Mystical Theology

Dionysius the Areopagite

Note: Bold, red print and brackets [-] are mine. Dwayne.


 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 your mystical knowledge, 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, 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 nonbeing, that you may

arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it

that transcends all being and all knowledge.(1) For by the unceasing

and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be

borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the

superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness [e.g "The Light Shineth out of Darkness].

But these things are not to be disclosed to the uninitiated, by whom I

mean those attached to the objects of human thought, [the image] and who

believe there is no superessential Reality beyond, and who imagine

that by their own understanding they know it that has made

Darkness Its 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 it is in any way above

the images which they fashion after various designs ["Man has sought out many inventions"]; whereas they

should affirm that, while it possesses all the positive attributes of the

universe (being the Universal Cause) yet, in a more strict sense, it

does not possess them, since it transcends them all; wherefore there

is no contradiction between the affirmations and the negations,

inasmuch as it infinitely precedes all conceptions of deprivation,

being beyond all positive and negative distinctions.

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 [it's a knowing], as

having neither (human) speech nor (human) understanding, because

it is super-essentially exalted above created things, and reveals itself

in Its naked Truth to those alone who pass beyond all that is pure or

impure, and ascend above the topmost altitudes of holy [esoteric or spiritual] 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.(3)

It was not without reason that the blessed Moses was commanded

first to purify himself and them to separate himself from those who

had not undergone purification; and after the entire purification


heard many 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. Nevertheless, he did not attain to the Presence

of God itself; he saw not it (for it cannot be looked upon) but the

Place where it 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 it

that is above all. Through these, Its incomprehensible Presence is

manifested upon those heights of Its 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, wholly absorbed in it that 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 it that is

wholly unknowable; thus by knowing nothing he knows That which

is beyond his knowledge. (4)

 The necessity of being united with and of rendering praise to it that

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 [an image] and by unknowing we attain to true vision and

knowledge; and thus praise, superessentially, it that is


superessential, by the transcendence of all things; even as those

who, carving a statue out of marble, abstract or remove all the

surrounding material [metaphor, swaddling clothes, the veil etc.] that hinders the vision which the marble

conceals and, by that abstraction, bring to light the hidden beauty.(5)

It is necessary to distinguish this negative method of abstraction

from the positive method of affirmation, in which we deal with the

Divine Attributes. 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 [flesh], 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.


What are the affirmations and the negations concerning God?

In the Theological Outlines (6) 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; how the superessential Jesus enters in essential state

in which the truths of human nature meet; and other matters made

known by the Oracles are expounded in the same place.

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 it [example: third verse ]; 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 it, or the functions and instruments of activity

attributed to it; what are the places where it dwells and the raiment [metaphor's etc.] in

which it 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 Its slumber and waking; and all sacred and

symbolical representations. 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

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 that is above the intellect, we pass

not merely into brevity of speech, but even into absolute silence of

thoughts and of words. Thus, in the former discourse, our

contemplations descended from the highest to the lowest, embracing

an ever-widening number of conceptions [the "appearent" contradictions], 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 it that is totally ineffable. 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 [imagery] and upon which the remaining affirmations [peripherals] 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.

For is it not more true to affirm that God is Life and Goodness than

that God is air or stone; and must we not deny to God more

emphatically the attributes of inebriation and wrath than the

applications of human speech and thought?


That it that is the pre-eminent Cause of all things sensibly perceived

is not itself any of those things. [changes under observation. Quantum physics]

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 it a body, nor has it form or shape,

quality, quantity or weight; nor has it any localized, visible or

tangible existence; it is not sensible or perceptible; nor is it subject to

any disorder or inordination nor influenced by any earthly passion;

neither is it rendered impotent through the effects of material causes

and events; it needs no light; it suffers no change, corruption,

division, privation or flux; none of these things can either be

identified with or attributed unto it.



That that is the pre-eminent Cause of all things intelligibly

perceived is not itself any of those things. [Maya - the illusion. Quantum physics again]

Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that it is neither soul nor

intellect; nor has it imagination, opinion reason or understanding;

nor can it be expressed or conceived, since it is neither number nor

order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor

similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is it standing, nor moving, nor at

rest; neither has it power nor is power, nor is light; neither does it

live nor is it life; neither is it essence, nor eternity nor time; nor is it

subject to intelligible contact; nor is it science nor truth, nor kingship

nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness;

nor is it 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 [the 'image'] or the things that are not; neither does anything

that is know it as it is; nor does it know existing things according to

existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to it, nor name it,

nor know it; neither is it darkness nor light, nor the false nor the

true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to it, for

although we may affirm or deny the things below it, we can neither

affirm nor deny it, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of

all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of

Its absolute nature is outside of every negation- free from every

limitation [story] and beyond them all. [there is nothing that is not God. All things exist in its non-existence]



(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 it is

only truly to be approached by agnosia, or by that which is beyond

and above knowledge [which surpasses all understanding]. There are two main kinds of darkness: the subdarkness 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. [See: The Serpent Protector]

(2) 'Of the First Principle,' says Damascius, 'the ancient Egyptians

said nothing, but celebrated it 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, 1, 5). 'In Thy light we

shall see light' (Psalm 36, 9).

(3)St. John of the Cross, for instance, wrote 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 [as is penned by Paul: 'For if the truth of God {the Word} hath more abounded through my lie - darkness - unto his glory'....etc..].

(4) Particularly important here is the concept of beyond-being, the

recognition that what is known in the unknowing is beyond the

realm of being and cannot be adequately described, although

negation comes closer than affirmation.


(5) 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, 1, 6, 9).

(6) Dionysius refers to several of his treatises, but besides the

Mystical Theology the other extant works of his are Divine Names,

The Celestial Hierarchies, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and various

epistles. See The Complete Works, Colm Luibheid, trs., (Paulist

Press: 1987), now, unfortunately, out of print.

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