“I will endeavor by a very simple and commonplace method to lead you by experience into the divine darkness,” wrote Nicholas of Cusa in 1453 to the monks at Tegernsee.1 In 2023, our faculty/staff reading group discussed Nicholas’s method in a conference room with sunlight streaming in through a wall of windows. But to Nicholas, that contradiction would be precisely the point.
Through the year, we had been led to Nicholas’s method by way of other texts about looking for God: Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Photius, and St. Bonaventure. In March, Katie Kresser wrote a post for this blog in which she described our Winter quarter discussion of John of Damascus.2 During the Spring quarter, we moved to the late-medieval bishop Nicholas of Cusa.
Nicholas warns us that this method, although simple and commonplace, will not be easy: the intellect needs to be brought to “that alone which it understandeth by not understanding.”3 Nicholas challenges the Law of Non-Contradiction, a basic building block of logic—at least when it comes to the eternal, infinite nature of God. God can juxtapose opposing things in a “coincidence of opposites.”
Nicholas delights in running up to the limits of thought and leaping beyond them in faith, scaling “the wall of Paradise,”4 to glimpse God’s infinity and perfection. Following Nicholas is taxing intellectual work—like a student in the first week of organic chemistry, I struggled to keep up.
The monks must have struggled with it too, because they had asked Nicholas for help to understand his mystical theology. In response, Nicholas sent them a painted image, “the icon of God,”5 and his book —which we were studying—The Vision of God. His “simple and commonplace method” was to hang the painting on the wall, then gaze at it while walking back and forth. The eyes of the painted face, staring straight at you, appear to follow you and you alone. To Nicholas, this was no mere illusion—this was both enigma6 and insight into reality.
My scientific training conditioned me to see The Vision of God as something like a laboratory protocol, but one for seeing God. Like every protocol, this one is incomplete. I couldn’t understand it by analyzing it from a distance. I had to follow Nicholas step by step.
I was reminded of when, in the mid-90s, I learned to see proteins rightly. My graduate program involved protein structures so complex that any 2D image of them can only capture a fraction of their intricacy. At the time, journals printed figures with two differently angled views of a protein’s structure, side by side. These “wall-eyed stereograms” provided separate images for the left and right eyes.7 When I focused my eyes not on the paper but on a point beyond it, the images came together and popped into a 3D image. This is not a natural motion for the eyes, but it must be learned.
Sitting in a fourth-floor closet-sized library room lined with bound journals, I tried to coax my eyes to focus beyond the page for half an hour, to no avail. Then in a flash, the fuzzy images merged, and a 3D protein appeared to float before my eyes. I had taught myself to see beyond the painting. (You can try it with the figure attached, which illustrates a protein interface my lab redesigned.)
Nicholas imagines seeing beyond not with protein structures but with concepts infinitely more complex; not with two eyes attached to one mind, but with two minds, ten, twenty, expanded to infinity. This is what Nicholas says God’s sight is like, sustaining and mysteriously uniting our disparate viewpoints.
Nicholas boldly asserts that, in faith, we can know God who brings opposites together, even if we don’t know exactly how God brings them together. George MacDonald says something similar: “To know God . . . changes the atmosphere surrounding mystery and seeming contradiction, from one of pain and fear to one of hope.”8
Because all individual viewpoints are sustained by and participate in God’s Absolute Sight,9 each individual looking at an icon sees something real, but drastically limited. I see from one angle, while God sees from every angle. Nicholas instructs viewers to gaze at the picture, or the text, and to realize that God is reaching out beyond it, through it. What I apprehend in that picture is the vision of God, both my vision of God and God’s vision of me.
This vision is a bond of knowledge. As Nicholas prays, “to apprehend Thee is to be united unto Thee.”10 At first, the icon seems a mere reflection of my own gaze, but God shows up and flips it around: seeing becomes hearing, as “Thy glance speaketh.”11 As the eyes of the icon seem to follow me, “Thou appearest to me like the shadow following the movement of one that walketh; but [then I realize] I am a living shadow and Thou the truth.“12 With Nicholas, I can say, “I see, therefore I am”—and the saying is part of the seeing.
When we gathered around the table, we tried to express what we saw to the others. Every meeting is in a sense a coincidence of opposites—none of our minds can ever completely overlap or perfectly align. When we meet, we bring our opposing minds together to hear each other out.
Because we met in person, we had to physically move our bodies up to that third-floor conference room to talk about these metaphysical things. That physical table aligned us to look beyond like I had aligned my eyes to see the stereograms. The act of aligning required time, talk, and work. What we saw was often fuzzy, but from time to time we’d see something new.
Gathering in person helped us listen to each other. Think of how often people interrupt each other in online meetings, in the absence of nonverbal cues. Or how often an email you write is taken more harshly than you intended. Disembodied words are easy to copy and send to hundreds, but flattened, abstracted, and diminished. Each speaker sounds more certain and each disagreement more absolute. Such words can spiral into the opposite of what was intended: “You told them exactly what I didn’t say, exactly how I didn’t say it.”13
Something about the imperfection of getting your words out while sitting at a table, in a physical space, in real time, softens your worries about saying something wrong—because, when it comes to medieval mystical theology, you’re always saying something wrong. This attitude allows you to take your seat at the table, knowing from the start that you will have to trust and forgive, both others and yourself.
So, in freedom, restricted by physics, we brought our bodies and our thoughts. Katie the art historian brought cubist paintings illustrating the coincidence of multiple perspectives, Steve the theology librarian brought and translated the original Latin text, Rod the science historian told us how Nicholas anticipated later scientific discoveries (including relativity!), and Rick the pastoral theologian brought examples of community practice, including the sign language used by monks taking a vow of silence.
The Vision of God quickly moves beyond vision to other times and other senses. Just as the monks moved around in space while observing the icon, we moved around in time (hearing ancient languages) and we moved from sense to sense (seeing words in sign language). Likewise, Nicholas moves effortlessly from the sense of sight (the eye seeing an icon) to the sense of taste (tasting and seeing that God is good). To Nicholas, all senses perceive one Truth through glasses darkly.
Throughout The Vision of God, Nicholas practices a mystical synesthesia: “Thou art alike the fragrance of the food of joy and the taste that maketh joyful.”14 God is “where speech, sight, hearing, taste, touch, reason knowledge, and understanding are the same.”15 Like eyes turned toward a painting, the senses are turned toward one God and unified by what they sense.
It’s not that we take our glimpses, tastes, and other feelings of the truth and hammer them together into some composite average by which we ascend, rung by rung, like a ladder. This human-centered vision of the truth is finite, pixelated, and overly complex. At the end of the day, it’s exhausting and impossible.
Rather, Nicholas centers reality on the God with Whom all things are possible, emphasizing His infinity, unity, simplicity, and sheer incomprehensibility. All our viewpoints together are still infinitely far from God, yet God condescends to fill us with truth. The angels climb up and down this ladder.
God the Absolute and Infinite is also the Perfect Father who waits for us to respond in love. Nicholas writes, “Thou art so magnanimous, my God, that Thou willest reasoning spirits to be free to love Thee or not . . . united by a bond of love to all.”16
When Nicholas calls God the “Absolute,” I hear that God is uniform and perfect—which He is! But Steve (the librarian) pointed out that the word comes from the Latin for “set free,” which reveals another side of its meaning. God freely came to set us free. God can do whatever He wants, and He wants to reach out to us, even through the simple act of gathering around a table or looking at a painted face. Each opens a window for God’s light.
Stereogram of the MICA-NKG2D protein-protein interaction originally published in Samuel H. Henager, Melissa A. Hale, Nicholas J. Maurice, Erin C. Dunnington, Carter J. Swanson, Megan J. Peterson, Joseph J. Ban et al. “Combining Different Design Strategies for Rational Affinity Maturation of the MICA‐NKG2D Interface,” Protein Science 21, no. 9 (2012): 1396–1402.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God (New York: Cosimo, 2016), 2.
- Katie Kresser, “Singing Stones,” Christian Scholar’s Review Blog, March 3, 2023, https://christianscholars.com/singing-stones/
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 78.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 83.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 3.
- “Now I behold as in a mirror, in an icon, in a riddle [in aenigmate], life eternal“ in Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 17.
- The protein structure display software program PyMol has a page about how stereograms work with images about how they focus at https://bcrf.biochem.wisc.edu/2023/03/01/pymol-stereo-viewing/
- George MacDonald, Paul Faber, Surgeon (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1879), 184.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 8.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 94.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 45.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 73.
- This phrasing comes from the song “You Told Them Exactly What I Didn’t Say,” Track #5 on Terry Scott Taylor, John Wayne, KMG Records, 1998, CD, with “special thanks to” Flannery O’Connor, according to the liner notes.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 101.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 46.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 89.