The Christian Path to the Divine Light

To experience God, Christian mystics largely adhere to practices that are common to the larger, non-mystical tradition. St. Symeon says that we will become worthy of the vision of Christ "when we have kept God's commandments," so that our hearts "be cleansed by tears and penitence." Symeon emphasises the need to repent from evil ways, "for penitence is the gateway that leads out of darkness into light." Accordingly, "repentance gives rise to the tear from the depths of the soul; the tear cleanses the heart and wipes away great sins." But even beyond "many tears," the mystic's path requires "strict solitude, and perfect obedience, with complete elimination of [one's] own will...." Even so, it is "those whom grace raises above the law" who "consciously receive in themselves the grace of divine light."57

In addition, of course, the "ascetic art" requires "the contemplation of the light." Symeon also highly recommends "an experienced guide or spiritual father, in order that one may learn the things that pertain to virtue and the difficult practice of the ascetic art." But even doing all these things to achieve this "ecstasy in the light," at best, one can only qualify oneself as "worthy;" the rest is a matter of divine grace.58

Gregory Palamas tells us that "intellectual illumination" is "visible to those whose hearts have been purified." As with Symeon, the "divine and inconceivable light" will only be seen by those "judged worthy." People "can only unite themselves to it and see if they have purified themselves by fulfilment of the commandments, and by consecrating their mind to pure and immaterial prayer...." One is able to see the Light "when the soul ceases to give way to the evil pleasures and passions, when it acquires inner peace and the stillness of thoughts, spiritual repose and joy, contempt of human glory, humility allied with a hidden rejoicing, hatred of the world, [and] the love of the sole God of Heaven."59

John Ruusbroek says that we must first die to ourselves, then be "born again" in order to achieve the mystic experience. In the darkness of sin, being without God, "though living he dies...." Once one surrenders one's will to the blissful Divine light, "though dying he comes back to life." When one is "in the abyss of this darkness in which the loving spirit has died to itself... an incomprehensible light is born and shines forth...." We must still practice "spiritual exercises" so that we can "escape all temptations, all outbursts of emotion, and all the incitements of flesh and blood." Beyond that, those who "place more faith, hope and trust in God than in their exercises and works will be raised up above their rational understanding to the divine light." For those who try all that but fail because of human weaknesses, "then it falls on the fathomless goodness of God to bring the work to completion." Through this divine act of grace, "God bestows his light, and through that light the person responds with a free and perfect conversion."60

Teresa of Avila emphasizes that "the door to this [soul] castle is prayer."61 Hildegard of Bingen spent a good part of her productive life composing spiritual songs that are still widely listened to today. For Hildegard, "the holy prophets... composed not only psalms and hymns... but also invented many musical instruments as sonorous accompaniments." They did this "so that human beings would..., with thoughts of heavenly bliss,... be enticed to praise God."62

For George Fox, one essential first step is to believe in the Light in order to become a "child of the Light." By "believing in the Light, you shall not abide in the darkness, but shall have the Light of life and come... to witness the Light that shines in our hearts."63 However, the Scriptural message, and having someone exhort the need to turn to the Light, are also important. On one occasion, after about three hours of preaching, Fox said that last I felt the power of the Lord went over them all and the Lord's everlasting life and truth shined over all. And the Scriptures were opened to them and their objections answered in their minds and every one of them turned to the light of Christ, the heavenly man, that with it they might all see their sins and see their saviour....64

According to Fox, we need to witness the Light and the Spirit before we can hope to "know God, or Christ, or the Spirit aright...."65 Once witnessed, the Light allows us to see all "our evil ways, and deeds, and words...."66 If we love this light, "it will teach [us] righteousness and holiness."67 For this founder of the Society of Friends, the belief in and love of the Light is essential to living a holy and righteous life.

Jacob Boehme, again true to his Lutheran heritage, tells us that one "may not see God unless he is born anew."68 After we die, provided that we haven't gone the way of the Devil, Boehme tells us that when we " breakest through the death of the flesh, then thou seest the living God.... the life of the light in God riseth up in the dead or mortal flesh, and generateth to itself, from or out of the dead, another heavenly or living body, which knoweth and understandeth the light."69 Similarly,

...if thou in the spirit breakest through the death of the flesh, then thou seest the hidden God. For the mortal flesh belongs not to the moving of life, so it cannot receive or conceive the Life of the Light as proper to itself; but the Life of the Light in God rises up in the flesh and generates to itself, from out of it, another, a heavenly and living body, which knows and understands the Light....70

Even before death, Boehme tells us that one can see God. To do this, "with the inward eyes we must see in his light: so we shall see him, for he is the Light; and when we see him then we walk in the light."71 Also, if one were to "liftest up thy thoughts" and "consider where God is.... And when by faith thou drawest near to God who rules in holiness in this dominion, then thou layest hold on him in his holy Heart." When this is done, says Boehme, "then thou art as God is...."72

These various means of getting closer to the divine light and its ecstasy are not mutually exclusive, of course; it is more a question of emphasis. We can often find elements of a point that one mystic or saint emphasizes as a sub-theme in another. Generally, the message is that people can do certain things to help qualify themselves for the Divine encounter, but ultimately the choice of whether one will participate in the light and joy of God is a Divine perogative.

Unmistakable in all of these Christian encounters with Divine light and ecstasy are the distinct parallels with the other traditions that we have looked at already. The variations in the description of the experience generally revolve around the name we call it, and what it means. The closer we get to a description of the experience itself, however, the more similar the accounts become. Regardless of the time period, or the culture, the continuity of this extraordinary phenomenon persists in a strikingly similar fashion.



Divine Encounters
The Christian Path to the Divine Light


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