Following the guidance of Aristotle and Aquinas we can only perceive something outside us when something within us resonates with it. We can only see red because redness is already within us. We can only glimpse eternity, because eternity is within us. We can only perceive the Holy Trinity, because the three Persons of the Trinity are within us as three aspects of our consciousness. As the medieval mystic, Meister, often wrote, “the eye with which I see God, is the eye with which God sees me.” We live within a profound, dynamic reciprocity of knowing between what is inside of us and what is outside. The mystery of the Holy Trinity within us perceives the Holy Trinity that transcends us, and the transcendent Trinity is always communicating with us.

Christians say that the Holy Three are both distinct and One, Christian contemplatives have different ways of navigating this paradox. Each mystic we’ve studied seems to to have a favorite doorway into the whole of the Trinitarian dance. Keep in mind that each Person of the Trinity is a microcosm of all three, so it is possible to learn something of the whole by lingering on any one of the Persons. Gregory of Nysa (4th century) was a Christian scholar and mystic who felt drawn to the First Person of the Trinity, the Creator. Mystics like Gregory will say that our doorway to the Creator is always Now. We can’t think our way into the great Mystery. Rather, we must be silent and let ourselves be found by Mystery. Dwelling in the First Person consciousness of Presence and Mystery brings deep insight into all experiences that arise in Second and Third Person awareness.

Being available for any of the sacred Three dimensions of consciousness rests on a person’s desire to have a direct experience of God, especially in silence and solitude. In general, contemplatives are comfortable with God’s ultimate unknowability, describing it as the apophatic path, from the Greek, “without images,” and as via negativa (Latin: emphasizing what God is not). Another thing that contemplative Christians have in common is their assumption that to understand the First Person, one must be in the consciousness of the First Person. To “know” the Unknowable, one must become unknowable, even to oneself. And this cannot be a merely theological idea. It must be a real experience, but one that transcends human reason, logic and language.

Gregory of Nyssa was an early Christian lover of the First Person. He was one of the Cappadocian Fathers along with Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.) and Gregory of Nazianzus (320-389 A.D.). Together, they are seen as exemplars of Eastern Christian mysticism and as the great mystical theologians of the Patristic Age, which runs from the time of Jesus to either the 5th or the 8th centuries–that time during which the basic beliefs, doctrines and creeds of the Christian tradition were being formed. Gregory of Nyssa influenced all the Patristic writers who succeeded him. He read both Hebrew and Christian scriptures as stories about the spiritual journey into the Source, which he called the Godhead. For him, as for most Christian mystics, the Godhead (First Person) can only be “known” by grounding oneself in silence and navigating one’s presence between and beneath all thoughts and images. See, for example, this classic text by an Anglican monk, William Johnston, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.) New York: Doubleday, 1973, 1996.

One might say that for Gregory, Scripture is everyone’s root story, a universal story, writ large and all inclusive. Gregory believed that everyone’s consciousness emerges into the cosmos from the First Person of the Trinity. He believed that this entry requires a spiritual discipline that brings one into that same darkness in which Moses encountered God. Gregory did not think that the “thick darkness” of God (Greek: gnophos) is a magical, fairy tale sort of state that only special people in primitive times have. But it is possible to read Gregory in our 21st century worldview, discerning marks of a spiritual developmental path that anyone can travel. He read the pilgrimage of Moses as a movement from the revelation of light (Greek: phos) to the darkness of the cloud (nephele), and beyond that to the thick darkness (gnophos) “where God dwells”. Gregory felt that anyone who is serious and sincere about getting to the bottom of ultimate truth in this life, can follow the lead of Moses into the holy Cloud of Unknowing, a Cloud that seems dark to one’s reason. This experience is the dark mystery of the Creator. This “darkness” is the spaciousness of pure awareness, the amphitheater in which all our memories, thoughts, plans, sensations and worries travel. We can experience this darkness directly when we sit still and detach from our thinking minds. (We are always thinking, but it is also possible to witness one’s thinking). The infinite Mystery of the Creator dwells in this spaciousness that is unattached to all concepts and stories about our reality.

Among ancient theologians, some had described the Christian journey as a descent into holy darkness, and some as an ascent into holy light. Gregory embraced the paradox, that a descent into unknowing appears as eternal darkness, but one that is infused with the light o eternal Love. One experiences an increasing clarity, hope and illumination in the Gospel stories, but then all rational clarity dissolves in later stages where one’s knowing is fully lit by the light of eternal Love. We long for an intimate relationship with God, one that provides accurate guidance into one’s everyday reality, a “place” where our everyday lives and eternity meet. Reason dissolves and one finds oneself walking as if on a path of shadows in a vast forest–all the while longing for a complete relationship with the light which is only glimpsed through the trees. For Gregory, every sincere, faithful and disciplined lover of God eventually descends into this boundless Mystery, and discovers there a love that eludes control by one’s narratives about reality, or by one’s personal will. This Love can’t be controlled or figure out, and it transfigures one’s pain and the suffering of the world:

For having left behind all that appears, not only what the senses perceive, but also what the intelligence believes it sees, it penetrates into the invisible and incomprehensible, and there sees God. . . ‘When the veil of despair has thus been taken away, and she sees the beauty of the beloved defying all hope and all description . . .she is seized with an even more vehement desire, because she has received the chosen arrow of God in herself, and her heart has been wounded by the barb of faith, she has been mortally wounded by the arrow of love.’ 1

In Gregory’s time, this contemplative journey was called in Greek, theoria, a journey where “The Lord does not say it is blessed to know something about God, but to have God present within oneself.” 2

Thus, for Gregory, there is an emotional dimension to this descent, and the darkness that one discovers in contemplative prayer is suffused with love. As we detach from our repetitive thoughts and stories about reality, we enter the infinite cathedral of Presence, one that can be scary at first, But with practice we discover that this Presence is suffused with Love. This love arises from a subtle and strong longing, and sometimes from grief. Being available for this descent one must set aside time each day for silent meditation. We cannot control what arises within us when we are silent.

In silence, traumatic experiences from childhood, teen years, and early adulthood may arise and call us to pay attention, and perhaps seek help from a therapist or counselor. We must remember that Gregory lived in a pre-therapeutic and pre-scientific time, but we can adjust for such lacunae (Latin: pit or hole) in his worldview. When we come to terms with trauma and began to feel healed and whole, Experiences of silence gradually accumulate in the soul, drawing one’s awareness ever more deeply into ultimate mystery, the First Person. Because it is only when we separate ourselves from the cacophonous images, thoughts and painful memories of social life, and the market square of our busy minds, that we can actually perceive the underlying pregnant darkness that is the backdrop of all our thinking, feeling, perceiving, remembering and planning. Contemplative prayer that seeks the First Person drops beneath verbal prayer and the reading of Scripture, and yet the silence within us honors the Gospels without thinking about them, and honors God without thinking about God. When our soul has gathered itself in the presence of the Christ story, it plays in the background of awareness as the invisible, sacred background of everything we are and do. Here in the 21st century, we honor the scientific story of reality and time, and from this perspective we can say that the invisible First Person consciousness emerges from the same silence that existed before creation–before the Big Bang and before we were born–and will exist forever. It is the holy “Nothing” that is beneath and between our thoughts, memories and emotions, but it is also a “Something” or a “Someone” that is understood to be God’s Presence.

1 Quoted in Michael Cox, Handbook of Christian Spirituality, p. 70.

2 Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England, 1981, pp. 87 and 91.