Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Soul Takes Flight: Gregory of Nyssa and the Song of Songs

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Soul Takes Flight: Gregory of Nyssa and the Song of Songs

Article excerpt

R.A. NORRIS*

Hippolytus of Rome wrote the first Christian commentary on the Song of Songs, perhaps just after the opening of the third century. The most influential such commentary, however, was written by Hippolytus's younger contemporary, Origen. The latter treated the Song at least twice: once in a set of homilies delivered during his years at Caesarea, and once in a proper commentary in ten books,l of which we now possess three,2 though only in a Latin translation by Rufinus of Aquileia. Origen's commentary, which has been described as "the first great work of Christian mysticism,"3 followed out the rabbinic tradition that had read the Song in connection with the Exodus story, as treating of God's love for Israel. Hence it envisaged the Song primarily as an allegory of the relation of Christ, the divine Wisdom, to the Church4 (i.e., the re-formed Israel), no doubt with Ephesians 5:32 in mind. Origen allows, however, that the Song can also be read as touching upon the relation of the individual soul to Christ, and he ordinarily concludes his treatment of each section of the text by suggesting, in relatively brief compass, a reading of just this sort.

One hundred and forty-odd years after Origen's death, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia, a younger brother of Basil the Great and Macrina and a principal architect of the trinitarian orthodoxy established in 381, undertook, probably not more than a year or so before his death, to preach a series of homilies on the Song of Songs. He tells us that this project was carried though "in the course of the season of fasting," and that the greater part of his homilies was taken down, as at dictation, by certain "companions" of his, whose transcriptions he reviewed and, where necessary, altered or supplemented. The last-mentioned task was not done very thoroughlyperhaps, as Gregory intimates, because he was unusually busy in Lent. As we have them now, these homilies are bound together with a covering letter-a prologue in defense of his method-to the great ascetic Olympias, a Constantinopolitan lady of high lineage. It was apparently she who had requested him to undertake this work, and its "publication" was doubtless attributable to her desire to have a copy of Gregory's observations.

Gregory-whose family's Christian faith was owed to a disciple of Origen's, Gregory the Wonder-Worker-not only knew of Origen but had read the latter's Commentary on the Song of Songs, and plainly he felt both slightly embarrassed and even somewhat audacious in undertaking a work of his own on this subject.6 For all that, Gregory seems to have been sure that he had something important to say in this work-something that went beyond Origen, and perhaps even corrected him. What this "something" was becomes apparent, as the homilies follow out their course, in the identification and characterization of the Bride, who in Gregory's understanding represents in the first instance the "advanced" soul that is well along the road to perfection (but also, when necessary, the Church). Indeed his models for the Bride are Moses, who spoke with God face to face,7 and the Apostle Paul, who as we know "was caught up to the third heaven . . . and heard things that cannot be told."8 Each of this pair he explicitly labels a "bride" of Christ. Contrasted with the Bride are the "daughters of Jerusalem" or "maidens" that accompany her and first appear in Song 1:3 and 1:5. These Gregory consistently envisages as the disciples of the Bride, and he further identifies them with the audience to whom his homilies are addressed. This, he tells Olympias, consists not of advanced souls like herself, but of ordinary, "more fleshly" types, to whom he speaks "for the sake of the spiritual and immaterial welfare of their souls."9 For these, the Bride of the Song is at once an example and a mistress: one in whose relationship with the Word and Wisdom of God they can in principle see their own destiny limned, and from whose understanding of things divine they can learn. …

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