Into The Darkness

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God? (80)

This question begins Gregory’s in depth interpretation of Moses’ journey up the mountain of Divine Knowledge. The first observation Gregory makes is that Moses’ encounter with the Divine is in darkness, not in the Light of the Burning Bush. Rather than see this as a contradiction, Gregory asserts to his readers that Divine Truth first comes as light to those who desire truth: “the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light.” (80) But the closer one gets to the light, the darker things become.

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The Mountain of Divine Knowledge

The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb–the majority of people scarcely reach its base. (78)

The ‘meat and potatoes’ of Gregory’s apophaticism

The LIfe of Moses is a really good read if you are interested in getting to know Gregory’s theology a bit better. Additionally, it is also a good read for understanding an aspect of early Christian biblical interpretation. However, I’ve read this text before for the purposes of just that. So I’m actually going to jump right to the part of the text where we get into the real core of Gregory’s apophatic theology. The section in this translation is entitled ‘The Mountain of Divine Knowledge.’

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Moses and The Burning Bush: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorization.

Some reflections on Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses,

The Burning Bush

Since a lot of the past few posts have been hovering around Exodus 3.14, I thought it might be worthwhile to read what Gregory of Nyssa had to say about the revelation of God’s ‘name’ in and through the Burning Bush.

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Purification of Heart

From Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, sermon 6

Here again we see Gregory relying heavily on the difference between divine essence and divine energy. Essence “transcends every act of comprehensive knowledge, and it cannot be approached or attained by our speculation.” (98) Despite all human attempts to grasp the uncontainable, unknowable God, God remains unsearchable. How then shall we speak of God, if at all? “Yet He can be seen and apprehended in another way,” Gregory suggests. Gregory likens this way to looking at a piece of art. The artwork is left behind by the artist as an energy of him/herself. Suppose we walk into the Louvre and view the Mona Lisa. This painting is an energy of Leonardo Da Vinci. But simply viewing the piece of art will not give us access to the essence of Da Vinci. We cannot grasp who Da Vinci is (or was). But in the Mona Lisa, or any other work of art, “we see here…not the substance of the craftsman, but merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of the substance but of the wisdom of Him Who has done all things wisely.” (99) Thus, one would be able to call Da Vinci, by virtue of the quality of his work, a great master, a skilled artist, an astute observer and creator of human beauty. Likewise, we can speak of God by seeing God’s actions in the world and inferring appropriate language from them.

But here I find a problem. Are not descriptions of energies essentially descriptions of essence? When we speak about people like Mother Theresa or other people who engaged in benevolent acts of love and kindness, we might find ourselves saying “She is a very loving person,” or “She knows how to love,” or “She exhibits a loving spirit,” or some other statement. But aren’t we really saying that their essence is in some way ‘love’? I don’t know if that is the best example, so maybe I’ll go right to the example of God. If we call God’s actions loving, doesn’t that naturally assume that God’s essence is love; God’s essence exudes, emanates energies of love. If energies originate from essence, just like our human actions emanate from our essence as human beings, then in someway we are able to gain some sort of glimpse of essence. Thus the apophatic way, in order to be truly apophatic, must remain silent even in the face of actions. It appears Gregory wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Moreover, if God is incomprehensible and inconceivable, how are we able to comprehend and conceive of its actions. Why and how do energies emanate from the Divine in such a way that they become comprehensible? And what is the criterion for identifying which energies are of divine origin and which are from more sinister sources?

The Beatitudes that Gregory is commenting on, do promise a vision of God to those who are “pure of heart.” This sight is not a visible sight; the senses cannot sense the supra-sensible. Instead, Gregory notes, “He becomes visible only in his Operations, and only when He is contemplated in the things that are external to Him” (100) God’s operations are his energies. Gregory does believe, however, that the Beatitudes “does not merely indicate that we can infer the nature of the cause from its operations…” (100) which would seem to suggest an answer to my previous questions above. Instead, Gregory believes that the Beatitude affirming the goodness of the pure of heart who will see God counsels one to purify the heart so that they “will see the image of the divine nature in [their] own beauty.” (101) It is not that “it is blessed to know something about God, but rather to possess God in oneself…”(100)

But again it appears to me that Gregory is being a bit inconsistent here. For all the talk about incomprehensibility and the ‘wholly-other’ nature of God, it is almost as if lip service is paid to the utter transcendence of God because of Gregory’s belief that one can look at themselves for an imprint of divine nature. Created in the imago dei (image of God), humans were “imprinted [with] an imitation of the perfections of His own nature, just as one would impress upon wax the outline of the emblem.” But sin ruined this impression (the extent to which is hotly debated in Christian circles of course). Thus, “your perfection [is] useless…You must then wash away, by a life of virtue, the dirt…and then your divine beauty will once again shine forth.” (101) Here Gregory argues for an analogy which points to the “archetype” that humans are modeled after. Some knowledge of the archetype is then possible. But it appears Gregory is not saying that this makes God known in and of itself, in God’s fullness.

It is just like men who look at the sun in a mirror. Even though they do not look up directly at the heavens, they do see the sun in the mirror’s reflection just as much as those who look directly at the sun. So is it, says our Lord, with you. Even though you are not strong enough to see the light itself, yet you will find within yourselves what you are seeking, if you would but return to the grace of that image which was established within you from the beginning…Tghen because you have been purified you will perceive things that are invisible to the unpurified. The dark cloud of matter will be removed from the eye of your soul, and then you will see clearly that blessed vision within the pure brilliance of your own heart. And what is this vision? It is purity, holiness, simplicity, and other such brilliant reflections of the nature of God… (102)

The Abyss of Knowledge

From Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Sermon 7

And yet, how can we find a name for that which the divine voice of the Apostle tells us is beyond every name (Phil 2.9)? The only name you could find to express that ineffable nature and power is that of the Good. (122)

The unnameability of God is a key feature of radical apophatic theology. So it is interesting that Gregory, whom Carrabine says exercises apophatic theology “in a most thorough and radical fashion,” writes that the only name which can express God’s nature is “the Good.” However, even the Good is a limited name for the Good is “beyond all good.” (123) Commenting on Eccl 3.7, there is a “time to keep silence…[and]…a time to speak,” Gregory asks the question “When, an on what matters, is it better to keep silent?” (125) First, Gregory notes from the Pauline epistles, the time for silence and the time for speech are determined by the goodness of what is being said or done. If the speech that one says is evil, or a lie, then Paul of courses calls for silence: “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth” (Eph 4.29; 125) But if the words one might speak are good and full of grace, then speak!

The issue of the morality of speech is but one aspect of the issue of speech and silence; Gregory wants to explore silence and speech and God’s name and nature. Previously, Gregory had talked about a time to rend and a time to sew. When it comes to God’s name and nature, one must tear, by reason, the soul “away from its contrary [that is, from evil], [and unite] it to that true reality which is beyond all reason.” (126) Coupled with the affirmation of the elevation of one’s soul to that which is beyond all reality, beyond our grasp, Ecclesiastes’ mention of silence and speech is significant, especially the fact that silence is the first thing mentioned:

…human speech finds it impossible to express that reality which transcends all thought and every concept, which the soul that has been torn from evil constantly seeks, and to which it yearns to be united once it has been found. And he who obstinately tries to express it [the reality] in words, unconsciously offends God. For He Who is believed to transcend the universe must surely transcend speech. (126)

The reason why speech cannot “express that reality which transcends all thought and every concept” is that speech and reason are limited to their realm of “natural operation.” (126) The five senses have their own boundaries which they must abide by: “hearing cannot taste; touch cannot speak; and the tongue cannot function on what is visible or audible.” (126-127) (Now, what happens when you bring something like synesthesia, a neurological irregularity which causes one to taste what they see, or taste what they feel?)

Reason must abide by its limited capabilities as well. If reason assumes that it is conceiving something which is beyond reason, reason is really just conceiving of an illusion. Space is one thing that reason has a hard time getting away from, Gregory says. The mind tries very hard to get away from its reliance on the concept of space. Space is created. The Good, which is uncreated, is not contained by space. It is no-where. How can we then rationally speak and think about this Good? We must acknowledge that the nature of the Good is non-dimensional, uncontainable, in no-place. This is only one argument for the incomprehensibility of God. It is a terrifying and frustrating experience. Frustrating because we strive to push our reason to the limits until it can go no further. Terrifying because we realize that we are on the precipice of the mysterium tremendum; a reality so vastly different and unknown that we cannot help but remove our sandals, like Moses at the burning bush, in reverence.

And though the mind in its restlessness rangers through all that is knowable, it has never yet discovered a way of comprehending eternity in such wise that it might place itself outside of it, and god beyond the idea eternity itself and that Being which is above all being. It is like someone who finds himself on a mountain ridge. Imagine a sheer, steep crag, of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity; on top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. From here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; it does not allow our minds to approach. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows. (127-128)

It is on this ridge, when one is feeling the dizziness of looking into the abyss “that [it] it is the time to keep silence.” (128) Silence on the edge.

But silence, according to Gregory, is only necessary when speaking of God’s nature. Here Gregory makes the distinction between God’s essence and energies. We must be “fully aware that great men have spoken not of God but rather of his works, saying: Who shall declare the powers of the Lord (Ps 105.2) and I will relate all the wonders (Ps 9.2), and Generation and generation shall praise they works (Ps 144.4)” (128) Here, and elsewhere, it appears to Gregory that the authors of these statements were less concerned about what God is, but rather that God is active in the world.

In conclusion, Gregory sates “Thus, in speaking of God, when there is question of His essence, then is the time to keep silence. When however, it is a question of His operation, a knowledge of which can come down even to us, that is the time to speak of.” (129)