Review: Gregory of Nyssa, “Canonical Letter. Letter on the Pythonissa and other pastoral letters »


Grégoire de Nysse

Gregory of Nyssa, Lettre canonique. Lettre sur la Pythonisse et autres lettres pastorales. Introduction, translation and notes by Pierre Maraval, “Sources chrétiennes” #588, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 2017, 290 p.

Pierre Maraval, to whom the collection “Sources chrétiennes” already owes several volumes by St. Gregory of Nyssa, gathered here several works by the great Cappadocian father. They are quite different in nature, but all deal with pastoral care.

The first work is well known, including in French translation, because it belongs to the collections of canons of the Church published by P.-P. Joannou. Before becoming a canon, it was a letter addressed to a new bishop, named Leontios, probably about 390. It explains the rules of public penance in force in the Church of Nyssa. Gregory mentions he received them from the Tradition and from the Fathers. He intended to innovate only on certain points when the Fathers had not yet pronounced their opinion, which was the usual patristic practice.

Gregory’s presentation gives us an idea of ​​what the penitential process was in his time.

The first step was entering the group of penitents. It required a willingness to convert, to show repentance, in other words to condemn oneself, to want to purify oneself, and to accept to be corrected. This willingness was manifested through the confession of one’s sins to the bishop, privately for sexual offenses, homicides or robberies. However, entering the group of penitents could be done without the penitent taking the initiative, simply by accepting penalties imposed by the bishop if he had heard about the sins of that penitent before he confessed.

The penitential process then comprised three stages. The first one was a total exclusion, of a public nature, of the liturgical assembly (the synaxis). The second stage consisted in the partial reintroduction of the penitent into the church: he could only attend the first part of the Liturgy, composed mainly of psalms, readings, and preaching (hearing stage), after which he was sent away at the same time as the catechumens. The third stage was the entry into the group of prostrate penitents, who could attend the entire Liturgy, but on their knees, and without receiving communion. This process ended with the reintegration into the communion of the Church.

These stages were of varying duration depending on the severity of the sin. Gregory grouped the sins for this type of penance into three categories: the sins of idolatry (apostasy, idolatrous practices), the sins of the flesh, and homicides. The sins of idolatry, when voluntary, led to exclusion for life; when involuntary, the periods of exclusion, hearing, and prostration lasted 3 years each. For the sins of the flesh (adultery, homosexuality, or bestiality), they lasted 6 years, or 3 years for fornication (relations with prostitutes). As for intentional homicides, they lasted 9 years (27 years in total), and for involuntary homicides, 3 years (9 years in total).

These rules corresponded to the acribia (strict application), but their concrete implementation can be the object of economia, a modification based on the particular situation and the spiritual interest of the persons concerned). For Gregory, it was a therapy applied to sin that he considered as a disease of the soul. It could thus be modified depending on particular cases, just as therapies applied by doctors according to the state of their patients. The penalties applied in practice were thus shorter than the theoretical duration.

Then comes the “Letter on Pythonissa”. To be honest, it is not of major interest, as it essentially answers the question whether the pythonissa of Endor (cf. 1 Samuel 28) really summoned the prophet Samuel’s soul. In the last part of the letter, however, Gregory mentions other problems: how to understand why Elijah was ordered to drink the water of the torrent? What does the veil of Moses stand for? What about the sacrifices of the old law? Was the revolt of angels collective or individual? How could the Spirit come upon some before baptism?

The homily “Against those who delay baptism” refers a the situation of the time: even in families who had been Christian for several generations, on the one hand baptism was conferred on adults alone (thus St. Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa’s brother, was baptized only at the end of his studies, as well as St. Gregory Nazianzus), while on the other hand some waited for the end of their lives to be baptized — this was the case in particular with Emperor Constantine — and remained voluntarily, until that moment, in the category of catechumens. This latter practice was the consequence of the severity of public penance. Here Gregory, as did St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. John Chrysostom, speaks out against the practice that consisted of depriving oneself of the grace of baptism most of one’s life.

In his homily “Against the Fornicators”, Gregory develops the Pauline idea that “he who fornicates. sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18) and is therefore doing wrong to himself. While the word “fornication” (porneia, also translated as “lust”) was used in Antiquity to refer especially to relationships with prostitutes, the bishop of Nyssa uses it here more broadly to refer to all sexual acts out of wedlock. As Fr. Maraval notes in his presentation, Gregory’s text reflects, among other things, “the fact that, in the eyes of Christians as well as of many non-Christians, sexual integrity and purity were held as the exclusive prerogative of a noble character, a sign of mastery of oneself and inner freedom, while unbridled conduct aroused contempt and was regarded as slave behavior.”

The last three homilies, “On Beneficence” (also called “On the Love of the Poor, I”), “On Poverty” (also called “On the Love of the Poor, II”), and “Against Usury”, focus especially on the poor, as did two well-known homilies by St. Basil. They denounce the hoarding of wealth by a small minority of rich people, and invite them instead to share their assets to help the disadvantaged. Gregory uses various arguments to remind the rich of their Christian duties towards the poor.

The second of these homilies comments in particular this verse of the Gospel: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”, and more broadly the whole passage where it is found (Mt 25: 31-46).

In the third of these homilies, Gregory denounces the practice of usury (the interest-bearing loan) and the behavior of usurers: a Christian must lend to the poor without demanding interest.

In these three homilies, Gregory refers to the fact that all people share the same nature and more fundamentally that they have all been created in the image of God. We must therefore see the face of Christ in all the poor.

The Greek text is that of the critical edition of Gregorii Nysseni Opera III, 2; III, 5, IX and X, 2. The introduction, translation and notes by Pierre Maraval are, as usual, exemplary.

Author of the original review in French: Jean-Claude Larchet

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Emma Cazabonne was born and raised in France. She taught English before entering the Cistercian Order. She translated and published articles relevant to her interest in Cistercian spirituality, the Middle Ages, and Orthodoxy. She moved to the United States in 2001, converted to Orthodoxy in 2008, and married. Her husband is an Orthodox priest. She continued to publish articles, a Cistercian texts anthology, then finally launched her career in literary translation, while teaching French. If you are interested in having your book translated into French, she can be contacted here