‘Since Moses was alone, by having been stripped as it were of the people’s fear,
he boldly approached the very darkness itself and entered the invisible things
where he was no longer seen by those watching. After he entered the inner
sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he was in
company with the Invisible. He teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one
who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible
and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and
incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does
not reach.’
—Gregory of Nyssa

Life of Moses, §46
That knowledge is cognitive is perhaps the first assumption with which one must
do away, if he is to properly understand St. Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of the
divine darkness. Yet it is an assumption so basic to modern scientific thought
that its influence is hardly given consideration—it is taken entirely as a base fact
in the general arena of learning. Yet it is this very idea which Gregory addresses:
the entire way of knowing with which we approach a knowledge of God. His is a
knowing that goes beyond the confines and limitations of cognition, with its
inherent inability to comprehend the transcendent. It is a knowing that plunges
into the negative, into the darkness of that place ‘where the understanding does
not reach,’ and there finds the height of true knowledge.
Gregory’s concept of mystical knowing is best expressed in his image of the divine
darkness: a symbol that is perhaps one of his greatest gifts to the realm of
Christian thought. It is presented most clearly in his famous text, The Life of
Moses, and it is primarily from that text that this brief examination shall be made.
Divine Ascent: the Mountain.
The Life of Moses presents us with one of the early Church’s most elegant efforts
at symbolic interpretation of Scripture. Gregory discusses the story of Moses and
the Jewish exodus from its historical perspective, effectively paraphrasing the
Exodus account, then moves on to a ‘spiritual interpretation’—a contemplative
examination of its inner meaning. The entire motion of Moses’ life, from his first
hearing and heeding the calling of the Lord, to his guidance of the Chosen People
out of bondage and into freedom, to his ascent up Sinai to receive the Law from
God; all is seen as a great and progressive symbol for the spiritual life of the
Christian believer.
One must begin a discussion of the divine darkness with an acknowledgement
that, in Gregory’s writing, it is not the only way of knowing. Indeed, it is not even
the first. In the story of Moses, Gregory makes plain the fact that much indeed
preceded the patriarch’s ascent of Sinai. So, too, must much precede the Christian’
s entrance into the darkness of divine knowledge.
Again the Scripture leads our understanding upward to the higher levels of virtue.
For the man who received strength from the food and showed his power in
fighting with his enemies and was the victor over his opponents is then led to the
ineffable knowledge of God. Scripture teaches us by these things the nature and
the number of things one must accomplish in life before he would at some time
dare to approach in his understanding the mountain of the knowledge of God.[1]
The history of Moses is not a collection of stories, Gregory seems to say, but one
great story of progression and development. Moses was not chosen immediately
to climb the mountain, but first to be a shepherd and a soldier; and only when
having completed the necessary precursors was he to hide in the cleft of the rock
and see God. One finds in Gregory’s symbolic interpretation of this text an
insistence upon a progression of knowledge, and further of an intimation of
knowledge in types. There was a time when Moses knew God from story, then
from His guidance in battle, then from His leadership into victory. And then there
was the time when knowledge came ineffably, and Moses truly knew God.
In fact, Gregory presents three principal ‘ways’ within the spiritual life, and as J.
Daniélou rightly notes, they are somewhat different from those generally
encountered.[2] One seee them most clearly in a passage from the Commentary
on the Canticle of Canticles:
Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud.
But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the
One cannot assess Gregory’s concept of the divine darkness in exclusion from this
full design of upward motion. The way of light, the way of knowledge ‘as if in a
cloud,’ and the darkness at the peak of the mountaintop are all interconnected,
building one upon the next in the faithful seeker’s quest for union with God. The
mountain of knowledge is a steep climb, and while the view from the top is
worlds apart from that at the bottom, the mountain is still a single monument.
The way of light, which one encounters at the beginning of the spiritual journey,
is the most common way of knowing. Gregory is realistic in his assertion that the
great majority of people do not climb to the top of the symbolic mountain of
The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb—the
majority of people scarcely reach its base.[3]
It is not in the darkness, but in the light that the majority of humanity rests in its
knowledge. This, indeed, is the realm of cognition. One is stripped of his
ignorance when he grows in the light; and through such an illumination he begins
to see more clearly the world around him. To this degree, one begins to see more
clearly, too, the nature of God. Moses first saw God as light, radiating from the
bush at the base of the mountain, and through this light was revealed not only a
new knowledge of the Creator, but a heightened knowledge of the human person,
and what must be done to grow further still in true knowledge.
That light [of the burning bush] teaches us what we must do to stand within the
rays of the true light: Sandaled feet cannot ascend that height where the light of
truth is seen, but the dead and earthly covering of skins, which was placed around
our nature at the beginning when we were found naked because of disobedience
to the divine will, must be removed from the feet of the soul. When we do this,
the knowledge of the truth will result and manifest itself.[4]
The way of knowing through the light involves a process of purification, of
stripping away what Gregory often refers to as the ‘garment of skin’—not skin in
its biological sense, but in its symbolic sense of that which covers and hides the
true essence of human nature. Daniélou writes of the light, ‘This way is marked
by the purification of the soul from all foreign elements and by the restoration of
the image of God.’[5]
This process, then, leads into the second way of knowing: that which brings about
a knowledge of God ‘within the mirror of the soul’, as in a cloud. Here are the first
hints of a truly mystical knowing, if one takes that term to mean knowledge by
direct experience, as opposed to mere cognition. Having purified one’s self of the
perversion of the passions (Daniélou correctly notes that it is not the passions
and bodily inclinations themselves that are to be purified in Gregory’s thought,
but rather their perversion),[6] the soul begins to come into the knowledge of the
unseen. In the Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, Gregory compares this to
a cloud: as the cloud descends upon a person (or, perhaps more accurately, as a
person ascends into the cloud), the vision of the senses begins to blur. No longer
is knowledge purely a sensory, cognitive act, but the cloud begins to accustom
the soul to seek inwards for the knowledge that is hidden. This abandonment of a
reliance upon the senses is noted also in The Life of Moses, when the great
patriarch drives the animals away before climbing the mountain.
When this had been accomplished and the herd of irrational animals had been
driven as far from the mountain as possible, Moses then approached the ascent to
loft perceptions. That none of the irrational animals was allowed to appear on the
mountain signifies, in my opinion, that in the contemplation of the intelligibles
we surpass the knowledge which originates with the senses.[7]
When this knowledge that originates with the senses is surpassed, one begins to
know through the soul itself, ‘as through a mirror.’ In Gregory, this concept is
based upon a fundamental Christian theme: the indwelling of the Trinity within
the human person. As the godhead dwells within the soul, so is the soul able to
relate to the person a knowledge of it, in a manner of knowing that is no longer
sensory. The soul acts as a mirror, which projects into one’s knowledge the very
nature of God.
The contemplation of God is not effected by sight and hearing, nor is it
comprehended by any of the customary perceptions of the mind. For no eye has
seen, and no ear has heard, nor does it belong to those things which usually
enter into the heart of man.[8]
This is the beginning of a knowledge of God by the heart—by the intimate
presence of God Himself. Yet it is only faint, and is still blurred, as one would
expect within a cloud. The soul must still be purified, and must become ever more
accustomed to this new way of knowing. It must, indeed, shed its reliance upon
cognition, and embrace the seeming groundlessness of an ‘ineffable knowledge.’
The person
must wash from his understanding every opinion derived from some preconception
and withdraw himself from his customary intercourse with his own companion,
that is, with his sense perceptions, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature
as its companion. When he is so purified, then he assaults the mountain.[9]
The Divine Darkness.
We arrive, then, at the darkness. At the mountain’s peak, when one has ascended
to the heart of the cloud, he find himself in the darkness of night. Now all light is
gone, and the cloud has become so thick that one at last sees nothing at all. In
this place, where the senses cease their sensing, the soul is left to pure
contemplation, ‘and there it sees God’.[10]
This notion of darkness being the highest form of knowledge at first seems at
odds with Gregory’s earlier discussions of knowledge as light and the escape from
ignorance as the escape from darkness. Gregory himself addresses this seeming
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 religion 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.
One finds here clear reference to the different ways of knowing implicit in Gregory’
s works. Knowledge is as light when we are ‘babes in the faith’—when one’s
understanding is relatively weak and knowledge consists in its expansion. Then it
is as light added to a room, which clears away the darkness that the contents
may be freely seen. Then comes the mirror of the soul as in a cloud, and finally,
the darkness.
The image of the darkness is the capstone of Gregory’s spiritual theology. It
consists of the final stage on the ascent of knowledge: in fully shedding the
senses and cognitive reason as sources of truth, in finally realising—in a direct
and personal way—their inability to grasp the transcendent and ineffable, and
coming to know God by a grasp of His unknowability.
Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but
also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by
the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and
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.[12]
And again,
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.[13]
One of Gregory’s greatest contributions to the understanding of personal
spirituality and mystical knowledge, was his admission and embrace of the utter
transcendence of God. Humans are creatures of knowledge and may grow in their
understanding of the Creator; yet there must come a point when they realise that
even knowledge is a gift, and a gift greatly transcended by its Giver. When one
has ascended far enough up the mountain of knowing, he finally comes to
understand that God is beyond knowing, for He is beyond all faculties by which
one’s knowing is wrought. Sight and sound, thought and reason may tell us part
of what there is to know about God, but they can never tell all. One of the
greatest steps the Christian can take in his knowledge of God is that in which he
dismisses his cognitive faculties as the end-all of the climb. Moses did not truly
see God until he stepped out of the light of seeing, and into the thick darkness of
truly knowing.
Yet Gregory’s symbol of the divine darkness is not simply a mere abandonment of
positive reason. This would leave his theology essentially empty, and ultimately
devoid of meaning. It is easy to read his account of Moses withdrawing into the
darkness and understand it to mean a simple resignation of knowledge into
ignorance. Yet this is emphatically not Gregory’s message. The darkness is not an
emptiness (and thus a meaninglessness), but rather the ultimate fullness. It is,
indeed, a darkness that is ‘the effect of an excess of light’[14]—by the presence
of God so complete and so pure that its ineffability comes as a blindness to the
senses. Yet it is a blindness only to the customary way of knowing; in the
spiritual realm, it is the beginning of true sight. It is ‘to come to know that what
is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension,’ and thus to be fully in the
presence of the ‘fullness of divine existence’.[15] Moses knew God in Egypt, in the
desert, and in the wilderness; but it was only in the darkness of the mountaintop
that he saw Him.
The Growth of the Soul as the Way of Perfection.
In this short essay we have been concerned with Gregory’s use of the symbol of
divine darkness and its significance to his overall understanding of the spiritual
life. The limitations of this task have kept us from delving into another, closely-
related theme in the Life of Moses and Gregory’s other works: that of spiritual
progression. Some intimation of it has been found in the discussion of the
threefold progress of knowledge (light, the mirror of the soul, and darkness), yet
the extent to which Gregory sees the spiritual life as an entity of constant growth
could not be adequately treated within the scope of this paper. We would fail to
truly understand his concept of the darkness, however, if we did not make some
small mention of it in closing.
When Moses reached the peak of Sinai and was enveloped in the ‘thick darkness
where God was’ (Exodus 20.21), he had reached the summit of his climb. His
physical journey could go no further. One might be tempted, then, to assume that
this is also where his spiritual journey met its climax: the darkness has been
reached, and perfection has been attained. Yet to Gregory’s mind, perfection has
here only been attained inasmuch as the mountain peak is but the beginning. The
climb up the mountain of knowledge has reached its summit, and it is now time
for the spiritual journey to begin anew.
For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever
greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his
upward course.[16]
The divine darkness, that which is found at the peak of the mountain, brings the
person to an intimate knowledge of God’s transcendence of knowledge; and this
in turn leads to an ever greater desire to know God more closely. As such
experiential knowledge increases, so does the desire. The result is an ever
increasing movement upwards, inwards. The soul is ever satisfied; but in the very
moment of satisfaction, new desire grows. Every moment of the spiritual way of
knowing is characterised by its newness; every point on the journey is a starting
point, and the very perfection of the way consists of its eternal progression.
Gregory writes,
Indeed God would not have shown Himself to His servant if the vision would have
been such as to terminate Moses’ desire; for the true vision of God consists rather
in this, that the soul that looks up to God never ceases to desire Him. (…) The
man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life; for he has been
falsely diverted from true Being to something devised by his own imagination. For
true Being is true Life, and cannot be known by us. If then this life-giving nature
transcends knowledge, what our minds attain in this case is surely not life (…).
Thus it is that Moses’ desire is filled by the very fact that it remains unfulfilled
(…) And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied.
The darkness is the Being of God, and its effect upon man is renewed longing and
desire for his Creator. The ascent into darkness begins a continual development in
which the human person constantly evolves into a deep awareness of God, and is
ever evolved ‘toward what is better, being transformed from glory to glory.’[18]
Gregory of Nyssa
Luminous Darkness