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Dionysius the Areopagite: On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology.
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IX.—CONCLUSION

A few words on this matter and the present sketch is almost done. The Trinity (as was said) is Super- Essential or Supra-Personal. It is that Side of the Godhead which is turned towards the plane of Creation. Each “Person” possesses the whole Super-Essence and yet Each in a different manner. For the Father is originative and the other Two “Persons” derivative. The entire Super-Essence timelessly wells up in the Father and so passes on (as it were), timeless and entire, to the Son and Spirit. Thus the Second “Person” of the Trinity possesses eternally (like the other Two “Persons” in the Godhead) nothing but this Formless Radiance. But when the Second “Person” becomes Incarnate this Formless and Simple Radiance focuses Itself (shall we say?) in the complex lens of a Human Individuality. Or perhaps Christ’s Humanity should rather be compared to a prism which breaks that single white radiance into the iridescent colours of manifold human virtues. Thence there streams forth a glory which seeks to kindle in our hearts an answering fire whereby being wholly consumed we may pass up out of our finite being to find within the Super-Essence our predetermined Home.

Such is, in outline, the teaching of this difficult writer who, though he tortured language to express the truth which struggled within him for utterance, yet has often been rashly condemned through being misunderstood. The charge of Pantheism that has been laid at his door is refuted by the very extravagance of the terms in which he asserts the Transcendence of the Godhead. For the title “Super-Essence” itself implies a Mystery which is indeed the ultimate Goal of the creatures but is not at present their actual plane of being. It implies a Height which, though it be their own, they yet can reach through nothing else than a complete self-renunciation. With greater show of reason Dionysius has been accused of hostility to civilization and external things. Yet here again unjustly. For, if in his solitary hermitage he lived far from the haunts of men, yet he wrote an entire treatise on the institutional side of Religion; and he describes with impassioned enthusiasm the visible beauties of Nature. And, in fact, in his treatment of evil, he goes out of his way to assert that the whole material world is good. Outward things are assumed as the starting-point from which the human spirit must rise to another region of experience. Dionysius does not mean that they are all worthless; he simply means that they are not ultimate. In the passage concerning the three movements of the soul he implies that the human faculties are valuable though they must finally be transcended. Even so Macarius tells us that “Revelation” is a mental state beyond “Perception” and beyond “Enlightened Vision.”4444Hom., vii. 5. All our natural activities must first silt together the particles which form the block of marble before we can by the Via Negativa carve the image out of it. And if this process of rejection destroys the block’s original shape, yet it needs the block to work upon, and it does not seek to grind the whole material into powder. All life, when rightly understood, is a kind of Via Negativa, and we must struggle after certain things and then deliberately cast them aside, as a musician must first master the laws of Counterpoint and then sometimes ignore them, or as the Religion of the Law is a preparation for the higher Religion of the Spirit. Dionysius, nurtured in philosophy, passed beyond Philosophy without obscurantism, as St. Paul, nurtured in the Law, passed beyond the Law without disobedience. Finite things are good, for they point us on to the Infinite; but if we chain ourselves to them they will become a hindrance to our journey, when they can no longer be a guide. And Dionysius would have us not destroy them but merely break our chains.

His doctrines are certainly dangerous. Perhaps that is a mark of their truth. For the Ultimate Truth of things is so self-contradictory that it is bound to be full of peril to minds like ours which can only apprehend one side of Reality at the time. Therefore it is not perhaps to be altogether desired that such doctrines should be very popular. They can only be spiritually discerned, through the intensest spiritual effort. Without this they will only too readily lead to blasphemous arrogance and selfish sloth. And yet the Via Negativa, for those who can scale its dizzy ascent, is after all but a higher altitude of that same royal road which, where it traverses more populous regions, we all recognize as the one true Pilgrim’s Way. For it seeks to attain its goal through self-renunciation. And where else are the true principles of such a process to be found if it be not in the familiar virtues of Christian humility and Christian love?


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