Skip to comments.Purification, illumination and the vision of light Catholic/Orthodox Caucus)
Posted on 11/07/2010 4:42:11 PM PST by stfassisi
The theme of illumination by the Divine light was not simply an object of theological interest for St Gregory Nazianzen: it was connected with his deep mystical life. Like many other Christian saints, he had an experience of vision of the Divine light. His first vision of light changed the whole course of his inner life:
From the time when for the first time, having detached myself from the earthly things,
I mingled my soul with radiant heavenly thoughts
and the high Intellect brought me, put far from flesh,
took from here, hid in inmost parts of a heavenly palace,
illumined my eyes with the light of our Trinity,
Which is more resplendent than anything I could imagine,
Which from an elevated throne pours out upon all an ineffable radiance... -
From this time I died for the world, and the world for me.
We do not know the exact date of this vision, but we have every reason to believe that a profound mystical life was begun by Gregory when he was still a child. Describing his early years, Gregory mentions night visions by means of which God instilled in him a love of the life of chastity. When I was a child, he writes, ...I ascended on high, to the radiant throne. Speaking of his youth, Gregory says: Instead of earthly possessions... I had before my eyes the radiance of God. It would be unfair to consider all these references to the Divine light as simply rhetorical devices: the question here is of mystical raptures and visions of light.
We should note that visions of light were a family tradition for Gregory Nazianzen. His father, Gregory the elder, also had the experience of mystical illumination: when he was baptized and emerged from the pool, he was illumined by the Divine light. In the thought of Gregory the younger, the sacrament of baptism was primarily connected with the idea of illumination (fotismos) by the Divine light.
The theme of illumination is, in turn, inseparable in his thought from the theme of purification (katharsis). Gregory inherited an interest in this theme from his studies of ancient Greek philosophy, where katharsis is one of the key notions. In general, in his treatment of the themes of mystical illumination and purification, vision of light and other phenomena of spiritual life, Gregory widely employs the language of ancient Greek philosophy, in particular the Platonic terminology. This terminology was introduced into Christian theology be Clement and Origen: the great Cappadocians borrowed it from the latter. We shall not enter here the discussion about the parallelism of mystical experience in Christian and Platonic traditions: this would be a subject for a separate study. We should only like to draw the attention of our reader to a distinctive feature of Gregory Nazianzens mystical language.
Developing the theme of purification-katharsis, Gregory speaks of it as an important ingredient of what he called philosophy: First wisdom, he says, is a praiseworthy life, which has been purified or is being purified for the most pure and luminous God, Who demands from us only one sacrifice, purification. Purification is more important than theology: To speak of God is a great thing, but to purify oneself for God is a much greater still. In this aphorism purification-katharsis is not opposed to theology. Rather, purification is a necessary condition for theology: it is that ascent to Mount Sinai which, as we have seen, is impossible without purification.
Purification is the way of intellectual ascent from the fleshly to the spiritual, from earth to God, from material darkness to immaterial light: it is a Platonic way of detachment and liberation from the body. Purification as the highest stage of the life of philosophy:
Whoever has been permitted to escape by reason and contemplation from matter and this fleshly cloud or veil,- no matter how it should be called,- and to hold communion with God, and be associated, as far as human nature can attain, with the most pure Light, blessed is he, both from his ascent from here, and for his deification there, which is conferred by true philosophy, and by rising superior to the duality of matter, through the unity which is perceived in the Trinity.
To understand this text, one should remember that in the Platonic tradition the way to perfection was perceived as one from multiplicity to simplicity, from duality to unity. Plotinus, in particular, claims that in order to come to the knowledge of the Unity we must become one from many. Contemplation of the One is, according to Plotinus, a total unity with the One which excludes all multiplicity or diversity: There were not two; beholder was one with beheld; it was not a vision compassed but a unity apprehended. The man formed by this mingling with the Supreme... is become the Unity, nothing within him or without inducing any diversity; no movement now, no passion, no desire, once this ascent is achieved... It was a going forth from the self, a simplifying, a reunification, a reach towards contact and at the same time a repose. The highest stage of the mystical ascent is a state of ecstasy, a total mingling with the One and diffusion in Him. The vision of the highest Intellectual-Principle is connected in Plotinus with the experience of the vision of light emanating from it. One can, of course, point to the disparity between the ecstasy of Plotinus as a diffusion in the impersonal One and the mystical contemplation of Gregory as an encounter with the personal Deity, the Trinity. Yet one cannot but see a startling similarity of language, terminology or imagery between the two authors.
According to Gregory, purification of the intellect is necessary for the contemplation of the most pure light:
God is light, and light supreme. Every other light is only its weak emanation (aporroe) and reflection which reaches the earth, however bright it would seem to be. But you see that darkness was under His feet and He made darkness His secret place, having placed it between Himself and us, in the same manner as Moses of old put a veil between himself and the grossness of Israel, in order that it should not be easy for the darkened nature to see the hidden beauty... and in order that only light would come in contact with the Light, which always draws one higher through desire (efeseos), and in order that only purified intellect would approach to the Most Pure, and in order that something should be revealed now and something else later, as a reward for virtue and for inclination here to this (absolute purity), or rather, for assimilation (to it).
It is noteworthy that in the text quoted God is called hidden beauty and the contact with Him is described in terms of an encounter of light with the Light. Here we can see again an echo of mysticism of Plotinus. The latter speaks of the absolute Beauty which is a source of all beauty. Everything that exists has its beauty from the light, which is before everything, says Plotinus. Having reached the state of unification, the human person sees both the highest absolute Light and himself as light: Thus we have all the vision that may be of Him and of ourselves; but it is of a self wrought to splendour, brimmed with the Intellectual light, become that very light, pure, buoyant, unburdened, raised to Godhead, or, better, knowing its Godhead... Thus the human person not only contemplated the light but also is transformed into light.
Like Plotinus, Gregory speaks of ones transformation into the light: However much is one approaching the King, so much one is a light. The human person is called to become light, that is, to be entirely purified in all members of the body and all senses:
Let us become light, as it was said to the disciples by the Great Light, ye are the light of the world... Let us lay hold of the Godhead; let us lay hold of the first and brightest Light. Let us walk towards His radiance... Let us cleanse every member, brothers, let us purify every sense; let nothing in us be imperfect, nothing of our first birth; let us leave nothing unillumined. Let us enlighten our eyes, that we may look straight on... Let us enlighten our ears; let us enlighten our tongue... Let us be healed also in the smell... Let us cleanse our touch, our taste, our throat... It is good to have our head cleansed... It is good also for the shoulder to be sanctified and purified... It is good for the hands to be consecrated, as well as the feet... There is also a cleansing of the belly... I find also the heart and inward parts deemed worthy of honour... And what about the loins, or reins, for we must not pass these over? Let the purification take hold of these also... Let us give to God all our members which are upon the earth... Let us give ourselves entire, that we may receive back ourselves entire; for this is to receive entirely, when we give ourselves to God and offer as a sacrifice our own salvation.
To become light one must be thoroughly purified, sanctified, transformed and transfigured. Here Gregory goes beyond the realm of the Neo-Platonist terminology and uses biblical material to prove his concepts. Instead of the Platonic idea of liberation from the body he advances the concept of purification of the body as a necessary condition for participation in the Divine light. Not only intellectual efforts, but also different ascetical exploits on the level of the body, as well as the fear of God and observance of Gods commandments, all this leads to mystical illumination:
For where fear is there is observance of commandments; and where there is observance of commandments there is purification of the flesh, that cloud which covers the soul and causes it not to see the divine ray. And where there is purification there is illumination; and illumination is the satisfaction of desire of those who long for the greatest things, or the Greatest Thing, Which surpasses all greatness.
The person who has been purified receives access to the illumination by the ray of the Divine light. However, as Gregory emphasizes, not every light which appears to a person is necessarily divine. As there are two kinds of fire, there are also two kinds of light. There is light that directs our steps according to the will of God, and there is also a deceitful and meddling light which is quite contrary to the true light, though pretending to be that light: it is thought to be bright light by those who have been ruined by luxury, but in reality it is darkness. A Christian should beware of this deceitful light and kindle for himself the light of knowledge. The question here is about a phenomenon which is known to many mystical writers. As early as in St Paul we find a warning about Satan who can be transformed into an angel of light. The subsequent tradition developed a teaching according to which the Devil can imitate certain actions of God, including the appearance of light.
The theme of the vision of the Divine light is frequently considered by Gregory in an eschatological perspective. He emphasizes that what reaches us in this present life is only a scant emanation or a small beam from a great light. The light of the truth here is moderate, and we receive here a certain measured degree of Gods radiance, while in the future life people are illumined by the Trinity in a more pure and lucid manner. Developing the theme of St Paul who said that now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face, Gregory speaks of the encounter with the light from there as the goal of Christian life:
...May you be in attendance upon the great King, filled with the light from there. May we also receive from it a small stream, as it can appear in mirrors and enigmas, and may we finally find the very Source of good, gazing with pure mind upon the truth in its purity, and finding a reward for our eager toil here below on behalf of the good, in our more perfect possession and vision of the good on high. This is precisely the end of our initiation (mystagogia) of which our theological books and teachers tell us.
Yo! With a title like that I figured it was a mormon thread.
OK, OK — b4L.
If satan can emulate an “angel of light” which furthers God’s work, why would he do so?
People can feel illuminated by power they have politically etc.. and think it;s light of God. Obama thinks he is illuminated by God,but it;s satan that makes him a pro abortion ,pro gay etc... So, it does not further the work of God as you say and is a false light that someone like obama feels is from God
Thanks for that. Sometimes I get a little nervous about the wily ways of ‘ol scratch in my life.
On another note...I’m studying St. John of the Cross and his writings. I can see some parallels in St. Gregory’s teachings and St. John’s, particularly in turning from earthly desires. Thanks for the post.
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