Spiritual Growth [Part 1]: I cant tell if it’s getting lighter or darker

I wanted to spend a few weeks going a little more in depth into the theories of Spiritual Growth in order to spur on conversation and possible new thought experiments.  Typically there has been a general consensus of telos, but the nature of growth has been much more debated.  In the twentieth century mystical writer Evelyn Underhill “reopened a longstanding medieval dispute: Does mystical union consist in a cognitive experience conditioned by love of God… or is it a “dark” experience of the will and the inner affections.”* What Evelyn brings up is probably the most hotly debated topic among those of the nature of spiritual growth. As one moves closer to God, is there an increasing amount of holy light or is there a decreasing amount of light into complete holy darkness?

This debate first started as early as the fourth century. Gregory of Nyssa, the greatest mystical writers of Cappadocian Fathers, differed from his predecessor, Origen. “Origen emphasizes a movement of increasing light; the soul moves from darkness to light and then on to greater light. For Gregory, however, the journey begins in light and moves toward lesser light and then into darkness.”

This “way of darkness” was, in short time, repeated by Evagrius, who stressed the way of darkness as necessary to contemplate God, and calls it “pure prayer.” Pseudo-Dionysius championed Gregory of Nyssa’s views and firmly planted it into the theology of the church for years to come. His apophatic writings are clearly argued in The Mystical Theology. He states, since the intellect and the senses are so limited ”we must leave all created things behind and find God in the darkness.”

The apophatic teachers in Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius’ camp make a very compelling argument. How can we relate to a God who is completely above everything we could ever perceive? But in the other camp, writers like John Gerson, Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Bonaventure offer equally compelling arguments. They suggest that as one is more purified and more illuminated they are closer to Light and Love. How could one move toward He who is Love and Light and not be surrounded by it.   Bernard writes “It is characteristic of true and pure contemplation that when the mind is ardently aglow with God’s love, it is sometimes so filled with zeal and the desire to gather to God those who will love him with equal abandon…”

What do you think? What has been your experience as your prayer and experience of God has matured?
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*a full list of reference text is available upon request

Posted in Church History, Prayer, Spiritual Formation.