Gregory of Nyssa

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-01-06
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 CE), who came from an illustrious Christian family of Capadocia, became bishop of the small town of Nyssa in 371 and is known as one of the founders of mystical theology in the Church. In The Life of Moses, one of the most important books in the study of Christian mysticism, Gregory retells the story of Moses's life from the biblical account in Exodus and Numbers and then refers back to these stories as the basis for profound spiritual lessons. The ultimate goal of Gregory's spirituality is to strive for infinite progress in the never-completed journey to God. His exhortations to lead a life of virtue will inspire all who hope to increase their knowledge and love of God.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. vii
The Life of Mosesp. 1
Contemplation on the Life of Mosesp. 31
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Gregory of Nyssa
The Life of Moses

Chapter One

Birth and Childhood

Moses was born at the time Pharaoh issued the decree for male offspring to be destroyed. How shall we as a matter of choice imitate this fortuitous birth of Moses? Someone will rightly raise the objection that it does not lie within our power to imitate in our own birth that famous birth. But it is not hard to begin the imitation with this seeming difficulty.

Everyone knows that anything placed in a world of change never remains the same, but is always passing from one state to another, the alteration always bringing about something better or worse. The narrative is to be understood according to its real intention. For the material and passionate disposition to which human nature is carried when it falls is the female form of life, whose birth is favored by the tyrant. The austerity and intensity of virtue is the male birth, which is hostile to the tyrant and suspected of insurrection against his rule.

Now, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth. In mutable nature nothing can be observed that is always the same. Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as the result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.

We can most certainly enter upon a better birth into the realm of light, however much the unwilling tyrant is distressed, and we can be seen with pleasure and be given life by the parents of this goodly offspring, even though it is contrary to the design of the tyrant. (The rational faculties are what become the "parents of . . . virtue.")

When we lay bare the hidden meaning of the history, Scripture is seen to teach that the birth which distresses the tyrant is the beginning of the virtuous life. I am speaking of that kind of birth in which free will serves as the midwife, delivering the child amid great pain. For no one causes grief to his antagonist unless he exhibits in himself those marks which give proof of his victory over the other.

It is the function of the free will to beget this virtuous male offspring, to nourish it with proper food, and to take forethought how to save it unharmed from the water. For there are those who present their children to the tyrant, delivering them naked and without forethought to the stream. I am speaking of life as a stream made turbulent by the successive waves of passion, which plunge what is in the stream under the water and drown it.

Whenever life demands that the sober and provident rational thoughts which are the parents of the male child launch their good child on the billows of this life, they make him safe in an ark, so that when he is given to the stream he will not be drowned. The ark, constructed out of various boards, would be education in the different disciplines, which holds what it carries above the waves of life.

Although he is borne along by the rushing of the waves, the child is not carried far by the tossing of the waters where there is education. Instead, he is washed to the side and the motion of the waters naturally thrusts him on the firm bank, that is to say, outside the turmoil of life.

Experience teaches us that the restless and heaving motion of life thrusts from itself those who do not totally submerge themselves in the deceits of human affairs, and it reckons as a useless burden those whose virtue is annoying. He who escapes from these things must imitate Moses and not spare his tears, even though he should be safe in the ark, for tears are the unfailing guardian of those saved by virtue.

Since the daughter of the king, being childless and barren (I think she is rightly perceived as profane philosophy), arranged to be called his mother by adopting the youngster, Scripture concedes that his relationship with her who was falsely called his mother should not be rejected until he had recognized his own immaturity. But he who has already attained maturity, as we have learned about Moses, will be ashamed to be called the son of one who is barren by nature.

For truly barren is profane education, which is always in labor but never gives birth. For what fruit worthy of such pangs does philosophy show for being so long in labor? Do not all who are full of wind and never come to term miscarry before they come to the light of the knowledge of God, although they could as well become men if they were not altogether hidden in the womb of barren wisdom?Now after living with the princess of the Egyptians for such a long time that he seemed to share in their honors, he must return to his natural mother. Indeed, he was not separated from her while he was being brought up by the princess, but was nursed by his mother's milk, as the history states. This teaches, it seems to me, that if we should be involved with profane teachings during our education, we should not separate ourselves from the nourishment of the Church's milk, which would be her laws and customs. By these the soul is nourished and matured, thus being given the means of ascending the height.

It is true that he who looks both to the profane doctrines and to the doctrines of the fathers will find himself between two antagonists. For the foreigner in worship is opposed to the Hebrew teaching . . .

Gregory of Nyssa
The Life of Moses
. Copyright © by Kayla HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa, Spiritual C. Harcol
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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