What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the divine was beheld in light but now He is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness; an escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly that God cannot be contemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Therefore John the sublime who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says “no one has ever seen God,” thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by humans but also by every intelligent creature. When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says,‘Moses approached the dark cloud where God was’.
Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses
When my shaky legs feel unpractised at walking in the dark seeking light and vice versa, the temptation always is to turn on a light, or to impose a colour that I cannot see in my environment that is more suited to my mood. I was wondering at this tendency when I came across the announcement that New York artist Leo Villareal will be creating the design for London’s £20m Illuminated River project, which will see the bridges of the Thames lit up at night. His design involves a “rhythm of light”, reacting to the movement of pedestrians and the tides, in a colour scheme of blues, purples, whites and golds. As interesting as this concept is, and as much as I like the reflections of colours in dark waters, it made me pause.
Perhaps this River Thames project is designed to bring forward from the water colours that are present within it but normally lie unseen? My socio-cultural-political-religious upbringing has not encouraged me to see dark as anything but dark, and when pushed to name a colour, like so many others, I lazily name it is as black.
An exhibition at the Natural History Museum set out to deliberately question the interface between art and science when it comes to seeing our natural world. The ‘Colour and Vision’ exhibition set out to ask: ‘Does colour in nature always have a purpose? How do our individual experiences of colour vary? How is technology transforming our interactions with colour?’ Fascinatingly, one of the artists featured in the research was Neil Harbisson who was born with a condition called achromatism – a permanent colourblindness so he has no colour vision at all – everything he sees, he sees in greyscale. Working with doctors he has created an antenna that is permanently implanted into his skull. It allows him to hear colours even beyond the human visual spectrum.
Is this an imposition of colour onto darkness or is this a revelations of the colours of darkness? I’m not sure. But the question keeps prodding me to confront the binary between light and dark, within and without me, between joy and fear, inside and outside me, in a very deliberate way. As theologian Karl Barth reminds me, “God’s beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we might call ugly as well as what we might call the beautiful.” Such a shift of perspective is vital medicine for the eyes of a JoyPilgrim.
There in the lucky dark
none to observe me,
darkness far and wide;
no sign for me to mark,
no other light my guide except for my heart—the fire, the fire inside!
St John of the Cross
firelight. iPhone image.