Gregory of Nyssa, writing about the life of Moses as an allegory for the mystical life, says “Moses vision of God began with light; afterwards God to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.” (from the Commentary on the Song of Songs).
But compare this to the prologue of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men; and light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it. … The Word was the real light that gives light to everyone; he was coming into the world.” (John 1:1-5, 9; New Jerusalem Bible).
Here we seem to have a paradox. Christ calls himself “the light of the world” and John pretty definitively states that the darkness could not overpower this light. And yet Gregory describes Moses as seeing “God in the darkness” as he “rose higher and became more perfect.”
We have the advantage, in holding these two seemingly contradictory texts side by side, of two thousand years of Christian tradition to lean on. We have Pseudo-Dionysius, John of the Cross, and The Cloud of Unknowing. We get it that the “darkness” of which John speaks (the darkness of evil and sin) is not the same as the darkness of which Gregory speaks (that place beyond which the light of our feeble intellects can shine). Still, there is a wee bit of disorienting counter-subversion that seems to go on when we Moses and John side by side. Is darkness our enemy or our friend? The mystical tradition answers this question, simply, “Yes.”
But when it comes to evil, darkness isn’t the only game in town. A long-standing (although not uncontested) tradition equates the rebellious angel Satan with Lucifer, the “bearer of light.” Light can seduce as well as illuminate, just as darkness can provide rest as well as cover for perfidy.
When we talk about “light” and “dark” in a spiritual sense, we speak of mythic imagery as much as the presence or absense of luminous energy. Many people in our day love the Taoist yin-yang symbol, suggesting that light and dark have a continual balance and equilibrium. From a nature mystic perspective, that’s a compelling, powerful, useful symbol. But as soon as we start to dance in the trans-natural world of Christian mysticism, we’ve entered a funhouse where both light and dark have ambiguous, un-fixed value and meaning, and all things appear slippery and maybe not quite are what they seem.
The takeaway: In God we trust. Everything else gets questioned.