Moses and John

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.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • John G

    So much of what God answers us is “yes,” isn’t it? I mean, in the darkness we can find God – just as much as in the light. It’s just a different kind of dark and light. Satan/Lucifer doesn’t understand God – I think that’s why he fell. See John 1:4 – the word in the Jerusalem Bible translated “overpower” and often “conquer” also has the connotation of understanding or comprehending. Also C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters makes a point like this. Of course, that’s a significant part of our problem as well – we WANT to understand God and we can’t. Nor should we! I’m a pastor who’s been lurking here for a couple of weeks – I don’t know how many times I get asked “how does communion (or insert any other thing we don’t really get) work?” And my answer is so often: “I don’t know and nobody else does either. We need to believe.” Questioning is great – as long as we understand (there’s that word again!) that we will never really know the answers – and that’s as it should be.
    Great blog by the way – I’m looking forward to reading your books! Shalom!
    John G. (

  • rodney neill

    great post!


  • Peter

    Yes! to John G and John 1:4 meaning, “The darkness didn’t really ‘get’ the light.”

    God is the light-beyond-light (the light beyond light-and-darkness), the tree of life beyond the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Oneness behind the primary and secondary dualisms. This means that He is unknowable by analytical reasoning, but He can be seen and known by spiritual revelation: spirit to Spirit. I think this is what you mean by believing: knowing by faith, as in Hebrews 11: “…through faith we understand…”

    God is greater than the answer to all of our questions, the ultimate “Yes!”

    So keep pastoring and blessing the people–and enjoying this blog! It’s a great place.