A feast for Dionysius the (pseudo) areopagite
Today October 9 is celebrated in the liturgical churches of the West as the feast of Dionysus the Areopagite. He is venerated in the Eastern churches on the 3rd of the same month.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the second half of the text we know as Gospel according to LukeThere is someone named Dionysius who is converted by Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus, a famous rock outcrop at the Acropolis in Athens. According to Eusebius, he would become the first bishop of Athens.
Slightly more important is that a series of writings appeared at the beginning of the 6th century attributed to Dionysius. Modern scholarship has noted the troublesome gap of about five hundred years between the bishop and the writings, and therefore the author is generally referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. This Dionysius would have an enormous influence on the formation of Christian mystical theology.
For me, his approach to a negative or apophatic theology places him in the great family of spiritual writers which includes many Buddhists. If you read this blog regularly, you might notice that the following has already been posted. Or, at least something close. It’s one of those thoughts that continue to haunt me and that I find it hard to let go.
Because I think it’s important …
As the Wikipedia article on the negative path tells us: “In short, negative theology is an attempt to clarify religious experience and language about the Divine through discernment, by acquiring a knowledge of what God does. is not (apophasis), rather than describing what God is. If you substitute ‘the real’ or ‘that which is’ or even ‘sunyata’ for the word God, it is possible to find compelling similarities.
And, of course, there are substantial differences. Pseudo-Dionysius draws heavily on Neo-Platonic traditions which have little direct commonality with Buddhism. But stay. We find that the Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura describes similarities between the teachings of Dionysius and Madhyamika Buddhism of Nagarjuna, viewing the “super-essential darkness” of Pseudo-Dionysius as roughly equivalent to the “void” of Nagarjuna. Nakumara goes even further and suggests that certain passages of Dionysius ” Mystical Theology ” might well be called a Christian version of the Heart Sutra.
One of my mentors, Buddhist philosopher Masao Abe, was also aware of the deep similarities, as well as the differences between Dionysius’ mystical philosophy and Buddhism, and his own goal, Zen Buddhism. Quoting this passage from Mystical theology:
Going higher, we say …
neither dark nor light,
not wrong, not true,
while we affirm or deny these orders of beings
who are related to him
we neither affirm nor deny it
any affirmation as the unique Universal Cause and
any negation as a simple preeminent cause,
free from everything and
to any transcendent.
As Professor Abe says, “it is surprisingly similar to the Zen expressions of nature or the mind of Buddha.” For me, as a person who walks the razor’s edge between East and West, Buddhism carrying my foundational theology and Christianity the body of my childhood and early spiritual training, it is all so wonderful.
According to Dionysius, there are three stages on the path to holiness. As a Zen practitioner, I find in them a useful if not complete map. Maybe you could too
Write in his Heavenly hierarchyDionysius names these stages, or perhaps modes would be a better term, “to purify, enlighten and perfect; or rather he himself is purification, illumination and perfection. In this it covers, if I read the line correctly, which implies that they are all actions, all in a sense, verbs. I find it hard to read them like rungs on a ladder. This thing about how matters of the mind never comfortably fit into boxes or diagrams. Fortunately, from the start I like the way St Bonaventure looks at these three stages and actually says they are not hierarchical. You don’t go through one then the other. Everyone is in fact present at all times. Not. Or maybe its fashions. It’s okey for me. And at the same time, there is a kind of staging that occurs when we decide to take a spiritual path.
While useful, everything is dynamic, and no one should attempt to chart our spiritual path as more than a rough sketch. And, of course, rather arbitrary. Of the later commentators, one of my favorites, Evelyn Underhill reformulates this into five stages, again, or modes, or moments, adding to purification, enlightenment and perfecting (or theosis, or deification), the dark night of the soul, and the unitary life. These are maps, not the territory.
That said, as a map they point. There are reasons generations have found them useful. Including me. With that, a few thoughts on each of these stages or modes.
First of all, catharsis, purification or purge. It sounds like a start, and in many ways it is. Here we start as we are. I love this line from Rumi, which I see as the call to those who are ready to hear. “Sit down, shut up and listen, because you’re drunk, we’re on the edge of the roof.” Here we notice that something is wrong. Whether in the world or in our hearts hardly matters.
If we don’t feel this injustice, there is no reason to do anything. But, once we notice it, why, it happens. This perception takes different forms. We can see the wounds inflicted by corporations. We can see the dangers inherent in being alive and so fragile. This very fragility can feel a wound, an injustice. But, as I see it, it requires that we notice at some point that much of this injustice has to do with us. You. Me.
Once we see the hurt, the hurt, we react in several ways. We may have tried to remedy it through the actions of the world, alcohol and drugs, sex, money. But, at some point, we see that these are not solutions to the evil.
And with that we get started. Depending on the traditions in which we live, this can lead us to prayer or meditation. Because, to me, part of the appeal of Zen is that it offers one of the simplest and most convenient practices. In everyone’s heart: sit back, shut up and pay attention.
Here becomes a current for a spiritual life. For me, it’s the regular return to attention.
Second, theory, lighting. It is the place of contemplation, where we begin to take in hand the practices, or rather the practices begin to take hold of us. I love to share how I once wrote an article on mediation and the publisher commissioned some wonderful illustrations.
However, with regard to the image of the meditator, the figure is seated and all around it arrows are pointing. I replied and said my problem with this image is that the arrows are pointing in the wrong direction.
As Eihei Dogen tells us, “When the self advances towards the ten thousand things, it is the illusion. When the ten thousand things advance towards me, it is awakening.
They said, oh. And then, it’s a shame. And then they published the article with these arrows aiming at, well, the ten thousand things. Kind of like things often are. Including ourselves. I notice that we rarely have a good idea of why we are practicing or even how we are practicing. We stumble.
But as we get down to the path of these practices, things do happen. We could actually, we’ll almost certainly start by looking. We start by moving forward, by projecting our ideas onto the things of the world. Of course, there isn’t a ton of success in this area.
Here we are entering areas where our ideas of what is and what is not begin to crumble. We can have visions. We can hear things. The world itself becomes uncertain. There are traps, traps, a thousand million ways to go wrong. And we persist, we continue to sit, we consult the elders, and like water on stone, little by little, little by little, our false sense of self wears out. And, if we are particularly lucky, a crack in the rock will be revealed, and at some point, by that single drop, drop, will open it all up.
But, whether it’s so dramatic or so subtle that we can’t even notice something is happening, change is happening. The light actually turns inward. And what we might have thought was our own effort, we start to notice that this is only part of the picture.
And, with this, thirdly, theosis, deification or union. Here we find the inspiration of which Meister Eckhart sang “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.” We describe here the fruits of our practices, of our intuitions. Here we begin to enter the mystery. What I like about this approach is that even that’s not a once-and-for-all thing. We can indeed have moments of amazing clarity. Big breakthroughs. And we can’t. And, even big breakthroughs aren’t once and for all. They leave a trace, which can indeed inform us, and never get lost. But, this moment is itself a moment.
Several years ago, I was sitting at the back of a sesshin, a Zen retreat. I had arrived in a place of astonishing clarity. And there was proof to this pudding. I was able to answer the koans as if they were children’s puzzles. They were each as obvious as the nose on your face. And, I remember the roshi noticed this and bent down until our noses were no more than a few inches apart. I could smell the black tea he preferred on his breath. He smiled, if I remember correctly, and said, “James, don’t forget. Even enlightenment is just an idea.
The beauty of these graces comes as a reminder of our deep truth. We are in fact not only devoid of any particularity, but also connected more intimately than words can ever tell.