How Can Divine Presence Be Perceived? (Part 2)

What Can It Mean Then to Perceive God (Christ)?

As I mentioned, the introduction of persons into our discussion has raised a number of significant challenges rooted in the composite, that is, finite/infinite nature of human beings and the personal, infinite character of God. So in order to be complete, our perception of humans has to somehow include that infinite dimension and that same ability to perceive the infinite in order to engage the person of God and, as is our ultimate goal here, to introduce the person of Christ. But how (with what senses) is that to be done?

First, let me say that if God does exist (and I am not arguing that point here but rather assuming it) we could, with Alston, ask a series of questions:

(1) Is it possible that God should be what is appearing to be in our experience?

(2) Is it possible that God should figure in the causation of that experience in such a way as to count as what is perceived?

(3) Is it possible that that experience should give rise to beliefs about God?[1]

As to the first question, indeed, there is nothing that seems to speak against God Himself revealing Himself to us. There are no a priori constraints on if and how God can appear to our experience.[2] But, in spite of that, we often fail to “see” God when He does reveal himself to us. As a colleague postulated, “I suspect the reason we don’t experience the Gospels as presence of Christ is because we come to them to use them for our own purposes. That would be consistent with why we don’t experience any other person. We come to the Gospels with expectations. We come to others and to God with expectations.”[3] This utilitarian coopting of the Gospel and Christ Himself for our own purposes is rooted in and actuates a self-centeredness that is so absolute that it becomes impossible to see the Other. This is happening among both believers and unbelievers alike, and it is often, as some rightly point, out the fundamental fallacy of a consumerist distortion of evangelism that offers a commodity rather than a person. So yes, we will have to factor this basic spiritual condition (self-love al la Maximus) into our understanding of perception.

On the second question: Given our realist approach to perception in general, yes, we would have to accept that appearance as a true experience of the divine person and, as per the third question, that experience could justify certain beliefs about Him. However, the experiences is not just about beliefs, but about a true knowledge of, or better relationship, to God. As I see it, communion is what true perception of the divine person is supposed to make possible. When I speak of communion, I am referring to a self-transcendent intersubjective, interpenetration of two or more personal beings that takes place in complete freedom and kenotic love. It is “I,” driven by self-emptying love for the Other, overcoming the boundaries of its own personhood in order to share in the I-ness of the Other, a sharing that can be so complete that it is possible to speak of a multi-hypostatic “I,” that is, a “We.” Communion involves a free, unhindered flow of information, emotions and desires, and an unmediated participation in every aspect of the Other’s being. The characteristics of healthy communion are a) mutual acknowledgment and engagement of non-I as subject; b) an interpenetration/participation or sharing of thoughts, emotions and physical presence, desires, all without fear; and c) complete freedom of thought, movement, speech. Yes, a direct realist understanding of perception does imply the reception of information upon which we can base conclusions about the world around us. However, unlike the information given on non-personal entities which usually require nothing more than acknowledgement, the information given about a personal being is an invitation to communion. For that reason perception of Other that does not lead to inter-personal communion is indeed reduced, at best, to mere information or, at worst, a distortion that often leads to rejection. But as for those who reject Christ (whether in His incarnate or His ascended state), I doubt that any real understanding of who He is played a role in that decision. It was/is more likely a superficial taking of offense at either the content (teachings and miracles) or the basis (the foolishness of the cross) of His claims on us. In any case, self-love and rejection does preclude communion.

Next let me ask just how this perception of the divine person can even happen. We have our five natural, physical senses, and they do not seem up to the task of processing information from beyond the confines of our physical and temporal world. However, Meyendorff points out that Gregory of Nyssa makes a rather intriguing suggestion in his spiritual writings. There he speaks of “‘spiritual senses,’ distinct from all other forms of created perception, and which make God accessible to man.”[4] In his Life of Moses, Gregory describes how Moses sees God “in the cloud,” i.e., without the help of created vision since God is totally invisible and incomprehensible to the created eye and inaccessible to the created mind. He is, nevertheless, seen and perceived by man, when man, by baptismal and ascetic purification, by effort and virtues, is enabled to acquire “spiritual senses” which allow him to perceive, through communion in Christ and the Holy Spirit, the One who is beyond creation.[5] In order to illustrate the way in which this works, Gregory suggests that we first “go through, in outline, his life as we have learned it from the divine Scriptures. Then we shall seek out the spiritual understanding which corresponds to the history in order to obtain suggestions of virtue. Through such understanding we may come to know the perfect life for men.”[6]

The idea here seems to be that there is a set of spiritual senses superimposed on the natural senses that are set free by ascetic labor and personal purification.  But I don’t think that this description fits the picture Gregory is developing since it appears to imply two separate sets of senses. But given the correspondence between the finite and the infinite in the created world and given the correspondence of the human to the divine person, I doubt that God would have given His creature a subset of senses that would limit perception to just one part of reality and the apprehension of the divine to just one subgroup of individuals.  I think it more likely that God would build into everyone everything needed for the perception of reality in all of its aspects. In that case, no superadditum is required, just an activation of that already possessed. Listen to Gregory’s introduction to Moses’ ascent on the mountain:

“Again the Scripture leads our understanding upward to the higher levels of virtue. For the man who received strength from the food and showed his power in fighting with his enemies and was the victor over his opponents is then led to the ineffable knowledge of God. Scripture teaches us by these things the nature and the number of things one must accomplish in life before he would at some time dare to approach in his understanding the mountain of the knowledge of God, to hear the sound of the trumpets, to enter into the darkness where God is, to inscribe the tablets with divine characters, and, if these should be broken through some offense, again to present the hand-cut tables to God and to carve with the divine finger the letters which were damaged on the first tables.”[7]

He is clearly teaching that spiritual effort leads to a “setting free” of spiritual senses that seem to be extensions of our natural senses. Moses goes up, and he knows, he understands, he sees, he touches. When speaking of the darkness on the mountain, Gregory comments:

“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. Wherefore 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 men but also by every intelligent creature.”[8]

I think that a careful reading of St. Gregory shows that we are leaving behind some observations and not our senses, themselves. So, we are actually dealing with one and the same set of senses some of which are now refined, sensitized, or enhanced, by means of spiritual disciple (that is, moral purification) and can thus perceive spiritual and infinite realities. Here I think of normal vision which training and experience allows a surgeon to see things that are “invisible” to me. I wonder if these so called spiritual senses are not an aspect of the ordinary God-given senses which has been enhanced, refined, by spiritual discipline. If we overcome the sinful passions, we are purified, and it is the pure in heart will see God (Mt 5:8).

While most of this purification takes place within the context of individual ascetic labor, some of this awakening is accomplished by our participation in the liturgical practices of the Church, many aspects of which are designed to enhance and stimulate our normal senses, extending them into the realm of the divine. Interestingly, all five natural senses are appealed to repeatedly during the Divine Liturgy, giving us many opportunities to see God’s glory in the splendor of the Vestments, the light of the candles, and the colors of the icons. We smell the other worldly fragrance of the incense and the natural wax of the candles. We can actually “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” in the Eucharist (Ps 34:8) and how His words are even sweeter than honey to our mouths (Ps 119:103). We are encouraged to touch and kiss the Icons, the Cross, the hands of the priest blessing us, and the embrace of those welcoming us. We hear the very voice of God in the lines of Scripture, the words of Christ in the Gospel, and praise of the saints in the Prayers, hymns, and songs.

Almost everything we do during the liturgy contributes to bridging our world of time and space with the eternal world of God. These aspects of divine worship set our senses free, opening us up to the kingdom of God populated by ranks of angels, seraphim, and cherubim, a world radiating with the glory of God, the splendor and adoration of all the Saints. Anyone who opens him or herself to these features of the Liturgy is being prepared to apprehend the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.


[1] Alston, W. P. (1991). Perceiving God : the epistemology of religious experience. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fr. Jacob Kulp in a personal letter December 30, 2016.

[4] Nyssa, G. o. Life of Moses. New York, Paulist Press.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gregory (1978). The life of Moses. New York, Paulist Press.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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