By Jessica Lincoln, Benedictine College
Union with God is something that every soul desires, but this union is not what it is often thought to be. Those who are united with God are those who truly follow Him. Man seeks God by following Him, and he never stops doing so. Furthermore, while the soul’s final end is commonly believed to be rest, in reality, the final “rest” of the soul is not restful but active. Through the doctrine of epektasis, an explanation of Moses’ vision of God’s “back parts,” and the concept of knowing by unknowing, it is revealed that the vision of God is the following of God, and therefore there is unity in action and contemplation.
The soul’s assent to God is the end for which the soul longs. This journey can be understood within the doctrine of epektasis. Epektasis refers to the “unceasing stretching of the soul from one’s initial relationship with God to actual union with Him.” This stretching is “unceasing” because God is infinite, and the infinite can never fully be grasped. However, real union does take place. The soul is constantly advancing, but this advancement is itself stability. “It is a form of stability, for the soul is happy, being a part of God, but also a continuous ascension, without limits, toward greater heights, for every step that he climbs leads toward a higher one, and thus the soul is always full of desire to go higher.” The very satisfaction of desire breeds greater desire that yet remains unsatisfied. This cycle is continuous and does not give way to some separate stillness in which the soul is satisfied, for it is the fulfillment itself.
The final end of the soul is not that which it is commonly thought to be: a condition of perpetual rest and stillness. “There is no state of final rest for the soul: it is continually drawn out of itself in its love for God.” The more united one becomes with God, the more united with Him he desires to be. Paradoxically, this means that in the intense happiness a soul feels when united to God, still the soul finds itself desiring and striving for more. Thus, man’s final end is not a resting point in the sense in which it is often conceived. The soul is continually transformed in Christ, and this continual transformation is the soul’s end. It will rest in the infinite God, but this rest will not be fixed or static; rather, it will be a “permanent expansion.” The journey with God will always feel new, no matter how far one has progressed. Epektasis is not a state the soul experiences for a certain period of time but is a permanent condition of the soul. The soul never stops seeking more of God.
The journey into God is a journey into perfection, and “perfection is progress itself: the perfect man is one who continually makes progress. And this cannot have a limit.” Thus, perfection can be defined as an unceasing process- the process of the soul reaching toward the infinite. In other words, the process of stretching for perfection is, in reality, perfection itself. The highest attainment the soul seeks is something that is constantly sought after, yet the soul is somehow found to be fulfilled through this seeking: not as something external gained at the end of the pursuit, but rather within the actual pursuing. This is the nature of participation in God: a paradoxical reality in which eternal bliss and a perpetual reaching for more are one in the same. “The joy of participating in God is total, the desire being perpetual at the same time.” It is not possible to participate in God without concurrently desiring greater participation, yet the joy of participation is no less because of it. In fact, to be united with God without desiring to be more united would actually be a lesser participation and not, in reality, be a true union, because the desire is a constituent component of union.
True fulfillment, then, consists not in the ceasing of all desire but in the perfect continuance of it. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of this phenomenon in terms of a bride searching for her spouse- the Divine Spouse of her soul- and the longing she feels to be united with him in their marriage. Gregory explains that “the true satisfaction of her desire consists in constantly going on in her quest and never ceasing in her ascent, seeing that every fulfilment of her desire continually generates a further desire for the Transcendent.” The desire does not arbitrarily continue; rather, it persists because each taste it receives of the Beloved’s glory whets its appetite to receive more and more of this goodness. Far from wishing to throw off this desire, the soul presses into it and wills it never to end. Like a good book that one never wishes to finish yet of which he constantly desires to read more, so the soul regards her Beloved and her entrance into Him. Fortunately, while every book on earth, no matter how long, must always conclude, “the bride realizes that she will always discover more and more of the incomprehensible and unhoped for beauty of her Spouse throughout all eternity.” She never runs out of newness to discover within her Beloved. Just as in an earthly marriage where the husband and wife come to know and be more deeply united with each other every day, so each soul espoused to the Lord continually grows in knowledge of and union with Him, and this constant coming into is a source of great joy. “If the Christian life is a journey into God, it is a journey into infinity… And because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by desire, by hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object.” As the soul seeks God, she embarks on an unceasing quest of both yearning and joy.
Moses is a great biblical figure who exemplifies the life of one seeking God. Moses requested to see God, so God had Moses stand on a rock, and He called to him while passing by. When Moses looked to see who had called him, he saw God’s back, for He was walking away. In doing so, Moses discovered the truth that seeing God does not consist in seeing His face, as would seem to be the case; rather, seeing God consists in seeing His back, and this is truly the fullness of vision. The reasoning for this makes sense in terms of the idea of following. As Gregory of Nyssa points out, in the Gospels, Jesus uses the words “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine and not ‘If any man will go before me,’” as well as “Come, follow me,” and Gregory emphasizes that “he who follows sees the back.” Moses saw God’s back because he was following Him, which naturally put Moses behind God. If one faces his guide or turns in a different direction, he is no longer going the same way the guide is leading him. Thus, in the following of God, one cannot see God’s face without turning to face Him and therefore going in the opposite direction than that in which God is both going and guiding the soul. Furthermore, to face God would be to oppose Him, which can only lead to death. “Therefore, Moses does not look God in the face, but looks at his back; for whoever looks at him face to face shall not live, as the divine voice testifies, man cannot see the face of the Lord and live.” In this, the true reason man cannot see the face of God and live is revealed: the only one who will see God’s face is the soul which stands in opposition to Him.
To see God is to see His back because He must be seen from a position of following, and following requires an active pursuit. To cease this action is to cease following, which also indicates a loss of the vision of God. Therefore, the doctrine of epektasis must be applied: in order to see God, one must continually seek to follow Him in order to become perfectly united with Him. One cannot be satisfied with even the most glorious of experiences. While Moses was granted the beautiful gift of speaking to God as a friend in intimate dialogue, still he did not stop desiring more. “He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he [was] still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirst[ed] for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he ask[ed] to attain as if he had never partaken” of this source of life. No matter how much of God Moses received, he was never satisfied with resting next to the stream of God’s Being, but instead continually drank, even though this stream had filled him up. God is infinite, and thus there is always more of Him that can be uncovered and taken on.
The same thing can be said of growing in holiness, which is, in reality, the same thing as growing in relation with God: there is always greater holiness (unity) that can be attained, no matter how holy (united to God) one becomes. “The great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater… did [not] set a limit for himself in his upward course… he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.” Despite the fact that Moses had already reached a high level of unity with God, he kept longing for and striving after an even greater degree of unity. Like Moses, Abraham, another important Old Testament figure, continuously stretched on his journey with God. “Making each new discovery a stepping stone to another, he ever ‘strained ahead for what was still to come’… He left all sense perception behind and arrived by faith at the knowledge that God is greater and more sublime than any token by which he may be known.” Both these men understood that God’s infinity is, quite simply, infinite. To journey into God is to never stop following Him.
Unity with God is a continual moving toward, but since God Himself is also continually moving, the one who sees God in this unity will see not His face but His back, as he is following behind. “Moses’ desire to see God is constantly satisfied and yet never satisfied,” and so it is with every soul’s desire. To follow is to see, but it is not to grasp; the infinitude of God prevents His Being graspable. However, this does not mean that the following that constitutes the vision of God is any less gratifying. There is a satisfaction in dissatisfaction. Gregory of Nyssa contends that “this truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him… No limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied.” True fulfillment consists in pursuing the desire for God and being united with Him in the very act of pursuing.
To know God is not to know about Him but to be united with Him. There is a reality in knowing in which the knower becomes the Known; therefore, the one who knows God becomes Him, and this is not something that can come about through mere sensory knowledge or human power. It involves entering into the darkness of recognizing the infinity with God. “To pass into darkness is to pass into the awareness of the incomprehensibility of God: here there is seeing by not seeing, knowing by unknowing. And the reason is the absolute unknowability of God.” The object of man’s desire can never truly be grasped, at least not in the sense that the average modern man thinks of grasping. God is not a tangible object one can see with human eyes, nor is He an object of rationality that man can wrap his mind around and “know” per se by knowing about. God can only be seen by un-seeing and known by unknowing; that is, He is known not by intellectual knowing but by the knowing that comes from following, which is faith in God. In fact, “the only dianoia, ‘understanding,’ of God of which man is capable is “not-seeing,” the acceptance, in faith and trust, of the human subject’s feebleness before God.” In order to know God, one must acknowledge his own smallness as he stands before God’s greatness, and he must persevere in following by faithfully loving.
Following, then, is more than just the key to seeing and knowing God: to follow God is to see and know Him. “Here we recognize that “the vision of God is discipleship… The following of God with all one’s heart and soul and powers is to see God.” This following cannot be half-hearted. The only way to become total relation with God is to follow Him with the totality of one’s being. The heart, the mind, and the will must all be directed toward God, in both desiring and choosing Him. One must be willing to follow even when the path is dark and the journey is difficult, because he must always have faith that the Lord is drawing Him further into Himself. This assent of the will requires dependence on God alone. “Seeing God means following Him wherever He might lead,” and God never stops leading deeper and deeper into Himself. Thus, the vision of God is a never-ending journey into the depths of God’s Being.
In light of the revelation of that in which the vision of God consists, the concept of contemplation must be examined. Knowledge of God is communicated through contemplation, and this knowledge is actually a union with God. According to Gregory of Nyssa, “the biblical coupling of Word and vision … in receiving knowledge of God in faith is what constitutes… Christian contemplation as a following of the divine Word in a continuous dialectic of hearing and seeing the essentially spiritual divine Word.” Contemplation involves hearing and seeing God, which is encompassed in the following of God. This presupposes God’s position of leading the soul into Himself. “In the divine contemplation, the soul always follows behind the ‘divine voice’ – and the soul’s happiness consists of seeing God.” Contemplation brings true happiness because it involves real union with God, a union that is given as gift and must, in turn, be received as gift. Within the Trinity, there “is a perfect union and commingling between [three] individual intelligent existents through the identity of their wills in their action.” This same unity is to be found between the soul and God, and it involves the soul conforming herself and her will to that of the Trinity by acting in accord with Him. She learns to act like Him by following Him.
The more closely one follows God, the more she will look like Him in her action and the more she will look at Him in her contemplation, which become the same act. Gregory states it clearly: “Scripture teaches by this… that he who desires to behold God sees the object of his longing in always following him. The contemplation of his face is the unending journey accomplished by following directly behind the Word.” Contemplation, therefore, is synonymous with the following of God. The notion of contemplation as following seems paradoxical when the following is an unending journey of unknowing, while contemplation is supposed to be a knowing of God. However, it is important to remember that this knowing takes place by unknowing, by recognizing one’s inability to wrap his mind around God, for “the greatness of the divine nature is not known in being apprehended but in its eluding every image or faculty that might apprehend it.” The unity that occurs in contemplation comes from the unknowing of following.
Progress in God is, in reality, also a stillness. “The same thing is both a standing still and a moving” because “the firmer and more immovable one remains in the Good, the more he progresses in the course of virtue.” In order to grow in virtue and thus in union with God, one must stand his ground and remain firm in those virtues. Like a boat travelling upstream, to stop paddling is to start moving backwards. Therefore, work is involved. Union with God is not simply rest: “There is both an active and a contemplative side to each moment of the soul’s ascent.” This action, however, is not a separate entity from contemplation. They are two sides of the same coin. Contemplation is active, and likewise action is contemplative. Gregory explains, “When, surrounded by the divine night [of contemplation], I am seeking what is hidden in the darkness—that is when I have indeed laid hold on love for the one I desire, but the object of my love has flown from the net of my thoughts.” Even in the union of contemplation, there remains an ungraspable reality that must always be chased; thus, action is always present in contemplation.
There is a practical side to this unity as well. Contemplation does not merely consist in learning truth, and it is ineffective if the contemplative man does not also perform acts of love. One must “combine discernment of the truth with action, for contemplation does not of itself bring the soul to perfection unless it makes room for works that further the practice of the moral life.” One cannot love God if he does not actively will this love, for love is a movement of both the intellect and the will. To follow is to move, and this movement is into ever greater glory. Gregory exhorts: “Let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory into glory, and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection.” Growth in relationship with God has no limit; thus, neither do contemplation and action have a limit.
The vision of God is the following of God on an unending journey which satisfies desire by generating more desire, and therefore demonstrates that contemplation and action are united. Because of this reality, the notion of action within faith takes on new meaning. One’s actions of following God are not a mere means to an end but are where the fullness of contemplation is found. Therefore, it is vital that one have an active faith. To have faith without actively following God is to not truly have faith at all. One who seeks God must be prepared to follow Him through difficulties, suffering, and darkness. He must never stop in this quest for union with God, because to do so would be to forfeit the progress made. One must prepare himself to have his desire satisfied not through its elimination, as he may expect, but through a continual hunger for more that he will eternally pursue with all joy and hope. Union with God is not what it is often thought to be, but it is something far greater and more glorious.
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