THE MYSTICAL THEOLOGY
DIONYSIUS THE AREOPAGITE:
TRANSLATED FROM THE GREEK
BY THE EDITORS OF
THE SHRINE OF WISDOM
Published by THE SHRINE OF WISDOM
NR. GODALMING, SURREY
MADE AND PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY THE GARDEN CITY PRESS LIMITED. LETCHWORTH, HERTS.
THE MYSTICAL THEOLOGY OF DIONYSIUS THE AREOPAGITE
* So much has been written in modem days concerning Dionysius that it is
difficult to say much about him in a few words. But there is a very able chapter
dealing with him and his writings in Studies of Mystical Religion, by Professor
Rufus M. Jones, D.Litt., of Haverford College, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (Macmillan,
London), of which a very brief digest is here given.
Who was Dionysius ?
Modern scholarship has settled the fact that Dionysius the Areopagite,
although confused with St. Dionysius, or St. Denis
the martyr and patron saint of Paris, has no historical connection
with him. It has, too, settled the fact that The Mystical Theology
and the other Dionysian writings did not come into existence
until centuries after St. Paul's Athenian convert. In fact, it is
almost certain that the writer was either a pupil of Proclus or,
as is more probable, of Damascius, the second in succession from
Proclus, and one of the last teachers of the Athenian Platonic
school. It was natural that when he became a Christian writer he
should assume a name which had sacred memories of Athenian
faith, and which was also a link with Greek culture.
But whatever his origin, the writings of this master mind
early became the form and type of mystical religion within
the Church, and their influence is discernible in every mystical
sect of Christendom. This anonymous, mysterious, monastic
genius taught the foremost Christians for ten centuries both
in the East and West, for nearly every great mediaeval scholar
made use of his writings, and his authority came to be almost
final. A modern writer says that even the Summa Theologiae of
St. Thomas Aquinas — the Angelic Doctor — is but 'a hive in
whose varied cells he duly stored the honey which he gathered'
from the writings of Dionysius, and he became the bee-bread
on which all the great mystics fed. He kindled in multitudes of
souls a pure passion for God, and taught very dark ages that that
which is pre-eminently worth seeking with the entire being was
God. He iterated and reiterated that God himself was the ground
of the soul, and that there was an inward way to Him open to all
men. He insisted on personal experience as the primary thing in
religion, and so became the father of a great family of devout
and saintly mystics who advanced true religion. And he did well
in maintaining that there was an experience of Reality which
transcended mere head-knowledge — a finding of God in which
the whole being, heart, will and mind were expanded and
satisfied, even though language could not formulate what was
* * *
Considering the far-reaching influence of the brief but profound
Mystical Theology of Dionysius, it is comparatively little
known, even to students who are ardent lovers and followers of
some of the great Christian mystics who were themselves the
spiritual children of the pseudo-Areopagite.
As far as we are aware there are not many English versions of
this work available; therefore the version here given may be a
means of bringing this real treasure before a wider sphere of
mystics; for it contains the very essence and foundation of true
What is the Divine Darkness?
Supernal Triad, Deity above all essence, knowledge and
goodness; Guide of Christians to Divine Wisdom; direct our
path to the ultimate summit of Thy mystical Lore, most incomprehensible,
most luminous and most exalted, where the pure,
absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled 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 surpassing all beauty.
Let this be my prayer; but do thou, dear Timothy, in the
diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the
senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible
and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and non-being,
that thou mayest arise by unknowing1 towards the union, as far as is attainable, "with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunqatiop of thyself and of all things thou mayest be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.2
1. Unknowing, or agnosia, is not ignorance or nescience as ordinarily understood,
but rather the realization that no finite knowledge can fully know the Infinite One,
and that therefore He is only truly to be approached by agnosia, or by that which is
beyond and above knowledge. There are two main kinds of darkness: the sub-darkness
and the super-darkness, between which lies, as it were, an octave of light.
But the nether-darkness and the Divine Darkness are not the same darkness, for the
former is absence of light, while the latter is excess of light. The one symbolizes
mere ignorance, and the other a transcendent unknowing — a super-knowledge not
obtained by means of the discursive reason.
2. 'Of the First Principle,' says Damascius, 'the ancient Egyptians said nothing,
but celebrated Him as a Darkness beyond all intellectual or spiritual perception — a
Thrice-unknown Darkness.' This is for ever about the Pavilions of that great Light
Unapproachable. It is caused by the superabundance of Light and not by the
absence of lumination: it is 'a deep but dazzling Darkness' (Henry Vaughan).
'The light shineth in the darkness' (St. John, I, 5). 'In Thy light we shall see light'
(Psalm 36, 9).
But these things are not to be disclosed to the uninitiated,
by whom I mean those attached to the objects of human thought,
and who believe there is no superessential Reality beyond, and
who imagine that by their own understanding they know Him
who has made Darkness His secret place. And if the principles
of the divine Mysteries are beyond the understanding of these,
what is to be said of others still more incapable thereof, who
describe the transcendental First Cause of all by characteristics
drawn from the lowest order of beings, while they deny that He
is in any way above the images which they fashion after various
designs; whereas they should affirm that, while He possesses
all the positive attributes of the universe (being the Universal
Cause) yet, in a more strict sense, He does not possess them,
since He transcends them all; wherefore there is no contradiction
between the affirmations and the negations, inasmuch as He
infinitely precedes all conceptions of deprivation, being beyond
all positive and negative distinctions.3
3. In one sense the Infinite is most truly described by what He is, whereas all
finite existences are most properly described by what they are not in relation to Him
who is; yet, inasmuch as all affirmations are necessarily drawn from that which is
finite, it follows that God must transcend them all, and, therefore, without contradiction,
it is true paradoxically to affirm that He possesses and does not possess
both positive and negative attributes.
Thus the blessed Bartholomew asserts that the divine science
is both vast and minute, and that the Gospel is great and broad,
yet concise and short; signifying by this, that the beneficent
Cause of all is most eloquent, yet utters few words, or rather is
altogether silent, as having neither (human) speech nor (human)
understanding, because He is super-essentially exalted above
created things, and reveals Himself in His naked Truth to those
alone who pass beyond all that is pure or impure, and ascend
above the topmost altitudes of holy things, and who, leaving
behind them all divine light and sound and heavenly utterances,
plunge into the Darkness where truly dwells, as the Oracles
declare, that ONE who is beyond all.4
4. The mystics speak of other kinds of darkness; for example, the darkness of the
night of purgation, and the dark night of the soul, but the Divine Darkness is in a
different category from these.
It was not without reason that the blessed Moses was commanded
first to undergo purification himself and then to separate
himself from those who had not undergone it; and after the
entire purification heard many-voiced trumpets and saw many
lights streaming forth with pure and manifold rays; and that he
was thereafter separated from the multitude, with the elect
priests, and pressed forward to the summit of the divine ascent.5
Nevertheless, he did not attain to the Presence of God Himself;
he saw not Him (for He cannot be looked upon) but the Place
where He dwells. And this I take to signify that the divinest and
highest things seen by the eyes or contemplated by the mind are
but the symbolical expressions of those that are immediately
beneath Him who is above all. Through these, His incomprehensible
Presence is manifested upon those heights of His Holy Places;
that then It breaks forth, even from that which is seen and
that which sees, and plunges the mystic into the Darkness of Unknowing,
whence all perfection of understanding is excluded,
and he is enwrapped in that which is altogether intangible and
noumenal, being wholly absorbed in Him who is beyond all, and
in none else (whether himself or another); and through the
inactivity of all his reasoning powers is united by his highest
faculty to Him who is wholly unknowable; thus by knowing
nothing he knows That which is beyond his knowledge.6
5. The Triple Mystic Path is outlined here: - the Purgative, the Illuminative and
the Unitive, which have a parallel in the Karma Marga, Jnana Marga, and Bhakti Marga
of oriental mysticism.
6. Since it is absolutely impossible for the finite reason to receive a pure knowledge
of God save through processes which divide and limit His Infinite Nature, the
mystic at last with absolute faith must plunge into the Darkness of Unknowing,
which he can only do when he has reached the loftiest point to which the highest
human faculty will raise him.
The ascending stages of degrees of prayer and contemplation delineated by the
mystics constitute a ladder by which the aspiring soul mounts from finitude into
infinitude. Thus: -
- The Prayer of Simplicity (vocal).
- The Prayer of the Mind (voiceless).
- The Prayer of Recollection (the Perfume or Answer of Prayer).
- The Prayer of Quiet (beyond thoughts).
- The Prayer of Union; of various degrees of Rapture, Ecstasy and 'Glorious
The necessity of being united with and of rendering praise to Him who
is the Cause of all and above all.
We pray that we may come unto this Darkness which is
beyond light, and, without seeing and without knowing, to
see and to know that which is above vision and knowledge
through the realization that by not-seeing and by unknowing
we attain to true vision and knowledge; and thus praise, superessentially,
Him who is superessential, by the abstraction of the
essence of all things; even as those who, carving a statue out
of marble, abstract or remove all the surrounding material
that hinders the vision which the marble conceals and, by that
abstraction, bring to light the hidden beauty.7
7. Compare the well-known analogy of Plotinus:-
'Withdraw into yourself and look; and if you do not find yourself beautiful as yet,
do as does the sculptor of a statue ... cut away all that is excessive, straighten all
that is crooked, bring light to all that is shadowed ... do not cease until there shall
shine out on you the Godlike Splendour of Beauty; until you see temperance surely
established in the stainless shrine.' (Ennead, I, 6, 9).
It is necessary to distinguish this negative method of abstraction
from the positive method of affirmation, in which we deal
with the Divine Attributts. For with these latter we begin with
the universal and primary , and pass through the intermediate
and secondary to the particular and ultimate attributes; but now
we ascend from the particular to the universal conceptions,
abstracting all attributes in order that, without veil, we may
know that Unknowing which is enshrouded under all that is
known and all that can be known, and that we may begin to
contemplate the superessential Darkness which is hidden by all
the light that is in existing things.8
8. These are the two modes of Divine Contemplation — Via Affirmativa and Via Negativa
— which mark the equilibrating pulse of true mystical life.
In the fonner case, beginning from on high, there is an out-flowing and a down-flowing
of the consciousness, which passes from universals to particulars and sees
God in all things, in the lowest as well as the highest.
But in the latter case, there is an up-drawing and in-drawing of the consciousness,
passing from particulars to universals, which sees that God is not any of the things
contemplated, and therefore, by abstraction, it arrives at the superessential Darkness
which out-shines and obliterates the light of all sensible things. Or, in other words,
an approach is made to the unapproachable Light.
What are the affirmations and the negations concerning God?
In the Theological Outlines9 we have set forth the principal
affirmative expressions concerning God, and have shown in
what sense God's Holy Nature is One, and in what sense Three;
what is within It which is called Paternity, what Filiation, and
what is signified by the name Spirit; how from the uncreated and
indivisible Good, the blessed and perfect Rays of its Goodness
proceed, and yet abide immutably one both within their Origin
and within themselves and each other, co-eternal with the act by
which they spring from it;10 how the superessential Jesus enters
an essential state in which the truths of human nature meet; and
other matters made known by the Oracles are expounded in the same place.
9. Dionysius refers to several of his treatises, but besides the Mystical Theology,
the only other extant works of his are Divine Names, The Celestial Hierarchies, and
The Ecclesiastical Hierarchies and various epistles.
10. These correspond to the Abiding, Proceeding and Returning Principles of Proclus.
By Divine Paternity all things abide in God, and God abides in all things; by
Divine Filiation all things proceed, and God proceeds into all things; by Divine Spiration
God returns, and all things return into God. The Three Divine Principles
or Persons abide each in its origin, in Itself, and in each other.
Again, in the treatise on Divine Names, we have considered
the meaning, as concerning God, of the titles of Good, of Being,
of Life, of Wisdom, of Power, and of such other names as are
applied to Him; further, in Symbolical Theology, we have considered
what are the metaphorical titles drawn from the world
of sense and applied to the nature of God; what is meant by the
material and intellectual images we form of Him, or the functions
and instruments of activity attributed to Him; what are the
places where He dwells and the raiment in which He is adorned;
what is meant by God's anger, grief, and indignation, or the
divine inebriation; what is meant by God's oaths and threats,
by His slumber and waking; and all sacred ahd symbolical
representations.11 And it will be observed how far more copious
and diffused are the last terms than the first, for the theological
doctrine and the exposition of the Divine Names are necessarily
more brief than the Symbolical Theology.
11. Although anthropomorphic and other figurative expressions applied to God
are not true in the absolute sense. nevertheless they have a proper and almost
indispensible place in the worship and reverence which man endeavours to pay to
the Supreme through the media of finite faculties and symbols.
For the higher we soar in contemplation the more limited
become our expressions of that which is purely intelligible;
even as now, when plunging into the Darkness which is above
the intellect, we pass not merely into brevity of speech, but
even into absolute silence, of thoughts as well as of words.
Thus, in the former discourse, our contemplations descended
from the highest to the lowest, embracing an ever-widening
number of conceptions, which increased at each stage of the
descent; but in the present discourse we mount upwards from
below to that which is the highest, and, according to the degree
of transcendence, so our speech is restrained until, the entire
ascent being accomplished, we become wholly voiceless, inasmuch
as we are absorbed in Him who is totally ineffable.12
'But why', you will ask, 'does the affirmative method begin from
the highest attributions, and the negative method with the
lowest abstractions?' The reason is because, when affirming the
subsistence of That which transcends all affirmation, we necessarily
start from the attributes most closely related to It and upon
which the remaining affirmations depend; but when pursuing the
negative method to reach That which is beyond all abstraction,
we must begin by applying our negations to things which are
most remote from It.13
12. God is in a more real and positive sense than any finite reason can ever understand;
hence the most prolonged and elaborate process of positing His supernal
Attributes inevitably fails to describe Him, because of the utter inadequacy of finite
terms truly to speak of the Infinite Ineffability.
13. That the Negative Path is not really negative in essence is demonstrated by the
fact that the negation of negation is equivalent to an affirmation; and so the negation
of non-being is consequendy the positing of being.
For is it not more true to affirm that God is Life and Goodness
than that He is air or stone; and must we not deny to Him more
emphatically the attributes of inebriation and wrath than the
applications of human speech and thought?
That He who is the pre-eminent Cause of all things sensibly perceived
is not Himself any of those things.
We therefore maintain that the universal and transcendent
Cause of all things is neither without being nor without life,
nor without reason or intelligence; nor is He a body, nor has
He form or shape, quality, quantity or weight; nor has He
any localized, visible or tangible existence; He is not sensible or
perceptible; nor is He subject to any disorder or inordination
nor influenced by any earthly passion; neither is He rendered
impotent through the effects of material causes and events; He
needs no light; He suffers no change, corruption, division,
privation or flux; none of these things can either be identified
with or attributed unto Him.14
14. Although by negation we deny all sensible attributes to God and thus, so to
speak, place Him outside of time and space, yet, paradoxically, He must be in time
and space, for it is certain that sempitemally He is more present at any particular
moment in time than is temporality itself, and likewise He is more present in any particular
place than any finite spatial principle can ever be.
He is not sensible, yet He comprehends all the sensations which the senses of His
creatures can ever experience throughout all duration.
That He who is the pre-eminent Cause of all things intelligibly perceived
is not Himself any of those things.
Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that 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, nor 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
filiation, nor paternity; nor anything else known to us or to any
other beings of the things that are or the things that are not;
neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know
existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the
reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him;
neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true;
nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for
although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can
neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and
unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the
simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every
negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.