Entering the Darkness of God

Today was a Retreat Day at the School for Officer Training at Booth College, with our guests for the day being Colonels Wayne and Robyn Maxwell. Robyn referred to Numbers 8:1-4 and the creation of the golden lampstands used in the tabernacle for worship. It made me think of the Most Holy Place in both the Tabernacle and later the Temple. I imagine that this would have been a very dark place, but paradoxically the place where God was symbolically “closest” to his people. I imagine the High Priest entering behind the curtain, having meticulously prepared everything required on the Day of Atonement, ready to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The sound of the bells on his linen robes gently tinkling but also letting others outside know that he was still alive (entering God’s holy presence was dangerous work). They were ready to pull on the rope attached to the High Priest’s leg if they heard the sound of his dead body crashing to the floor with a sound somewhat like an old telephone falling off the kitchen bench.

The High Priest brings in the only light source – a single candle flame. I imagine the fear that would have gripped him, mixed also with an awesome sense of privilege and responsibility. Presenting the sins of the people before God and taking his forgiveness back out to them. This truly was the epitome of the “priestly” role.

But today my mind couldn’t get past thinking of the darkness of this place. He was the only one allowed in there and so there would logically be no preparations made behind the curtain, and so no lamps burning until he entered with one. The place where God was the closest to his people was also the darkest in the Temple.

This reminded me of the mystical theology of Gregory of Nyssa who, in his Life of Moses, interprets Moses’ entering into the dark cloud on top of the mountain to speak with God. This, too, was a dark place. “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Ex 20:21). Here’s how Gregory allegorises this moment.
What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany [the burning bush], for then the Divine was beheld in light, but now he is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. 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.
For 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 the 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.[1]
Later Gregory applies this to the spiritual life of Christians
When he who has been purified and is sharp of hearing in his heart his this sound (I am speaking of the knowledge of the divine power which comes from the contemplation of reality), he is led to the place where his intelligence lets him slip in where God is. This is called darkness by Scripture, which signifies, as I said, the unknown and the unseen.[2]
So what does this mean? Well, as we grow in our knowledge of God we come to realise that the knowledge we think we have of God is actually far smaller than we ever imagined it to be. Frankly, God is big. We are not. We can’t ever know all there is to know about him. He is incomprehensible. However, in that incomprehensibility we find not just faith, but God himself, dwelling in the dark place of the unknown and the unseen. In moving towards him in that very place we come to rely less on our limited knowledge about God and more on God himself. Like the darkened room in the centre of the Temple, and the cloud covered mountain that Moses ascended, there in that place is the one we seek who is beyond "knowing". Paradoxically it's also the place where we will truly “know” him. There we see God through not seeing. We know God through unknowing. It is, as Gregory refers to it so poetically, a “luminous darkness”.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe, and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 80.
[2] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 82.


  1. I know my comment is almost a year after the writing but one wonderful thing about print, it is not deminished with time.
    This speaks so deeply to me every time I read it. We come to God looking for the God of Power and Majesty but then we limit Him by our limited human minds. When we do this the focus is taken from God and moved to ourselves:how do we think God looks, how do we think God answers prayer, you can continue the list. If we want to see the depths of God we must empty ourselves of our selves. We must step into the Cloud of Unknowing as a servant and simply say "here am I." daniel


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