Gregory of Nyssa on Spiritual Warfare

Welcome back to The Practical Catholic, today we look at one of my favorite saints, Gregory of Nyssa, and His interpretation of Spiritual warfare.

When we lay bare the hidden meaning of history, scripture is seen to teach that the birth which distresses the tyrant is the beginning of the virtuous life. I am speaking of the kind of birth in which free will serves as the midwife, delivering the child amid great pain. For no one causes grief to his antagonist unless he exhibits in himself those marks which give proof of his victory over the other. — The Life of Moses

This work of Gregory of Nyssa has formidably shaped the entire mystical Tradition, and also gives Christians both present and future a way of understanding the mystical and spiritual senses of scripture in action. This work also reflects how the Early Church reflected critically on the lives of the Old Testament figures as models for the Christian life, not out of a sense of obligation or haphazard grabbing for historical tradition, but out of a deep sense of understanding the reality of mystical continuity between Judaism and Christianity.

In this work Gregory uses Moses as a commentary on the Christian’s journey in the world using the life of Moses as an allegory for the process of the Christian life. He talks about how we can spiritually imitate the birth of Moses by imitating the virtues which he draws as spiritual realities from the life of Moses.

Understanding Gregory

Gregory says that scripture shows us that the birth of virtue aggravates “the tyrant,” by which he means that the scriptures teach that virtue itself is spiritual warfare. As a former pentecostal I was exposed to the idea that spiritual warfare was something that we engage in, something that we do through targeting spirits and ideas “in the heavenly places.” Gregory offers us a very different idea, one connected to Judaism, Christianity, and virtue as the font of Christian action.

Virtue, Free Will and Spiritual Warfare

What I was taught about “spiritual warfare” had nothing to do with virtuous living, it had nothing to do with simply being a Christian. However, Gregory would have us contemplate that it is not simply the external acts of prayer or speaking in tongues that aggravate “the tyrant” but the entire virtuous life.

Gregory says that free will is the thing that brings along and delivers virtue to us amid persecution and great pain. It is an act of the will to become more virtuous, even from earliest days, the Church has affirmed that will plays an important part in the birth and continuation of virtue. Actions have everything to do with virtue. I understand that grace also plays an important role and Gregory addresses this in other parts of the work, but it is essential to retain the idea that will is formidable in the conquest over evil.

Advent Reflections with Gregory of Nyssa

I think the essential conclusion that Gregory draws is important “…No one causes grief to his antagonist unless he exhibits in himself those marks which give proof of his victory over the other.” Isn’t that the entire story of Advent? This Moses, like Jesus after Him, escapes from the tyrant who seeks His life. He brings frustration to the tyrants of the world by virtue of his existence, He causes the systems of the world grief because He is their end. Where tyrants use violence and coercion to perpetuate their power, the birth of virtue spells their demise.

Jesus spells the end of the powers of the world, as Moses before Him because the very God who supports Him is the God whose activity in history culminates in His final redemption through death and resurrection. His very existence frustrates the tyrant, and makes evil fret.

Gregory is saying that the birth of virtue inaugurates personal persecution.

But think about this:

Where other powers kill, this one seeks to conquer death through submission to it. Where other powers coerce to perpetuate themselves, this tiny infant grows in knowledge and stature, and initiates God’s justice in such a way that none before Him have done.

Personal Application

On a personal level, we can learn from this that the birth of the tiny infant within us is the very same power which frustrates all tyrants. The powers of honor, truth, justice, peace and friendship are how we as a people bring God’s illumination to the world and overthrow the game of thrones that the world would have us play.

Scripture has taught us to frustrate the tyrant with good works, to overthrow the bonds of the oppressor by climbing onto the cross and extending ourselves with Christ in behalf of the world. Spiritual warfare is simply letting Christ shine in us, so let us be expressions of the most dangerous child, the One who offers us war through peace, justice through his suffering, and life through his death. The birth of virtue might incite the Herods and Pharaohs of the world, but it also means their destruction through the power of the cross and the saving waters of baptism.

Let us remember the birth of Moses, who offers us an example of faithful discipleship, let us remember Jesus who offers us a coming kingdom. Let us call on Him, ever faithfully, Come Lord Jesus! Maranatha.


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