At some point during the past five years, I realized that I had no choice but to read The Divine Names by St Dionysius the Areopagite. I have been captivated by the Christian doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo and have sought to understand it more deeply, both intellectually and spiritually. This fascination drove me to begin reading St Thomas Aquinas. My forays into the writings of the Angelic Doctor taught me that Thomas loves The Divine Names. He quotes Dionysius over 1700 times. Thomas is famous for his assimilation of Aristotelian metaphysics into Christian theology, yet how many people are aware of the Areopagite’s profound influence upon Thomas’s reflections? How could I understand Thomas’s construal of divinity and creation, I asked myself, apart from the Areopagite? But I heroically resisted. Life is too short. But then I read Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas by Fran O’Rourke, and the die was cast. So I ordered the affordable Paulist Press edition of the Corpus Areopagaticum and waited for the right time. It appears that time is now.
I have now read the four treatises and ten epistles composed by Dionysius. To my surprise I have really enjoyed reading them, thanks in large part to the three secondary books I also purchased to illuminate my way:
Denys the Areopagite by Andrew Louth (probably the best introduction for non-scholars)
Mystagogy by Alexander Golitzin (my principal guide)
Theophany by Eric Perl (the Areopagite read as a hard-core Neoplatonist)
Over the next month or two I will be blogging on the Dionysian themes that most interest me: divinity beyond being; transcendence, immanence, theophany; the apophatic and cataphatic; ecstasis and eros; the relationship between Creator and creation.
Scholars divide between two poles, between those at one end who see Dionysius as a pagan reconstructing Christianity as a form of Neoplatonism (“Dionysius is most pernicious; he platonizes more than he Christianizes”—Martin Luther), and those at the other end who see Dionysius as faithfully explicating the Orthodox faith, turning Neoplatonism inside-out in light of God’s deification of humanity in Jesus Christ. In his book Et introibo ad altare dei, Archbishop Golitzin shares that this scholarly conflict generated within him a genuine crisis of faith: if the theology of Denys represents a faith contrary to the Apostles, then how can we trust the tradition that welcomed this “alien presence”? Golitizin’s crisis was resolved when he spent a year at the monastery of Simonas Petras on Mount Athos:
Two features of this experience figured importantly in resolving my crisis, and thus in my discovering what I believe to be at once the core of the Dionysian message, and the reason for the corpus’ swift reception. These were, first, the as it were “architecture” of the monastic life of personal and corporate prayer and, second, the phenomenon of the ascetic holy man. The latter is the intended goal of the former’s discipline, and has been at the center of Eastern Christian piety and popular devotion since at least the fourth century. On Mount Athos I found that the holy man is not a distant ideal or a literary topos—something out of an eighth century manuscript or a Paleologan icon—but a reality. There are such men alive today, at least on Mount Athos, and I am convinced that I met a few of them. Given this living model, the round of monastic prayer in the public worship of the katholikon and the private liturgy of the cell took on a powerful relevance. Everything about the monks’ life there is directed toward producing the “man of God”, i.e., toward becoming a sanctified temple and resting place of the Spirit of Christ, a “theophany” and thus a “martyr”—witness—to the Resurrection. The very architecture (without the inverted commas) of the monastery bears testimony to this. Everything is focused on that altar which is, literally, at the center of the monastery complex. There the icon of the heavenly liturgy is daily enacted, and the same icon serves simultaneously as the image of the hallowed human being. It mediates between the Kingdom and the soul.
Thus I arrived at what I believe to be the proper reading of the Corpus Dionysiacum, and certainly at the way in which it was read and received by the tradition. (p. 9)
Thus Golitzin came to see that the Corpus Areopagaticum is properly interpreted through the lens of the eucharistic faith of the Church rather than through the philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus (or at least not exclusively so). Clearly Dionysius has drunk deeply from the Neoplatonic well; but equally clearly he has appropriated, and at points corrected, Neoplatonic philosophy for service to the gospel. At least that is how I have chosen to read him.
You have no doubt observed that at the beginning of this article I refered to the author of the Corpus Areopagaticum as a saint, even though we now know, with a high degree of probability, that he was not the Dionysius converted by the Apostle Paul in Athens. In the scholarly world the author is referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” I adopted this practice when I first started blogging, but one of my readers gently chided me, and I have taken her chide to heart.
Fran O’Rourke tells of his visit to the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mt Athos. During a mealtime reading he heard the words Agios Dionysios. A friendly monk explained to him that
the reading concerned the life of an ancient bishop of Athens who had been a disciple of St Paul; he was a sacred writer, renowned for his treatises on contemplation and the life of monks. The monk explained that a writer of the fifth century had relied greatly upon these writings but lacked the grace to acknowledge his debt. Today the feast of this holy man was being celebrated.
But surely, I exclaimed, no one still believed that this writer was the disciple of St Paul! Had not modern research, with all its means of historical critique, shown beyond doubt that these writings belonged to a later writer who had indeed relied upon the work of Proclus. My question offended; ‘Man of little faith!’ I was guilty of blasphemy—whether by irreverence or disblief I was unsure—and judged that courtesy to my host called for silence. I nodded in agreement that science is no measure in matters of belief. Reason must bow before the testimony of faith and tradition. Indeed, if proof were needed, I was told, were not some bones of Saint Dionysius, including his skull, still preserved in another monastery on Athos, to be venerated on that very day?…
At the ceremony in the afternoon the monks intoned the life and ecomium of Dionysius, relating among other things his presence with the apostles at the dormition of the Blessed Virgin. Listening to the monks chant the solemn hymns in praise of Dionysius, my appreciation of his work was transformed. The myth still survived in this remote haven of fervour and devotion, palpably attested to by the scent of incense and the glow of oil-lamps before the icons of this holy man. It survived, not as a myth, but as a history of love and veneration. For how many centuries had these hymns been sung in unbroken tradition? Dionysius assumed for me at that moment a new significance and actuality. I had a forceful appreciation of the significance of Dionysius for Aquinas, who was profoundly influenced by his writings and personality. Like the monks of Athos, whose veneration of Dionysius now seemed so strange, so Aquinas had also experienced the draw of the ancient writer. I saw that, regardless, of its authorship, the Corpus Dionysiacum was still a living tradition, with a power for truth and inspiration. Despite the falsehood of their apostolic authority, the works of Dionysius have a timeless message and a quiet power to draw those who read them closer to the divine secrets of the universe. (pp. xv-xvi)
The Dionysian writings were received into the Church as brilliantly expressing the mind and tradition of the Apostles, now cast into Neoplatonic idiom. “It was for this reason, far more than for any aura which may have attached to his sub-apostolic pseudonym,” writes Golitzin, “that he was accepted so quickly and so wholeheartedly in the East, and especially so by the monks. Put another way, they welcomed in him what they had known already and accepted in others before him; they recognized him for what he was, a spokesman of the Great Tradition. Put more simply still, the monks have always known better” (Mystagogy, p. 52). The anonymous author has disappeared into the pseudonym. How very apophatic. Hence I will continue to refer to him as “St Dionysius.” Who, after all, likes to be called “Pseudo”?
While you are waiting for the subsequent articles in this series to appear, may I suggest that you read St Dionysius’s short essay Mystical Theology. It’s only a few pages long, but you will find it a provocative but helpful entry into the mind of the Areopagite.
Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.
(Go to “Transcendence and the Plotinian One“)