Thursday, June 24, 2010

Illumination: Facing the Abyss



After a long and arduous struggle to tame the passions, we receive the gift of contemplation to seek the truth in all of God's creation. Along this path we continually have feelings of God's presence, but we now come to a place where we realize that we can't know God. We recognize that there is a limit to our mental ability to grasp truth. We yearn for union with Him and to be united with His divine light. But, our attempts to understand Him elude us.  We begin to think in terms of what God is not, developing what is called an apophatic sense. We begin to sense that there is an alternative path to a fuller knowledge of Him, one that goes beyond the mental concepts we have trusted in so far.  This alternative is what the theologians have described as apophaticism.


Fr. Dimitru Staniloae says,
After the knowledge, by the intermediacy of nature, of the divine logoi and energies, the knowledge of the divine revealed energies follows.  Of course, the knowledge of these energies is accompanied especially in the second case, by apophaticism.  Furthermore, the knowledge of the energies enveloped in nature is accompanied by the consciousness of the unknowability of he divinely revealed energies; and the knowledge of them goes together with the consciousness of the absolute incomprehensibility of the divine nature.  This apophaticism is present at the same time as knowledge, or alternatively, on both steps, but is more accentuated on the second.
As I have personally contemplated the truth of God as found in His creation, I sense this gap between what I can know and what there is to know.  I am left with a divine "feeling" that I don't really understand. I feel as if I cant fully know the truth about that which I observe. Occasionally I come to a place where I momentarily let go of my mental concepts and this feeling intensifies, but, almost instantly, I snap back like I am afraid of losing reality.  It feels like a temporary loss of consciousness.  Its appears as a void, a silence, a great abyss, one I am not quite ready to master.  It seems like everything will be negated. I react and withdraw to a more comfortable place. I realize I am not yet prepared for this next step.

Fr. Dimitru describes this condition where we begin to feel the unexplainable divine energies as the first step of apophaticism.  The next step he describes as follows:
The moment we leave behind every consideration of concepts taken from nature and every preoccupation even to negate them when we therefore also raise ourselves beyond negation, as an intellectual operation, and beyond some apophatic feeling of them, we enter a state of silence produced by prayer.
This a a critical transition in our spiritual growth. We may experience a void, silence, darkness, a state of intense prayer or a total quietness of our mind.  To progress we have to make a total surrender to God and enter into this unknown area. We must face the abyss. It is a total surrender of our ego-centeredness, of the control that our mind uses based on worldly concepts.  

Fr Dimitru says,
The mind reaches the abyss which separates its knowledge from God, but it is still here on the human side. But carried off by God, it goes over there, to the vision of the divine light. 
There is a large chasm we need to cross and our faith must be total to cross it.  On the other side is the divine light and the union with God we seek.

Fr Dimitru says,
Certainly the vision of the divine light is also accompanied by an apophaticism, which we could call the third step.  But it is no longer an apophaticism in the sense of a void, as previous steps.  First it consists of the consciousness of the one who sees it;: that it can't be contained in concepts and expressed in words. Secondly, that beyond it is the divine being, which remains totally inaccessible.  But it has a positive content of knowledge higher than knowledge of apophatic knowledge, a feeling of higher experience and of natural feeling.... the vision of the light means that it has carried the mind across the abyss which separates us and God.
Fr. Staniloae has more to say on this. Next.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 237 - 244 

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