First, it is not a mere negation, a mere expression of the apophatic way. Rather, it goes beyond negation; when one sees the divine light, one sees something, one does not see the void.
However, secondly, one does not see by mere positive apprehension of discursive or intellectual knowledge either. It is something that is apprehended directly, and beyond both the knowing of reason and the unknowing. It is beyond words, and yet analogous words are used to describe it. But only direct experience can give knowledge of it, as St Paul saw the divine light and was changed.
Third, it is a divinizing union of the pure heart with the very being of God, in his energies. And this is through grace, not intellectual effort.
Fourth, and therefore, it is something that is not seen either with the senses – it is not seen with the eye – or with the discursive intellect. (Thus, it is not a symbolic theophany given to the senses, as. e.g., Augustine had argued in De Trinitate).
Fifth, it is a participation in God, a mystical union, a deification, the call and destiny of Christians.
It is a Luminous Darkness, as St Gregory of Nyssa had put it (see the about section of the blog), or, as St Gregory Palamas (citing the Areopagite) puts it here, a Dazzling Darkness.
So, when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves, seeing it by the divinising communion of the Spirit, through the mysterious visitation of perfecting illuminations—then they behold the garment of their deification, their mind being glorified and filled by the grace of the Word, beautiful beyond measure in His splendour; just as the divinity of the Word on the mountain glorified with divine light the body conjoined to it.
For “the glory which the Father gave Him”, He Himself has given to those obedient to Him, as the Gospel says, and “He willed that they should be with Him and contemplate His glory” . . .
No one has ever seen the fullness of this divine Beauty, and this is why, according to Gregory of Nyssa, no eye has seen it, even if it gaze forever: in fact, it does not see the totality such as it is, but only in the measure in which it is rendered receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit.
But in addition to this incomprehensibility, what is most divine and extraordinary is that the very comprehension a man may have, he possesses incomprehensibly. Those who see, in fact, do not know the one who enables them to see, hear and be initiated into knowledge of the future, or experience of eternal things, for the Spirit by whom they see is incomprehensible.
As the great Denys says, “Such a union of those divinised with the light that comes from on high takes place by virtue of a cessation of all intellectual activity.” It is not the product of a cause or a relationship, for these are dependent upon the activity of the intellect, but it comes to be by abstraction, without itself being that abstraction.
If it were simply abstraction, it would depend on us, and this is the Messalian doctrine, “to mount as far as one wills into the ineffable mysteries of God”, as St. Isaac says of these heretics.
Contemplation, then, is not simply abstraction and negation; it is a union and a divinisation which occurs mystically and ineffably by the grace of God, after the stripping away of everything from here below which imprints itself on the mind, or rather after the cessation of all intellectual activity; it is something which goes beyond abstraction (which is only the outward mark of the cessation).
This is why every believer has to separate off God from all His creatures, for the cessation of all intellectual activity and the resulting union with the light from on high is an experience and a divinising end, granted solely to those who have purified their hearts and received grace.
And what am I to say of this union, when the brief vision itself is manifested only to chosen disciples, disengaged by ecstasy from all perception of the senses or intellect, admitted to the true vision because they have ceased to see, and endowed with supernatural senses by their submission to unknowing? But we intend to show later on, by God’s aid, that though they have indeed seen, yet their organ of vision was, properly speaking, neither the senses nor the intellect.
Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend? For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit?
This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity.
It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument. On the other hand, the mind does not acquire it simply by elevating itself through negation. . . .
Similarly, beyond the stripping away of beings, or rather after the cessation [of our perceiving or thinking of them] accomplished not only in words, but in reality, there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge; though indeed a darkness, it is yet beyond radiance, and, as the great Denys says, it is in this dazzling darkness that the divine things are given to the saints.
Thus the perfect contemplation of God and divine things is not simply an abstraction; but beyond this abstraction, there is a participation in divine things, a gift and a possession rather than just a process of negation.
But these possessions and gifts are ineffable: If one speaks of them, one must have recourse to images and analogies—not because that is the way in which these things are seen, but because one cannot adumbrate what one has seen in any other way.
Those, therefore, who do not listen in a reverent spirit to what is said about these ineffable things, which are necessarily expressed through images, regard the knowledge that is beyond wisdom as foolishness. . . .
– St. Gregory Palamas, Triads, pp. 33-36 . (emphases mine)