Perfection as a work in progress

"Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3. 13-14


We tend to think of perfection as a static notion, beyond which there is nowhere left to go - as if gaining the summit of a mountain. While human beings have proved quite adept at climbing mountains, moral perfection remains stubbornly out of reach. As such, Jesus' injunction "Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5.48) represents an unattainable goal. That is until Gregory of Nyssa offered a reinterpretation of perfection: as an unending work in progress.


In The Life of Moses Gregory reflects on the prophet-leader's three encounters with God - at the burning bush, in the cloud on Mount Sinai and from the cleft in the rock while up there - to elucidate a two-stage process. At the burning bush, Moses learns to distinguish between sense perception and true being: the bush appeared to be on fire but it wasn't being burned up. In like manner our quest for God is all-consuming but never destructive. The perpetual progress this reveals to Gregory he calls epektasis. Closely linked is the notion of metousia (participation), whereby believers are swept up into relationship with God, through our desire for him.


Moses' audience with God on Mount Sinai takes place in the darkness of a cloud, through which he learns that God is beyond knowing, which only fuels his desire. The significance of the third encounter, in which Moses is granted a partial glimpse (of God's back) is that the rock into which God places him turns out to represent Christ, through whom alone we too may behold God. According to Gregory, Christian perfection is to be found in our never-ending pursuit of, and participation in, the life of God, the delights of which can never be exhausted - on earth or in heaven.

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