Well, not precisely. As with so much else, Joseph played his own riff on the instruments of classical Christianity. But the concept’s worth thinking about, I think, if for no other reason than to remind us that there’s a whole lot of Christian history out there, and Mormonism overlaps in surprising ways much, much more than most of us think. (Example: Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravian pietists and bearer of a excellent last name, was telling eighteenth century Germans that Jesus was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. So far as I know, his works were not available in the Palmyra library. Or in James Talmadge’s study, for that matter.)

Anyway, apophatic mysticism is often associated with the Cappadocian fathers – particularly Gregory of Nyssa – in the Eastern Orthodox church, as well as some Catholic mystics, particularly men like Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross. It’s Gregory’s Life of Moses that I want to use as a model here, though I’ll reference John’s Dark Night of the Soul too. Yep, he coined the phrase.

The essential idea of apophatic mysticism is that we can come to know God through gradually becoming aware of and embracing our own ignorance about him, and thusly realizing that the intelligence of human beings is too limited to grasp the divine nature. True knowledge of God, then, is attained through divine experience. The Cappadocians are famous for stating that God does not in fact exist, though they believed in him, because ‘existence’ as we understand the concept is insufficient to describe what God is.

However, that point is reached only gradually. We begin as Moses did – by seeing God in the illuminating light of the burning bush or pillar of fire. That is, we set foot on this road by encountering God in rationally graspable forms and pursuing intellectual knowledge of him, as Moses did when he queried God about the divine nature and name. This is the beginning of what both Gregory and John called “the ascent” – a search for divine experience driven by spiritual hunger and greater desire for a contemplative knowledge of God than seems attainable through doctrine. We become discontented with the limits of ritual practice and textual study and are instead driven to seek God in more immediate ways.

Listen to Joseph:

[M]y mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness . . . my feelings were deep and often poignant . . . but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong . . . I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

After we realize our inability to rationally grasp God, we enter what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul and what Gregory called “the divine darkness” that Moses encountered as he climbed Sinai. This strips from us our rational understanding and sensory perceptions; we often despair that the earlier God we knew – the rational God, the God whose ways and intentions we believe we have come to know through study and the assumptions of our finite minds – seems to be lost. This phase often entails a departure from the conventional institutions of society, just as Moses left the children of Israel at the bottom of Sinai and John of the Cross retreated to the monastery to seek a more intimate and personal relationship with Deity.

Listen to Joseph:

At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God . . . So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt . . .After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.

This darkness, it is true, has traditionally been associated with Satan; however I would argue it bears a great resemblance to the divine darkness, which overpowers the traditional senses and separates us from our reliance on familiar tools of understanding. Joseph’s sense of terror mirrors the anguish of John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul; his inability to speak is perfectly consistent with a state of communion that transcends human understanding. Note also his use of the term ‘darkness’ in the first sentence to describe ignorance.

The word used by both John and Gregory when they describe what is attained at the pinnacle of the ascent is “comprehension.” It is here that a true, visceral understanding of God, unencumbered by comprehensible doctrine and human logic, is attained, for the divine experience gained through the darkness is more immediate than faculties of rationality allow. As Gregory writes, “There [the soul] 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.” (Life of Moses, 163.)

Listen to Joseph:

When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air.

Of course, here the parallel breaks down a bit; for John and Gregory, their experience of God was soul to soul, beyond the senses. It is interesting, however, that Joseph uses the phrase “defy all description;” the spirit behind that statement, I think, is one John and Gregory could have appreciated.