Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter One. Section Three. Part One.

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter One. Section Three. Part One. March 5, 2018


Thus, then, the divine Bartholomew says that Theology is much and least, and the Gospel broad and great, and on the other hand concise. He seems to me to have comprehended this supernaturally, that the good Cause of all is both of much utterance, and at the same time of briefest utterance and without utterance; as having neither utterance nor conception, because It is superessentially exalted above all, and manifested without veil and in truth, to those alone who pass through both all things consecrated  and pure, and ascend above every ascent of all holy summits, and leave behind all divine lights and sounds, and heavenly words, and enter into the gloom, where really is, as the Oracles say, He Who is beyond all. For even the divine Moses is himself strictly bidden to be first purified, and then to be separated from those who are not so, and after entire cleansing hears the many-voiced trumpets, and sees many lights, shedding pure and streaming rays; then he is separated from the multitude, and with the chosen priests goes first to the summit of the divine ascents, although even then he does not meet with Almighty God Himself, but views not Him (for He is viewless) but the place where He is. Now this I think signifies that the most Divine and Highest of the things seen and contemplated are a sort of suggestive expression, ‘of the things subject to Him Who is above all, through which His wholly inconceivable Presence is shown, reaching to the highest spiritual summits of His most holy places; and then he (Moses) is freed from them who are both seen and seeing, and enters into the gloom of the Agnosia; a gloom veritably mystic, within which he closes all perceptions of knowledge and enters into the altogether impalpable and unseen, being wholly of Him Who is beyond all, and of none, neither himself nor other; and by inactivity of all knowledge, united in his better part to. the altogether Unknown, and by knowing nothing, knowing above mind.

Having introduced kataphatic and apophatic theology, Dionysius then shows us how all God-talk, all theological exploration of God, is paradoxical in nature through the words of one of his teachers, Bartholomew:

Thus, then, the divine Bartholomew says that Theology is much and least, and the Gospel broad and great, and on the other hand concise.

Who is Bartholomew? Those who assumed that Dionysius was the Areopagite believed him to be one of the twelve Apostles (cf. Matt. 10:3). But this could not be the case, because Dionysius was not the Areopagite but someone taking on his mantle for our benefit. For this reason, this Bartholomew is someone else, likely a priest or monk who helped initiate Dionysius into the mystical way of life. He could have actually been named Bartholomew or Dionysius could have used that name for him because of symbolism he associated with the name. Bartholomew: Βαρθολομαιος (Bartholomaios), is the Greek transliteration of an ancient Aramaic name meaning “bar” (son) of Talmai (furrows). As a furrow is an irrigation trench which is made in fields for the sake of planting seeds. Through the furrows of Bartholomew’s paradoxes, our mind becomes receptive to the seed of grace which allows us to be enlightened by God in a means beyond all discursive thought.

Theology, speech about God, is going to be much, indeed, the greatest amount of speech possible, when exploring God and discussing God in relation to kataphatic theology. When trying to express the unlimited God in limited words, each word, which points to and expresses something about the infinite, incomprehensible God, can be complemented with an infinite number of words. Even if we could put such an infinite number of words and expressions about God together, they would still fail to comprehend who God is in himself. Yet, this is not to say we should not engage such theological exploration. It is a necessary part of becoming aware of God. The more we speak of God, the better we express the greatness of God, the more we realize that there are things about God which we have not yet discussed or even considered. Thus, the more we speak of God, the greater we realize how much more there is to say when trying to explain who God is and why he is so great and worthy of our love. Theology, in this sense, will produce a great amount of words, indeed, it could be said, “Of making many books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12b RSV).

But there comes a time in which we need to end such discussions about God. We find ourselves needing more than what words can establish. There is a time when we need to silence all our thoughts, all our ideas of God in order to let God be God. The teaching of the Gospel recognizes this as well. When the revelation of God comes to us, when the seals of our souls are removed, there will be a time of silence: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev. 8:1 RSV). As the mind cannot contain the truth of God in itself, it must take on the silence of adoration, experiencing the truth beyond all thought. Here, we have true theology, true God-talk, where the soul gives itself over to God in the speech of the heart, in the speech of love which sees all attempts to speak with words concerning that love will fail.

The Gospel, which is going to be broad, not only because of the reach of the Gospel is the whole of creation, but because of the great number of words which can be used to teach others, will find itself becoming concise as words vanish and silence prevails. The fullness of truth is not found in words but in the one Word of God, the Logos from which all other words flow. The Word of God is one, not many, but many words come from it, even as the Word of God is one, and yet all things come from it. Thus, the integral unity behind all creation shows how all things can be summed up in the divine simplicity of the Logos and yet the diversity of beings which exists shows how that concise nature can be and will be experienced in a broad manner. Though we end up with the concise single Word of God, and with it, the single integral unity of all creation in the Word, this does not mean we must ignore or reject the broad way which uses words: as St. Albert the Great explained, the Word himself engaged the world and taught his disciples and all who would listen through the use of words, providing all kinds of parables which are filled with deep theological content and yet, even with them, the concise nature of the Gospel can be found in how all those parables, all the teachings of the Word made flesh, aim for one simple purpose: to reveal to us the truth of God.[1] That is, God certainly comes to us and reveals himself to us in a form which we can appreciate and yet in a form which itself manifest the transcendence of the truth by making us consider what lies behind the words. We can follow the example of the incarnation and speak of God with many words, but we must always keep the same transcendent purpose in minds, lest we become stuck in the words themselves and reify them, taking that which is less than God as what God is instead of a useful tool which helps us consider and reflect upon God.

To proclaim the Gospel, we must appreciate the proper application of words and use them to the fullest so that they can best represent the simple transcendent truth of the Word of God.  The paradox which we are given here is the paradox of the coincidence of opposites in God: God is great and simple, the truth is broad and spoken of in many forms, and yet one. We must be able to accept the value of kataphatic theology before we transcend it in our apophatic denials; but then we must realize our apophatic denials also come in and through words, adding to the broad use of words. Once we do this, we then realize we are to turn beyond both expressions of theology to the silence which opens up to God in order to verify the truth of our theology. Our words about God can be said to be relatively true so long as they conform to and coincide with the great, transcendent simplicity of God himself.

Mystical theology, therefore, is itself capable of being broad, because of the greatness of God, but yet it is still to end up being concise, as our words will come to an end and we will come to the truth in the silence beyond words. The truth formed in and through words are true insofar as they point to and conform to the truth beyond words. Likewise, in our own personal spirituality, we will start with thoughts and words about God, but must end in a dialogue of the heart, in a union with God which transcends words and yet can be reflected in them once that union has truly been established.


[Image=The Martyrdom of Bartholomew by Andrea Vaccaro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] See St. Albert the Great, “Commentary on Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas, Selected Writings. Trans. Simon Tugwell, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 154.


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