God is Not Sensible I

“You filled it [the temple of the human body] with your ineffable presence… revealing to the worlds which you had created in your grace an ineffable mystery, a power which cannot be felt or grasped by any part of your creation that has come into being.  In wonder at it angelic beings are submerged in silence, awed at the dark cloud of this eternal mystery…”

Thus uttered St Isaac of Nineveh in the middle of the seventh century.  That God is beyond conception, beyond any positive description, has been a tenet well accepted within Christianity at least from the time when St Dionysios the Aeropagite’s writings first circulated.  Apophatic theology emerged again in the writings of Bonaventure and Aquinas in the age of Scholasticism, and concurrently in the writings of the Hesychast fathers, St Gregory Palamas most notable among them.  Nor are the other monotheist religions of the West — Islam, Judaism, Neoplatonism — opponents of teaching that God, in God’s essence, is inconceivable, unknowable, illimitable.

On one level, this challenges the assumption that what we experience in prayer is God.   The sensations, the movements of soul and the perceptions of body, the pleasure and joy of prayer — this is not God.  Rightly St John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mt Carmel encourages his disciples (mostly Carmelite nuns, at the time) to seek entrance into a dark night or dark cloud in which they will cease to be attached to these perceptions and cease calling them God, lest they risk making an idol out of their own consciousness and self-awareness.

What about a vision of uncreated light — can this, if it be perceived, be called God?  If God is insensible, or ineffable, what then, are we perceiving?  In his Vita of St Benedict, Gregory the Great makes it clear that what we see in the uncreated light is a revelation of the creation of the world.  Inasmuch as all revelation is self-disclosure, even if it hides the Discloser from its recipients, as the created, material world hides God from us, and inasmuch as all self-disclosure is a revelation of self or being, then yes, we can say such a vision is a vision of God.  But what was seen is a revelation of that which reveals God through concealing God; the garment in which God is wrapped; that is, of creation, and not of God.

What about the light of Mt Tabor, in which the disciples came to know the Trinity, and which is also known as uncreated light?   Surely this is a revlation of God, a self-disclosure of God’s inner life, and not a disclosure of the world.  Leaving aside the relation of the Trinity to the world for the moment — a topic I may explore at some other point, I would posit that  although such a vision, such light proceeds from God without being created, even if it breaks into the material space of this world at a particular time, even if it is deifying as being part of God, that which is percieved is not God; that part of the uncreated light which is God (though not in God’s supra-essential essence as some Church Fathers have described it) and which deifies the recipient, cannot be felt.  Once again St John of the Cross makes a similar point:  if you have a true vision, the vision accomplishes its work in you the instant that vision begins, even before it occurs or you are aware of any change.  There is no need for a vision with long conversations and exchanges of words or actions.  Ezekiel saw the Chariot while immersed in the river; he saw in an instant the Chashmal and the Cherubim.  He did not need words at that time.

So what then of St Seraphim of Sarov’s advice, that we pay attention to the Holy Spirit as She burns within our hearts?  Or the arguments of the Desert Fathers who say you must be transformed into fire, or St Symeon the New Theologian who argues that if one does not sensibly perceive the Holy Spirit within oneself, one does not possess the Holy Spirit?

St Seraphim asks us to look at the changes wrought in us by the Holy Spirit.  He asks us to note the movement of grace not necessarily as it passes through us so much as after it has passed though, after it has made its transformative power felt.  It is an engagement of self-knowledge and self-awareness.  It is the “gift” of the Holy Spirit, both in the sense that the Holy Spirit is gifted to us by the Father through His Word, but also in the sense of the uncreated and deifying grace is the gift granted in particular to those who believe that Jesus’ resurrection brought life to the worlds and defeated death.  The Holy Spirit’s gift is the rectification of the root of death, which is sin.  Just as the Christ defeats death and decay to bestow life on us and those in the tombs, so does the Holy Spirit come to deify us and transform us through an elimination of that disolution which ends in death.  Thus the saints are incorrupt after death, the martyrs indivisible.  And just as myron is both a part of a saint and yet not, so also is this gift a part of God and cannot exist apart from God — and yet is not God in God’s essence, but only in God’s action.

Action is transformative.  Change can be felt and perceived; indeed, without change, we have no perception.  The movement of the eardrum is a change in its static position.  The photon which strikes the eye and is converted into an electrical signal is change.  The mechanisms by which our skin feels, our bodies balance, our vessels expand and contract, our organs assimilate and eliminate — these are all based on change, measured by movement across space and within time.   So St Symeon might argue:  If you cannot tell that you are changing and being changed by grace, can you really say that you have the gift of the Holy Spirit operating in you?  Where is your evidence?  Where is your growth?  Without growth, where is your life?  You are dead!  You are not receiving precisely those gifts which Christian belief would have you receive — life and holiness and transformation in God!

To enter into what is beyond space and beyond time is to pass beyond stillness and beyond silence, to pass beyond perception and the sensible and to encounter God who is not sensible in a glory of ineffable and illimitable growth.  This is the direction in which the saints of the Church whish to direct us.

If any of the above is acceptable, namely, that God cannot be sensed in God’s essence, why do we expect God to be “sensible” in the second sense of the term?  Why do we expect God to do things and act in ways that “make sense”?

God is not sensible.


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