The Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his magisterial work on St. Gregory of Nyssa, offers this observation:
The journey towards salvation is marked by a successive elimination of all that we “have,” in order to reach what we “are.” The safest path and surest refuge is not to be deluded and fail to recognize ourselves – who we truly are. We should not believe that we are seeing our Selves when we are only seeing something that surrounds us – our body, our senses, the idea that others have of us. ‘For anything unstable is not us.’
It is a passage that struck me deeply in my recent work on my book regarding shame in the spiritual life. It is significant for me, in that it asks the question, “What is changing when we speak of spiritual transformation?” Our modern tendency is to think in terms of self-development. It’s a very popular idea, no doubt fueled by the fact that self-development can be monetized. It seems to me that very little in our culture receives much attention if it cannot be marketed and sold. The self-help section in any bookstore seems to dwarf many others.
This quote represents something of a distillation of St. Gregory, particularly the statement, “For anything unstable is not us.” Its import is, “Anything that can be changed is not who you are.” That concept flies in the face of our most common understandings.
Consider this from St. Paul:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. 1 Cor. 3:11-13
We associate (rightly) this passage with the effects of the Judgment on our works. I would suggest that the single greatest “work” of our lives is the work of our soul. The distinction between hay, wood, straw, and gold, silver, and precious stones, is found in their destructibility. Gold, silver, and precious stones cannot be destroyed by fire(at least in St. Paul’s science-world). Put them through fire and they are revealed to be exactly what they are. They remain. Fire can only purify, not destroy.
Most modern views of the self are centered in those features best described as “personality.” If something happens that causes a change to the personality, we are quite likely to declare, “He’s not himself.” This is quite disturbing when applied to dementia patients. “That is not my father,” someone declares as they grieve the memory-loss and personality changes of a parent. It might well be the case that what we come to treasure about others is not quite them at all: anything unstable is not us.
One thought I have had in this direction is to think of the personality as a “fractal” of the soul. In math, a fractal is not a copy of something – but a line that mirrors something to a certain extent. It is not a copy – but something of a reflection. I have three adult daughters. Each of them resembles their mother, and each other. But, each of them is unique. What is it that we see when we say, “She resembles her mother?” It is a “fractal” – a “resemblance” but not a “copy.” By the same token, the personalities we encounter in one another are not detached from the soul, but they are not the soul itself. They resemble it, even though they do not duplicate it.
I’ll give an example:
Some of the people I’ve loved most deeply in my life have suffered from addictions. One of them was my father. There were many times that the effects of alcohol stood between us (particularly in my childhood). I loved him fiercely, which was also a source of pain. One of the great joys of my life was that I knew him through the whole course of his life, including the later years of sobriety. Knowing someone over a significant portion of their lives, it is possible to observe “something” that does not change. What I saw in my father over those years, was a slow “stripping away” of superfluous things, problems, habits, thoughts. As those fell away (some I might even describe as “purged in the fires”), something that I intuited as a child (despite every contradiction) became ever more visible.
Balthasar offers another summary of St. Gregory:
…the soul is purified in this way, as she lays aside garment after garment. Thus the ideal will appear as that supreme instant wherein the soul, having been disencumbered of all her “corporeal [veils], presents herself naked and pure in spirit to the vision of God in a divine vigil”.
I particularly like the imagery of garment after garment being laid aside. The garments of our daily lives follow the “outline” of our bodies, and, sometimes, in the creative efforts of our culture, seek to reveal something of our inner life that we want to display. But, at best, such garments are only poor “fractals” of the body itself, even as the body is, perhaps, but a poor fractal of the soul.
The Christian life is, properly, a life of spiritual asceticism in which we seek to shed that which is not truly ours. This is not always obvious (by any means). It is also not entirely private. The “mirror” of the soul is Christ Himself. Were we only looking within ourselves the journey would be nothing more than “anybody’s guess.” Instead, we become like Christ as we steadily gaze at Christ. He is the “measure” of the soul and the singular measure of what it is to be truly human and “who we are.”
The approach of iconography to this mystery is worth noting. In the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the death of the Mother of God), her body is pictured lying on a funeral bed. Her soul, however, is pictured as a child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in the arms of Christ. I have not found a commentary on this portrayal, but find it to be an interesting approach. How do you picture the soul? The innocence and purity of a child (“for to such belongs the Kingdom of God”) seems to be an excellent answer. Psalm 131 describes the soul in terms of a “weaned child.”
Following St. Gregory of Nyssa, it is possible to understand that we do not yet have true or complete knowledge of “who we are.” We are probably “closer” to that reality in the innocence of our early childhood. It becomes far more opaque and obscure to us as we move into adolescence and adulthood. Christ’s command that we should become like children seems to indicate this very thing.
St. Gregory of Nyssa’s thoughts on the work of salvation are among the most positive takes to be found in the early Church. While many aspects of this speculation (observation) are not a part of Church dogma, they are, nevertheless, very instructive.
May God nurture our souls and help us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us…” (Heb.12:2)