregory’s work a description of transformation as it happened to some other - the bride? Surely not, as the bride was merely the vehicle for allegory. No, the transforming intent was aimed by Gregory at the reader.

Readers of the Song may themselves, through their comprehension of it, be transformed ‘by what is written’ [in the Song],asserted Gregory, ‘the soul is in a certain manner led as a bride toward an incorporeal and spiritual and undefiled marriage with God.’6 In more general terms, to comprehend the Song is to undertake the “adapting of human nature to God.”7

The text of the Song has a kind of symbolic or sacramental character, then, in that to understand it fully is to be involved in the transformative experience.

Thus Gregory wrote, thinking of the Song as a whole: ‘What is described … is the business of a wedding, but what is intellectually discerned is the human soul’s mingling with the Divine,’8 and this means that in the Song ‘the language of passion’ is employed ‘to render thought that is undefiled.’9 Again, what allegory does is to ‘transpose the outward meaning of the words into the key of what is pure and undefiled.’10

Ifthis was about more than just a wedding, then the transformative experience about which Gregory wrote was engaged with on the level of the imagination.

He overcame the problem with literalism that confronted Plotinus by shifting the transfiguration of the reader completely out of the realm of sense perception.

To understand Gregory’s analogy is to participate in an act of creation, an act of the imagination, a defining characteristic of man that needs nothing of the world of sense-perception. This transfiguration was the realisation of capax Dei. (or ‘being a god’ as Plotinus expressed it), with the strong implication that the supreme good that one must grasp and possess resides in oneself.

This way of transfiguration lay beyond the scope of sense perception. It is grasped, therefore, only when the text is allegorised, that is, transposed to the level of intelligible reality, and this process, since it pierces beyond the literal realm to which the language of the Song refers, is a delicate and often uncertain one. One thing is certain; Gregory consciously took the shell of a story from the Judaic Old Testament and thoroughly Hellenised it beyond all recognition.

The progress obviously begins, for Gregory, with baptism—the ‘kiss’ through which the Bride is turned from addiction to ‘things that appear’ to a preliminary awareness of the transforming grace and beauty of the true Solomon.

Gregory continued: ‘After that, however, comes the Light’s perfect illumination, when, by its mingling with our nature, the true Light shows itself to those who are in darkness and the shadow of death.’11 Whence it became obvious what is being said in the oft-quoted passage of the Song celebrating the arrival of springtime (‘For behold, the winter is past’[Song 2:11–13]). It means that ‘the Sun of Righteousness rises upon this harsh winter and brings the spring of the Spirit, which melts [the]ice [of idolatry] and … warms everything that lies beneath.’

These words provide a link with the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Demeter and Persephone.

The springtime of the allegory corresponds to the return of Persephone from Hades, the moment when Demeter became joyful and cared for the earth again.

Persephone’s rebirth is symbolic of the rebirth of all plant life and the symbol of eternity of life that flows from the generations that spring from each other.

Gregory employed Plato’s own metaphor of metaphors, as Dante was to do many centuries later, the epoptika of the initiate at Eleusis - again in Gregory’s words, ‘the Light’s perfect illumination, when, by its mingling with our nature, the true Light shows itself”.

The ‘true Light’ ‘mingling with our nature’ is expressive of the divination of man, capax Dei, incarnation.

Jean Daniélou and J. B. Cahill believed that the Homilies were delivered between 390 and 394 AD.12 The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries of Eleusis by decree in 392 AD.

If ‘knowledge of the mysteries’ was indeed Gregory’s purpose in allegorising the Song of Songs,then he patently believed that the procession of the initiate to epoptika had a metaphorical purpose that would live within the shell of Jehovianism, beyond the suppression of the Demeter cult.


1 ‘Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs’, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by R. A. Norris Jr., Writings from the Greco-Roman World, Number 13, ed. J. T. Fitzgerald, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2012, p.xxiii

2 Homilies, p.xxxv

3 Trypho quoted Homilies, p.xliii

4 Homilies, p.xlv

5 Homilies, p.xlv

6 Ho4milies, p.xlv

7 Homilies, p.xlv

8 Homilies, p.xlvi

9 Homilies, p.xlvi

10 Homilies, p.xlvi

11 Homilies, p.liii

12 See The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, edited by Lucas Francisco Mateo Seco, Giulio Maspero, 2010, Koninklijke Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, p.121

© John Dunn.







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