An Ever-Unfolding Purpose – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John 14:23-26

In John’s gospel we hear Jesus say: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus to be taught by the guidance of the Holy Spirit? How might that guidance be felt and known in new ways during our journey through the season of Lent?

The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote: “We are pressured from within to become more. The Spirit invites us to evolve; to respond graciously to the changes that God may be inviting us to embrace.”

In this vision, the Spirit is intimately present to who and what we are in this moment. At the same time, the Spirit exerts a dynamic force – a pressure – urging each creature forward into God’s future, a further unfolding of its purpose. Unlike the day-to-day economic or social pressures that bear down upon us from the world; or even the internal pressures of our own psyche; the pressure exerted upon us by the Holy Spirit is always creative, generative, and life-giving beyond what we can anticipate or imagine.

Today in the calendar of the church we remember the life and witness of St. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop and theologian of the fourth century whose mystical writings often return to this theme of forward momentum in the divine life. Gregory uses the word progress, epektasis in Greek, in a very particular way. He takes his cue from Phillipians: “I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” For Gregory, this “straining forward” is our dynamic response to the Spirit’s pressure from within.

Gregory lived in an age when contemplation of our eternal life in heaven was central to Christian identity and theologians pondered what it would be like. Would it be perfection – the completion of all that is unfinished, the satisfaction of all desires? For Gregory, the answer was no, not in the way we humanly imagine perfection. Instead, he envisioned an eternity in which the soul will always keep searching for greater fulfillment of its desire. Beyond the restless dissatisfaction that often propels our earthly desires, the soul’s desire under the Spirit’s creative pressure is transformed. At each new moment that it grasps its desire, the soul discovers its desire has expanded to let in a further vista of God’s breathtaking beauty. Our capacity to evolve – to respond to the invitation to change – becomes as infinite as the goodness, truth, and beauty of God are infinite.

In Gregory’s words, “Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless…To that extent, let us make progress within the realm of what we seek. For the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.”

We are pressured from within to become more – but we need not become perfect. The unfolding of our purpose is never final. God wants more and more of us, and in God’s time the Spirit bestows more and more of us to offer in return.

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