|Mosaic of St. Gregory of Nyssa in Constantinople|
In his first sermon, Gregory provides an enlightening exegesis of the Lord’s neologism βατταλογέω in the Gospel according to Matthew (6:7). Gregory claims that Jesus “invented this… word.” Some – for example, the King James Version and the American Standard Version – have problematically translated this word as “use vain repetitions,” which for some might call into question our practice of frequently repeating the very prayer which our Lord then teaches us to pray (Matt 6:9-13). This “strange novelty of a word,” as Gregory calls it, occurs only once in Scripture and consequently those who seek to understand its true meaning require some explanation. Gregory’s ideas about this word are helpful in the contemporary context because so many have encountered its use by Protestant critics of the Catholic and Orthodox custom of prayerful repetition. Repetition, in fact, does have a certain value. “Through frequent repetition,” Gregory writes, “we may be given to understand some of [the prayer’s] hidden meaning.” Repetition, if prayerful, is not vain but an aid to the human spirit seeking to focus on God in the midst of a temporal world filled with distractions, especially the incessant desire for pleasures. Gregory tells us that the Lord is not advising us to avoid repetition, but to avoid indulging “vain desires” by praying for “empty pleasures.”
This is what He means by βατταλογέω, or babbling. One example Gregory gives of this is the prayer of some to God “for the crown in the games.” This, certainly, is an example many can relate to in our own time and place. Our football culture has even named a certain type of play – one particularly unlikely to succeed – the “Hail Mary pass.” Those who pray for such things “babble nonsense,” as Gregory says, and it is this type of babbling, not repetition, that our Lord commands us to avoid in prayer.
This is neither to say that simple pleasures are wrong nor that they do not come from God as blessings but that our prayer, especially as we spiritually mature, should be ever more devoted to the higher purpose of union with God. We would do well to realize, as Gregory points out, that if we have “by Divine Providence… obtained these childish toys” it is only so that they might learn to “offer the Father petitions for the greater and more perfect things… that profit the soul.” We must learn to focus our prayer less on fulfilling our own desires for wealth or high status or other such things and more on becoming true children of God the Father.
Before we can truthfully call God our Father, we must establish similarity to and familiarity with God by virtue and impassibility. This is a central theme of Gregory’s sermons. God is not our Father simply because He has created us, but also because and to the extent that we are like Him. The earth, from which God made us, though created, does not call God its Father. Our Lord’s command to so address God is also an exhortation to be His children – to live as children of so great a Father. “It is physically impossible,” writes Gregory, that “the Holy One [should be the Father] of him whose life is impure.” Kind begets kind. If God is our Father, then we must be like God. On this theme, Gregory even strongly states, “Those who approach God should themselves become gods.”
We cannot approach this paragon of holiness and virtue by our own unaided efforts. We all have need for God’s help. We cannot even pray without Him first assisting us. “We can obtain nothing of the things for which we are anxious,” writes Gregory, referring to the things, including prayer itself, by which our lives give glory to God’s name, “unless the good be accomplished in us by Divine aid.” Therefore, we must pray to become virtuous so that we can become worthy to unite ourselves to God in prayer. Gregory writes, “A man can glorify God in no other way save by his virtue which bears witness that the Divine power is the cause of his goodness.” Only in weakness may a person give glory to God, and we are all weak. Not by our own power do we overcome the sinful passions and our adversary the devil, but only by our free cooperation with the grace of God. “Strong, indeed, is the adversary, formidable, yea, invincible to those bereft of Thy help,” Gregory prays. Yet, those who seek God’s help shall find it.
God is with us and He will purify us if we do not resist His grace. While discussing that part of the Lord’s prayer asking for forgiveness of our debts, Gregory writes, “It seems to me that the Word teaches us through the prayer never to speak too boldly to God as if we had a pure conscience, however far from human sins a man may be.” So, even though we must be holy before we can rightly call God our Father, we learn from the Our Father itself that none are so holy as to be free from the need for forgiveness. Mercifully, Gregory reminds us, “the Father forgives sins, the Son takes away the sins of the world, and the Holy Spirit cleanses from the stains of sin those in whom He dwells.”
Gregory’s thoughts here echo the usual beginning prayers of the Divine Praises. We ask the “Spirit of Truth” to “come and dwell within us” and “cleanse us of all stain.” Paralleling Gregory’s pattern, we invoke the “Most Holy Trinity,” praying, “Lord, cleanse us of our sins; Master, forgive our transgressions; Holy One, come to us and heal our infirmities for your name’s sake.” Importantly, we offer these prayers before we pray the Our Father. Before we can rightly call God our Father, His Son must take away our sins and the Holy Spirit must cleanse us and make us holy. Only the holy are rightly called the children of the Holy One. Only the power of God can make us holy. Therefore, before we pray, we pray. That is, before we call God our Father, we pray Him, through His Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us His children.