In this week’s Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict catches us up on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Teresa Benedetta translates:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, in the course of the catecheses on the Fathers of the Church, I wish to speak of a rather mysterious figure – a theologian of the sixth century whose name is unknown but who wrote under the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite.
His pseudonym alludes to the passage of Scripture that we heard today, the episode that St. Luke narrates in Chapter XVII of the Acts of the Apostles, which says that Paul preached in Athens on the Areopagus for the elite world of Greek intellectuals, but that in the end, a great part of his listeners proved to be uninterested and walked away, deriding him.
Nonetheless, some – a few, St. Luke tells us – approached Paul and opened themselves up to the (Christian) faith. The evangelist gives us two names: Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus (circle), and a woman named Damaris.
If the author of these books chose the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite five centuries later, it means that his intention was to place Greek wisdom in the service of the Gospel, to help the encounter between Greek intelligence and culture, on the one hand, and the good news about Christ, on the other. He wanted to do as the earlier Dionysius intended, namely, that Greek thinking should encounter St. Paul’s preaching, and as a Greek person, to become a disciple of St. Paul and therefore of Christ.
Why did he hide his true name and choose this pseudonym? One part of the answer has been given – he wished to express the fundamental intention of his thinking.
But there are two hypotheses on his (choice of) anonymity. The first one says it was a deliberate falsification, in which, by seemingly dating his works back to the first century, to St. Paul’s time, he wanted to confer on his writings an almost apostolic authority.
But better than that hypothesis – which I find barely credible – is the other: that he wished it to be an act of humility. Not to glorify his own name, not to create a monument for himself through his works, but truly to serve the Gospel, to create an ecclesial theology and not an individual theology based on himself.
In fact, he succeeded to construct a theology that we can certainly date to the sixth century but that could not be attributed to any of the figures of the time. It is a theology that is a bit ‘dis-individualized’, that is, a theology that expresses common thinking in common language.
It was a time of most bitter controversies following the Council of Chalcedon. But he, for instance, in his Seventh Epistle, says: “I do not want to create polemics: I simply speak of the truth, I seek the truth.”
The light of truth itself allows errors to fall off and whatever is good to shine. With this principle, he purified Greek thought and reconciled it with the Gospel. This principle, that he affirms in that seventh letter, is also the expression of a true spirit of dialog: to seek not the things which separate, but to seek the truth in Truth itself, which will then shine and let errors fall.
Therefore, even if the theology of this author is what we might describe as ‘supra-personal’ – in reality, ecclesial – we can situate him in the sixth century. Why? Because he encountered the Greek spirit which he placed at the service of the Gospel in the books of one Proclus, who died in Athens in 485.
Proclus belonged to late Platonism, a current of thought that had transformed Plato’s philosophy into a sort of religion, whose ultimate goal was to create a great apologia for Greek polytheism and turn back, after the success of Christianity, to the ancient Greek religion. It wanted to demonstrate that, in reality, divinities (gods) were the operating forces in the cosmos. The intended consequence was that polytheism would be considered more true than monotheism with its single Creator God.
What Proclus sought to demonstrate was a great cosmic system of divinities with mysterious powers, and that man could find access to divinity through this deified cosmos. But he distinguished between the way for simple people, those who are not able to reach the summits of truth – for whom certain rites would suffice – from the ways for wiser ones who must purify themselves in order to reach pure light.
This thinking, as we can see, is profoundly anti-Christian. It was a late reaction to the triumph of Christianity. An anti-Christian use of Plato, even while a Christian use of the great philosopher was already under way.
It is interesting that the Pseudo-Dionysius had dared to use that thinking in order to show the truth of Christ – to transform that polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God, into the harmony of God’s cosmos where all the forces are in praise of God, and to show that great harmony itself, that symphony of the cosmos that ranges from the seraphim, angels and archangels to man and all creatures who together reflect the beauty of God and who in themselves constitute praise of God.
Thus he transformed polytheistic images into a eulogy for the Creator and his creatures. We can discover in this the essential characteristics of his thinking: it is, above all, cosmic praise.
All creation speaks of God and is a eulogy to God. Since the created being is himself a praise to God, the theology of the pseudo-Dionysius becomes a liturgical theology: God can be found above all by praising him, not merely reflecting on him. And liturgy is not something constructed by us, something invented to constitute a religious experience for a certain period of time. Liturgy is singing with the chorus of all creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself.
And that is how liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastic, becomes large and great, it becomes our union with the language of all creatures: One cannot speak of God in an abstract way, he said. To speak of God is always – he uses a Greek word – a ‘hymnein’, a singing to God with the great song of all creatures which is reflected and concretized in liturgical praise.
But although his theology is cosmic, ecclesial and liturgical, it is also profoundly personal. He created the first great mystical theology. Rather, the word ‘mystical’ acquired a new meaning with him.
Until then, this word was, for Christians, equivalent to ‘sacramental’, namely, something that belongs to the ‘mysterion’, the sacrament. But with him the word ‘mystical’ became more personal, more intimate – expressing the path of the soul towards God.
And how to find God? Here we find once more an important element in his dialog between Greek philosophy and Christianity, particularly, Biblical faith. It had been made to appear that what Plato said and what the great philosophies say about God is much more elevated and much more true. By comparison, the Bible was seen as rather ‘barbarous’, simple, pre-critical, one might say today.
But the pseudo-Dionysius observed that this was precisely what was needed, because that way, we would understand that the highest concepts about God will never really approach his true greatness – they would always be inadequate. The (Biblical) images make us understand that God is above and beyond all concepts. In the simplicity of such images, we find more truth than in grand concepts.
The face of God is our inability to really express what He is. Thus one speaks – and the Pseudo-Dionysius himself does so – of a “negative theology”: We can say more easily what God is not, rather than express what he really is.
Only through images can we guess at his true face, but on the other hand, the face of God is also very concrete: it is Jesus Christ. And although Dionysius shows us, following Proclus, the harmony of celestial choirs in which it seems that everything depends on everything else, it remains true that our path to God is often very far from him. The Pseudo-Dionysius demonstrates that ultimately, the road to God is God himself, who made himself close to us in Jesus Christ.
That is how a great and mysterious theology also becomes very concrete, whether in the interpretation of liturgy or when discussing Christ. With all this, Dionysius the Areopagite had a great influence on all of medieval theology, on all the mystical theology of the East as well as the West.
He was practically rediscovered in the 13th century, above all by St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who in his mystical theology found the conceptual instrument to interpret the legacy of St. Francis that is at once so simple and so profound.
The Poverello said, at the end, along with Dionysius, that love sees more than reason. Where the light of love is, the shadows of reason no longer have a place. Love sees: love is seeing, and experiencing it gives us more than reflection does.
What such experience was, Bonaventure saw in St. Francis: it is the experience of a very humble, very realistic path – this day-to-day walking with Christ, accepting his Cross. In this poverty and in this humility, a humility that lives even in ecclesiality, is an experience of God that is higher than what one can reach through reflection. In it, we truly touch the heart of God.
Today there is a new relevance and actuality for Dionysius the Areopagite. He appears a great mediator in the modern dialog between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, whose well-known characteristic is the belief that one cannot say who God is, that one can only talk of God in negative forms, one can only speak of what he is not, and that only by entering into this experience of what he is not, does one reach him.
So we see a kinship between the Areopagite’s thinking and that of the Asian religions, and he can be a mediator today just as he was between the Greek spirit and the Gospel.
One sees that dialog cannot accept superficiality. Precisely when one enters into the profundity of the encounter with Christ, then the vast space for dialog opens up. When one meets the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for all; controversies disappear and it becomes possible to understand each other, or at least talk to each other, come close to each other.
The path of dialog is precisely by being near to God in Christ, in the profundity of the encounter with him, in the experience of the truth which opens to light and which helps us to go forth and encounter others – the light of truth, the light of love.
Ultimately, he tells us: take the road of experience, of humble experience of the faith, day by day. Then the heart opens up in order to see – and can therefore illuminate reason because it sees the beauty of God.
Let us pray to the Lord that he may help us even today to place the wisdom of our time in the service of the Gospel, discovering anew the beauty of faith and of the encounter with God in Christ.