- Moses's Dark Cloud, Teresa's Dark Night, and the Soul's Entrance into the Divine Presence
"'Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.'1 What God? He who 'made darkness his hiding place,'2 as David says, who also was initiated into the mysteries in the same inner sanctuary."3 These words from Gregory of Nyssa set the tone for the subsequent reflection upon the elusiveness of God, who hides himself in darkness and is found only after much purification and growth in virtue. Reading texts such as these as a Western Catholic, one cannot help but call to mind the mystical paths of Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta. They experienced such intense darkness that they doubted they even knew God. This cannot be a phenomenon of the present time alone. Indeed, there are some strong parallels in Christian antiquity.
This article will trace the thoughts of several Church Fathers regarding darkness and illumination within the stream of Eastern Catholic mysticism. In particular, the rich mystical theology of Maximus the Confessor helps to illumine the darkness experienced by many believers. I will broadly survey the influences who helped Maximus develop his theology of darkness and mystical ascent. I will focus on [End Page 131] the antecedent thought of Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) and Dionysius the Areopagite (an author of the fifth or sixth century not to be confused with the eponymous associate of St. Paul).4 I will briefly explicate Maximus's understanding of progress in the knowledge of God by means of God's condescension and through natural and spiritual contemplation. The mystic thus ascends from the visible, through the invisible, to the divine as a movement toward the deification (θεώσις) of the soul in a sort of luminous darkness. Finally, I will locate the ancient Christian thought surveyed here within the spiritual theology of the Church as lived by contemporary saints such as Teresa of Calcutta who experience profound darkness. A broad retrieval of the earlier tradition regarding the union with God in the darkness of unknowing could further provide a clarification to us and equip pastors and spiritual directors with a spiritual palliative to those suffering through the trials of darkness.
The central biblical figure for much of the subsequent reflections is Moses. For the Church Fathers of the Greek East, Moses was the principal mystagogue for the spiritual life. He is the one who enters into the dark cloud of God on the mountain, and there he dwells in the light of the divine knowledge. The mountaintop is no place for the uninitiated, for even the beasts who touched the mountain were to be stoned to death.5 Moses himself appears upon another mountain in the gospels.6 The Church Fathers reading the whole of scripture, of course, link Sinai with Tabor, where Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus in the presence of the apostles before "a bright cloud overshadowed them."7 The brilliance casts a shadow. The darkness is thick near the top of the mountain, but one also recognizes that it is better to be on the mountain heights.
By way of prolegomenon, some readers may be inclined to think of the many negative connotations to the word "darkness" in the New Testament. As St. Paul said, "What fellowship has light with darkness?"8 To his would-be captors, Jesus says, "This is your hour, and the power of darkness."9 Further, the darkness of the world is a theme throughout the Gospel of John. From its prologue, one reads [End Page 132] of this antithesis: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it"10 and, later, "men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."11 But as we know from the natural world, there are different kinds of darkness, and so the word for darkness, σκοτία, can have different senses. For example, it can mean darkness, gloom, or a shadow.12 But there is another word that the Greek Church Fathers seem to prefer in order to make the distinction, namely, γνόφος, which is a darkness that more conveys the idea of a weighty cloud...