The Divine Darkness

The Divine Darkness

St Gregory of Nyssa

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light, but now He is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religious is darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light, but as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly what of the divine nature is uncontemplated.

For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends, but also what the intelligence thinks is sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility, as by a kind of darkness. Wherefore John the Sublime [the Apostle], who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says, “No one has ever seen God” (St. John 1:18), thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men, but also by every intelligent creature.

When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text, “Moses approached the dark cloud where God was”(Exod. 20:21). What God? He who “made darkness His hiding place”(Ps. 18:11), as David says, who also was initiated into the mysteries in the same inner sanctuary.

When Moses arrived there, he was taught by word what he had formerly learned from darkness, so that, I think the doctrine on this matter might be made firmer for us for being testified to by the divine voice. The divine word at the beginning forbids that the Divine be likened to any of the things known by men, since every concept which comes from some comprehensible image by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the divine nature constitutes an idol of God and does not proclaim God.

Religious virtue is divided into two parts, into that which pertains to the Divine and that which pertains to right conduct (for purity of life is religion). Moses learns at first the things which must be known about God (namely that none of those things known by human comprehension can be ascribed to Him). Then he is taught the other side of virtue, learning by what pursuits the virtuous life is perfected.

After this he comes to the tabernacle not made with hands. Who will follow someone who makes he way through such places and elevates his mind to such heights, who as though he were passing from one peak to another, comes ever higher than he was through his ascent to the heights? First, he leaves behind the base of the mountain and is separated from all those too weak for the ascent. Then, as he rises higher in his ascent he hears the sounds of the trumpets. Thereupon, he slips into the inner sanctuary of divine knowledge. And he does not remain there, but he passes on to the tabernacle not made by hands. For truly this is the limit that someone reaches who is elevated through such ascents.

For it seems to me that in another sense the heavenly trumpet becomes a teacher to the one ascending as he makes his was to what is not made with hands. For the wonderful harmony of the heavens proclaims the wisdom which shines forth in the creation and sets forth the great glory of God through the things which are seen, in keeping with the statement, “The heavens declare the glory of God”(Psalm 19:1). It becomes the loud-sounding trumpet of clear and melodious teaching, as one of the Prophet says, “The heavens trumpeted form above”(Sirach 46:17).

When he who has been purified and is sharp of hearing in this heart hears this sound (I am speaking of the knowledge of the divine power which comes from the contemplation of reality), he is led by it to the place where his intelligence lets him slip in where God is. This is called darkness by Scripture, which signifies, as I said, the unknown and unseen. When he arrives there, he sees that tabernacle not made by hands, which he shows to those below by means of a material likeness.

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