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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

St Gregory of Nyssa On Virginity, Complete

Translated by W. Moore and H. A. Wilson

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44 Pages

Page 2


The object of this treatise is to create in its readers a passion for the life according to excellence. There are many distractions [1344] , to use the word of the Divine Apostle, incident to the secular life; and so this treatise would suggest, as a necessary door of entrance to the holier life, the calling of Virginity; seeing that, while it is not easy in the entanglements of this secular life to find quiet for that of Divine contemplation, those on the other hand who have bid farewell to its troubles can with promptitude, and without distraction, pursue assiduously their higher studies. Now, whereas all advice is in itself weak, and mere words of exhortation will not make the task of recommending what is beneficial easier to any one, unless he has first given a noble aspect to that which he urges on his hearer, this discourse will accordingly begin with the praises of Virginity; the exhortation will come at the end; moreover, as the beauty in anything gains lustre by the contrast with its opposite, it is requisite that some mention should be made of the vexations of everyday life. Then it will be quite in the plan of this work to introduce a sketch of the contemplative life, and to prove the impossibility of any one attaining it who feel's the world's anxieties. In the devotee bodily desire has become weak; and so there will follow an inquiry as to the true object of desire, for which (and which only) we have received from our Maker our power of desiring. When this has received all possible illustration, it will seem to follow naturally that we should consider some method to attain it; and the true virginity, which is free from any stain of sin, will be found to fit such a purpose. So all the intermediate part of the discourse, while it seems to look elsewhere, will be really tending to the praises of this virginity. All the particular rules obeyed by the followers of this high calling will, to avoid prolixity, be omitted here; the exhortation in the discourse will be introduced only in general terms, and for cases of wide application; but, in a way, particulars will be here included, and so nothing important will be overlooked, while prolixity is avoided. Each of us, too, is inclined to embrace some course of life with the greater enthusiasm, when he sees personalities who have already gained distinction in it; we have therefore made the requisite mention of saints who have gained their glory in celibacy. But further than this; the examples we have in biographies cannot stimulate to the attainment of excellence, so much as a living voice and an example which is still working for good; and so we have alluded to that most godly bishop [1345] , our father in God, who himself alone could be the master in such instructions. He will not indeed be mentioned by name, but by certain indications we shall say in cipher that he is meant. Thus, too, future readers will not think our advice unmeaning, when the candidate for this life is told to school himself by recent masters. But let them first fix their attention only on this: what such a master ought to be; then let them choose for their guidance those who have at any time by God's grace been raised up to be champions of this system of excellence; for either they will find what they seek, or at all events will be no longer ignorant what it ought to be.

[1344] perispasmon. The allusion must be to 1 Cor. vii. 35; but the actual word is not found in the whole of the N.T., though periespato is used of Martha, S. Luke x. 40.

[1345] Basil; rather than Gregory Thaumaturgus, as some have conjectured.

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