I am a week late reading this, but as always, I am just blown away by Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching. He has been dedicating his Wednesday audiences to the study of key figures in the early Church. On September 5, he concluded his discussion of St. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth-century bishop and scholar..
First of all, Gregory of Nyssa had a very lofty concept of human dignity. Man's goal, the holy Bishop said, is to liken himself to God, and he reaches this goal first of all through the love, knowledge and practice of the virtues, "bright beams that shine from the divine nature" (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c), in a perpetual movement of adherence to the good like a corridor outstretched before oneself. In this regard, Gregory uses an effective image already present in Paul's Letter to the Philippians: épekteinómenos (3: 13), that is, "I press on" towards what is greater, towards truth and love. This vivid expression portrays a profound reality: the perfection we desire to attain is not acquired once and for all; perfection means journeying on, it is continuous readiness to move ahead because we never attain a perfect likeness to God; we are always on our way (cf. Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1025d). The history of every soul is that of a love which fills every time and at the same time is open to new horizons, for God continually stretches the soul's possibilities to make it capable of ever greater goods. God himself, who has sown the seeds of good in us and from whom every initiative of holiness stems, "models the block..., and polishing and cleansing our spirit, forms Christ within us" (In Psalmos 2, 11: PG 44, 544b).
This is exactly the concept I am striving to instill in my seventh-graders and hopefully in their parents as well. We are never done growing and learning about our faith. I love that phrase “God continually stretches the soul’s possibilities.” It is a much more elegant phrasing of my own pizza dough spirituality.
Pope Benedict goes on to discuss Christ as our Model and Teacher:
In this journey of spiritual ascesis Christ is the Model and Teacher, he shows us the beautiful image of God (cf. De Perfectione Christiana: PG 46, 272a). Each of us, looking at him, finds ourselves "the painter of our own life", who has the will to compose the work and the virtues as his colours (ibid.: PG 46, 272b). So, if man is deemed worthy of Christ's Name how should he behave? This is Gregory's answer: "[He must] always examine his own thoughts, his own words and his own actions in his innermost depths to see whether they are oriented to Christ or are drifting away from him" (ibid.: PG 46, 284c). And this point is important because of the value it gives to the word "Christian". A Christian is someone who bears Christ's Name, who must therefore also liken his life to Christ. We Christians assume a great responsibility with Baptism.
As you can see, WWJD (What would Jesus Do?) is nothing new. St. Gregory of Nyssa didn’t have the cute bracelets and T-shirts, but he definitely had the concept back in the fourth-century.
Modeling ourselves after Christ requires that we love our neighbor.
But Christ, Gregory says, is also present in the poor, which is why they must never be offended: "Do not despise them, those who lie idle, as if for this reason they were worth nothing. Consider who they are and you will discover wherein lies their dignity: they represent the Person of the Saviour. And this is how it is: for in his goodness the Lord gives them his own Person so that through it, those who are hard of heart and enemies of the poor may be moved to compassion" (De Pauperibus Amandis: PG 46, 460bc). Gregory, as we said, speaks of rising: rising to God in prayer through purity of heart, but also rising to God through love of neighbour. Love is the ladder that leads to God. Consequently, Gregory of Nyssa strongly recommends to all his listeners: "Be generous with these brothers and sisters, victims of misfortune. Give to the hungry from what you deprive your own stomach" (ibid.: PG 46, 457c).
This journey towards God is sustained by prayer:
To progress on the journey to perfection and to welcome God within him, to bear the Spirit of God within him, the love of God, man must turn to God trustingly in prayer: "Through prayer we succeed in being with God. But anyone who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is a support and protection of charity, a brake on anger, an appeasement and the control of pride. Prayer is the custody of virginity, the protection of fidelity in marriage, the hope for those who are watching, an abundant harvest for farmers, certainty for sailors" (De Oratione Dominica 1: PG 44, 1124ab). The Christian always prays by drawing inspiration from the Lord's Prayer: "So if we want to pray for the Kingdom of God to come, we must ask him for this with the power of the Word: that I may be distanced from corruption, delivered from death, freed from the chains of error; that death may never reign over me, that the tyranny of evil may never have power over us, that the adversary may never dominate me nor make me his prisoner through sin but that your Kingdom may come to me so that the passions by which I am now ruled and governed may be distanced, or better still, blotted out" (ibid., 3: PG 44, 1156d-1157a).
I am overwhelmed by the wisdom of the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa as well as by the clarity with which Pope Benedict XVI is able to share this wisdom. God is truly generous and good to give the Church such leadership both in the fourth century and today.