Gregory of Nyssa

12. “Mystical ascent”

“And the people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was”

– Exodus 20:21, (King James Version)

“Since he 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’

“In the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that thou mayest arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of thyself and of all things thou mayest be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the super-essential Radiance of the Divine Darkness. It was not without reason that the blessed Moses was commanded first to undergo purification himself and then to separate himself from those who had not undergone it; and after the entire purification heard many-voiced trumpets and saw many lights streaming forth with pure and manifold rays; and that he was there after separated from the multitude, with the elect priests, and pressed forward to the summit of the divine ascent. Nevertheless, he did not attained to the Presence of God Himself, he saw not Him (for He can not be looked upon) but the Place where He dwells.”

– The Pseudo-Dionysius: ‘De Mystica Theologia’

“…away from what sees and is seen and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”

– The Pseudo-Dionysius: ‘De Mystica Theologia’

“…the ascent from the realm of the Intellect and Reason up to the absolute Simplicity of the perfect One as the highest principle is more difficult than the climb from the corporeal world perceivable through the senses on up to the Intellectual World of Ideas… Mere human abilities of thought and comprehension – which are capable of dealing initially with that which has limits, form and finiteness in the visible world, and then with that which has intelligible form – shrink back from the One in Its Infinity.”

– The Pseudo-Dionysius: ‘De Mystica Theologia’

The mystical life has three stages ({the} classical division):

1. Light, the burning bush: purgation – we die to the passions by apatheia.

2. Cloud (obscurity): illumination (gnosis) – we die to intellectual knowledge on {the} natural level and attain to theoria (physica).

3. “Holy of Holies,” Deep Darkness: union – not gnosis but ousia.

– Thomas Merton: Introduction to Christian Mysticism

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17. “luminous darkness”

Behind the father-image, behind the mother-image, behind the image of light inaccessible, and behind the image of profound abysmal darkness, there is something else which we cannot conceive at all. Saint Dionysius called it the ‘luminous darkness.’ Nargajuna called it sunyata, the void. Shankara called it Brahman, that of which nothing at all can be said, neti-neti, beyond all conception whatsoever. However, this in not atheism in the formal sense of the word. On the contrary, this is a profoundly religious attitude because it corresponds practically to an attitude toward a life of total trust in letting go. When we have images of God, they are all really exhibitions of our lack of faith.

– Alan Watts: ‘Images of God’

Wherefore John the Sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says, No one has ever seen God, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.

– Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Life of Moses’

It is in the deepest darkness, that we most fully possess God on earth, because it is then that our minds are most truly liberated from the weak, created lights that are filled with His infinite Light which seems pure darkness to our reason.

– Thomas Merton: ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’, 1961

18. “cloud, finally dark”

“Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.”

– Psalm 97:2

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 darkness.

– Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Life of Moses’

This cloud, mist, darkness, or ignorance into which whoever seeks your face enters when one leaps beyond every knowledge and concept is such that below it your face cannot be found except veiled. But this very cloud reveals your face to be there beyond all veils, just as when our eye seeks to view the light of the sun, which is the sun’s face, it first sees it veiled in the stars and in the colours and in all the things which participate its light.

– Nicholas de Cusa: ‘The Vision of God’, Chapter VI 21

I want to ask you to close your eyes

for a few moments and to image:

I want you to follow me

into a dark cloud,

a mist so dense

we are hidden from each other,

and although we can see,

there is nothing to be seen

except the darkness.

– Thomas Merton: ‘A Guided Meditation on “The Face”’, based on Chapter VI 17-21 of Nicholas de Cusa’s ‘The Vision of God’ (De Visione Dei)

23. “Always seen as something new, strange, wonder”

It is the same with one who fixes his gaze on the infinite beauty of God. It is constantly being discovered anew, and it is always seen as something new and strange in comparison with what the mind has already understood. And as God continues to reveal himself, man continues to wonder

– Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Homilies on the Song of Songs’

25. “Awareness of hidden things”

Now the doctrine we are taught here is as follows. Our initial withdrawal from wrong and erroneous ideas of God is a transition from darkness to light. Next comes a clear awareness of hidden things, and by this the soul is guided through sense phenomena to the world of the invisible.

– Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Homilies on the Song of Songs’