John David Penniman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Prompted by Michel Foucault’s observation that “salvation is first of all essentially subsistence,” this essay explores Gregory of Nyssa’s discussion of Christian spiritual formation as a kind of salvific and transformative feeding of infants. This article argues that the prominent role of nourishment-and specifically breast milk-in Gregory’s theory of progressive Christian perfection reflects broader Roman era family values concerning the power of breast feeding in the proper development of a child. With particular attention to Gregory’s Encomium for Saint Basil, the Life of Moses, and his Homilies on the Song of Songs, this article demonstrates that references to the power of nourishment are no ” mere metaphor” but rather represent an intensification of the prominent belief in antiquity that human nature can be altered according to the food a person eats. As such, Gregory employs the female body and its putatively maternal function as a regulatory symbol for Christian identity-formation. Mother’s milk is thus offered as a mechanism for preserving and transmitting the ideal form of the Christian community that Gregory found embodied in the ambiguously gendered characters of the Song of Songs. True Christians, in Gregory’s account, are identified by the milk on which they were fed and, in turn, the nurturing care they offer to others.
Penniman, John David. “Fed to Perfection: Mother’s Milk, Roman Family Values, and the Transformation of the Soul in Gregory of Nyssa.” Church History 84, no. 3 (2015) : 495-530.