This week we continue our journey with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Three Ways of Holiness. Last week we joined Moses before the burning bush as he was illumined, made aware of his identity in relationship with God. Now, we ascend with him up the mountain into the cloud of God’s holy presence. The cloud is a great place to be because we know we are with God… but it’s also hard. The cloud is dark. It obscures our sight. We may become frightened, unsure of our footing.
Why this cloud? St. John of the Cross called the cloud, “the dark night of the senses.” (Note: St. John also speaks of a dark night of the soul, which is slightly different and which we won’t be covering here.) Having entered God’s presence in phase one… and having begun to experience his goodness perhaps even as a matter of habit/second-nature something happens. The world of sensory perception begins to go stale. It’s not that the good and beautiful things, relationships, experiences that provided those burning bush moments are any less good, but we perceive their limits, and our hearts yearn for more. They want the invisible God behind the visible signs. The sensory world that relies so heavily on our mortal selves doesn’t satisfy the way it used to and this becomes a kind of darkness.
How do we go forward? To begin with, this Sunday we learn that we are not alone. Christ himself had a deep relationship with the Father. At the Baptism in the Jordan he heard the Father’s voice, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22). Well, someone forgot to tell the people of Nazareth, because when Jesus gave them the Good News (as we hear this week) they tried to throw him off a cliff! On his journey, Jesus too enters the cloud which obscures not only the way forward, but sometimes even our sensory perception of the Father’s love. In the cloud we are tempted to say, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?!”
How do we function in this cloud? The first two readings give us a clue: we dive into those gifts of God which define our humanity: We recall with our intellect that God, as Jeremiah reveals, made us and that we are wonderfully made! With intellectual conviction springing from both our own history and his revelation we make an act of the will, “I will go on confident that God never abandons his creation!” Intellect and Rational Will… the two things that distinguish us from all the other animals on earth allow us to persevere in the cloud. Related to these is a particular act of the will – noted in the second reading – LOVE.
Love (a.k.a. charity – caritas), as enunciated by Josef Pieper, is a virtue by which we affirm the life of another through self-sacrifice. Love/charity is a choice we make. Trained in the ways of charity (cf. I Peter 1, esp. verse 22) we get better and better at forging forward in the cloud. Love takes on a deeper form than it did in Phase I. Before, it was desire, before it was affection… it was easily sustained by the senses. Now, love takes on a new character as it becomes an act of rationally chosen suffering sacrifice. It matures from the “mother’s milk” of St. Paul’s first preaching to solid food that requires a more mature effort (cf I Cor 3:2 and I Pt. 2:2). This understanding of love as something rationally chosen even to the point of self-sacrifice helps us understand why Love is the most human thing anyone can do… and thus the best way to fulfill our God-given identity…and thus move closer to heaven.
Where does this darkness/obscurity come from? Sometimes it’s an honest test from God who allows us to be challenged in order to strengthen our faith. History is replete with examples, most especially Job. There is another reason for the obscurity of the cloud. Just as the bright side of our humanity helps us move forward, the darker sides hinder us. The limits of sensory perception, and human understanding are both forms of darkness. Sin, likewise, obscures our view of the way forward; sometimes our own sins, sometimes the effects of others’. Even here though, by tenaciously holding on to Jeremiah’s truth about our origins… and by choosing love, we move forward… so that, with Christ, we can pass through the midst of troubles and continue on the path laid out for us by the Father.