This is why holy Bartholomew says that theology is both expansive and minute, and that the gospel is both wide and broad, and narrow. With extraordinary insight he seems to have intuited that the cause of all things, being inherently good, is worthy of long discussion, yet also ineffable, requiring but little speech. It cannot be fully grasped nor described, since it itself lies beyond all things and appears in true, uncovered fashion only to those who have gone through the holy purification rites, ascended all the way up the holy summits, left behind divine lights, sounds, and words from the sky and entered into the darkness where the scriptures say the One who is beyond all things really is. After all, it isn’t just that Moses is bid to purify himself and separate from those not like him; nor that after his purification he hears the ensemble of trumpets and sees lights flashing pure and varied beams of light. After this, he separates from the many and arrives with his chosen priests to the highest summit. Even in such circumstances, he does not meet God himself, nor does he see him (for God cannot be seen). Rather, Moses “saw the place where God stood.” (I think that the “highest and holiest places” signify certain suppositions about how visible and intelligible realities are ultimately subject to the One that transcends all, yet through these assertions we see the presence of the One who is beyond every thought, since it appears to those “peaks of spiritual in sight” in those “most holy places.”) Then Moses separated from them, both things that see and things seen, and went into the darkness of unknowing that is truly a mystery. In this darkness, he closes off all that is grasped with knowledge and enters that which is entirely unseen and intangible. He is entirely of the One who is beyond all things, and of nothing. He is not his own, nor another’s, yet through the complete ceasing of all knowing he is all the more perfectly made one with the One that is unknowable, and through letting go of knowing he begins to know with something that transcends the mind.
Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.2
Take care that none of the uninitiated should hear these words. I refer to those who are bound up in things that are and imagine that there is nothing beyond these entities, nothing that transcends being itself, but instead think to know through their own knowledge the one who has established “darkness as his hiding place.” If this mystical invitation into the divine is beyond these people, what may we even begin to say about the truly uninitiated, who define the cause that lies beyond everything as deriving from what is and who say that there is nothing beyond the varied forms that they have concocted, forms without divinity? In the face of this transcendent cause, we must establish and assert certain theses, as it is the cause of all things, and still more properly negate them, as it transcends all things. Moreover, we mustn’t think that these assertions are opposed to the negations, but rather that this cause is beyond all lack and is beyond both assertion and negation.
Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1
I decided to take a bit of a break from Evagrius’s On Prayer. I’ve been itching to read some from Ps.-Dionysius for some time now, so I thought I’d try my hand at some of his short treatise, Mystical Theology. Ps.-Dionysius is hard to render into English in a way that does justice to the beauty of his Greek. Rendering him literally results in ridiculous gobbledegook.1
Trinity, beyond all being and divinity and goodness, you bestow on Christians insight into the mystery of God; direct us toward that highest peak of the mystical scriptures, which is both supremely radiant and dense with unknowing. There the simple, purified, and unchanging mysteries of theology are concealed in the luminous darkness of mystical silence, where in that place of utter tenebrity they shed light on that which is beyond revealing; where all is completely invisible and beyond grasp, they fill to repletion minds unseeing with brilliance of surpassing beauty.
Let this be my prayer; as for you, my dear Timothy, through this short treatment of mystical vision take your departure from the senses and from mental activities, from all that is perceived and from all that is thought, from all that is and from all that is not. To the degree possible, strain through unknowing toward oneness with the one who transcends being and knowing. After all, through pure “coming out of oneself”, wherein you set aside all things and are cleansed of all things, you will with purity lead yourself up to that gleam of divine darkness that transcends being.
- If I may shamefully pick on a predecessor, you may compare here John Parker’s rendering from 1897:
TRIAD supernal, both super-God and super-good, Guardian of the Theosophy of Christian men, direct us aright to the super-unknown and super-brilliant and highest summit of the mystic Oracles, where the simple and absolute and changeless mysteries of theology lie hidden within the super-luminous gloom of the silence, revealing hidden things, which in its deepest darkness shines above the most super-brilliant, and in the altogether impalpable and invisible, fills to overflowing the eyeless minds with glories of surpassing beauty. This then be my prayer; but thou, O dear Timothy, by thy persistent commerce with the mystic visions, leave behind both sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts, and all objects of sense and intelligence, and all things not being and being, and be raised aloft unknowingly to the union, as far as attainable, with Him Who is above every essence and knowledge. For by the resistless and absolute ecstasy in all purity, from thyself and all, thou wilt be carried on high, to the superessential ray of the Divine darkness, when thou hast cast away all, and become free from all. ↩