NOTE: St. Gregory of Nyssa rightly contends that such a slaughter, if taken literally, would be morally intolerable. He therefore interprets the killing of the first-born as the Christian’s killing of personal vices early, before they can blossom into serious sins.The following article is taken from Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, pp. 75–77:
And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharao that sat on the throne, to the first-born of the captive-maid in the dungeon, and the first-born of all cattle. And Pharao rose up by night, and his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in all the land of Egypt, for there was not a house in which there was not one dead.(Exodus 12:29-30)
Let us proceed to what follows in the text. We have learned through the things examined already that Moses (and he who exalts himself by virtue in keeping with his example), when his soul had been empowered through long application and high and lofty life, and through the illumination which came from above, considered it a loss not to lead his countrymen to the life of freedom.
When he came to them, he implanted in them a more intense desire for freedom by holding out worse sufferings to them. Intending to remove his countrymen from evil, he brought death upon all the firstborn in Egypt. By doing this he laid down for us the principle that it is necessary to destroy utterly the first birth of evil. It is impossible to flee the Egyptian life in any other way.
It does not seem good to me to pass this interpretation by without further contemplation. How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?
Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil.
For when he slays the beginning, he destroys at the same time what follows after it. The Lord teaches the same thing in the Gospel, all but explicitly calling on us to kill the firstborn of the Egyptian evils when he commands us to abolish lust and anger and to have no more fear of the stain of adultery or the guilt of murder. Neither of these things would develop of itself, but anger produces murder and lust produces adultery.
Since the producer of evil gives birth to lust before adultery and anger before murder, in destroying the firstborn he certainly kills along with it the offspring which follows. Take for an example a snake: When one crushes his head he kills the rest of the body at the same time.
This would not have happened unless the blood which turns aside the destroyer had been poured out on our doors. And if it is necessary to perceive the meaning presented here more fully, the history provides this perception in both the killing of the firstborn and the safeguarding of the entrance by blood. In the one the first impulse to evil is destroyed, and in the other the first entrance of evil into us is turned away by the true Lamb. For when the destroyer has come inside, we do not drive him out by our own devices, but by the Law we throw up a defense to keep him from gaining a foothold among us.
Safety and security consist in marking the upper doorpost and the side posts of the entrance with the blood of the lamb. While in this way Scripture gives us through figures a scientific understanding of the nature of the soul, profane learning also places it before the mind, dividing the soul into the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited. Of these parts we are told that the spirit and the appetite are placed below, supporting on each side the intellectual part of the soul, while the rational aspect is joined to both so as to keep them together and to be held up by them, being trained for courage by the spirit and elevated to the participation in the Good by the appetite.
As long, therefore, as the soul is kept safe in this manner, maintaining its firmness by virtuous thoughts as if by bolts, all the parts cooperate with one another for good. The rational for its part furnishes safety to its supports, and in its turn receives from them an equal benefit.
But if this arrangement should be upset and the upper become the lower—so that if the rational falls from above, the appetitive and spirited disposition makes it the part trampled upon—then the destroyer slips inside. No opposition from the blood resists his entrance; that is to say, faith in Christ does not ally itself with those of such a disposition.
For he says first to anoint the upper doorpost with blood, then to touch both side doorposts in the same way. How therefore would one anoint the upper first unless it be found on top?
Do not be surprised at all if both things—the death of the firstborn and the pouring out of the blood—did not happen to the Israelites and on that account reject the contemplation which we have proposed concerning the destruction of evil as if it were a fabrication without any truth. For now in the difference of the names, Israelite and Egyptian, we perceive the difference between virtue and evil. Since the spiritual meaning proposes that we perceive the Israelite as virtuous, we would not reasonably require the first fruits of virtue’s offspring to be destroyed but rather those whose destruction is more advantageous than their cultivation.
Consequently we have been taught by God that we must destroy the first fruits of the Egyptian children so that evil, in being destroyed at its beginning, might come to an end. And this insight agrees with the history, for the protection of the Israelite children took place through the pouring out of blood in order that good might come to maturity. But what would come to maturity in the Egyptian people was destroyed before it matured in evil.
NOTE: The following article is taken from Anna M. Silva, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters Introduction, Translation and Commentary, pp. 211-225
Letter 31 To Letoius bishop of Melitene
Gregory’s authorship of the letter to Letoius has always been acknowledged. It was originally a genuine letter, called forth in the same sort of circumstances as Basil’s letters 188, 199 and 217 to Amphilochius, i.e. it is the considered response of an authoritative senior bishop to the questions of a new and inexperienced bishop on the Church’s administration of penance.
That this letter was preserved, such as it is, is due to a decision by an unknown canonist in Constantinople who in late 6th century (c. 580) revised John Scholasticus’ pioneering work in codification of Church law, the SynagogeL titulorum. Scholasticus had added certain letters of Basil to Amphilochius to the decisions of church councils. The unknown canonist took a cue from this and in his own work, the Synagoge in XIV titles (also called Syntagma XIV titulorum), added excerpts from a wider range of Church Fathers. One of these was Gregory of Nyssa’s letter to Letoius in the form we now know it, minus its original introduction and divided into eight ‘canons’. All the subsequent transmission of the letter stems from this edition.
The addressee, Letoius, was Otreius’ successor as bishop of Melitene. Gregory wrote letters 10 and 18 to Otreius, who was a participant in the council of 381 and was named with Gregory and Helladius in the imperial edict Cod. Theod 16.1.3 as a guarantor of orthodoxy in eastern Anatolia and Syria. Gregory surely felt his passing deeply and very probably mentioned him in the lost introduction. Letoius wrote a letter to Gregory which included a series of questions on the administration of penance in the Church. This letter is Gregory’s reply. The exchange gives the impression of coming early, even very early in Letoius’ term as bishop. From the opening remarks (1a), it might be guessed that Letoius is yet to face his first Easter as bishop. He was seeking authoritative help in fulfilling his duties at that focal point of the Church’s year. These duties included the conferral of baptism and the readmission to communion of penitents who had completed their due penance (1b).
The dating of Letoius’ accession to the episcopate is a matter of some conjecture. He appears in Theodoret Church History 4.10 in association with Amphilochius of Iconium and Flavian of Antioch in combating the spread of Messalianism among the monks. He is mentioned also in Theodoret’s Haereticarum fabularum compendium PG 83, 335–556 at 432, and by Photius in Bibl. Cod. 52. Photius reports his reading of a letter sent to Flavian from a synod convened at Side in Lycaonia by Amphilochius at which Messalianism was condemned as heretical. (ca. 383-390).
One of the admirable features of this letter is the preamble in which Gregory succinctly and eloquently sketches a spiritual anthropology which is the perspective in which to approach the administration of penance in the church. The ruling idea is not that of enacting the legal decisions of a tribunal but that of a spiritual physician diagnosing and treating spiritual illnesses and verifying progress by appropriate signs of spiritual health. This is seen most of all in terms of the penitent’s own prohairesis, his choice or will. The process of penance is meant to be a spiritual education. It is set squarely in terms of the human vocation to resist the slide into vice and to contend for virtue and beyond that in terms of the Christian vocation to transformation in Christ that is valid for all Christians at all times.
NOTE: The following is taken from the 3rd Chapter of On Virginity. In this treatise, St. Gregory states rather emphatically that he in no way wishes to disparage marriage. Despite his evident sympathy for and understanding of the monastic and ascetic life, St. Gregory was never a monk himself. At some point he married, a move he seems to have regretted, and was therefore barred from a monastic vocation.
A Geronda here once gave one of his spiritual daughters a box of chocolates before her wedding and wished her well to have a sweet married life. After she left, he gave a short sermon to his monks, “Is there such a thing as a sweet marriage? It’s sweet until after the honeymoon, then all the problems start. You should be thankful God brought you to the monastic life.” He then mentioned a couple who were recently married. They had went down to Arizona to see Geronda Ephraim and he gave them a blessing, saying it would be good for them. Within a month of being married, they could no longer stand each other and had stopped speaking to each other and wanted a divorce. These are the kind of cautionary tales monks and nuns hear from their superiors as inspiration to remain in the monastery (though the nuns hear more of the abusive, domestic violence-type tales of what women have to endure from their husbands).
The more exactly we understand the riches of virginity, the more we must bewail the other life; for we realize by this contrast with better things, how poor it is. I do not speak only of the future rewards in store for those who have lived thus excellently, but those rewards also which they have while alive here; for if anyone would make up his mind to measure exactly the difference between the two courses, he would find it nearly as great as that between heaven and earth. The truth of this statement may be known by looking at actual facts.
But in writing this sad tragedy what will be a fit beginning? How shall we really bring to view the evils common to life? All men know them by experience, but somehow nature has contrived to blind the actual sufferers so that they willingly ignore their condition. Shall we begin with its choicest sweets? Well then, is not the sum total of all that is hoped for in marriage to get delightful companionship? Grant this obtained; let us sketch a marriage in every way most happy; illustrious birth, competent means, suitable ages, the very flower of the prime of life, deep affection, the very best that each can think of the other , that sweet rivalry of each wishing to surpass the other in loving; in addition, popularity, power, wide reputation, and everything else. But observe that even beneath this array of blessings the fire of an inevitable pain is smouldering. I do not speak of the envy that is always springing up against those of distinguished rank, and the liability to attack which hangs over those who seem prosperous, and that natural hatred of superiors shown by those who do not share equally in the good fortune, which make these seemingly favoured ones pass an anxious time more full of pain than pleasure. I omit that from the picture, and will suppose that envy against them is asleep; although it would not be easy to find a single life in which both these blessings were joined, i.e.happiness above the common, and escape from envy.
However, let us, if so it is to be, suppose a married life free from all such trials; and let us see if it is possible for those who live with such an amount of good fortune to enjoy it. Why, what kind of vexation is left, you will ask, when even envy of their happiness does not reach them? I affirm that this very thing, this sweetness that surrounds their lives, is the spark which kindles pain. They are human all the time, things weak and perishing; they have to look upon the tombs of their progenitors; and so pain is inseparably bound up with their existence, if they have the least power of reflection. This continued expectancy of death, realized by no sure tokens, but hanging over them the terrible uncertainty of the future, disturbs their present joy, clouding it over with the fear of what is coming. If only, before experience comes, the results of experience could be learned, or if, when one has entered on this course, it were possible by some other means of conjecture to survey the reality, then what a crowd of deserters would run from marriage into the virgin life; what care and eagerness never to be entangled in that retentive snare, where no one knows for certain how the net galls till they have actually entered it! You would see there, if only you could do it without danger, many contraries uniting; smiles melting into tears, pain mingled with pleasure, death always hanging by expectation over the children that are born, and putting a finger upon each of the sweetest joys.
Whenever the husband looks at the beloved face, that moment the fear of separation accompanies the look. If he listens to the sweet voice, the thought comes into his mind that some day he will not hear it. Whenever he is glad with gazing on her beauty, then he shudders most with the presentiment of mourning her loss. When he marks all those charms which to youth are so precious and which the thoughtless seek for, the bright eyes beneath the lids, the arching eyebrows, the cheek with its sweet and dimpling smile, the natural red that blooms upon the lips, the gold-bound hair shining in many-twisted masses on the head, and all that transient grace, then, though he may be little given to reflection, he must have this thought also in his inmost soul that someday all this beauty will melt away and become as nothing, turned after all this show into noisome and unsightly bones, which wear no trace, no memorial, no remnant of that living bloom. Can he live delighted when he thinks of that? Can he trust in these treasures which he holds as if they would be always his? Nay, it is plain that he will stagger as if he were mocked by a dream, and will have his faith in life shaken, and will look upon what he sees as no longer his.
You will understand, if you have a comprehensive view of things as they are, that nothing in this life looks that which it is. It shows to us by the illusions of our imagination one thing, instead of something else. Men gaze open-mouthed at it, and it mocks them with hopes; for a while it hides itself beneath this deceitful show; then all of a sudden in the reverses of life it is revealed as something different from that which men’s hopes, conceived by its fraud in foolish hearts, had pictured. Will life’s sweetness seem worth taking delight in to him who reflects on this? Will he ever be able really to feel it, so as to have joy in the goods he holds? Will he not, disturbed by the constant fear of some reverse, have the use without the enjoyment? I will but mention the portents, dreams, omens, and such-like things which by a foolish habit of thought are taken notice of, and always make men fear the worst. But her time of labour comes upon the young wife; and the occasion is regarded not as the bringing of a child into the world, but as the approach of death; in bearing it is expected that she will die; and, indeed, often this sad presentiment is true, and before they spread the birthday feast, before they taste any of their expected joys, they have to change their rejoicing into lamentation. Still in love’s fever, still at the height of their passionate affection, not yet having grasped life’s sweetest gifts, as in the vision of a dream, they are suddenly torn away from all they possessed.
But what comes next? Domestics, like conquering foes, dismantle the bridal chamber; they deck it for the funeral, but it is death’s room now; they make the useless wailings and beatings of the hands. Then there is the memory of former days, curses on those who advised the marriage, recriminations against friends who did not stop it; blame thrown on parents whether they be alive or dead, bitter outbursts against human destiny, arraigning of the whole course of nature, complaints and accusations even against the Divine government; war within the man himself, and fighting with those who would admonish; no repugnance to the most shocking words and acts. In some this state of mind continues, and their reason is more completely swallowed up by grief; and their tragedy has a sadder ending, the victim not enduring to survive the calamity.
But rather than this let us suppose a happier case. The danger of childbirth is past; a child is born to them, the very image of its parents’ beauty. Are the occasions for grief at all lessened thereby? Rather they are increased; for the parents retain all their former fears, and feel in addition those on behalf of the child, lest anything should happen to it in its bringing up; for instance a bad accident, or by some turn of misfortunes a sickness, a fever , any dangerous disease. Both parents share alike in these; but who could recount the special anxieties of the wife?
We omit the most obvious, which all can understand, the weariness of pregnancy, the danger in childbirth, the cares of nursing, the tearing of her heart in two for her offspring, and, if she is the mother of many, the dividing of her soul into as many parts as she has children; the tenderness with which she herself feels all that is happening to them. That is well understood by everyone. But the oracle of God tells us that she is not her own mistress, but finds her resources only in him whom wedlock has made her lord; and so, if she be forever so short a time left alone, she feels as if she were separated from her head, and can ill bear it; she even takes this short absence of her husband to be the prelude to her widowhood; her fear makes her at once give up all hope; accordingly her eyes, filled with terrified suspense, are always fixed upon the door; her ears are always busied with what others are whispering; her heart, stung with her fears, is nearly bursting even before any bad news has arrived; a noise in the doorway, whether fancied or real, acts as a messenger of ill, and on a sudden shakes her very soul; most likely all outside is well, and there is no cause to fear at all; but her fainting spirit is quicker than any message, and turns her fancy from good tidings to despair.
Thus even the most favoured live, and they are not altogether to be envied; their life is not to be compared to the freedom of virginity. Yet this hasty sketch has omitted many of the more distressing details. Often this young wife too, just wedded, still brilliant in bridal grace, still perhaps blushing when her bridegroom enters, and shyly stealing furtive glances at him, when passion is all the more intense because modesty prevents it being shown, suddenly has to take the name of a poor lonely widow and be called all that is pitiable. Death comes in an instant and changes that bright creature in her white and rich attire into a black-robed mourner. He takes off the bridal ornaments and clothes her with the colours of bereavement. There is darkness in the once cheerful room, and the waiting-women sing their long dirges. She hates her friends when they try to soften her grief; she will not take food, she wastes away, and in her soul’s deep dejection has a strong longing only for her death, a longing which often lasts till it comes. Even supposing that time puts an end to this sorrow, still another comes, whether she has children or not. If she has, they are fatherless, and, as objects of pity themselves, renew the memory of her loss. If she is childless, then the name of her lost husband is rooted up, and this grief is greater than the seeming consolation. I will say little of the other special sorrows of widowhood; for who could enumerate them all exactly? She finds her enemies in her relatives. Some actually take advantage of her affliction. Others exult over her loss, and see with malignant joy the home falling to pieces, the insolence of the servants, and the other distresses visible in such a case, of which there are plenty. In consequence of these, many women are compelled to risk once more the trial of the same things, not being able to endure this bitter derision. As if they could revenge insults by increasing their own sufferings! Others, remembering the past, will put up with anything rather than plunge a second time into the like troubles.
If you wish to learn all the trials of this married life, listen to those women who actually know it. How they congratulate those who have chosen from the first the virgin life, and have not had to learn by experience about the better way, that virginity is fortified against all these ills, that it has no orphan state, no widowhood to mourn; it is always in the presence of the undying Bridegroom; it has the offspring of devotion always to rejoice in; it sees continually a home that is truly its own, furnished with every treasure because the Master always dwells there; in this case death does not bring separation, but union with Him Who is longed for; for when (a soul) departs , then it is with Christ, as the Apostle says.
But it is time, now that we have examined on the one side the feelings of those whose lot is happy, to make a revelation of other lives, where poverty and adversity and all the other evils which men have to suffer are a fixed condition; deformities, I mean, and diseases, and all other lifelong afflictions. He whose life is contained in himself either escapes them altogether or can bear them easily, possessing a collected mind which is not distracted from itself; while he who shares himself with wife and child often has not a moment to bestow even upon regrets for his own condition, because anxiety for his dear ones fills his heart. But it is superfluous to dwell upon that which everyone knows. If to what seems prosperity such pain and weariness is bound, what may we not expect of the opposite condition? Every description which attempts to represent it to our view will fall short of the reality. Yet perhaps we may in a very few words declare the depths of its misery. Those whose lot is contrary to that which passes as prosperous receive their sorrows as well from causes contrary to that. Prosperous lives are marred by the expectancy, or the presence, of death; but the misery of these is that death delays his coming. These lives then are widely divided by opposite feelings; although equally without hope, they converge to the same end. So many-sided, then, so strangely different are the ills with which marriage supplies the world. There is pain always, whether children are born, or can never be expected, whether they live, or die. One abounds in them but has not enough means for their support; another feels the want of an heir to the great fortune he has toiled for, and regards as a blessing the other’s misfortune; each of them, in fact, wishes for that very thing which he sees the other regretting.
Again, one man loses by death a much-loved son; another has a reprobate son alive; both equally to be pitied, though the one mourns over the death, the other over the life, of his boy. Neither will I do more than mention how sadly and disastrously family jealousies and quarrels, arising from real or fancied causes, end. Who could go completely into all those details? If you would know what a network of these evilshuman life is, you need not go back again to those old stories which have furnished subjects to dramatic poets. They are regarded as myths on account of their shocking extravagance; there are in them murders and eating of children, husband-murders, murders of mothers and brothers, incestuous unions, and every sort of disturbance of nature; and yet the old chronicler begins the story which ends in such horrors with marriage. But turning from all that, gaze only upon the tragedies that are being enacted on this life’s stage; it is marriage that supplies mankind with actors there. Go to the law-courts and read through the laws there; then you will know the shameful secrets of marriage. Just as when you hear a physician explaining various diseases, you understand the misery of the human frame by learning the number and the kind of sufferings it is liable to, so when you peruse the laws and read there the strange variety of crimes in marriage to which their penalties are attached, you will have a pretty accurate idea of its properties; for the law does not provide remedies for evils which do not exist, any more than a physician has a treatment for diseases which are never known.
But we need no longer show in this narrow way the drawback of this life, as if the number of its ills was limited to adulteries, dissensions, and plots. I think we should take the higher and truer view, and say at once that none of that evil in life, which is visible in all its business and in all its pursuits, can have any hold over a man, if he will not put himself in the fetters of this course. The truth of what we say will be clear thus. A man who, seeing through the illusion with the eye of his spirit purged, lifts himself above the struggling world, and, to use the words of the Apostle, slights it all as but dung, in a way exiling himself altogether from human life by his abstinence from marriage,— that man has no fellowship whatever with the sins of mankind, such as avarice, envy, anger, hatred, and everything of the kind.