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

Mystical Theology of Dionysius: Transcendental God-Talk. Chapter One. Section Three. Part Two. March 12, 2018

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.

Through the use of reason, we can begin to understand and recognize that reason, however good and useful a tool it is for discerning the truth, remains rather limited in its capabilities. We cannot come to know all there is to know about the universe: its great size transcends what our mind is capable of knowing, let alone investigating and determining how everything in the universe works and interacts with each other. Likewise, the truths about God, who himself infinitely transcends the universe as the universe transcends us, cannot be entirely established by the use of reason alone. We observe and analyze. We must take what is given to us and use our reason to engage it, but what we receive from our analysis is at best insignificant compared to what we are not able to ascertain. We will find ourselves coming to a great mystery riddled with paradoxes, such as the antinomies of Kant, which we must accept because we recognize the reality of it even if we cannot explain it. Sometimes, with a great amount of work, we can get a better understanding of the truth, but when we do so, we find that what it points to is an even greater mystery with its own paradoxes which eventually we will have to accept if we want to be true to ourselves. There is a limit to what we can analyze; there is a limit to what we can explain. Until we are willing to accept our finitude, and the limitations which this gives to us in establishing or describing the truth as it is, we will not be able to receive the truth. We must come to the truth in a faith which transcends understanding and yet which somehow comes to us in a form which we can apprehend. Those skilled in the art of reason, instead of those who merely argue for being rational, know this already because they know the rules of logic only deduce conclusions based upon pre-established truths or postulates which transcend rational analysis: ultimately, we have to have faith in something which is given over to us or else end up drowning in pure skepticism.

Bartholomew, the “he” Dionysius is talking about here, came to know the truth of mystical theology, not by figuring it out through human reason, but by cutting off all discursive reason which hinders the apprehension of the truth. That is, Bartholomew followed the path which all mystical theology proclaims is necessary, from the exploration of all positive assertions about God to the apophatic denial which leads to silence so that nothing stands in the way from God’s self-revelation which is given at the summit of the mystical path. Bartholomew was able to comprehend the truth, not of God, but of mystical theology because of the supernatural enlightenment which he received in and through his contemplation of God. Such contemplation begins with much utterance as the positive truths about God are being examined and proclaimed for the sake of coming to know the greatness of God. Thus, we begin our journey exploring what it means when we praise God with statements such as God is great, God is omnipotent, God is omniscient, or that God is the source and foundation of every being. Exploring these topics can and will provide many words, many utterances; indeed, they can be never-ending.

We must always keep in mind, as we engage God in this manner, we are speaking of the truth of God in a conventional form; what we say must be realized as symbolic pointers to truths which transcend the words, lest what we say becomes misconstrued as being what the fullness of God entails. The implications and self-contradictions or paradoxes which develop as a result of our contemplation show the inherent problem with human reason:  it is like trying to solve a puzzle by cutting away at the puzzle pieces to make them fit: the picture which develops will be distorted, and so, the theological picture which develops out of our words will likewise be distorted, explaining how and why such paradoxes develop.  They can help us understand the limits of our use of reason, if we allow them to, or else, we become so attached to the words that we begin to deny the theological picture which we try to establish through them, turning ourselves into nihilists denying the very truth of God. The picture which our theological utterances develops will be very coarse; not everything we realize of the truth of God will easily fit together in a way which we comprehend (as, for example, the teaching of the Trinity), but if we are willing to accept the limitations of the puzzle pieces which we made, this will not detour us but rather motivate us to move beyond a picture of our own construction and rather to accept the truth as it is, recognizing the value of the picture while putting it away lest it is put it up like a veil hiding the very truth of God from ourselves by it.

Thus, Bartholomew is said to have gone from theological contemplation based upon human reason, seeking basic insight into the truth of God which can be ascertained through such reflection, to slowly giving it up; from many utterances to the briefest utterance and finally without utterance. Contemplation goes from insight which motivates us to seek and know God better to allowing God reveal himself to us without interference. Then, with the grace which we receive in such an encounter, we can know God supernaturally, beyond the capability of human reason alone, knowing the truth because of our encounter with it instead of trying to reflect upon and establish it for ourselves. Try as we might to begin with rational principles in order to establish the truth, we must realize our acceptance of those principles cannot be founded upon those same rational principles because by doing so, we would only provide a circular argument. We accept the principles of reason despite being unable to argue for them; in this fashion, once we realize we accept truths beyond human reason to accept the validity of human reasoning itself, so we can begin to realize the need to silence our thoughts in order to stop them from interfering with our experience of the truth of God itself. God is established not by logical proof, but by his presence which transcends all such proof, for what such proofs establish are not God as he is, but what the human mind establishes to put in the position of God which will necessarily be less than who and what God is. [1]

This encounter with God as he is, requires us to silence all our thoughts, all our attempts to contain God in our concepts. We move, therefore, away from human thought, away from attempting to establish God in our contemplative thoughts, so that we can engage the mysterious realm of God where God is as he is in himself without anything between God and us. This is the summit of our mystical experience: God himself as he is without veil, without any mediator between him and us. We move from the light of our own thoughts, to the light of truths revealed to us from some secondary sources, like angels and prophets, until at last we find ourselves in a darkness without such light, where all that is before us is God, who is superessentially exalted above all.  Along our journey to God, we will find ourselves purifying our mind as we silence it even as we purify ourselves in our word and deed by cooperating with God’s grace; then, we become consecrated and pure.  

Thus, on our journey towards God, we go from our thoughts about God, to secondary revelations of truth which transcend what we know, to God himself. Through the journey, we become consecrated and holy, a royal priesthood capable of engaging God himself so that we do not need to rely upon those secondary sources of inspiration any longer.  This is why Dionysius said that we are said to ascend above every ascent of all holy summits, and leave behind all divine lights and sounds, and heavenly words; all that is in the world and through the world veils God from us. When something transcends where we are at and can help lift us up to a better spiritual position, we can use them, but eventually we will need to move beyond them to what they point to, to God himself. The divine lights and sounds and heavenly words all manifest the truth of God to us, but eventually we will move beyond them because they are derivative reflections of the truth. Once we find ourselves abandoning them, we will have to rely upon the true light of God. We will find this light is so bright, it overwhelms us; we find ourselves blinded by it as if we are in a dark gloom; there we have come to the Abyss of God, drowning, as it were, in He Who is beyond all.  We must dive into the ocean of God in order to truly understand and know God by being surrounded by him and him alone without any veil. Then, we will find ourselves in a new journey, in the journey which is in God himself, going deeper and deeper into the abyss of God, where the light becomes greater and greater, ever more radiant and beautiful, causing us to love God that much more as we find his glory is that much greater than we could have ever imagined.


[Image=Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo by Serge Melki  [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] This is not to say there is no value in the so-called proofs for God; they can help us to begin thinking about God and opening ourselves up to him through such contemplation, but the reason why they fail to convince so many is because they rely upon truths which transcend what such proofs can provide.  Whatever can be established by them will not be God as he is, but something which is less than God which intuitively many will realize is not God and so will deny what is said to be proven without realizing fully what was wrong with the proof.


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