A Mini-Sabbatical…

Continuing my journey through 111 of the great western mystics that I began in late 2004, recently I’ve been plodding through the A. C. Ionides translation of Proclus’ Elements of Theology, and — in all candor — have been hating almost every minute of it. Meanwhile, I’ve also been reading Brian Hines’ cleverly executed introduction to Plotinus crafted specifically for spiritual seekers, Return to the One: Plotinus’s Guide to God-Realization. Compared to Proclus’ overly mechanistic and abstract (to the point of desiccation) mapping of the cosmos, I’m finding Hines’ commentary on Plotinus to be thoroughly fun by comparison. Most enjoyable of all, I’m learning how the intellectual story of mysticism unfolded in the early church, thanks to Andrew Louth’s magisterial (and all too brief) The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Next up on my reading schedule is a true warhorse of the contemplative tradition; a five-star, major-hitter mystic: Pseudo-Dionysius, aka Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, aka Denys (as Louth and others in the tradition call him). Denys/Pseudo-Dionysius, an unknown Syrian mystic theologian writing around the year 500 CE, crafted the ancient world’s most finely honed integration of pagan Neoplatonism and Christian spirituality in his few short treatises and letters; his corpus of writings therefore became massively influential throughout the church both east and west, with the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross among his disciples. So needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to the day when I would sit down and savor the Dionysian corpus, even if only in translation.

Well, as that day looms nearer, my anticipation has suddenly grown cold. In fact, I’m thinking I’m going to delay reading the works of Pseudo-Dionysius for several months, perhaps even a year.

Why? Because I don’t think I have a solid enough grasp on either early Christian doctrine, or Neoplatonism, to do Denys justice. And so I think I’m going to take a few months off and do some remedial reading, as it were. Louth argues persuasively that Proclus is too important for me just to dismiss because I’m impatient with an old translation. So I’m going to give the Elements of Theology another try, only this time using the E. R. Dodds translation. Louth also suggested that another Neoplatonist — Iamblichus — was an important influence on Denys. This surprised me, for I have tended to dismiss Iamblichus as a magician rather than a mystic. But repenting of my intellectual arrogance, I decided it’s only fair to actually read Iamblichus before blowing him off, so I’m going to take a crack at his De Mysteriis. Meanwhile, to help me bone up on my theology I’ll be dipping into J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, and probably also Norman Russell’s The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Meanwhile, to sharpen my knowledge of Neoplatonism, particularly as it helped to shape the emergence of Christian mysticism, I’m going to turn to one or more of these titles: Thomas Finan’s The Relationship Between Neoplatonism and Christianity, Dominic J. O’Meara’s Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, John J. O’Meara’s Studies in Augustine and Eriugena, and — if I can find a copy (I currently have an interlibrary loan request on this one) — S. Gersh’s From Iamblichus to Eriugena: An Investigation of the Prehistory and Evolution of the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition.

As much fun as all this academic reading will be, I don’t just want to stop reading the mystics while I’m on my Neoplatonic learning curve. So in addition to Iamblichus and Proclus, I figured I’d go back to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and polish off a couple of anthologies that look particularly promising: Origen, Spirit & Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Writings edited by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, selected and introduced by Jean Daniélou.

Finally, lest anyone should worry that I’m stuck on a first-half-millennium feedback loop, as I take this extra year to fortify my understanding of the headwaters of Christian mysticism I will still be dipping into the streams of the later tradition: for example, at the moment I’m working my way through The Cloud of Unknowing as well as two works by Teresa of Avila: The Book of My Life and Interior Castle.

So given all this, I think Pseudo-Dionysius can wait a number of months. It’s not like I won’t have anything to read in the meantime.

John Cassian's Three Renunciations
One Great Mystic Speaks of Another
Julian of Norwich
The Feast of Saint Hildegard