Gregory of Nyssa: Luminous Darkness


The 'Divine Darkness' in Gregory of Nyssa

‘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 darkness.

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 knowledge:

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 paradox:

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.[11]

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.[17]

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]


Commentary & Study:

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Présence et pensé – essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse. London: Ignatius Press, 1995. (Also English translation).

Daniélou, J. Platonisme et théologie mystique – essai sur la doctrine spirituelle de saint Grégoire de Nysse. Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1953.

Daniélou, J. & Musurillo, H. From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings. London: John Murray, 1962.

Meredith, Anthony. Gregory of Nyssa. London: Routledge, 1999.


Editions du Serf: La vie de Moïse – ou traité de la perfection en matière de vertu (text in French and Greek). Paris, 1968.

Malherbe, A.J. & Ferguson, E. The Life of Moses, from The Classics of Western Spirituality (series). New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Wace, Henry & Schaff, Philip (Ed.). Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc, from A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (series). Oxford: Parker and Co., MDCCCXCIII.


[1] Life of Moses, §152.

[2] Daniélou, Introduction to From Glory to Glory, p.23.

[3] Life of Moses, §158.

[4] Life of Moses, §22.

[5] Daniélou, p.23.

[6] Daniélou, pp.23-4.

[7] Life of Moses, §156.

[8] Life of Moses, §157.

[9] Life of Moses, §157.

[10] Life of Moses, §163.

[11] Life of Moses, §162.

[12] Life of Moses, §163.

[13] Life of Moses, §164.

[14] This poetic phrase belongs to Daniélou, p.37.

[15] Daniélou, p.32.

[16] Life of Moses, §227.

[17] Life of Moses, P.G. 44.404(A-D).

[18] On Perfection, P.G. 46.285(B-C).