image with the sign of Myriobiblos

Main Page | Library | Homage | Seminars | Book Reviews





Internet Dept.



Previous Page
Alden A. Mosshammer

Time For All and a Moment for Each:
The Sixth Homily of Gregory of Nyssa on Ecclesiastes

4. Α Moment for Everything

Gregory has indeed found much philosophy in the Ecclesiastes phrase, 'Time for all, a moment for everything'. In this verse Gregory discovers a new understanding of the structure of created reality as measured, bounded, characterized by difference. Time is the measure of all things, because all things are measured. The latter is the more important point. Each material thing is different and separate from every other, thing that exists alongside it in space. Generalizing these spatial categories to include time as a kind of measured space, Gregory now sees each created thing as different from every other created thing and even as different from itself in the constant motion from non-being towards being. On yet another level of abstraction, difference itself is the distinguishing mark of the whole created order. Αll created reality is different from the creator precisely because all created things are different from each other. In the first book against Eunomius, Gregory will make the Idea he has discovered here, that time is the origin of all measure, his most powerful weapon against all efforts to introduce an interval between the Father and the Sοn.(29)

If time is the common measure for all things, the next question is how Gregory understands the 'moment'. Gregory does not define καιρός in the sixth homily, but he apparently takes the Ecclesiastes sentence hypotactically. Because time is the common measure for all things, therefore for each thing that comes into existence there is a moment. Just as time is not merely chronological, so the right moment is not merely an instant in the horizontal motion of time. The διάστημα is the whole space between being and non-being, a space through which created intelligence can move with a freedom that physical space denies. Moment defines the character of every particular point within that space and determines whether its motion will be towards the fullness of being or the emptiness of non-being. Time measures all things, differentiating one thing from another and Timeliness means recognizing the essential differentiatedness of the created order in time and acting in such a way as to effect the right kind of difference. Although Gregory does not explicitly define καιρός, it is clear from his subsequent discussion of the individual verses that 'timeliness' measures not a quantity of time, but rather the quality of its motion.

Gregory proceeds to his commentary using καιρός in reference to his own exposition. Νow, he says (378,6), would be the moment for us to proceed in logical order to the actual contemplation of the divinely inspired sayings. This is a common usage of καιρός for Gregory (e.g. In Psalm. GNO V, 34.17), and it is difficult to say whether in this context there is an intentional pun. However that may be, Gregory gives most attention to the first saying, 'a time to give birth, a time to die'. He comments first on the appropriateness of the Ecclesiastes pairing of birth and death at the head of the list of opposites. Birth necessarily entails death, and it was to remind the reader of this ineluctable condition of human existence that Moses entitled the first two books of the Bible 'Genesis' and 'Exodus'. If people would only wake up to this obvious fact, they would stop running around in circles with the godless and would seek the straight path instead. Blessed are they, Gregory says, who leave the circular deceits of this life and travel along the straight path of virtue. Virtue he now defines not as an Aristotelian mean, but as turning one's soul away from the futility that is here so as to stretch towards what lies ahead through faith in hope.

This passage recalls what Gregory says in the first homily (287,3ff) about the endless cycles of birth and death. There he encouraged the reader to recognize the futility of earthly existence. Here he expounds the Ecclesiastes method for breaking free from that cyclical futility and seeking the straight path. There came a moment when Ι was born, Gregory says, and there will come a moment when Ι will die. But this is not the kind of moment the Ecclesiast is talking about. Physical birth and death are involuntary and have nothing to do with finding the straight road of virtue. It is a timely birth when one is pregnant by the fear of God and through labour of the soul engenders his own salvation. For we become our own fathers when we fashion and bring ourselves to birth through a noble exercise of freedom (προαίρεσις). This we accomplish by receiving into ourselves the form (μορφή) of Christ. The moment for such birth is one, Gregory says, not many. Whoever misses the right moment labours to destruction and is midwife to his own death.

Although Gregory says here that there is only one moment for birth, in the next passage he states that every moment is the right one for a good death, even as Saint Paul died every day. The timely death Gregory defines as the sponsoring agent (πρόξενoς) of life. Thus the right moment for birth and the right moment for death are the same moment; and that moment is both one and many. It is one moment in that it is a decisive act of self-definition; it is many moments in that one must endlessly be giving new birth to himself in order to avoid the endlessness of running around in circles with the ungodly. That the one moment of the right decision is every moment of life Gregory explicitly states in the seventh and eighth homilies (401,4; 405,3; 425,16).

For the purposes of the present argument, what is most important about this passage is its emphasis on the creative powers of the human will. The straight path out of the circular futility of life lies in an exercise of human choice. The unseen realities that one is called upon to contemplate are not Platonic intelligible lying above the celestial sphere where the senses cannot reach, but what lies ahead in hope through faith, whither the human will can reach through an act of self-regeneration. The straight path stretches horizontally through time and vertically towards real being, but not upward through space. Gregory is talking about right moments that transform the measured space within which everything comes to be, not about a flight from sensible to intelligible. Τo have eyes in one's head is to see reality as Christ sees it, not to see some other reality beyond the firmament.

Gregory interprets the next set of texts accordingly. In order to participate in reality as Christ sees it, one must first separate himself from the unreality that has come to mask it. There is a time for planting, a time for weeding. God is the gardener, Gregory says, and we are his garden. Οnly the Great Gardener knows how to plant good things. Whatever is not of his planting, Gregory says quoting Matthew (15,13), will be weeded out. Gregory makes faith his example of God's planting, contrasting it both with the evil weeds of the Pharisees and with the contemporary unbelief prevailing over the minds of many. It is this passage (382,16) that dates the work to the period before the Council of Constantinople. This unbelief, Gregory says, is not of the father's planting, but comes from the one who sows or plants alongside (παρασπείροντος, παραφυτεύοντος). What applies to faith applies to all the other virtues as well. Το plant self-control is to weed license; the unjust growth is weeded out by the implant of justice. The plant of humility destroys pride; the blossom of love dries out the evil branch of hatred. Conversely, the growth of injustice freezes love, and so forth through all the virtues.

The moments for killing and healing, tearing down and building, convey a similar teaching. We must kill the enemy within ourselves in order to heal the disposition of love, which has become ill in us because of hate. Using the analogy of an intestinal parasite, Gregory says that when someone realizes that his soul has borne and nourishes a beast within itself he must make timely use of the killing medicine that brings health, namely the teaching of the gospel. Likewise there is a time to destroy the houses of evil within us and a time to find a broad space for the construction of the temple of God, which is built within us from the timbers of virtue. Let the works of darkness first be torn down and then the brilliant houses of life constructed in their place.

In these passages Gregory uses language reminiscent of the earlier homilies. The whole discussion is informed by the major theme of the work - that the futility now prevailing under the heavens is not of God's making. The discussion of planting and weeding recalls the earlier discussion of Solomon's gardens in the third homily, where Gregory characterizes lavish horticulture as a violence of art against nature (332,18). The shining temple that replaces the buildings of darkness recalls the language of the fifth homily, where Gregory says that whoever puts his lamp under the bed turns light into darkness, becoming himself the manufacturer of the unreal (358,11).

The art and method that the Ecclesiast teaches in his series of moments is reversal. In the beginning of the fifth homily (353,13) Gregory had said that as escape from evil is the beginning of virtue, so escape from futility is prerequisite to the experience of reality. Hence Gregory's emphasis in the sixth homily is on the negative - on weeding, killing, destroying. This separation from futility prepares us for the higher philosophy in the seventh homily about the nature of reality. Meanwhile, Gregory's point is that it is the perversion of the visible cosmos that one must escape, not the cosmos itself. As we will learn in the seventh homily, the cosmos lacks real being of its own, but is nevertheless real as long as it clings to the being of its maker. The origin of futility is not the sensible nature as such but, as Gregory has already suggested in the first homily (284,21-285,12), the delusion of supposing that the world has an existence of its own.

The right moments for weeping and for laughing, for beating and for dancing, prompt Gregory to a diatribe on the worst perversion of all - the fallen state of human nature in comparison with what it once was. Who would not spend his whole life in weeping if he knew his own situation - what he once had and now has lost, what his nature was in the beginning and what it is now. The passage recalls a similar lament in the homilies on the Beatitudes (PG 44, 1225D), as Alexander points out in the apparatus. There is no need to rehearse the long list of Gregory's complaints. His central point is that in the beginning human nature enjoyed immortality and equality with the angels, in an unmediated contemplation of the hypercosmic goods. Νοw, however, our nature is plagued with an evil chain of passions that no one in this life can escape. Most mournful of all is the fearful judgment that awaits the enemies of God. Νοw therefore is the time to weep. Α mournful attitude towards this life will help to minimize mistakes in it. The promised joy will therefore await us in hope. Human life is a compound, Gregory says, made up of body and soul. It would be well to beat upon ourselves in bodily life so as to prepare the dance of the soul. 'He who exhibits his life as thoroughly lamentable', Gregory concludes, 'will rest in the bosom of the patriarch; may we too rest in it, through the mercy of our Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.'

On this lugubrious note, Gregory ends the sixth homily. He has certainly found the moment for weeping, and his only hope seems to lie in a future beyond the grave. At the end of the homily Gregory's more pessimistic vertical structuring with its stark contrast between earth and heaven, body and soul, seems to have gained the upper hand. Life within the material order is worse than futile. We can only lament our fall into the body and the loss of the angelic ability we once had to contemplate what lies above the cosmos. Something better indeed awaits, but only if we have managed to pass the terrible judgment that awaits us when the course of this shadowy life has passed so as to be received into the bosom of Abraham. The contrast between the intellectual and the corporeal nature, between the world above and the world below dominates the closing paragraphs of the homily. The more optimistic idea of a horizontal ascent through time by seizing the right moment for a timely birth seems to have been completely overwhelmed.

We must remember, however, that this is only the sixth homily and that Gregory is proceeding through an ordered sequence of argument that corresponds to the necessary sequence of progress in virtue. The true nature of reality cannot reveal itself until its opposite has been banished. The works of darkness must be torn down before we can build within us houses of light. It is the distortion of nature, the dominance of non-being over being, that Gregory here laments. This confessional dirge, like Dante's flood of tears in the 31st Purgatorio, prepares the way for the revelation of truth that the seventh homily will find in mending the rent fabric of reality. It is not until the eighth homily that Gregory concludes his discussion and answers the question left open at the beginning of the sixth -whether or not time and season are the right criteria for the establishment of all virtue. Α few comments on the eighth are necessary here to complete this discussion of the sixth.

'All things which he made are good at his right moment,' says the Preacher; the Preacher; 'he also gave time together in their heart, so that a man may not find the making which God made from beginning to end'. Even if it is true, as I have suggested, that Gregory's thinking about space and time was developing as he wrote these homilies, he must have had in mind while he was exploring the depths of the philosophy of time in the sixth homily these words of the Ecclesiast that he would be commenting upon in the eighth. In the sixth homily he defines time as the common measure of all things and says that measure and moment are the criteria of the good. He does not explicitly define moment, but implies by example that the right moment is the ability not only to distinguish between good and evil, reality and futility, but also to alter the character of experience itself in one direction or the other. In the eighth homily we learn that the right moment is in fact God's moment. God made all things good in his own moment. He gave to those who participate in reality the ability to distinguish the good. The right moment (ευκαιρία, 438,9) of each thing's use bestows upon the user the perception of the good. The reversal of the moment turns each thing into its opposite. God created all things good in his own moment and also gave time in their hearts. Here, following his text of Ecclesiastes, Gregory uses αιών rather than χρόνος, but he understands time in both homilies in much the same way. He said in the sixth homily that the extension of time (377,2) stretches out alongside everything that comes into being and that time is the measure containing (περιέχων, 377,14) all things within itself. Similarly, in the eighth homily he says that αιών is an extensional idea that signifies the whole creation that comes to be within it (440,3-5). God gave this time to men in their hearts, and it is the heart of man that determines its quality. It is the same with all of the things that nature has to offer from God, Gregory says (439,20); it lies within the choice of those who use them whether they become material for good or for evil. Thus time and moment are indeed the criteria of the good. For God gave to man the whole measure of time and all that it contains for good. The creation is good in God's moment. Whether or not it is good in man's moment is within his own responsibility to determine.


29. - See for example Contra Εun. Ι, 365-375, GNO Ι, 134-137, Ekkehard Mühlenberg has discussed this point in detail (above, note 3: see especially pp. 106-111, 135-141).

Previous Page