The people stood far off, while Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:18-21)
Saint Gregory of Nyssa draws upon Exodus 20:21 to show that God is found not only in the light, but in the darkness as well. Gregory of Nyssa saw that at first, to know God, we must ‘escape from the darkness’. But as we are devoted in our spiritual progress we come to “the invisible and the incomprehensible”, and there we see God. This seeing is a ‘non-seeing’. It is a non-knowing, because it ‘transcends all knowledge’. In this way God is comprehended within the darkness.
What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? (Exodus 20:21) What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first [revelation], for then the Divine was beheld in light, but now he is seen in darkness…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 completion, 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. Wherefore John the sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, said, no one’s ever seen God, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable that only by men but also by every intelligent creature.
When therefore, Moses school in knowledge, he declared that he is seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had been come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says, Moses approached the dark clouds were God was. What was God? He who made the darkness is hiding place. (p.94)
- The Life of Moses By Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Paulist Press, 1978