Saturday, May 16, 2015

Know Thyself

Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings

   Our greatest protection is self-knowledge, and to avoid the delusion that we are seeing ourselves when we are in reality looking at something else. This is what happens to those who do not scrutinize themselves. What they see is strength, beauty, reputation, political power, abundant wealth, pomp, self-importance, bodily stature, a certain grace of form or the like, and they think that this is what they are. Such persons make very poor guardians of themselves: because of their absorption in something else, they overlook what is their own and leave it unguarded. How can a person protect what he does not know?. The most secure protection for our treasure is to know ourselves: each one must know himself as he is, and distinguish himself from all that is not he, that he may not unconsciously be protecting something else instead of himself. Now anyone who has any regard for the life of this world or thinks that worldly honor is worth protecting, does not know how to distinguish himself from what he is not. No passing thing is strictly ours. For how can we have dominion over that which is passing and transitory? Spiritual and imma­terial beings are always the same; whereas matter passes, con­stantly changing in a kind of flux or movement. Hence it must follow that he who separates himself from what is stable will be carried along by that which is in flux. And in aban­doning what is stable for that which is passing, he will lose both, for while he gives up the one, he is unable to keep up with the other.

   This is the reason why the friends of the Bridegroom offer this counsel: If thou knowest not thyself, O fairest among women, go forth and follow after the steps of the flocks and feed thy kids beside the tents of the shepherds (Cant. 1.7). And what does this mean?. It is that he who does not know himself strays from the flock of sheep and pastures with the goats, that have been placed on the left. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep on his right hand (Mt. 25.33), and sepa­rates the goats from this more perfect group and places them on his left. Thus we learn from the counsel offered by the friends of the Bridegroom that we must closely study the very nature of reality and aim at the truth with unfaltering steps. But I must explain myself a little more clearly. A good many men do not draw their conclusions from the very na­ture of reality, but merely consider the way men have lived before them; and so they fall completely short of an accurate judgment about reality, and they take, as their criterion of what is good, irrational custom instead of sober reason. Hence they force their way into political office and power, they make a good deal of merely external show since they are unaware of the fact that all this will come to an end after this life. For custom is no sure guarantee for the future, for very often this may lead us to the goats and not to the flock of sheep.

   My meaning will become clear if you will consider the words of the Gospel. If you consider that which is proper to man, that is, his reason, you will despise the force of custom as irrational, and you will never choose as good that which brings no advantage to the soul. We must not then seriously consider the footprints of those who have gone before us like so many cattle leaving their trace upon the world. For what is best to choose is not clear from sense phenomena­ - nor shall it be until we depart from this life; then we will know whom we have followed. The man then who merely follows in the tracks of those who have lived before, and takes the customs of this world as his guide in life, and does not distinguish good from evil on the basis of actual reality, very often makes a mistake, and in the day of that just Judgment he becomes a goat instead of a sheep.

   This, then, is what we can understand those friends as say­ing: Soul now fair, though once you were black, if you are anxious that the charm of your beauty endure forever, do not wander off in the footsteps of those who have preceded you in this world. For this path that you see may be the path of the goats, which you are following because you cannot see those who have made the path with their footprints. And when you have passed out of this life and have slipped into the fold of death, beware that you may not be put into the flock of the goats, because you ignorantly followed their footprints during life.

   The safest way to protect the good things you enjoy is by realizing how much your Creator has honored you above all other creatures. He did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which you can see in the created universe. You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true Light; and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity. Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens can fit into the palm of God's hand; the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of His hand (Is. 40.12). And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in His palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you, nor is He cramped as He pervades your entire being, saying: I will dwell in them, and walk among them (2 Cor. 6.16).

   If you realize this you will not allow your eye to rest on anything of this world. Indeed, you will no longer marvel even at the heavens. For how can you admire the heavens, my son, when you see that you are more permanent than they? For the heavens pass away, but you will abide for all eternity with Him Who is forever. Do not admire, then, the vastness of the earth or the ocean that stretches out to infinity, for like a chariot and horses they have been given in your charge. You have these elements in your power to be obedient to your will. For the earth ministers the necessities of life, and the sea offers its back like a tame steed to its rider.

   If, then, thou knowest thyself, O fairest among women, you will despise the entire universe, and with your eye upon that spiritual goal you will overlook the wandering footprints which you find in life. And so, be on your guard, and make no mistake about the flock of goats, and then you will not be marked out as a goat instead of a sheep on the day of Judgment, or excluded from a place at the right hand of the throne. Rather, you will hear that sweet voice that speaks to all the humble and wool-bearing sheep: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matth. 25.34).

   Musurillo H. (1979), From Glory to Glory texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writing, Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York.