When I entered the Catholic church about a year ago, I was charged with one of the most daunting tasks that theology-nerd-confirmands are presented with before they cross the tiber – choosing a patron saint. I had been drawn into the beauty of Gregory’s eschatological vision in On the Soul and the Resurrection, finding his account of the human person to be profound (as summarised by a brilliant friend, Anton Schauble).
Nevertheless, I never discovered a real connection between Gregory’s anthropology and the thirst for justice I found in radical Christian figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day or Dietrich Bonhoeffer – thinkers that had kept my faith alive through periods of formidable doubt. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon some of St. Gregory’s homilies that I encountered a bite that could penetrate through gross injustice, exposing the comfortable contradictions his church had become accustomed to. Unfortunately for us, we cannot reduce Gregory’s concerns to a historical peculiarity only applicable to the church of his time. His understanding of oppressed human bodies ought to obliterate our complacency towards the downtrodden. Focusing on the bodies of the poor, I’m going to explore how we can connect Gregory’s understanding of embodiment and personhood with the duty to incline our hearts to “hear” what Pope Francis has called “the cry of the poor” and to bolster our cry for justice in today’s world.
Gregory’s account of the bodies of the poor is largely built on his belief that the human person is not merely a physical body. Individuals share a common humanity or pleroma that is not fully complete unless the individuals that comprise it are united. Gregory contrasts two different moments in the creation of humanity. Firstly, there was the creation of a universal human essence which God foresaw would only come to completion when all were united in Christ on the last day. Secondly, there is the creation of individual, gendered humans that would eventually develop into the fullness of their humanity (the pleroma) which was not yet realised. This unity has remained unrealised because, as Augustine suggests, Adam has become fragmented like a shattered china doll.1 William Cavanaugh reaffirms this, stating that “the effect of sin is the very creation of individuals as such, that is, the creation of an ontological distinction between individual and group.”2
Nevertheless, the gathering of all humanity into Christ, the fullness of the image of God, is made possible in Christ’s assumption of human flesh. The possibility of a united humanity in Christ leads inexorably to Gregory’s condemnation of inequality between Christians. He chides the purveyors of injustice that “have divided human nature”, sinning in their implicit attempt to thwart God’s ultimate purpose, the unity and equality of the pleroma of humankind.3 However, Gregory’s condemnation is not one that fits comfortably into a cosy neo-liberal reckoning of equality that stops short of challenging economic injustice.
Gregory elegantly narrates our common humanity by emphasising that both the rich and the poor experience the same “pains and pleasures, merriments and distress, sorrows and delight, sickness and death”. He asks us “Are not the two one dust after death? Is there not one judgement for them? A common kingdom, and a common Gehenna”?4 For Gregory, this is not simply an abstract metaphysical claim. It has immediate and radical social implications for a Christian form of life amidst inequality. One person that inspired Gregory immensely was his sister, Macrina (the namesake of this magazine). Though from a wealthy background, she renounced her wealth in solidarity with the poor, animating her mother to do the same as she followed Macrina into a life of poverty. Macrina taught her mother “how to live in equality” with the downtrodden “by sharing with them the same one table, the same kind of bed, and all the necessities of life on an equal basis with every distinction of rank removed from… life.”5 Gregory’s understanding of the united common humanity of the future is glimpsed and made present in the “here-and-now” in this radical act of solidarity. Every choice we make to heal unjust class division or to love in uncomfortable proximity brings us closer to God’s vision of a united humanity, edging closer to realising what it is to be fully human as individuals. In Ratzinger’s words, we not only become closer to the realisation of our humanity but in “being together as the one Christ” we “are heaven” to one another, mediating its beatitude to every other member of the body.
Now, what are the implications for the way Christians approach the bodies of the impoverished? Firstly, the homeless body is more than merely physical. This is not only in the sense, highlighted above, that they exceed the individual and point us to the common humanity or pleroma. They are also more than physical bodies because they point to the soul and, consequently, to the God that sustains their existence. The poor are an icon or window. Through them, the Christian peers to catch a glimpse of the creator that accords such bodies asymmetrical attention, something the Catholic church recognises as the “preferential option for the poor”.6 This suggests something of a sacramental relationship between the homeless body and the God that reveals himself, and presents humanity back to itself, in the form of a slave (Phillipians 2:7). As Christ’s oft-quoted words in Matthew’s gospel articulate, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Thus, to be human is to imitate Christ and replicate God’s wasteful, kenotic and thriftless salvific care for a spiritually poor humanity. To fail to do so, Gregory insists, is to risk one’s own salvation and his warnings are not to be ignored.
Gregory commands the rich to care for the bodies of the homeless. In doing so, the rich provide a heavenly home for their own souls. It is unsurprising that Gregory refers to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). He sees a connection between the homelessness of Lazarus in this life and the homelessness of the rich man’s soul in the next. Because the rich man could not see beyond the unsightly body of Lazarus to his common humanity or beautiful soul, his own body now suffered in Gehenna whilst Lazarus’ rested in Abraham’s bosom. Hans Boersma suggests that “Nyssen makes clear that this care for the body of the oppressed is at the same time care for the soul of the oppressor”.7 There is an inseparable tie between the rich and the poor, drawn together by their common humanity in Christ, which cannot be severed in this life or the next.
With the rise of neo-liberalism through the seventies and eighties, we see widespread condemnations of the poor and an over-emphasis of the individual’s moral responsibility for their own poverty. Instead of viewing poverty as a contingent condition that could overcome anyone, something we are all vulnerable to, poverty is condemned as the fruit of laziness or a moral failure to take hold of the opportunities that a mythical, meritocratic society offers us all. Gregory boldly proclaims that when we condemn the poor, we “fail to consider” that we condemn ourselves “in the process”.8 The rich and the poor share a common humanity and there can be no distinction made between the deserving and undeserving within this body. Grounded in scripture, Gregory states that we are stewards of what belongs to “our common father” to whom “all belongs”, meaning it is necessarily “more just that brothers reap an equal part of the heritage” their father has stored up for them.9
Cheryl Bransen and Paul Vliem capture just how bold this demand for justice is. They suggest that “[T]he Cappadocian Fathers did not stop…with simply bringing those in need into sharper focus and depending on whatever sense of sympathy existed in the rich to be evoked. They went beyond this, advocating that rights previously reserved only for citizens be extended to the needy, regardless of citizenship or kin ties.”10 This was incredibly subversive in a fatalistic pagan culture that viewed these inequalities as mere tragic inevitability, a view that somewhat mirrors the libertarian-capitalist view of poverty which remains incompatible with the Christian tradition.
Gregory’s anthropological assertion of our common kinship relentlessly draws the reader’s attention toward the necessity for social and economic reconstruction. In his words, the bodies of the homeless “bear the countenance of our saviour” in a way that causes the “hard-hearted, those who hate the poor, to blush with shame”.11 The powerful image he employs is that of a blushing thief that is shamed by the appearance of his king’s image on a coin. The poor are like a coin with an image of the emperor imprinted upon it. Neglect of the coin indicates disdain for the king in whose image the coin has been fashioned. To neglect the homeless bodies that constitute one’s own humanity is to dishonour the God whose image is stamped upon them. The human person is not merely a physical body but a sacramental body and Gregory goes so far as to say that the poor become for the rich “in their own person… the means to enter into heaven”. They are the “doorkeepers of the kingdom, who open the door to the righteous and close it again to the unloving…”12
- Cavanaugh, William. 2012. “A World Without Enemies: The Eucharist And The Work Of Peace”. ABC Religion And Ethics 1 (2).
- Cavanaugh, William. 1998. Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. London: Routledge. pp. 184
- Hart, David Bentley. 2017. The Hidden And The Manifest. Eerdmans. pp 51-54.
- Hall, Stuart George. 1993. Gregory Of Nyssa “Homilies On Ecclesiastes”. Berlin: W. De Gruyter. pp. 65.
- Livingstone, E.A. 1993. Cappadocian Fathers, Greek Authors After Nicaea, Augustine, Donatism, And Pelagianism. Leuven: Peeters Press. pp. 65.
- Holman, Susan R. 2001. The Hungry Are Dying. Oxford: Oxford University Press. In De Beneficentia, Gregory refers to the poor as the “favourites of God.”
- Boersma, Hans. 2013. Embodiment And Virtue In Gregory Of Nyssa. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 18.
- Holman, Susan R. 2001. The Hungry Are Dying. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 201.
- Holman, Susan R. 2001. The Hungry Are Dying. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 197
- Bransden, Cheryl, and T. Laine Scales. 2008. Christianity And Social Work. Botsford, CT: North American Association of Christians in Social Work.
- Holman, Susan R. 2001. The Hungry Are Dying. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 195.
- Anderson, Gary A. 2013. Sin. Johanneshov: MTM. pp 135.