Gregory of Nyssa and Epektasis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Gregory of Nyssa (335-384), whose feast is observed today by the Episcopal Church, is one of the great theologians of the Christian East;  in recent years his fame has spread westwards.  He had nine siblings, two of whom were Basil the Great and Macrina.  He left behind a large corpus of writings and was influential in formulating the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  One of his major contributions to spirituality was the concept of epektasis.  Meaning roughly "upward striving", the notion first appears in Paul: "Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark" (Phil 3:13).  The upward striving towards God is incremental and never ends, whether in this life or the next.  Seen in this light, theosis means that people get more and more like God but without, however, attaining God's transcendence.  This contrasts with Platonic philosophy, itself very influential in Eastern Christian theology, which regarded stability as perfection (many references to an unchanging, passionless God) and change as a sign of imperfection.

One place where Gregory discusses epektasis is in his Life of Moses (many editions), a recasting of the patriarch in terms of Christian mysticism.  A sample appears below. 


For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course.  Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.

...He shone with glory.  And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in  his desire for more.  He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God's true being.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 9, 2012 at Friday, March 09, 2012 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Robin Elizabeth Margolis  

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