Early Christian “Anti-Pilgrimage” Literature: the Case of Gregory of Nyssa’s Letter 2–By Paul Brazinski

In 379 AD, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395) wrote a letter to an unknown Censor (Κηνσίτορι), titled Concerning those who were traveling to Jerusalem (Greek: Περὶ τῶν ἀπιόντων εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, Κηνσίτορι). We unfortunately do not have the Censor’s original letter; however, the contents inform us that the original inquiry was regarding the spiritual value of traveling to Jerusalem. One of a Roman Censor’s roles in society was to regulate public morality. Gregory answers his letter saying that he will reply to all of his points in order; his letter on the surface depicts an anti-pilgrimage stance, which has caused several different readings among scholars.

Scholarship typically portrays pilgrimage as a fundamental and uncontested movement in early Christianity.[1] For example, Turner and Turner demonstrate that pilgrimage acted as a means to connect Christian communities and that the pilgrim identity of traveling together had a major impact on early Europe.[2] Pilgrimage even gained imperial support early on from the Byzantine Empress Helena (d. 330 AD), who found the Wood of the True Cross in Jerusalem during her luxurious ‘pilgrimage’ to the Holy Land.[3] Moreover, travelogues such as Egeria’s and the Bordeaux Pilgrim’s helped spread the image of pilgrimage to pious Christians back on the continent.[4] However, pilgrimage was not an uncontested movement in the fourth century, and it is early challenges to the institution of pilgrimage that are the topic of this investigation.

For instance, Church Fathers such as Athanasius (c.295-373), Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), Jerome (c.347-420), and Gregory of Nyssa wrote ‘anti-pilgrimage’ works to dissuade Christians from embarking on such religious journeys.[5] These major Church Fathers, two of whom are doctors of the Church, utilized different approaches to dissuade their audience against pilgrimage. For example, Athanasius polarizes pilgrimage using Trinitarian theology similar to his work On the Incarnation – discussing the ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ of religious travel – to argue that a strong internal faith is better than simply being in Jerusalem.[6] Similarly, Jerome tries to dissuade a pilgrim, Paulinus of Nola (c.354-431), from traveling to Jerusalem by arguing that location is irrelevant to religious life and spiritual growth:[7] Christians in the Apostolic Age (c.33-100 AD) were not called to travel to Jerusalem either. Instead, according to Jerome, monks and ascetics should try to imitate a similar person to themselves, such as a monk or ascetic respectively. Although these figures were influential, these works are not nearly as polemical towards pilgrimage, nor as complex, as Gregory of Nyssa’s Letter 2.[8]

Scholarship concerning Gregory of Nyssa’s Letter 2 has exploded recently, with three major names taking center stage, all of whom provide a different motivation for Gregory’s Epistula 2: Vasiliki Limberis, Georgia Frank, and Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony.[9] In Architects of Piety, Limberis suggests that Gregory uses Epistula 2 as a means to keep his flock in Cappadocia.[10] He argues that the Cappadocian Fathers were financially invested in their Sees:[11] for example, Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) built monasteries, hospitals, and hospices in Caesarea, while Emmelia of Caesarea (d. 375), Basil and Gregory’s mother, built a martyrium, a small shrine for venerating a locate saint (image 1). Gregory also built a martyrium, which we read about in his Epistula 25, wherein he writes to another bishop asking for more inexpensive craftsmen to help him finalize his project.[12] According to Limberis, and other historians who have used these two letters, the Cappadocian Fathers were very financially invested in their region and did not want their flock to travel elsewhere; for Limberis, this explains Gregory’s anti-pilgrimage message.[13]

Another current trend in modern scholarship emphasizes the “imagination” of pilgrimage, which focuses on the internalization and visualization of the phenomenon. Frank’s The Memory of the Eyes utilizes this theme, showing how dependent early Christian pilgrimages were on pilgrims’ travelogues.[14] For example, Frank articulates how these early accounts helped non-pilgrims visualize holy sites, which activated participation from afar.[15] Others, such as Jerome, viewed the famous sites in Jerusalem with oculis fidei (the eyes of faith), which let him see Christ in his burial shroud on the cross.[16] Others, such as Melania and Paula, equated seeing the holy sites with gazing at the Scripture.[17] It is in this context that Frank explains Gregory’s Epistula 2 as an imagined journey of the soul, something that medieval authors would build upon, as in Bonaventure’s (d. 1274) Journey of the Mind to God.

Bitton-Ashkelony provides a social motivation for this anti-pilgrimage text. In Encountering the Sacred: the debate on Christian pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, she discusses the social aspects of these anti-pilgrimage works.[18] Her overall thesis is that anti-pilgrimage literature must be understood within its context to be fully explained. She takes a contextualizing approach to her work, further arguing that the social undertones in these letters are the key to understanding these documents. To argue her position, she turns first to Basil’s and Gregory’s attitudes toward pilgrimage. At first she agrees that Gregory’s Letter 2 reads rather strongly against pilgrimage; however, she argues that this is no longer true once the letter is contextualized. Bitton-Ashkelony turns to Gregory’s Letter 3 and his Life of Makrina to demonstrate that Gregory actually enjoyed going on pilgrimage and perhaps even visited Jerusalem a second time.[19] She compares Gregory’s stance with Basil’s, arguing that the two brothers held similar views, since Basil too was fairly ambivalent toward pilgrimage. She also sets Gregory’s and Jerome’s letters within the context of their political climate, particularly their concerns and disputes with the Patriarch of Jerusalem; in this way, Gregory’s anti-pilgrimage letter becomes a result of a political dispute with the local authority.

In the remainder of this paper, I will argue for a new reading of Gregory of Nyssa’s Letter 2 that provides a more nuanced spiritual interpretation of the text as opposed to what current scholarship emphasizes in terms of financial, internal, and social reasons. I will specifically argue that Nyssa is most interested in preserving the Canon of Christianity in terms of doctrine and dogma as opposed to physical practices.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Letter 2

The first issue that upsets Gregory is that pilgrims are not following “the Gospel rule of life” (Greek: τὴν εὐαγγελικὴν λέγω δὴ πολιτείαν). By this, Gregory means that he wants people to follow the Christian Canon (Greek: κανών), a word he emphasizes in the first two paragraphs: he employs a form of Canon three times in his opening alone. However, the Gospel rule, or Christian Canon, was not so well established in early Christianity.

For example, around 180 AD, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote his influential Against Heresies (Latin: Adversus Haereses), where he addressed the Gnostics, a heretical Christian sect, specifically.[20] Irenaeus wrote this polemical work to counter the Gnostics, who set a Gospel Canon even before Orthodoxy had.[21] Thus, in an attempt to ‘save’ the Pauline letters and other early Christian texts from being overtaken into Gnosticism, Irenaeus set what he called “the Rule of Faith,” which was a set doctrine that all orthodox Christians were to accept.[22] Irenaeus was thus one of the first Church Fathers to justify Christianity’s including only four gospels in the universal Bible with the argument that there are only four primary winds and directions.[23] Although this argument might seem archaic now, the Canon was influential in keeping Orthodoxy united in the face of outside factors such as Gnosticism. Irenaeus was not so interested in having all Orthodox Christians have the same physical practices and rituals per se, but he was interested in setting a universal canon and creed, theological statements that all could universally believe in; Gregory’s emphasis on the Canon here has a similar purpose.[24]

Just like Irenaeus, Gregory does not want physical practices to divide Christianity; he too sees the unity of the Church as being preserved in a universal theology and Canon. Therefore, Gregory goes on the offensive, attacking those monks and hermits that have taken it upon themselves to include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as part of their devotion, which was not a principle or normative practice to any monastic rule at the time.[25] One should notice the language he uses in this letter to discuss “pilgrimage,” since it also demonstrates how new this practice was. Modern scholarship has called this letter On Pilgrimages in English, and I will first clear the air concerning this translation. Gregory does not use the common Greek word for pilgrimage, “προσκύνημα” (Latin equivalent “peregrinatio”). Instead, he uses other words to describe the journey or movement to Jerusalem, such as τὸ ἀπελθεῖν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, “a departure to Jerusalem” (2.3), ἡ τῆς ὁδοιπορίας, “the journey” (2.6), ἐπὶ τοῦ τόπου γενέσθαι, “after being there” (2.15), and κατὰ τὴν ἐπιδημίαν τὴν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις, “concerning the sojourn/journey to Jerusalem” (2.19).[26] Moreover, Gregory does not use specific words to discuss so-called pilgrimage centers, such as shrines or cult sites. Instead, he says phrases such as τὸ τοὺς ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις τόπους ἰδεῖν, “to behold these locations in Jerusalem” (2.2), and τοὺς ἐμπαθεῖς τόπους, “these passionate locations” (2.7). This contextualization suggests that the terminology concerning pilgrimage and describing early shrines might not have been set yet.

Now, to defend himself against pilgrimage, Gregory turns to Basil’s Rules, the monastic rule for eastern monks in this period, which did not include a pilgrimage as part of its regulations. Moreover, nor would most future rules, including both Saint Benedict’s Rule (c. 529) and The Rule of Saint Francis (c. 1209).[27] It is also important to note that Basil’s Rules were recently written at the time (c. 356), so they would not have been outdated.[28] Furthermore, Basil was his older brother and the Bishop of Caesarea; thus, in his defense of the Canon Gregory is also defending his brother’s work as well.[29]

To further support his position against these physical journeys to Jerusalem, he also turns to the Beatitudes, which shows that Jesus Christ Himself did not intend for people to travel to Jerusalem as part of their Christian practices.[30] For if Jesus Christ promoted and included a pilgrimage in his moral teaching during his Sermon on the Mount, then clearly this would be the end of the discussion; however, Jesus did not. This argument is an important one, since the imitation of Christ was a major theme in early Christianity, and it remains influential today.[31] Pilgrims, like Egeria, travelled to the physical spaces of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and resurrected. Pilgrims also walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the “path of tears”, where Jesus Christ carried his cross throughout the city. However, Gregory attacks the idea of seeing these physical locations.

Gregory also mentions physical issues that one could experience on the journey to Jerusalem, which includes mostly gendered themes. For example, he states that females would need to rely heavily on male help when traveling, which would cause lapses in modesty. Also, the road to Jerusalem is too corrupted with lustful obstacles, such as brothels, which proves difficult for any pious Christian to avoid. Gregory connects these issues with the Canon: the Gospel rule promotes modesty, he writes, which these issues would violate. In arguing this point, he also stays consistent with his sources for Canon and Gospel rule, since these themes of modesty are numerous in both Scripture and Saint Basil’s Rule.

For example, Gregory disputes the issue of God’s visible and invisible presence on earth, which is connected to pilgrimage. In section 2.9, Gregory writes, “if it is really possible to infer God’s presence from visible symbols, one might justly consider that He dwelt in the Cappadocian nation than in any of the spots outside it. How many altars there are there, on which the name of our Lord is glorified!”[32] Although this passage at first might read like a pro-Cappadocian agenda, he is primarily emphasizing that exterior symbols in themselves do not promote spiritual growth.[33] Rather, Gregory, as Frank argues, promotes the internal pilgrimage of the mind.[34]Gregory is the first to admit that he gained no spiritual advantage by going to Jerusalem; instead, the belief in Jesus Christ and keeping one’s inner man pure are far more important.[35] In this way, Gregory is similar to Jerome in that both men had to defend their own pilgrimages as ‘different’, lest they be viewed as hypocrites by their respective audiences. But here too, the imagery of Gregory’s pilgrimage as transforming his vehicle into a “monastic wagon” in conjunction with travelling on the safe imperial roads easily helps to differentiate his travel from others.

After he attacks pilgrims for not following Scripture or monastic regulations, Gregory turns to Trinitarian proofs to defend the Canon and Gospel rule.[36] Here, he is mostly interested in pneumatology, the demonstration of how the Holy Spirit bestows gifts and moves throughout the empire; however, he relies on other evidence as well.[37]

Arguably his most successful pneumatological proof is in section 2.19, when he claims that if the Holy Spirit were dispensing gifts as if in the appearance of a flame, and if that flame only burnt in Jerusalem, then he would understand the reason behind travelling to the Holy Land.[38] However, Gregory refutes this idea as well. In turning to the Resurrection and Incarnation, he has ample evidence to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit bestows its gift of Grace upon all the Christian faithful, wherever they might be. Gregory fleshes out these ideas more in his other works, such as On the Resurrection and Against Eunomius.[39]

Gregory also turns to Scriptural support in the Pauline letters to reinforce his pneumatological stance. Using the concept from Colossians 1 when Paul discusses how the Body of the Church, as in the members of all Christendom, must work together for salvation, Gregory argues that our redemption clearly cannot be determined by travel to Jerusalem, since Grace is open to all Christians, wherever they live.[40] This theme also dovetails with his passage on altars above in problematizing the concept of the visible and invisible vis-à-vis God.

Conclusions

In this study, I have argued that Gregory of Nyssa’s Epistula 2 is not primarily intended as an economically or politically driven work. Instead, Gregory is exhorting followers to believe the rule of the Gospel. He is interested in keeping Christianity universal and consistent, and he sees this as happening via the development of and adherence to uniform doctrine. As evidence, Gregory turns to the complete silence of the practice of pilgrimage in the Beatitudes, Saint Basil’s Rule, and Scripture. He also utilizes Trinitarian theology and the idea of the Body of the Church to discuss how this new practice of pilgrimage can problematize redemption for Christianity. Therefore, for Gregory the physical practice of pilgrimage is not required for salvation, which dovetails with the theological concepts of believing in the visible and invisible parts of the Trinity, an approach similar to Athanasius and Jerome on this topic.

The dynamic fourth century would terminate with the almost unanimous acceptance of Christian pilgrimage, but Gregory would succeed in keeping the Church’s doctrine universal: his Trinitarian theology was accepted as Law at the 380/1 ecumenical council of Constantinople.[41] Thus, it appears as though Gregory’s theology took a pilgrimage itself in promoting how the mind should travel toward God, as seen in Letter 2.

Figure 1: Re-construction of Nyssa’s martyrium from Limberis, Architects of Piety (letter 25)

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Figure 2: Re-construction of Nyssa’s martyrium from Limberis, Architects of Piety (letter 25)
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Figure 3: Re-construction of Nyssa’s martyrium from Limberis, Architects of Piety (letter 25)
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Paul A. Brazinski


Paul A. Brazinski is a Ph.D. Candidate at The Catholic University of America, where he is writing his dissertation on the development and spread of early Arianism. His research interests include heresy, material culture, and gender. This paper is dedicated to his fiancée Catherine.


Notes

[1] Brett Whalen, Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages: a reader (Toronto, 2011) xi-xiii. Also, see Diana Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage, c. 700-1500 (London, 2002) 44-47. Jas Elsner, Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman & Early Christian Antiquity: seeing the gods (Oxford, 2007); Also, see Gary Vikan, Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (Washington, DC, 2012).

[2] Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York, 2011) 172-175.

[3] Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiatical History XVII. Requires more precise citation unless Helena forms the whole of this work.

[4] Egeria, Itinerarium Egeriae. Also, see the Intinerarium Burdigalense.

[5] Athanasius, Letter 2 to Virgins; Jerome, Letter 58 to Paulinus of Nola; Gregory of Nyssa, Letter 2 to a Censor; Evagrius Ponticus, Letters on Pilgrimage.

[6] David Brakke, “Jewish flesh and Christian spirit in Athanasius of Alexandria,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9.4 (2001): 453-481.

[7] Jerome, Letter 25. Also, see Philip Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority, and the Church in the age of Jerome and Cassian (Notre Dame, 2010).

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, Epistula 2; PG 46: col.1009-1014. Also, available on the TLG. Although Heyns dates the letter to 379, Rupp places it after 381 given the inter-textual evidence to the council. I agree with Heyns, as does Schaff in that the reference is to a regional council.

[9] Vasiliki M. Limberis, Architects of Piety: the Cappadocian Fathers and the cult of the martyrs (Oxford, 2011). Georgia Frank, The Memory of the Eyes: pilgrims to living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 2000). Bruria Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering the Sacred: the debate on Christian pilgrimage in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 2005). Also, see Raymond Van Dam, Becoming Christian: the conversion of Roman Cappadocia (Philadelphia, 2003), 132.

[10] Limberis, Architects of Piety.

[11] Limberis, Architects of Piety, 31, 69, & 73.

[12] Nyssa, Epistula 25; Limberis, Architects of Piety, 69.

[13] Limberis 2011: 69. Pauline Allen, Boudewihn Dehandschutter, Johan Leemans, Wendy Mayer, ‘Let us die that we may live’: Greek homilies on Christian martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria c. 350-c.450 AD (New York, 2003).

[14] Frank, The Memory of the Eyes.

[15] Frank, The Memory of the Eyes, 14.

[16] Frank, The Memory of the Eyes, 12.

[17] Frank, The Memory of the Eyes, 11.

[18] Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering the Sacred.

[19] Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering the Sacred. Gregory of Nyssa, Letter 3. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Makrina.

[20] Robert Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (New York, 1996) 1-10.

[21] Karen King, What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, MA, 2003) 20-25. Also, see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1989) 3-7.

[22]Thomas Ferguson, “The Rule of Truth and Irenaean rhetoric in book 1 of ‘Against Heresies,’” Vigiliae Christianae 55.4 (2001): 356-375.

[23] Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.

[24] Also see Irenaeus of Lyons, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.

[25] Nyssa, Ep. 2: 2.1-2.5 “ἐπεὶ τοίνυν εἰσί τινες τῶν τὸν μονήρη καὶ ἰδιάζοντα βίον ἐπανῃρημένων, οἷς ἐν μέρει εὐσεβείας νενόμισται τὸ τοὺς ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις τόπους ἰδεῖν, ἐν οἷς τὰ σύμβολα τῆς διὰ σαρκὸς ἐπιδημίας τοῦ κυρίου ὁρᾶται,…”

[26] Gregory of Nyssa, Ep.2.

[27] Daniel Marcel La Corte, Douglas McMillan [eds.], Regular Life: Monastic, canonical, and mendicant rules (Kalamazoo, 2004) 11-13.

[28] Basil’s Long Rule. See Anna Silvas, The Asketikon of Saint Basil the Great (Oxford, 2005). Daniel Caner, Wandering, Begging Monks (Princeton, 2007).

[29] Stephen Hildebrand, On the Holy Spirit: St Basil the Great (New York, 2011).

[30] Nyssa, Ep. 2:5, “ἡ σεμνὴ πολιτεία πᾶσι πρόκειται καὶ ἀνδράσι καὶ γυναιξίν· ἴδιον δὲ τοῦ κατὰ φιλοσοφίαν βίου ἡ εὐσχημοσύνη, αὕτη δὲ ἐν τῷ ἀμίκτῳ καὶ ἰδιάζοντι [βίῳ] τῆς ζωῆς κατορθοῦται, ὡς ἀνεπίμικτον καὶ ἀσύγχυτον εἶναι τὴν φύσιν, μήτε τῶν γυναικῶν ἐν ἀνδράσι μήτε τῶν ἀνδρῶν ἐν γυναιξὶ πρὸς τὰ παρατετηρημένα τῆς ἀσχημοσύνης ὁρμώντων.” For the Beatitudes, see The Gospel of Matthew 5:3-12.

[31] Tertullian, Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity. Also, see Paul A. Brazinski, ”Imitation of Christ, medieval to modern” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception: I (2016), forthcoming.

[32] Nyssa, Ep. 2.9.

[33] Limberis, Architects of Piety, 31.

[34] Frank, The Memory of the Eyes, 14.

[35] Nyssa, Ep. 2.17, “εἰ δὲ πλήρη ἔχεις τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον λογισμῶν πονηρῶν, κἂν ἐπὶ τοῦ Γολγοθᾶ ᾖς κἂν ἐπὶ τοῦ ὄρους τῶν Ἐλαιῶν κἂν ὑπὸ τὸ μνῆμα τῆς Ἀναστάσεως, τοσοῦτον ἀπέχεις τοῦ τὸν Χριστὸν δέξασθαι ἐν ἑαυτῷ ὅσον οἱ μηδὲ τὴν ἀρχὴν ὁμολογήσαντες.

[36] Scot Douglass, Theology of the Gap: the Cappadocian Language Theory and the Trinitarian Controversy (Pieterlen, 2005) 5-7.

[37] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Pneumatology: the Holy Spirit in ecumenical, international, and contextual perspective (Ada, 2002) 11-13. Also, see Gerald O’Collins, Christology: a biblical, historical, and systematic study of Jesus (Oxford, 2009) 158-160.

[38] Nyssa, Ep. 2:19, “εἰ μὲν οὖν ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, ἐγίνετο μέχρι τοῦ νῦν,τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐν εἴδει πυρὸς τῶν χαρισμάτων οἰκονομοῦντος ἕκαστον, ἔδει πάντας εἶναι ἐν τῷ τόπῳ ἐκείνῳ ἐν ᾧ ἡ διανομὴ τοῦ χαρίσματος ἐγίνετο· εἰ δὲ τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ οἱ ἐνταῦθα πιστεύσαντες μέτοχοι γίνονται τοῦ χαρίσματος κατὰ τὴν ἀναλογίαν τῆς πίστεως, οὐ κατὰ τὴν ἐπιδημίαν τὴν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις.”

[39] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Resurrection. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius.

[40] Paul, Colossians 1. Also, see Dennis Hamm, Peter Williamson, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Ada, 2013) 153-159.

[41] Paul Boer, Henry Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils (Grand Rapids, 2013) 19.

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