Of all the mystical writers in the Western tradition, it is likely Dionysius who has had the most impact. Though he was not the first to speak about the mystical path of unknowing, he was certainly one of the early Christian teachers and the wisdom school of which he was a part has had a profound impact on many Christian mystics. The author of these profound texts wrote under the name Dionysius the Areopagite who was one of Paul’s converts and is only briefly mentioned in Acts 17:34.
While scholars agree that the Dionysius mentioned in Acts is not the same person as the author in question, no one denies the profound impact that this genius has had on Christian mysticism. Almost every medieval scholar in the East and the West cites Dionysius as authoritative. His teaching can be felt very strongly in the words of St John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, John Scotus Eriugena, and it is even often said that Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is essentially a flushed out version of what Dionysius wrote.
There are four surviving texts (as well as a series of letters) of Dionysius which we have today:
1. Mystical Theology
2. Ecclesial Hierarchies
3. Celestial Hierarchies
4. Divine Names.
The focus of what we are talking about here comes from the very short work, Mystical Theology.
Dionysius was a student of Proclus, one of the last teachers of the school of Athens and a Neo-Platonist. Much of Christian theology today is derived from Greek philosophical schools. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Christianity is what happens when Judaism and Classical Paganism have a baby.
Dionysius teaches us the mystical side of Christianity through a Neo-Platonic lens and the result is beautiful and life changing. It is the foundation upon which many great mystics such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing are built. Dionysius wrote in Greek and in the middle ages most of the Western Church was unable to read Greek.
Eriugena translated Dionysius into Latin in the ninth century and made his works available to all the Western Scholars who would later rely on him profoundly.
In Mystical Theology Dionysius describes two paths to knowing God – a positive path and a negative path. The positive path, we are told, is the one in which we say what God is. God is love. God is peace. God is beauty. God is justice. You get the picture.
This path is one which Dionysius also teaches in another of his works, Theological Outlines, which has not survived to modern times. So, let us not imagine that the negative path is meant to replace the positive one, instead they are needed together.
The negative path, which is the one being described in this letter is the opposite. We say what God is not. This is a quote from The Mystical Theology discussing the nature of God.
He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, opinion, reason, or understanding; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number, nor order; nor greatness, nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity, nor dissimilarity.
Neither is He standing, moving, nor at rest; neither has He power, nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity, nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is He science, nor truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom.
Neither one, nor oneness; nor godhead, nor goodness, nor is He spirit according to our understanding, nor son, nor father; nor anything else known to us or to any other beings.
For this reason, knowledge can never attain to God, or name God, or know God. The mystical understanding of God is therefore a path of Unknowing. A path of darkness.
Many people have difficulty with this path to God because it appears to deny every core Christian belief. However, this is not meant to criticize good theology but to describe the path a soul takes to God. In it’s essence, what Dionysius is teaching is that our mind can never be right about God. It simply isn’t possible. The solution then becomes to relinquish all knowledge and embrace God through darkness.
David Cole and I have put together a virtual retreat exploring the apophatic tradition and its application to modern life and contemplative prayer. It looks at Dionysius, Eriugena, Eckhart, and The Cloud of Unknowing. It has a series of talks from David and I and also a series of guided meditation videos set to the Celtic harp and beautiful nature scenery. There are a few videos available for free preview if you want to get a taste for what it’s all about. Click the button below to learn more.