“God Is There, Where the Understanding Does Not Reach”
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) · August 9, 2009
In this episode, Fr. Matthew returns to the Life of Moses by St Gregory of Nyssa, and examines a key passage in which the Saint compares the ascent of spiritual life to Moses's ascent of Mt. Sinai. What does it mean to ascend into "darkness," to converse with God "where the understanding does not reach"? And how does Moses's example reveal the way in which all the Fathers and Saints draw the whole Christian family into deeper communion with God?
Not so many weeks ago, we focused in these broadcasts on a passage from The Life of Moses by our Father among the Saints, Gregory of Nyssa.
For those who were listening, you may remember we looked at his text from the second part of that tract on emulating the fortuitous birth of Moses, himself, and how St. Gregory was able to describe Moses’ birth as a thing we are to echo through our choices—the giving birth that happens to our new selves with every choice we make in our life.
Well this week, I would like to return for a few moments to that important text, The Life of Moses. And I would like to look at, perhaps, what is a more famous moment in that document. This comes in the first book, and once again, the tract is divided roughly into two segments.
The first book is an historical exegesis and the second book is a more spiritual contemplation. But within that historical, that literal reading, of Book One, there are moments of profound theological observation and awareness.
And perhaps the most famous single moment in this text comes when St. Gregory describes Moses’ ascent to the very peak of Mount Sinai, where he receives the Law from God, Himself. St. Gregory has, by the time he reaches this point in his writing, described the people somewhat disgruntled journey through the wilderness; their ebbing and flowing between obedience and dissatisfaction.
And he has described how they came by miraculous guidance of a pillar of mystical cloud, as he calls it, which appears as cloud by day and fire by night. They have been drawn by this divine guidance to the foot of the holy mountain. And they see upon its peak; great clouds, lightning, and peals of thunder. And they are very afraid.
And they ask Moses to be their representative, their mediator, to ascend the mountain, which they are too afraid to ascend themselves. And Moses quells whatever fear there might be within him and rises up toward the peak of Sinai.
It is with that image in mind that Moses then describes the actual arrival at the peak of the mountain by Moses. From Chapter 46 of Book One of The Life of Moses Saint Gregory writes as follows:
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 and mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he was in company with the Invisible. He teaches, I think, by the things that 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.
Once again, that is Section 46 of Book One of The Life of Moses. And this is, perhaps, one of the most elegant; the most profound revelations of the human mystical encounter with God, to be found in the Patristic corpus.
Moses ascends the mountaintop higher and higher. And we must think that as with any mountain, the further that one ascends, the farther one is able to see. And yet at the peak of this mountain is not an unobstructed earthly vision of the entire realm below, but at the peak of Sinai is this great cloud; is a mystical darkness.
And as Moses ascends to the very peak, he is enveloped in the luminous darkness of God, Himself. St. Gregory parallels this to our mind in the ascent to the true knowledge of God. As we grow, as we mature in the faith, little by little we come tend to understand more and more. Little by little, we see further than we could before.
This is never to become the cause of human pride. For it is God who enables us to see just a little further in the spiritual life from one day to the next. Though, and we must also remember this, it is possible to stumble, to fall down the mountain, and to know less from day to day; to see less from one moment to the next.
And all too often, we allow our sin to influence us in this manner. Yet by God’s grace, it is possible to mature, to develop in the spiritual life, to ascend the spiritual mountain, and to have one’s gaze reach further than it ever has in the past.
And yet for Moses, his ascent up Mount Sinai culminates in the darkness. It is there where he cannot be seen and where he, himself, can no longer see that he holds mystical converse with the Invisible, as St. Gregory puts it.
And so in the spiritual life, St. Gregory is explicit. If we wish to ascend, if we wish to grow; if we wish to associate intimately with God, as he says, then we must in our spiritual life, in due course, and when God calls, move beyond things visible; enter that realm where the understanding does not reach. That is the phrase that echoes out of St. Gregory’s text.
One must ascend there into the darkness and believe that God is there, where the understanding does not reach. This is the height of true, intimate communion, when we are no longer gazing out to see God from afar; when we are no longer using the physical senses, the rational mind, our intellectual faculties to think about God however accurately or to look towards God however clearly.
But in a darkness that goes beyond our senses, we can be called simply to be with Him; to have an intimate converse, an intimate connection, a true communion with the living Lord. Let us be very clear. This is the height of spiritual life.
Moses was called by God. He is known to us as the God-seer, the one who gives the Divine Law to the people. In a true way, he is one of the great forefathers of our Christian life and calling. And this is the height of his spiritual ascent.
As such, we must be very careful that we do not look to this passage and think that by some great virtue of our own ascesis of our own will we would ascend in the same, simple manner up the mountain, into darkness, into divine revelation.
Most of us are far more burdened by our sin, far less willing, than was the great Moses, to shed all the things in our life which hinder us. For most of us, we will spend the entirety of our lives, until the very moments of our deaths, struggling up the first few steps of the mountain. And this is not a thing to be lamented.
The fact that we may, through our sinfulness, never attain the height of the greatest of saints does not mean that each step we are, by God’s grace, gifted to take is not something miraculous, wonderful, and holy.
Let us remember that Moses ascends the mountain, not the people of Israel. And yet, through his ascent, through his mystical converse, through his truly intimate communion with the Lord, the whole people receives the Divine Law. Through his solitary ascent and real communion, all of the earth, even us today, receives the divine voice which he heard on that mountaintop.
We are sanctified by one another. And while we through our weakness; while I through my sin may never reach that point of mystical communion, there are others alive in our day. And God always provides those who truly and obediently follow him; who do reach this state. And by their communion with the Lord, we too are fed. We too receive divine instruction.
This is itself revealed in the story of Moses. And St. Gregory draws attention to what happens after this moment of divine vision. He writes in Section 56:
After he was instructed in these and other such things by the ineffable teaching of God while he was surrounded by the invisible darkness, and having surpassed himself by the aid of the mystical doctrines, he emerged again out of the darkness. He then went down to his people to share with them the marvels which had been shown to him in the theophany, to deliver the laws, and to institute for them the sanctuary and priesthood according to the pattern shown to him on the mountain.
God provides the opportunity for true communion, and the way to that communion is open to all. Our lives are filled with ascent and descent, often in the same moment. But the story of Moses reminds us that that ascent is possible. It shows us that that ascent requires different things of us at different stages.
The discursive, rational, intellectual mind becomes less and less central the more one is enveloped in the invisible darkness, as he calls it, of intimate communion. And so as we grow and mature; as we often fall backwards and stumble and fall, our spiritual life will be marked out by different aspects and attributes.
But we are also reminded by this story that when God calls one into that true communion, and when one through obedience, ascesis, and humility falls and entertains the Lord in intimate converse, all of the people benefit.
Just as Moses came out of the cloud and delivered the Law, so the great saints of the Church, such as our Father St. Gregory writes this text, emerge out of divine communion and contemplation to bring to each of us the living word of the risen Lord.
So the great Fathers and Elders, who in every generation inspire and uphold God’s Church, through their prayers bring to us a personal communion with God. They give to us the Law. They reveal to us the priesthood, the sanctuary, the worship of the living Lord.
And so may it always be that we struggle to climb the mountain of spiritual contemplation; that we are humble enough to see how far we are from its peak, and yet devoted and devout enough to acknowledge that the peak stands before us, beckoning us forward and upward into the life of God.
And may we, with great thanksgiving, acknowledge those who have gone before and who, in our own day go, before us, leading us upward, drawing us to God by the revelation of His grace.
Through the prayers of our holy Father, Gregory of Nyssa and of all the saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.