On Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
"He Has New Relevance as a Mediator in Dialogue With Theologies of Asia"
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VATICAN CITY, MAY 14, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter's Square.
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Dear brothers and sisters:
In the course of the catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, I would like to speak today about a very mysterious figure: a theologian from the sixth century, whose name is not known, and who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite. With this pseudonym, he alluded to the passage of Scripture that we just heard, that is, the case narrated by St. Luke in the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where he tells how Paul preached in Athens, in the Areopagus, addressing an elite group of the Greek intellectual world. In the end, the greatest part of those who heard him were not interested and they left making fun of him. Nevertheless, some, just a few, according to what St. Luke tells us, approached Paul and opened themselves to faith. The evangelist gives us two names: Dionysius, member of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris.
If five centuries later, the author of these books chose the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite, this implies that he had the intention of placing Greek wisdom at the service of the Gospel, promoting an encounter between culture and Greek intelligence with the announcement of Christ; he wanted to do what that Dionysius aimed to do, that is, that Greek thought would meet with the proclamation of St. Paul. Being Greek, he wanted to be a disciple of St. Paul and in this way, a disciple of Christ.
Why did he hide his name and choose this pseudonym? One part of the answer I have already given: He wanted to express this fundamental intention of his thought.
But there are two hypotheses about this anonymity and about his pseudonym. According to the first one, the pseudonym was a falsification by which, dating his works in the first century, in the times of St. Paul, he wanted to give his literary production an almost apostolic authority. But there is a better hypothesis than this first one, which seems hardly believable to me, and it is that he wanted to perform an act of humility. He didn't want to give glory to his name; he didn't want to construct a monument to himself with his works, but instead, to really serve the Gospel, to create an ecclesial theology, not individual and based in himself.
In reality, he managed to elaborate a theology that we can date with certainty in the sixth century, but that we cannot attribute to any of the figures of this time period. It is a theology something "de-individualized," that is, a theology that expresses a common thought and language. Those were times of bitter conflict after that Council of Chalcedon. He, on the other hand, in his "7th Epistle," says: "I would not like to cause polemics; I simply speak of the truth; I seek the truth." And the light of truth by itself makes error fade and makes what is good shine. With this principle he purified Greek thought and related it to the Gospel. This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, is also the expression of a true spirit of dialogue: It is not about seeking the things that separate, one must seek the truth in Truth itself; this, then, shines and causes errors to fall.
Therefore, despite the fact that the theology of this author is, we could say, "supra-personal," truly ecclesial, we can place it in the sixth century. Why? The Greek spirit, which he placed at the service of the Gospel, he found in the books of a certain Proclo, who died in Athens in 485. This author belonged to late platonic thought, a current of thought that had transformed Plato's philosophy into a type of religion, whose final objective was to create a great apologetics for Greek polytheism and return, following the success of Christianity, to the ancient Greek religion.
It wanted to demonstrate that, in reality, the divinities were the forces of the cosmos. The consequence to be drawn from this was that polytheism should be considered truer than monotheism, than a single creator God. Proclo presented a great cosmic system of divinities, of mysterious forces, according to which, in this deified cosmos, man could find access to divinity. Now then, he made a distinction between the paths for the simple -- those who were not able to elevate themselves to the heights of truth, for whom certain rites could be sufficient -- and the paths for the wise, who on the other hand should purify themselves to arrive to pure light.
As can be seen, this thought is profoundly anti-Christian. It is a delayed reaction against the victory of Christianity: an anti-Christian use of Plato, meanwhile a Christian reading of the great philosopher was already in place. It is interesting that Pseudo-Dionysius would have dared to avail precisely of this thought to show the truth of Christ; to transform this polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God, in the harmony of the cosmos of God, where every force is praise of God, and show this great harmony, this symphony of the cosmos that goes from the seraphim to the angels and archangels, to man and all the creatures, which together reflect the beauty of God and are praise of God.
He thus transformed the polytheistic image into praise of the Creator and his creatures. In this way, we can discover the essential characteristics of his thought: Before all, it is cosmic praise. All of creation speaks of God and is a praise of God. Given that the creature is a praise of God, the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius becomes a liturgical theology: God is found above all praising him, not just reflecting. And liturgy is not something constructed by us, something invented so as to have a religious experience for a certain amount of time. It consists in singing with the choir of the creatures and entering into the cosmic reality itself. And thus the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes ample and great, it unites us with the language of all creatures. He says: God cannot be spoken of in an abstract way; to speak of God is always -- he uses the Greek word -- a "hymnein," an elevating of hymns to God with the great song of creatures, which is reflected and made concrete in liturgical praise.
Nevertheless, if his theology is cosmic, ecclesial and liturgical, it is also profoundly personal. I think it is the first great mystic theology. Moreover, the word "mystic" acquires with him a new meaning. Until this epoch, for Christians, this word was equivalent to the word "sacramental," that is, that which pertains to the "mysterion," sacrament. With him, the word "mystic" becomes more personal, more intimate: It expresses the path of the soul toward God.
And, how is it possible to find God? Here we observe again an important element in his dialogue between Greek thought and Christianity, in particular, biblical faith. Apparently what Plato says and what great philosophy says about God is much more elevated, much more true; the Bible seems very "bárbara," simple, precritical, we would say today. But he observes that precisely this is necessary so that we can thus understand that the most elevated concepts of God never reach his true greatness. They are always beneath him.
These images bring us to understand, in reality, that God is above every concept; in the simplicity of the images, we find more truth than in the great concepts. The face of God is our incapacity to truly express what he is. In this way he speaks -- Pseudo-Dionysius himself says -- of a "negative theology." It is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is. Only through these images can we grasp at his true face and, on the other hand, this face of God is very concrete: It is Jesus Christ. If Dionysius shows us, following Proclo, the harmony of the celestial choirs, in such a way that it seems that all of them depend on each other, it is true that our path toward God remains very far from him. Pseudo-Dionysius shows that in the end, the path to God is God himself, who makes himself close to us in Jesus Christ.
In this way, a great and mysterious theology is made very concrete, both in the interpretation of the liturgy and in the reflection on Jesus Christ: With all of this, Dionysius the Areopagite had a great influence on all of medieval theology, on all of mystical theology, both in the East and in the West. He was virtually rediscovered in the 13th century above all by St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who in this great mystical theology found the conceptual instrument for interpreting the heritage -- so simple and profound -- of St. Francis. The poor man, like Dionysius, tells us that in the end, love sees more than reason. Where the light of love is, the shadows of reason fade away. Love sees, love is an eye and experience gives us much more than reflection. Bonaventure saw in St. Francis what this experience meant: It is the experience of a very humble path, very realistic, day after day, it is to walk with Christ, accepting his cross. In this poverty and in this humility, in the humility that is lived also in ecclesiality, an experience of God is given that is more elevated than that which is attained by reflection. In it, we really touch the heart of God.
Today, Dionysius the Areopagite has a new relevance: He is presented as a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, marked by the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that only negative expressions can be used to speak of him; that God can only be spoken of with "no," and that it is only possible to reach him by entering into this experience of "no." And here is seen a similarity between the thought of the Areopagite and that of the Asian religions. He can be today a mediator like he was between the Greek spirit and the Gospel.
In this context, it can be seen that dialogue does not accept superficiality. Precisely when one enters into the depths of the encounter with Christ, an ample space for dialogue also opens. When one finds the light of truth, he realizes that it is a light for everyone; polemics disappear and it is possible to understand one another, or at least, speak to one another, draw closer together. The path of dialogue consists precisely in being close to God in Christ, in the depths of the encounter with him, in the experience of the truth, which opens us to the light and helps us to go out to meet others -- the light of truth, the light of love. In the end, he tells us: Take the path of the experience, of the humble experience of faith, every day. Then, the heart is made big and can see and also illuminate reason so that it sees the beauty of God. Let us ask the Lord that he help us today too to place the wisdom of our time at the service of the Gospel, discovering again the beauty of the faith, of the encounter with God in Christ.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today's catechesis we turn to the teaching of a sixth-century author whose writings have been attributed to the first-century disciple of Saint Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite. His two principal works, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, strive to present a knowledge of God which surpasses rational understanding and culminates in spiritual perfection and transforming contemplation. Pseudo-Dionysius stresses the apophatic or "negative" understanding born of pondering God's infinite transcendence and otherness. By contemplating what God is not, and by entering more deeply into the rich symbolic language of Scripture, we grow in our relationship with the One who reveals himself in hiddenness. Contemplation is thus an ascent leading from purification to illumination, perfection and union with God. In the West, Dionysius' writings influenced the early scholastics and Saint Thomas, as well as Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. His vision of a great cosmic harmony reflecting the beauty of the Creator and the love freely bestowed on us in Christ, can also inspire our efforts to work for unity, reconciliation and peace in our world.
I welcome all the English-speaking visitors present today, including the groups from England, Ireland, Japan, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States of America. May your visit to Rome be a time of deep spiritual renewal. Upon all of you I invoke God's abundant blessings of joy and peace.
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