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Lecture 14: Dionysius the Areopagite

Lecture 14
Dionysius the Areopagite

The Logos in the Latin Church.

HAVING shown, as I hope, that in the earliest theological representation of Christianity which we find in the Alexandrian Fathers of the Church, the most prominent thought is the same as that of the Vedânta, how to find a way from earth to heaven, or still better how to find heaven on earth, to discover God in man and man in God, it only remains to show that this ancient form of Christianity, though it was either not understood at all or misunderstood in later ages, still maintained itself under varying forms in an uninterrupted current from the second to the nineteenth century.

We can see the thoughts of St. Clement and Origen transplanted to the Western Church, though the very language in which they had to be clothed obscured their finer shades of meaning. There is no word in Latin to convey the whole of the meaning of Logos; again the important distinction between Θϵός and Θϵός is difficult to render in a language which has no articles. The distinction between ousia and hypostasis was difficult to express, and yet an inaccurate rendering might at once become heresy. St. Jerome1 who had all his life used the expression tres personae, complained bitterly that because he would not use the expression tres substantiae, he was looked at with suspicion. ‘Because we do not learn the (new) words, we are judged heretical’


We have only to read what Latin Fathers—for instance, Tertullian—say about Christ as the Logos, in order to perceive at once how the genius of the Latin language modifies and cripples the old Greek thought. When Tertullian begins (Apolog. cap. xxi) to speak about Christ as God, he can only say De Christo ut Deo. This might be interpreted as if he took Christ to be Θϵός, and predicated of Him the hypostasis of the Father, which is impossible. What he means to predicate is the ousia of the Godhead. Then he goes on: ‘We have already said that God made this universe Verbo, et Ratione, et Virtute, that is by the Word, by Reason, by Power.’ He has to use two words verbum and ratio to express Logos. Even then he seems to feel that he ought to make his meaning clearer, and he adds: ‘It is well known that with you philosophers also Logos, that is Speech (sermo), and Reason (ratio), is considered as the artist of the universe. For Zeno defines him as the maker who had formed everything in order, and says that he is also called Fate, God, and the mind of God, and the necessity of all things. Cleanthes comprehends all these as Spirit which, as he asserts, pervades the universe. We also ascribe to Speech, Reason, and Power (sermo, ratio, et virtue), through which, as we said, God made everything, a proper substance, the Spirit2, who as Word issues the fiat (of creation), as Reason gives order to the universe, and as Power carries his work on to a complete perfection3. We have learnt that he was brought out from God, and generated by prolation, and was therefore called Son of God and God, from the unity of the substance. For God is Spirit, and when a ray is sent forth from the sun, it is a portion from the whole, but the sun will be in the ray, because the ray is the sun's ray, not separated from it in substance, but extended. Thus comes Spirit from Spirit, and God from God, like a light lit from a light.’

We see throughout that Tertullian (160–240) wishes to express what St. Clement and Origen had expressed before him. But not having the Greek tools to work with, his verbal picture often becomes blurred. The introduction of Spiritus, which may mean the divine nature, but is not sufficiently distinguished from pneuma, logos, the divine Word, and from the spiritus sanctus, the Holy Ghost, confuses the mind of the readers, particularly if they were Greek philosophers, accustomed to the delicately edged Greek terminology.

Dionysius the Areopagite.

It would no doubt be extremely interesting to follow the tradition of these Alexandrian doctrines, as they were handed down both in the West and in the East, and to mark the changes which they experienced in the minds of the leading theological authorities in both Churches. But this is a work far beyond my strength. All that I feel still called upon to do is to attempt to point out how, during the centuries which separate us from the first five centuries of our era, this current of Christian thought was never entirely lost, but rose to the surface again and again at the most critical periods in the history of the Christian religion. Unchecked by the Council of Nicaea (325), that ancient stream of philosophical and religious thought flows on, and we can hear the distant echoes of Alexandria in the writings of St. Basil (329–379), Gregory of Nyssa (332–395 ), Gregory of Nazianz (328–389), as well as in the Works of St. Augustine (364–430). In its original pagan form Neo-Platonism asserted itself once more through the powerful advocacy of Proclus (411–485), while in its Christian form it received about the same time (500 A.D?) a most powerful renewed impulse from a pseudonymous writer, Dionysius the Areopagite. I must devote some part of my lecture to this writer on account of the extraordinary influence which his works acquired in the history of the mediaeval Church. He has often been called the father of Mystic Christianity, which is only a new name for Alexandrian Christianity in one of its various aspects, and he has served for centuries as the connecting link between the ancient and the mediaeval Church. No one could understand the systems of St. Bernard (1091–1153) and Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) without a knowledge of Dionysius. No one could account for the thoughts and the very language of Master Eckhart (1260–1329) without a previous acquaintance with the speculations of that last of the Christian Neo-Platonists. Nay, Gerson (1363–1429), St. Theresa (1515–1582), Molinos (1640–1687), Mad. de Guyon (1648–1717), all have been touched by his magic wand. Few men have achieved so wide and so lasting a celebrity as this anonymous writer, and, we must add, with so little to deserve it. Though Dionysius the Areopagite is often represented as the founder of Christian mysticism, I must confess that after reading Philo, St. Clement, and Origen, I find very little in his writings that can be called original.

Writings of Diouysius.

It is well known that this Dionysius the Areopagite is not the real Dionysius who with Damaris and others clave unto St. Paul after his sermon on Areopagus. Of him we know nothing more than what we find in the Acts. But there was a Christian Neo-Platonist who, as Tholuck has been the first to show, wrote about 500 A.D. The story of his book is very curious. It has often been told; for the last time by the present Bishop of Durham, Dr. Westcott, in his thoughtful Essays on the History of Religious Thought in the West, published in 1891. I chiefly follow him and Tholuck in giving you the following facts. The writings of Dionysius were referred to for the first time at the Conference held at Constantinople in 533 A.D., and even at that early time they were rejected by the orthodox as of doubtful authenticity. Naturally enough, for who had ever heard before of Dionysius, the pupil of St. Paul, as an author? Even St. Cyril and Athanasius knew nothing yet about any writings of his, and no one of the ancients had ever quoted them. But in spite of all this, there was evidently something fascinating about these writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. In the seventh century they were commented on by Maximius (died 662); and Photius in his Bibliotheca (c. 845) mentions an essay by Theodorus, a presbyter, written in order to defend the genuineness of the volume of St. Dionysius. We need not enter into these arguments for and against the genuineness of these books, if what is meant by genuineness is their being written by Dionysius the Areopagite in the first century of our era. I even doubt whether the author himself ever meant to commit anything like a fraud or a forgery4. He was evidently a Neo-Platonist Christian, and his book was a fiction, not uncommon in those days, just as in a certain sense the dialogues of Plato are fictions, and the speeches of Thucydides are fictions, though never intended to deceive anybody. A man at the present day might write under the name of Dean Swift, if he wished to state what Dean Swift would have said if he had lived at the present moment. Why should not a Neo-Platonist philosopher have spoken behind the mask of Dionysius the Areopagite, if he wished to state what a Greek philosopher would naturally have felt about Christianity. It is true there are some few touches in the writings ascribed to Dionysius which were meant to give some local colouring and historical reality to this philosophical fiction; but even such literary artifices must not be put down at once as intentional fraud. There is, for instance, a treatise De Vita Contemplativa, which is ascribed to Philo. But considering that it contains a panegyric on asceticism as practised by the Therapeutai in Egypt, it is quite clear that it could never have been written by Philo Judaeus. It was probably written by a Christian towards the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century. If for some unknown reason the author wrote under the name of Philo, this literary artifice could hardly have taken in any of his contemporaries, if indeed it was ever meant to do so5.

But whatever the object of the writer may have been, whether honest or dishonest, certain it is that he found a large public willing to believe in the actual authorship of Dionysius the Areopagite. The greatest writers of the Greek Church accepted these books as the real works of the Areopagite. Still greater was their success in the West. They were referred to by Gregory the Great (c. 600), and quoted by Pope Adrian I in a letter to Charles the Great.

The first copy of the Dionysian writings reached the West in the year 827, when Michael, the stammerer, sent a copy to Louis I, the son of Charles. And here a new mystification sprang up. They were received in the abbey of St. Denis, near Paris, by the Abbot Hilduin. They arrived on the very vigil of the feast of St. Dionysius, and, absurd as it may sound, Dionysius the Areopagite was identified with St. Denis, the Apostle of France, the patron saint of the Abbaye of St. Denis; and thus national pride combined with theological ignorance to add still greater weight and greater sanctity to these Dionysian writings in France.

Translation by Scotus Erigena.

The only difficulty was how to read and translate them. France at that time was not rich in Greek scholars, and the language of Dionysius is by no means easy to understand. Hilduin, the abbot of St. Denis, attempted a translation, but failed. The son of Louis, Charles the Bald, was equally anxious to have a Latin translation of the writings of St. Denis, the patron saint of France, and he found at last a competent translator in the famous Scotus Erigena, who lived at his court. Scotus Erigena was a kindred spirit, and felt strongly attracted by the mystic speculations of Dionysius. His translation must have been made before the year 861, for in that year Pope Nicholas I complained in a letter to Charles the Bald that the Latin translation of Dionysius had never been sent to him for approval. A copy was probably sent to Rome at once, and in 865 we find Anastasius, the Librarian of the Roman See, addressing a letter to Charles, commending the wonderful translation made by one whom he calls the barbarian living at the end of the world, that is to say, Scotus Erigena, whether Irishman or Scotchman. Scotus was fully convinced that Dionysius was the contemporary of St. Paul, and admired him both for his antiquity and for the sublimity of the heavenly graces which had been bestowed upon him.

As soon as the Greek text and the Latin translation had become accessible, Dionysius became the object of numerous learned treatises. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were both devoted students of his works, and never doubted their claims to an apostolic date. It was not till the revival of learning that these claims were re-examined and rejected, and rejected with such irresistible evidence that people wondered how these compositions could ever have been accepted as apostolic. We need not enter into these arguments. It is no longer heresy to doubt their apostolical authorship or date. No one doubts at present that the writer was a Neo-Platonist Christian, as Tholuck suggested long ago, and that he lived towards the end of the fifth century, probably at Edessa in Syria. But though deprived of their fictitious age and authorship, these writings retain their importance as having swayed the whole of mediaeval Christianity more than any other book, except the New Testament itself. They consist of treatises (1) on the Heavenly Hierarchy, (2) on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, (3) on the Divine Names, (4) on Mystical Theology. There are other books mentioned as his, but now lost6. They are most easily accessible now in the Abbé Migne's edition (Paris, 1857).

The Influence of the Dionysian Writings.

If we ask how it was that these books exercised so extraordinary a fascination on the minds of the most eminent theologians during the Middle Ages, the principal reason seems to have been that they satisfied a want which exists in every human heart, the want of knowing that there is a real relation between the human soul and God. That want was not satisfied by the Jewish religion. It has been shown but lately by an eminent Scotch theologian, what an impassable gulf the Old Testament leaves between the soul and God. And though it was the highest object of the teaching of Christ, if properly understood, to bridge that gulf, it was not so understood by the Jewish Christians who formed some of the first and in some respects most important Christian communities. Dionysius set boldly to work to construct, if not a bridge, at least a kind of Jacob's ladder between heaven and earth; and it was this ladder, as we shall see, that appealed so strongly to the sympathy of his numerous followers.

No doubt the idea that he was the contemporary of St. Paul added to his authority. There are several things in his works which would hardly have been tolerated by the orthodox, except as coming from the mouth of an apostolic teacher. Thus Dionysius affirms that the Hebrews were in no sense a chosen people before the rest, that the lot of all men is equal, and that God has a like care for all mankind. It is a still bolder statement of Dionysius that Christ before His resurrection was simply a mortal man, even inferior, as it were, to the angels, and that only after the resurrection did He become at once immortal man and God of all. There are other views of at all events doubtful orthodoxy which seem to have been tolerated in Dionysius, but would have provoked ecclesiastical censure if coming from any other source.

Sources of Dionysius.

It must not be supposed, however, that Dionysius was original in his teaching, or that he was the first who discovered Greek, more particularly Neo-Platonist ideas, behind the veil of Christian doctrines. Dionysius, like the early Eleatic philosophers, starts from the belief in God, as the absolute Being, τὸ ὄν, the conscious God as absolutely transcendent, as the cause which is outside its effects, and yet multiplies itself so as to be dynamically present in every one of them. This multiplication or this streaming forth of the Deity is ascribed to Love (ἔρως) within God, and is supposed to be carried out according to certain designs or types (προορισμοί, παραδϵίγματα), that is to say, not at random, but according to law or reason. In this we can recognise the Stoic logoi and the Platonic ideas, and we shall see that in their intermediary character they appear once more in the system of Dionysius under the name of the Hierarchies of angels. The soul which finds itself separated from God by this manifold creation has but one object, namely to return from out the manifoldness of created things to a state of likeness and oneness with God (ἀϕομοίωσις, ἕνωσις, θϵ́ωις). The chasm between the Deity and the visible world is filled by a number of beings which vary in name, but are always the same in essence. Dionysius calls them a Hierarchy. St. Clement had already used the same term7, when he describes ‘the graduated hierarchy like a chain of iron rings, each sustaining and sustained, each saving and saved, and all held together by the Holy Spirit, which is Faith.’ Origen is familiar with the same idea, and Philo tells us plainly that what people call angels are really the Stoic logoi8.

The Daimones.

We can trace the same idea still further back. In Hesiod, as we saw, and in Plato's Timaeus, the chasm between the two worlds was filled with the Daimones. In the later Platonist teaching these Daimones became more and more systematised. They were supposed to perform all the work which is beneath the dignity of the impassive Godhead. They create, they will, and rule everything. Some of them are almost divine, others nearly human, others again are demons in the modern sense of the word, spirits of evil. Many of the ancient mythological gods had to accept a final resting-place among these Daimones. This theory of Daimones supplied in fact the old want of a bridge between God and man, and the more abstract the idea of God became in the philosophy of the Platonists, the stronger became their belief in the Daimones. The description given of them by Maximus Tyrius, by Plutarch and others, is often most touching, and shows deep religious feeling.

Thus Apuleius, De Deo Socratico, 674, writes: ‘Plato and his followers are blameless if, conceiving that the purely spiritual ual and emotionless nature of God precluded Him from direct action upon this world of matter, they imagined a hierarchy of beneficent beings, called Daimones, partaking of the divine nature by reason of their immortality, and of human nature by reason of their subjection to emotions, and fitted therefore to act as intermediaries between earth and heaven, between God and man.’

Maximus, the Tyrian (Diss. xiv. 5), describes these Daimones as a link between human weakness and divine beauty, as bridging over the gulf between mortal and immortal, and as acting between gods and men as interpreters acted between Greeks and bar-barians. He calls them secondary gods (θϵοὶ δϵύτϵροι), and speaks of them as the departed souls of virtuous men, appointed by God to overrule every part of human life, by helping the good, avenging the injured, and punishing the unjust. They are messengers of unseen things, ἄγγϵλοι τω̑ν ἀϕαν ω̑ν and Plutarch, too, calls them messengers or angels between gods and men, describing them as the spies of the former, wandering at their commands, punishing wrong-doers, and guarding the course of the virtuous (Cessation of oracles, 13; Face in the orb of the moon, 30).

Origen points out that the angels were sometimes spoken of as gods in the Psalms (c. Cels. v. 4), but when challenged by Celsus why Christians do not worship the Daimones, and particularly the heavenly luminaries, he answers that the sun himself and the moon and the stars pray to the Supreme God through His only-begotten Son, and that therefore they think it improper to pray to those beings who themselves offer prayers to God (ὑμνου̑μϵ́ν γϵ θϵὸν καὶ τὸν Μονογϵνη ̑ αὐτου̑, c. Cels v. v. 11; viii. 67).

Celsus, who doubts everything that does not admit of a philosophical justification, is nevertheless so convinced of the reality and of the divine goodness of the Daimones that he cannot understand why the Christians should be so ungrateful as not to worship them.

There is an honest ring in an often-quoted passage of his in which he exhorts the Christians not to despise their old Daimones:

‘Every good citizen,’ he says, ‘ought to respect the worship of his fathers. And God gave to the Daimones the honour which they claimed. Why then should the Christians refuse to eat at the table of the Daimones? They give us corn and wine and the very air we breathe; we must either submit to their benefits or quit the world altogether. All that is really important in Christianity is the belief in the immortality of the soul, and in the future blessedness of the good, the eternal punishment of the wicked. But why not swear by the Emperor, the dispenser of all temporal blessings, as God of all spiritual? Why not sing a paean to the bright Sun or Athene, and at any rate kiss the hand to those lower deities who can do us harm if neglected? It cannot be supposed that the great Roman Empire will abandon its tried and ancient faith for a barbarous novelty (9 i.e. Christianity).’

Plutarch expresses the same strong faith in the Daimones, when he says:

‘He who denies the Daimones, denies providence and breaks the chain that unites the world with the throne of God.’

We can well understand, therefore, that those among the Platonists who had become Christians, required something to fill the empty niches in their hearts, which had formerly been occupied by the Greek Daimones. In order to bring the Supreme Godhead into contact with the world, they invented their own Daimones, or rather gave new names to the old. St. Clement speaks glibly of the gods, but he declares that all the host of angels and gods are placed in subjection to the Son of God10.

Even St. Augustine does not hesitate to speak of the gods who dwell in the holy and heavenly habitation, but he means by them, as he says, angels and rational creatures, whether thrones or dominations or principalities or powers.

We saw that when the logoi had been conceived as one, the Logos was called the Son of God, the first begotten or even the only begotten. When conceived as many, the same logoi had been spoken of as Angels by Philo, and as Aeons by the Gnostics11. They were now represented as a hierarchy by Dionysius. This hierarchy, however, has assumed a very different character from that of the Aristotelian logoi. The Stoics saw in their logoi an explanation of created things, of trees, animals, and fishes, or of universal elements, not only water, earth, fire, and air, but beat and cold, sweetness and bitterness, light and darkness, etc. The Platonists, and more particularly the Neo-Platonist Christians, had ceased to care for these things. It was not the origin and descent of species, but the ascent of the human soul that principally occupied their thoughts. The names which were given to these intermediate creations which had come forth from God, which had assumed a substantial existence by the side of God, nay after a time had become like personal beings, were taken from the Bible, though it is difficult to understand on what principle, if on any. Origen already had spoken of Angels, and Thrones, and Dominions, Princedoms, Virtues, and Powers, and of an infinite stairway of worlds, on which the souls were perpetually descending and ascending till they reached final union with God.

Influence of Dionysius during the Middle Ages.

What puzzles the historian is why Dionysius, who simply arranges these ancient thoughts without adding much, if anything, of his own, should have become the great authority for Theosophy or Mystic Christianity during the whole of the Middle Ages. He is quoted alike by the most orthodox of schoolmen, and by the most speculative philosophers who had almost ceased to be Christians. His first translator, Scotus Erigena, used him as a trusted shield against his own antagonists. Thomas Aquinas appeals to him on every opportunity, and even when he differs from him treats him as an authority, second only to the Apostles, if second even to them.

The System of Dionysius.

One explanation is that he saw that all religion, and certainly the Christian, must fulfil the desire of the soul for God, must in fact open a return to God. Creation, even if conceived as emanation only, is a separation from God; salvation therefore, such as Christianity promises to supply, must be a return to God, who is all in all, the only true existence in all things. Dionysius tries to explain how a bright and spiritual light goes forth and spreads throughout all creation from the Father of light. That light, he says, is one and entirely the same through all things, and although there is diversity of objects, the light remains one and undivided in different objects, so that, without confusion, variety may be assigned to the objects, identity to the light.

All rational creatures who have a capacity for the divine nature are rarefied by the marvellous shining of the heavenly light, lightened and lifted up closely to it, nay made one with it. In this great happiness are all those spiritual natures which we call angels, on whom the light is shed forth in its untempered purity.

But as for men, who are clogged by the heavy mass of the body, they can only receive a kind of tempered light through the ministry of the angels, till at last they find truth, conquer the flesh, strive after the spirit, and rest in spiritual truth. Thus the all-merciful God recalls degraded men and restores them to truth and light itself.

But Dionysius is not satisfied with these broad outlines, he delights in elaborating the minute and to our mind often very fantastic details of the emanation of the divine light.

He tells us how there are three triads, or nine divisions in the celestial hierarchy. Possibly these three Triads may have been suggested by the three triads of Plato which we discussed in a former Lecture. In the first triad there are first of all the Seraphim, illumined by God Himself, and possessing the property of perfection. Then follow the Cherubim as illumined and taught by the Seraphim, and possessing the property of illumination. The third place in the first triad is assigned to the Thrones, or steadfast natures who are enlightened by the second order, and distinguished by purification.

Then follow in succession the, Dominations, the Virtues, and the Powers, and after that, the Principalities, the Archangels, and Angels. These nine stations are all minutely described, but in the end their main object is to hand down and filter, as it were, the divine light till it can be made fit for human beings. Human beings are below the angels, but if properly enlightened they may become like angels, nay like gods. Partial light was communicated by Moses, purer light by Christ, though His full light will shine forth in heaven only. There the true Son is with the Father. The Father is the beginning from which are all things. The Son is the means through which all things are beautifully ordered, the Holy Ghost is the end by which all things are completed and perfected. The Father created all things because He is good—this is the cold Platonic idea—and because He is good, He also recalls to Himself all things according to their capacity.

However much we may agree with the general drift of this Dionysian theology, some of these details seem extremely childish. And yet it is these very details which seem to have taken the fancy of generation after generation of Christian teachers and preachers and their audiences. To the present day the belief of the Church in a hierarchy of angels and their functions is chiefly derived from Dionysius.

Milman on Dionysius.

The existence of this regular celestial hierarchy became, as Milman (vi. 405) remarks, an admitted fact in the higher and more learned theology. The schoolmen reason upon it as on the Godhead itself: in its more distinct and material outline it became the vulgar belief and the subject of frequent artistic representation. Milman writes:

‘The separate and occasionally discernible being and nature of seraphim and cherubim, of archangel and angel, in that dim confusion of what was thought revealed in the Scripture, and what was sanctioned by the Church—of image and reality, this Oriental, half-Magian, half-Talmudic, but now Christianised theory, took its place, if with less positive authority, with hardly less unquestioned credibility, amid the rest of the faith.’

Dr. Milman suggests with a certain irony that what made this celestial hierarchy so acceptable to the mediaeval clergy, may have been the corresponding ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dionysius in his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy proceeded to show that there was another hierarchy, reflecting the celestial, a human and material hierarchy, communicating divine light, purity, and knowledge to corporeal beings. The earthly sacerdotal order had its type in heaven, the celestial orders their antitype on earth. As there was light, purity, and knowledge, so there were three orders of the earthly hierarchy, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons; three Sacraments, Baptism, the Eucharist, the Holy Chrism; three classes, the Baptised, the Communicants, the Monks. The ecclesiastical hierarchies themselves were formed and organised after the pattern of the great orders in heaven. The whole worship of man, which they administered, was an echo of that above; it represented, as in a mirror, the angelic or superangelic worship in the empyrean. All its splendour, its lights, its incense, were but the material symbols, adumbration of the immaterial, condescending to human thought, embodying in things cognisable to the senses of man the adoration of beings close to the throne of God.

There may be some truth in Milman's idea that human or rather priestly vanity was flattered by all this12; still we can hardly account in that way for the enormous success of the Dionysian doctrine in the mediaeval Church.

Real Attraction of Dionysius.

The real fascination lay, I believe, deeper. It consisted in the satisfaction which Dionysius gave to those innate cravings of the human soul for union with God, cravings all the stronger the more the mere externals of religion and worship occupied at the time the minds of priesthood and laity. Not that this satisfaction could not have been found in the Gospels, if only they had been properly searched, and if the laity had been allowed even to read them. But it was dogma and ceremonial that then preoccupied the Church.

The Fifth Century.

As Dr. Westcott says, the ecclesiastical and civil disorders of the fifth century had obscured the highest glories of the Church and the Empire. Hence the chords touched on by Dionysius found a ready response in all truly religious minds, that is, in minds longing for the real presence of God, or for a loving union with God. This is what Dionysius promised to them. To him everything finite was a help towards the apprehension of the Infinite; and though human knowledge could never rise to a knowledge of the absolute, it might show the way to a fellowship with it. The highest scope with Dionysius was assimilation to, or union with God13. In order to reach this union the truly initiated have to be released from the objects and the powers of sight before they can penetrate into the darkness of unknowledge (ἀγνωσία). The initiated is then absorbed in the intangible and invisible, wholly given up to that which is beyond all things, and belonging no longer to himself nor to any other finite being, but in virtue of some nobler faculty united with that which is wholly unknowable, by the absolute inoperation of all limited knowledge, and known in a manner beyond mind by knowing nothing (Westcott, l.c., p. 185). This is called the mystic union when the soul is united with God, not by knowledge, but by the devotion of love. Here was the real attraction of the Dionysian writings, at least with many Christians who wanted more from religion than arid dogma, more than vain symbols and ceremonies from the Church.

It is difficult for us to imagine what the religious state of the laity must have been at that time. It is true they were baptised and confirmed, they were married and buried by the Church. They were also taught their Creeds and prayers, and they were invited to attend the spectacular services in the ancient cathedrals. But if they asked why all this was so, whence it came and what it meant, they would not easily have found an answer. We must remember that the Bible was at that time an almost inaccessible book and that laymen were not encouraged to study it. The laity had to be satisfied with what had been filtered through the brain of the clergy, and what was considered by the Church the best food for babes. Any attempt to test and verify this clerical teaching would have been considered sinful. The clergy again were often without literary cultivation, and certainly without that historical and philosophical training that would have enabled them to explain the theological teaching of St. John in its true sense, or to explain in what sense Christ was called the Son of God, and mankind believed capable of Divine sonship. Christianity became altogether legendary, and instead of striving after a pure conception of Christ, as the Son of God, Popes and Cardinals invented immaculate conceptions of a very different character. And that which is the source of all religion in the human heart, the perception of the Infinite, and the yearning of the soul after God, found no response, no satisfaction anywhere. How Christianity survived the fearful centuries from the fifth to the ninth, is indeed a marvel. Both clergy and laity seem to have led God-forsaken lives, but it was to these very centuries that the old German proverb applied,—

‘When pangs are highest Then God is nighest.’

Nearness to God, union with God, was what many souls were then striving for, and it was as satisfying that desire that the teaching of Dionysius was welcome to the clergy and indirectly to the laity.

Five Stages of Mystic Union.

The mystic union of which Dionysius treats, was not anything to be kept secret, it was simply what the Neo-Platonists had taught as the last and highest point of their philosophy and their religion. They recognised a number of preliminary stages, such as purification (κάθαρσις), illumination (ϕωτισμός), and initiation (μύησις), which in the end led to unification with God (ἕνωσις) and deification (θϵ́ωσις), a change into God. Sometimes a distinction was made between oneness (ἕνωσις) and likeness (ὁμοίωσις), but in the case of likeness with God, it would be difficult to explain any difference between likeness and oneness, between what is god-like, and what is godly.


If there was an initiation (μύησις), it must not be supposed that there was anything secret or mysterious in this preparation for the highest goal. The Henosis or union with the One and All was no more of a secret than was the teaching of St. Paul that we live and move and have our being in God. All that was meant by initiation was preparation, fitness to receive the Higher Knowledge. Still, many of the Fathers of the Church who had been brought up in the schools of Neo-Platonist philosophers, spoke of the union of the soul with God as a mystical union, and as a mystery. Thus Origen (c. Celsum, l. 1, c. 7) says that though Christianity was more widely spread than any other philosophy, it possesses certain things behind the exoteric teaching which are not readily communicated to the many. St. Basil distinguishes in Christianity between κηρύγματα, what is openly proclaimed, and δόγματα, which are kept secret. Those who had been baptised were sometimes spoken of as μύσται or ϕωτιζόμϵνοι, enlightened, as distinguished from the catechumens, just as in the Greek mysteries a distinction was made between the initiated and the exoterics. The Lord's Supper more particularly, was often spoken of as a great mystery, but though it was called a mystery, it was not a secret in the ordinary sense. Clement denies expressly that the Church possesses any secret doctrines (διδαχὰς ἄλλας ἀπορρήτους14), though, no doubt, he too would have held that what is sacred must not be given to dogs. What may be called the highest mystery is at the same time the highest truth, whether in Christianity or in Neo-Platonism, namely the ἕνωσις or ἅπλωσις, the perfect union with God. Thus Macarius (c. 330) says in his Homilies (xiv. 3): ‘If a man surrender his hidden being, that is his spirit and his thoughts, to God, occupied with nothing else, and moved by nothing else, but restraining himself, then the Lord holds him worthy of the mysteries in much holiness and purity, nay, He offers Himself to him as divine bread and spiritual drink.’

It is this so-called mystery which forms the highest object of the teaching of Dionysius the Areopagite. He also admits certain stages, as preliminary to the highest mystery. They are the same as those of the Neo-Platonists, beginning with κάθαρσις, purification, and ending with θϵ́ωσις and ἕνωσις, that is, deification, union with God, or change into God15. We shall now understand better why he calls that union mystic and his theology mystic theology.

Mystic and Scholastic Theology.

It seems to me that it was the satisfaction which Dionysius gave to this yearning of the human heart after union with God, far more than the satisfaction which he may have given to ecclesiastical vanity, which explains the extraordinary influence which he acquired both among the laity and the clergy. After his time the whole stream of theological knowledge may be said to have rolled on in two parallel channels, one the Scholastic, occupied with the definition of Christian doctrines and their defence, the other the Mystic, devoted to the divine element in man; or with what was called the birth of Christ within the soul. The Christian mystics, so far as their fundamental position was concerned, argued very much like the Vedântists and Eleatic philosophers. If we believe in the One Being, they said, which causes and determines all things, then that One Being must be the cause and determination of the human soul also, and it would be mere illusion to imagine that our being could in its essence be different from that of God. If, on the contrary, man is in his essence different from the One fundamental and Supreme Being, self-determined and entirely free, then there can be no infinite God, but we should have to admit a number of Gods, or divine beings, all independent of the One Being, yet limited one by the other. The Christian Mystics embraced the former alternative, and in this respect differed but little from the Neo-Platonists, though they looked for and found strong support for their doctrines in the New Testament, more particularly in the Gospel ascribed to St. John and in some of the Epistles of St. Paul. The Christian mystic theologians were most anxious to establish their claim to be considered orthodox, and we see that for a long time Dionysius continued to be recognised as an authority by the most orthodox of Divines. Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor, to quote the words of his editor, drew almost the whole of his theology from Dionysius, so that his Summma is but the hive, as he says, in whose varied cells he stored the honey which he gathered from the writings of Dionysius (Westcott, l.c., p. 144).

Mysticism, and Christian Mysticism.

In our days I doubt whether the mysticism of Dionysius would be considered as quite orthodox. Dr. Tholuck, a most orthodox theologian and a great admirer of the mystic poetry of the East and the West, draws a broad distinction between a mystic and a Christian mystic. He defines a mystic ‘as a man, who, conscious of his affinity with all that exists from the Pleiades to the grain of dust, merged in the divine stream of life that pours through the universe, but perceiving also that the purest spring of God bursts forth in his own heart, moves onward across the world which is turned towards what is limited and finite, turning his eye in the centre of his own soul to the mysterious abyss, where the infinite flows into the finite, satisfied in nameless intuition of the sanctuary opened within himself, and lighted up and embraced by a blissful love of the secret source of his own being’ (p. 20). ‘In his moral aspect,’ Dr. Tholuck adds, ‘the life of such a mystic is like a mirror of water, moved by an all-powerful love within, and disquieted by desire, yet restraining the motion of its waves, in order to let the face of the sun reflect itself on a motionless surface. The restless conflicts of self-hood are quieted and restrained by love, so that the Eternal may move freely in the motionless soul, and the life of the soul may be absorbed in the law of God.’ Even this language sounds to our ears somewhat extravagant and unreal. Nor would Dr. Tholuck himself accept it without considerable qualification, as applicable to the Christian mystic. ‘The Christian mystic,’ he says (p. 24), ‘need not fear such speculations. He knows no more and wants to know no more than what is given him by the revelation of God; all deductions that go beyond, are cut short by him. He warms himself at the one ray that has descended from eternity into this finiteness, unconcerned about all the fireworks of purely human workmanship, unconcerned also about the objection that the ray which warms him more than any earthly light, may itself also be of the earth only. A Christian knows that to the end of time there can be no philosophy which could shake his faith by its syllogisms. He does not care for what follows from syllogisms, he simply waits for what is to follow on his faith, namely sight.’

Still, with all this determined striving after orthodoxy, Dr. Tholuck admits that mystic religion is the richest and profoundest production of the human mind, the most living and the most exalted revelation of God from the realm of nature, nay that after what he calls evangelic grace, it occupies the highest and noblest place.

There are Christian mystics, however who would not place internal revelation, or the voice of God within the heart, so far below external revelation. To those who know the presence of God within the heart, this revelation is far more real than any other can possibly be. They hold with St. Paul (1 Cor. iii. 16) that ‘man is in the full sense of the word the temple of God and that the spirit of God dwelleth within him,’ nay they go even further and both as Christians and as mystics they cling to the belief that all men are one in the Father and the Son, as the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father. There is no conflict in their minds between Christian doctrine and mystic doctrine. They are one and the same in character, the one imparted through Christ on earth, the other imparted through the indwelling spirit of God, which again is Christ, as born within us. The Gospel of St. John is full of passages to which the Christian mystic clings, and by which he justifies his belief in the indwelling spirit of God, or as he also calls it, the birth of Christ in the human soul.

Objections to Mystic Religion reconsidered.

The dangers which have so often been pointed out as arising from this mystic belief which makes God all in all, and therefore would render Him responsible for the evil also which exists in this world, or would altogether eliminate the distinction between evil and good, exist in every religion, in every philosophy. They are not peculiar to this mystic religion. The mystic's chief aim is not to account for the origin of evil, as no human understanding can—but to teach how to overcome evil by good. The dangers to morality are much exaggerated. It is mere pharisaism to say that they exist in mystic religion only. It is to falsify history to charge mystics with ignoring the laws of morality. Are those laws observed by all who are not mystics? Did the majority of criminals in the world ever consist of mystics, of men such as St. Bernard and Tauler? Has orthodoxy always proved a shield against temptation and sin? A man may be lenient in his judgment of publicans and sinners without losing his sense of right and wrong. There may have been cases where the liberty of the spirit has been used as a veil for licentiousness, though I know of few only; but in that case it is clear that true mystic union had not been effected. When the soul has once reached this true union with God, nay when it lives in the constant presence of God, evil becomes almost impossible. We know that most of the evil deeds to which human nature is prone, are possible in the dark only. Before the eyes of another human being, more particularly of a beloved being, they become at once impossible. How much more in the real presence of a real and really beloved God, as felt by the true mystic, not merely as a phrase, but as a fact! We are told how the Russian peasant covers the face of his Eikon with his handkerchief that it may not see his wickedness. The mystic feels the same; as long as there is no veil between him and God, evil thoughts, evil words, and evil deeds are simply impossible to one who feels the actual presence of God. Nor is he troubled any longer by questions, such as how the world was created, how evil came into the world. He is satisfied with the Divine Love that embraces his soul; he has all that he can desire, his whole life is hid through Christ in God, death is swallowed up in victory, the mortal has become immortal, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, is able to separate his soul from the love of God. This is the language used by St. Paul; this is the language re-echoed by the noble army of Christians mystics, and more or less by all those who, whether in India or Persia or Arabia, nay in Europe also, hunger and thirst after God, nay who feel themselves children of God in the very fullest and deepest sense of that word.

It has been said that the times in which we live are not congenial to mystic Christianity, that we want a stronger and sterner faith to carry us through the gales and the conflicting currents of the day. That may be so, and if the Church can supply us with stronger and safer vessels for our passage, let her do so. But let her never forget that the mediaeval Church, though glorying in her scholastic defenders, though warning against the dangers of Platonic and mystic Christianity, though even unsainting St. Clement and denouncing the no less saintly Origen, never ceased to look upon men as St. Bernard (1090–1152), Hugo (died 1141), and Richard (died 1173) of St. Victor, as her brightest ornaments and her best guides.

St. Bernard.

While the great scholastic theologians were laying down definitions of dogmas, most of them far beyond the reach of the great mass of the people, the great mass of men, women, and children were attracted by the sermons of monks and priests, who, brought up in the doctrines of mystic Christianity, and filled with respect for its supposed founder, Dionysius the Areopagite, preached the love of God, a life in and for God, as the only true Christian life. Christ, they held, had but rarely taught how to believe, but had constantly taught how to live. His fundamental doctrine had been His own life, and the chief lesson of that life had been that Christ was the Son of God, not in a mythological sense, but in its deepest philosophical meaning, namely as the thought and will of God incarnate in a perfect man, as the ideal of manhood realised in all its fulness, as the Logos, the true Son of God. St. Bernard of Clairvaux also preached that a Christian life was the best proof of Christian faith. ‘The reason,’ he writes, ‘why we should love God, is God Himself; the measure of that love is that we should love Him beyond all measure 16.’ ‘Even mere reason,’ he continues, ‘obliges us to do this; the natural law, implanted within us, calls aloud that we should love God. We owe all to Him, whatever we are; all goods of the body and the soul which we enjoy, are His work; how then should we not be bound to love Him for His own sake? This duty applies also to Non-Christians; for even the heathen, though he does not know Christ, knows at least himself, and must know therefore that he owes all that is within him to God. In a still higher degree the Christian is bound to love God, for he enjoys not only the good things of creation, but of salvation also.’

Love of God.

This love of God, St. Bernard continues, must be such that it does not love God for the sake of any rewards to be obtained for it. This would be mercenary love. True love is satisfied in itself. It is true our love is not without its reward, it is true also that the reward is He Himself who is loved, namely God, the object of our love. But to look for another reward beside Him, is contrary to the nature of love. God gives us a reward for our love, but we must not seek for it. Nor is this love perfect at once. It has to pass through several stages. On the first stage, according to St. Bernard, we love ourselves for our own sake. That is not yet love of God, but it is a preparation for it. On the second stage, we love God for our own sake. That is the first stage toward the real love of God. On the third stage, we love God for His own sake. We then enter into the true essence of the love of God. Lastly, on the fourth stage, we not only love God for His own sake, but we also love ourselves and everything else for the sake of God only. That is the highest perfection of the love of God.

This highest degree of love, however, is reached in all its fulness in the next life only. Only rarely, in a moment of mystic ecstasis may we rise even in this life to that highest stage.

Ecstasis, according to St. Bernard.

St. Bernard then proceeds in his own systematic way to explain what this ecstasis is, and how it can be reached. The fundamental condition is humility, the only way by which we can hope to reach truth. There are twelve degrees of humility which St. Bernard describes. But besides humility, perfect love is required, and, then only may we hope to enter into the mystic world. Hence the first stage is consideration of truth, based on examination and still carried on by discursive thought. Then follows contemplation of truth, without discursive examination. This contemplation is followed at last by what St. Bernard calls the admiratio majestatis, the admiration of the majesty of truth. This requires a purged heart, free from vice, and delivered from sins, a heart that may rise on high, nay may for some moments hold the admiring soul in a kind of stupefaction and ecstasis (De grad. humil., c. 8, 22 seq.).

It is in a state such as this that the soul will enter into the next life. Our will will soften and will melt away into the divine will, and pour itself into it. And here we often find St. Bernard using the same similes as to the relation of the soul to God which we found in the Upanishads and in the Neo-Platonists. As a small drop of water, he says, when it falls into much wine, seems to fail from itself, while it assumes the colour and taste of wine; as the ignited and glowing iron becomes as like as possible to fire, deprived of its own original nature; as the air when permeated by the light of the sun is changed into the brightness of light, so that it does not seem so much lighted up, as to be light itself, so will it be necessary that every human affection should in some ineffable way melt away and become entirely transformed into the will of God. For otherwise, how should God be all in all, if something of man remained in man? Nay the very caution which was used in the Vedânta, is used by St. Bernard also. The soul, though lost in God, is not annihilated in this ecstasis. The substance, as St. Bernard says, will remain, only in another form, in another glory, in another power. To be in that glory is to become God, est deificari.

St. Bernard's Position in the Church and state.

To modern ears these ideas, quite familiar in the Middle Ages, sound strange, some might look upon them as almost blasphemous. But St. Bernard was never considered as a blasphemer, even his orthodoxy was never suspected. He was the great champion of orthodoxy, the only man who could successfully cope with Abelard at the Synod of Sens (1140).

St. Bernard's theology and his whole life supply indeed the best answer to the superficial objections that have often been raised against mystic Christianity. It has often been said that true Christianity does not teach that man should spend his life in ecstatic contemplation of the Divine, but expects him to show his love of God by his active love of his neighbours, by an active God-fearing life. In our time particularly religious quietism, and a monastic retirement from the world are condemned without mercy. But St. Bernard has shown that the contemplative state of mind is by no means incompatible with love of our neighbours, nay with a goodly hatred of our enemies, and with a vigorous participation in the affairs of the world. This monk, we should remember, who at the age of twenty-three had retired from the world to the monastery of Cisteaux, and after three years had become Abbot of Clairvaux, was the same Bernard who fought the battle of Pope Innocent II against the Antipope Anaclet II, who with his own weapons subdued Arnold of Brescia, and who at last roused the whole of Christendom, by his fiery harangues, to the second Crusade in 1147. This shows that beneath the stormiest surface the deepest ground of the soul may remain tranquil and undisturbed. It shows, as even the Vedântists knew, that man need not go into the forest to be an anchorite, but that there is a forest in every man's heart where he may dwell alone with the Alone.

Hugo of St. Victor, Knowledge more certain than Faith.

Another charge often brought against so-called mystics and quietists, that th ey are narrow-minded and intolerant of intellectual freedom, is best refuted by the intimate friend of St. Bernard, the famous Hugo of St. Victor, the founder of the Victorines. When defining faith in its subjective sense as the act by which we receive and hold truth, Hugo of St. Victor, like many of the schoolmen, distinguishes between opinion, faith, and science, and he places faith above opinion, but below knowledge due to science. Opinion, he says, does not exclude the possibility of a contradictory opposite; faith excludes such possibility, but does not yet know what is believed as present, resting only on the authority of another through whose teaching what is to be believed is conveyed by means of hearing (Sruti). Science on the contrary knows its object as actually present; the object of knowledge is present to the mind's eye and is known owing to this presence. Knowledge by science therefore represents a higher degree of certainty than faith, because it is more perfect to know an object in itself by means of its immediate presence than to arrive at its knowledge by hearing the teaching of another only. The lowest degree of faith is that when the believer accepts what is to be believed from mere piety, without understanding by his reason that and why he should believe what he has accepted. The next higher stage of faith is when faith is joined to rational insight, and reason approves what faith accepts as true, so that faith is joined with the knowledge of science. The highest degree is when faith, founded in a pure heart and an unstained conscience, begins to taste inwardly what has been embraced and held in faith. Here faith is perfected to higher mystic contemplation.

How many people who now kneel before the images of St. Bernard and Hugo of St. Victor, would be horrified at the doctrine that the higher faith must be founded on reason, and that faith has less certainty than the knowledge of science.

Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas thought it necessary to guard against this doctrine, but he also admits that from a subjective point of view, faith stands half way between opinion and scientific knowledge, that is to say, below scientific knowledge, though above mere opinion. He argues, however, that faith has more certainty than scientific knowledge, because Christian faith has the authority of divine revelation, and we believe what is revealed to us, because it has been revealed by God as the highest truth. (Non enim fides, de qua loquimur, assentit alicui, nisi quia a Deo est revelatum.) He does not fell us how we can know that it was revealed by God except by means of reason. Thomas Aquinas, however, though on this point he differs from St. Hugo, and though he cannot be called a mystic even in the sense in which St. Bernard was, nevertheless is most tolerant toward his mystic friends, nay on certain points the stern scholastic is almost a mystic himself. He speaks of a state of blessedness produced by a vision of the Divine (visio divinae essentiae), he only doubts whether we can ever attain to a knowledge of the essence of the Divine in this life, and he appeals to Dionysius the Areopagite, who likewise says that man can only be joined to God as to something altogether unknown, that is, that man in this life cannot gain a quidditative knowledge of God, and hence his blessedness cannot be perfect on earth. In support of this Dionysius quotes St. John (Ep. I. iii. 2) ‘But we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.’

Thomas Aquinas differs on other points also from the mystics who believe in an ecstatic union with God even in this life. According to him the highest end of man can only be likeness with God (Omnia igitur appetunt, quasi ultimum finem, Deo assimilari). Only of the soul of Christ does Thomas Aquinas admit that it saw the Word of God by that vision by which the Blessed see it, so that His soul was blessed, and His body also perfect17. Likeness with God is to him the summum bonum, and it is the highest beatitude which man can reach. This highest beatitude is at the same time, as Thomas Aquinas tries to show, the highest perfection of human nature; because what distinguishes man from all other creatures is his intellect, and it follows, therefore, that the highest perfection of his intellect in its speculative and contemplative activity is likewise his highest beatitude. (Beatitudo igitur vel felicitas in actu intellectus consistit substantialiter et principaliter magis quam in actu voluntatis (C. G. xiii. c. 26).) The highest object of this speculative and contemplative activity of the intellect can only be God. And here again Thomas Aquinas shows an extraordinary freedom from theological prejudice. Granted, he says, that the highest end and the real beatitude of man consists in the knowledge of God, we must still distinguish between (1) a natural knowledge of God, which is common to all human beings; (2) a demonstrative knowledge of God, (3) a knowledge of God by faith, and (4) a knowledge of God by vision (visio Dei per essentiam).

If the question be asked which of these is the most perfect knowledge of God, Thomas Aquinas answers without the least hesitation, the last. It cannot be the first, because he held that a knowledge of God, as supplied by nature, by what we should call Natural Religion, is imperfect on account of its many errors. It cannot be the second, because demonstrative knowledge is imperfect in being accessible to the few only who can follow logical demonstrations, also in being uncertain in its results. It cannot be the third, or knowledge of God by faith, which most theologians would consider as the safest, because it has no internal evidence of truth, and is a matter of the will rather than of the intellect. But the will, according to Thomas, stands lower than the intellect. The only perfect knowledge of God is therefore, according to this highest authority of scholastic theology, the immediate vision of God by means of the intellect, and this can be given us as a supernatural gift only. So far as immediate vision is concerned, Thomas agrees therefore with the mystics; he even admits, going in this respect beyond Dionysius, the possibility of a quidditative knowledge of God, only, it would seem, not in this life.

And while he admits the possibility of this intellectual vision, he holds that mere loving devotion to God can never be the highest beatitude. His reasons for this are strange. We love the good, he says, not only when we have it but also when we have it not yet, and from this love there arises desire, and desire is clearly incompatible with perfect beatitude.

Hugo of St. Victor, on the other hand, accepted that vision as a simple fact. Man, he said, is endowed with a threefold eye, the eye of the flesh, the eye of reason, and the eye of contemplation. By the eye of the flesh man sees the external world; by the eye of reason he sees the spiritual or ideal world; by the eye of contemplation he sees the Divine within him in the soul, and above him in God. Passing through the stages of cogitation and meditation, the soul arrives at last at contemplation, and derives its fullest happiness from an immediate intuition of the Infinite.

Hugo saw that the inmost and the highest, the soul within and God above, are identical, and that therefore the pure in heart can see God.

Hugo is rich in poetical illustration. He compares, for instance, this spiritual process to the application of fire to green wood. It kindles with difficulty, he says; clouds of smoke arise at first, a flame is seen at intervals, flashing out here and there; as the fire gains strength, it surrounds, it pierces the fuel; presently it leaps and roves in triumph—the nature of the wood is being transformed into the nature of fire. Then, the struggle over, the crackling ceases, the smoke is gone, there is left a tranquil friendly brightness, for the master-element has subdued all into itself. So, says Hugo, do sin and grace contend; and the smoke and trouble and anguish hang over the strife. But when grace grows stronger, and the soul's eye clearer, and truth pervades and swallows up the kindling, aspiring nature, then comes holy calm, and love is all in all. Save God in the heart, nothing of self is left18.