the mystical theology

The author of the Mystical Theology, whose real identity is unknown, wrote under the name of the first bishop of Athens, Dionysius the Areopagite, who lived in the first century CE and is mentioned by St Paul. However, the writings of our author are clearly influenced by Plotinus and Proclus, two Non-Christian philosophers, who lived much later. So it was assumed that he was a Syrian monk living in the sixth century and therefore he is called nowadays Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. He introduced Eastern mysticism to the Christian world, telling how human nature can dissolve into the Divine by a mystical progress that leads from purgation to illumination to eventual union with God. In the wake of Dionysius a series of great mystical figures emerged within the Eastern orthodox tradition, reaching a height with Simeon the New Theologian (949–1022), the greatest of the Byzantine mystics.
…Dionysius introduced a dichotomy that continues to run, not only through western esotericism, but through the West’s spiritual heart. As with Plotinus (and Philo, Origen, and Ammonius Saccas), for Dionysius, the one God, the source of all being, is transcendent, utterly beyond human conception. Yet he is also in some inexplicable way available to us. The way of reaching God through the recognition of his transcendence is known as the via negativa… This is the way of “negative theology,” the “emptying out” of all ideas, images, or preconceptions about God (or the One) in order to allow his “dark brilliance” to shine within oneself. On this path …one means of doing this is by way of negation, through expressing what God is not. (Hinduism has a similar approach to grasping the incomprehensible Brahman in its doctrine of “ neti – neti,” “not this , nor that.”) In a sense, this leads to a kind of spiritual “black hole,” an emptiness which is really a fullness (Dionysius often uses paradox to try to convey his meaning). God in this sense is everything but also nothing, as he is beyond everything: he is literally “no thing.” Like Zen koans, such paradoxical statements inhibit the logical mind, allowing for a sudden illumination. As Dionysius writes, “Through the inactivity of all his reasoning powers the mystic is united by his highest faculty to That which is wholly unknowable; thus by knowing nothing he knows That which is beyond knowledge.”
(Gary Lachman in “The Secret Teachers of the West”)


Part of a 17th century painting from the Paul and Alexandra Canellopoulos Foundation

Chapter I

What the Divine Gloom is

Trinity, which exceeds all Being, Deity, and Goodness!(1) Thou that instructs Christians in Thy heavenly wisdom! Guide us to that topmost height of mystic lore which exceeds light and more than exceeds knowledge, where the simple, absolute, and unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth lie hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty!
Such be my prayer; and thee, dear Timothy, I counsel that, in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation, thou leave the senses and the activities of the intellect and all things that the senses or the intellect can perceive, and all things in this world of nothingness, or in that world of being, and that, thine understanding being laid to rest, thou strain (so far as thou mayest) towards an union with Him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. For, by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of thyself and all things, thou shalt in pureness cast all things aside, and be released from all, and so shalt be led upwards to the Ray of that divine Darkness which exceeds all existence.(2)
These things thou must not disclose to any of the uninitiated, by whom I mean those who cling to the objects of human thought, and imagine there is no super-essential reality beyond; and fancy that they know by human understanding Him that has made Darkness His secret place. And, if the Divine Initiation is beyond such men as these, what can be said of others yet more incapable thereof, who describe the Transcendent Cause of all things by qualities drawn from the lowest order of being, while they deny that it is in any way superior to the various ungodly delusions which they fondly invent in ignorance of this truth? That while it possesses all the positive attributes of the universe (being the universal Cause), yet in a stricter sense It does not possess them, since It transcends them all, wherefore there is no contradiction between affirming and denying that It has them inasmuch as It precedes and surpasses all deprivation, being beyond all positive and negative distinctions?
Such at least is the teaching of the blessed Bartholomew.(3) For he says that the subject-matter of the Divine Science is vast and yet minute, and that the Gospel combines in itself both width and straightness. Methinks he has shown by these his words how marvelously he has understood that the Good Cause of all things is eloquent yet speaks few words, or rather none; possessing neither speech nor understanding because it exceeds all things in a superessential manner, and is revealed in Its naked truth to those alone who pass right through the opposition of fair and foul, and pass beyond the topmost altitudes of the holy ascent and leave behind them all divine enlightenment and voices and heavenly utterances and plunge into the Darkness where truly dwells, as says the Scripture, that One which is beyond all things. For not without reason(4) is the blessed Moses bidden first to undergo purification himself and then to separate himself from those who have not undergone it; and after all purification hears the many-voiced trumpets and sees many lights flash forth with pure and diverse-streaming rays, and then stands separate from the multitudes and with the chosen priests presses forward to the topmost pinnacle of the Divine Ascent. Nevertheless he meets not with God Himself, yet he beholds not Him indeed (for He is invisible), but the place wherein He dwells. And this I take to signify that the divinest and the highest of the things perceived by the eyes of the body or the mind are but the symbolic language of things subordinate to Him who Himself transcends them all. Through these things His incomprehensible presence is shown walking upon those heights of His holy places which are perceived by the mind; and then It breaks forth, even from the things that are beheld and from those that behold them, and plunges the true initiate unto the Darkness of Unknowing wherein he renounces all the apprehensions of his understanding and is enwrapped in that which is wholly intangible and invisible, belonging wholly to Him that is beyond all things and to none else (whether himself or another), and being through the passive stillness of all his reasoning powers united by his highest faculty to Him that is wholly Unknowable, of whom thus by a rejection of all knowledge he possesses a knowledge that exceeds his understanding.

1 “Super-Essential, Supra-Divine, Super-Excellent.”
2 “The Super-Essential Ray of Divine Darkness.”
3 No writings of St. Bartholomew are extant. Possibly D. s inventing, though not necessarily.
4 In the following passage we get the three stages tabulated by later Mystical Theology:
1. Purgation, 2. Illumination, 3. Union.

Chapter II

How it is necessary to be united with and render praise to Him Who is the cause of all and above all.

Unto this Darkness which is beyond Light we pray that we may come, and may attain unto vision through the loss of sight and knowledge, and that in ceasing thus to see or to know we may learn to know that which is beyond all perception and understanding (for this emptying of our faculties is true sight and knowledge), and that we may offer Him that transcends all things the praises of a transcendent hymnody, which we shall do by denying or removing all things that are like as men who, carving a statue out of marble, remove all the impediments that hinder the clear perceptive of the latent image and by this mere removal display the hidden statue itself in its hidden beauty. Now we must wholly distinguish this negative method from that of positive statements. For when we were making positive statements(5) we began with the most universal statements, and then through intermediate terms we came at last to particular titles,(6) but now ascending upwards from particular to universal conceptions we strip off all qualities in order that we may attain a naked knowledge of that Unknowing which in all existent things is enwrapped by all objects of knowledge, and that we may
begin to see that super-essential Darkness which is hidden by all the light that is in existent things.

5 Namely, in the Divine Names and in the Outlines.
6 In the Divine Names D. begins with the notion of Goodness (which he holds to be possessed by all things) and proceeds thence to Existence (which is not possessed by things that are either destroyed or yet unmade), and thence to Wisdom (which is not possessed either by unconscious or irrational forms of Life), and thence to qualities (such as Righteousness, Salvation, Omnipotence) or combinations of opposite qualities (such as Greatness and Smallness) which
are not, `in the full sense, applicable to any creature as such. Thus by adding quality to quality (“Existence” to “Goodness,” “Life” to “Existence”, “Wisdom” to “Life,” “Salvation,” etc., to “Wisdom”) he reaches the conception of God. But he constantly reminds us in the Divine Names that these qualities apply adequately only to the manifested Godhead which, in Its ultimate Nature, transcends them.

Chapter III

What are the affirmative expressions respecting God, and what are the negative.

Now I have in my Outlines of Divinity set forth those conceptions which are most proper to the affirmative method, and have shown in what sense God’s holy nature is called single and in what sense triple, what is the nature of the fatherhood and Sonship which we attribute unto It; what is meant by the articles of faith concerning the Spirit; how from the immaterial and indivisible Good the interior rays of Its goodness have their being and remain immovably in that state of rest which both within their Origin and within themselves is co-eternal with the act by which they spring from It; in what manner Jesus being above all essence has stooped to an essential state in which all the truths of human nature meet; and all the other revelations of Scripture whereof my Outlines of Divinity treat. And in the book of the Divine Names I have considered the meaning as concerning God of the titles Good, Existent, Life, Wisdom, Power and of the other titles which the understanding frames, and in my Symbolic Divinity I have considered what are the metaphorical titles drawn from the world of sense and applied to the nature of God; what are the mental or material images we form of God or the functions and instruments of activity we attribute to Him; what are the places where He dwells and the robes He is adorned with; what is meant by God’s anger, grief, and indignation, or the divine inebriation and wrath; what is meant by God’s oath and His malediction, by His slumber and awaking, and all the other inspired imagery of allegoric symbolism. And I doubt not that you have also observed how far more copious are the last terms than the first for the doctrines of God’s Nature and the exposition of His Names could not but be briefer than the Symbolic Divinity. For the more that we soar upwards the more our language becomes restricted to the compass of purely intellectual conceptions, even as in the present instance plunging into the Darkness which is above the intellect we shall and ourselves reduced not merely to brevity of speech but even to absolute dumbness both of speech and thought. Now in the former treatises the course of the argument, as it came down from the highest to the lowest categories, embraced an ever-widening number of conceptions which increased at each stage of the descent, but in the present treatise it mounts upwards from below towards the category of transcendence, and in proportion to its ascent it contracts its terminology, and when the whole ascent is passed it will be totally dumb, being at last wholly united with Him Whom words cannot describe. But why is it, you will ask, that after beginning from the highest category when one method was affirmative we begin from the lowest category where it is negative? Because, when affirming, the existence of that which transcends all affirmation, we were obliged to start from that which is most akin to It, and then to make the affirmation on which the rest depended; but when pursuing the negative method, to reach that which is beyond all negation, we must start by applying our negations to those qualities which differ most from the ultimate goal. Surely it is truer to affirm that God is life and goodness than that He is air or stone, and truer to deny that drunkenness or fury can be attributed to Him than to deny that the may apply to Him the categories of human thought.

Chapter IV

That He Who is the Pre-eminent Cause of everything sensibly perceived is not Himself any one of the things
sensibly perceived.

We therefore maintain that the universal Cause transcending all things is neither impersonal nor lifeless, nor irrational nor without understanding: in short, that It is not a material body, and therefore does not possess outward shape or intelligible form, or quality, or quantity, or solid weight; nor has It any local existence which can be perceived by sight or touch; nor has It the power of perceiving or being perceived; nor does It suffer any vexation or disorder through the disturbance of earthly passions, or any feebleness through the tyranny of material chances, or any want of light; nor any change, or decay, or division, or deprivation, or ebb and flow, or anything else which the senses can perceive. None of these things can be either identified with it or attributed unto It.

Chapter V

That He Who is the Pre-eminent Cause of everything intelligibly perceived is not Himself any one of the things intelligibly perceived.

Once more, ascending yet higher we maintain that It is not soul, or mind, or endowed with the faculty of imagination, conjecture, reason, or understanding; nor is It any act of reason or understanding; nor can It be described by the reason or perceived by the understanding, since It is not number, or order, or greatness, or littleness, or equality, or inequality, and since It is not immovable nor in motion, or at rest, and has no power, and is not power or light, and
does not live, and is not life; nor is It personal essence, or eternity, or time; nor can It be grasped by the understanding since It is not knowledge or truth; nor is It kingship or wisdom; nor is It one, nor is It unity, nor is It Godhead or Goodness; nor is It a Spirit, as we understand the term, since It is not Sonship or Fatherhood; nor is It any other thing such as we or any other being can have knowledge of; nor does It belong to the category of non-existence or to that of existence; nor do existent beings know It as it actually is, nor does It know them as they actually are; nor can the reason attain to It to name It or to know It; nor is it darkness, nor is It light, or error, or truth; nor can any affirmation or negation apply to it; for while applying affirmations or negations to those orders of being that come next to It, we apply not unto It either affirmation or negation, in as much as It transcends all affirmation by being the perfect and unique Cause of all things, and transcends all negation by the pre-eminence of Its simple and absolute nature-free from every limitation and beyond them all.