Friday, November 18, 2011

Pseudo-Dionysius: A Scholastic and a Mystic Find Common Ground

by Josh Hosler 

Dr. Gray
Virginia Theological Seminary
CH-502: Church History
16 November 2011

Euclid’s first postulate is that two points determine a line segment (Keeton). He could not prove this statement, but by assuming it to be true, the ancient Greek mathematician could deduce a theorem stating that two different lines may intersect at no more than one point (ibid.). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) endeavored to approach the knowledge of God this logically and precisely, answering theological questions in a method rather like Euclid’s geometric proofs. In his Summa Theologiae (written 1265-1274 and never completed), Thomas stated that truths revealed by God are the postulates that allow humans to develop theological theorems. These theorems are not self-evident, but careful consideration of divine postulates can demonstrate them. While the theorems are ultimately impossible to prove, they do represent the best humankind can achieve by use of God-given reason. Thomas’s divine postulates come from Holy Scripture and from the traditional teachings of the Church, all of which he understood to be truths revealed by God directly to human beings. By connecting these sacred postulates one to another and building on them in a fashion consistent with Greek logic and the scholastic method he had inherited from recent generations, Thomas sought to codify the entire realm of theology.

One century after Thomas, an anonymous English priest wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, a manual for contemplative prayer that Christians use to this day to guide their meditation practices. To a mind attuned to precise definitions and carefully proven arguments, The Cloud of Unknowing might seem hopelessly vague, employing poetic language and even seeming to call into question the value of intellectual reasoning. The anonymous author frequently quoted from the works of a number of mystical masters, including Thomas Gallus, Guigo II, and Hugh of Balma, while Thomas Aquinas preferred to quote logical thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine. But both theologians quoted frequently from the Bible and from another common source: Pseudo-Dionysius, a theologian and mystic who lived around the year 500. While Thomas Aquinas and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote in very different styles and with sharply divergent goals, their common reliance on Pseudo-Dionysius is a key to harmonizing some of their overarching theological points.

The Cloud of Unknowing is a primer on Christian meditation, but it is also a collection of what the author perceived to be the central teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius. The author is most of the way through the book before he comes right out and says so, in his sole reference to his primary source:

And now whoever cares to examine the works of [Pseudo-Dionysius], he will find that his words clearly corroborate all that I have said or am going to say, from the beginning of this treatise to the end. But I have no mind to cite him to support my views on any other things than this, at this moment, or any other doctor either. For at one time men believed that it was humility to say nothing out of their own heads, unless they corroborated it by scripture and the sayings of the fathers. But now this practice indicates nothing except cleverness and a display of erudition. You do not need it and so I am not going to do it. (Walsh, 256)

The author’s blatant refusal to cite his sources stands in stark contrast to Thomas’s clever, erudite  Summa Theologiae, which is full of citations and whose logic might well fall apart without them. But The Cloud of Unknowing is not geared toward logic or scholasticism: its aim is to connect the ordinary Christian directly with God through contemplative prayer. The author does this by speaking of God as residing in a “cloud of unknowing,” a mystical space we can approach but never fully apprehend. He stresses that the only way to approach this mystical God is to put aside every earthly distraction in order to focus exclusively on the divine. He who pursues this practice must imagine that he is placing between himself and all the created order a second cloud called a “cloud of forgetting”: “For though it is very profitable on some occasions to think of the state and activities of certain creatures in particular, nevertheless in this exercise it profits little or nothing … Insofar as there is anything in your mind except God alone … you are further from God” (ibid., 129). Later he clarifies the only instinct worthy of a contemplative’s time: “It is love alone that can reach God in this life, and not knowing” (ibid., 139).

Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, really wanted to know. He wrote: “Man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth [divine revelation]. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation” (Summa, Ia q. 1 a. 1). From this argument, it sounds as if Thomas holds that some form of knowledge, not merely love, is a crucial agent in humans’ salvation. But the knowledge Thomas found so indispensable is not the kind reasoned out by humans, gathered through their five senses; rather, it is the kind given directly by God. What might this divine knowledge be but a simple, wordless understanding of divine love? If this is the case, Thomas and the Cloud author are actually in agreement. It was in their proposed use of a Christian’s time and energy that the two theologians strongly disagreed.

Even the most dedicated scholastic cannot spend all his time thinking, nor can the earnest mystic spend all his time in silent contemplation. How should a Christian spend the rest of his time? Both Thomas and Cloud agree that virtuous acts are a primary goal of the Christian life, and both count on Pseudo-Dionysius to prove it. Thomas gets there in the process of asking whether sacred doctrine is the same as wisdom (Summa, Ia, q. 1, a. 6). His ideal Christian is habitually geared toward virtue: “Whoever has the habit of virtue judges rightly of what concerns that virtue by his very inclination towards it.” So acting virtuously spurs one on to further virtue and further discovery of the true nature of God, not merely by reading, but also by experiencing. Here Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, who in turn refers to first-century bishop Hierotheus the Thesmothete: “Not only did he [Hierotheus] learn of these matters [Jesus’ signs of divinity] … but he also experienced these divine things. Further … by his sympathy to these matters he found completion in an untaught and mystical union with and belief of them” (ibid.). So Thomas understood that, so to speak, “believing is seeing”: by living a Christian life and acting virtuously, one’s understanding of God naturally deepens, and God grants to such a holy person more occurrences of divine revelation.

In Cloud, persistence in prayer is the key to understanding God, and this naturally leads to a virtuous life. The author writes that there are two kinds of Christian life—active and contemplative—and that the contemplative way is qualitatively better (Cloud, 136 ff.).  To illustrate his point (ibid., 153 ff.), he uses the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) in which Jesus honors Mary’s attentiveness to his teaching and chides Martha for being so busy and anxious. We might imagine that Thomas Aquinas could stand in for Martha in this story, pursuing, as he did, a life of never-ending scholasticism and intellectualism. Cloud states:

In this, then, one can quickly understand the way of this working, and realize clearly that it is far removed from any fancy or false imagination of subtle opinion; for all these are brought about not by that devout and humble, simple, impulse of love, but by a proud, speculative and over-imaginative reasoning. These proud and elaborate speculations must always be pushed down and heavily trodden under foot, if this exercise is to be truly understood in purity of spirit. (126-27)

While Cloud has no time for those who would think their way into virtue, both this author and Thomas agree that God looks with favor on good works; they disagree on the most productive way for a Christian to exercise this virtue. But if the two are at odds on such a crucial point as this, does anything remain to unite them? Indeed, something does, and once again, Pseudo-Dionysius is a helpful reference.

The Cloud author insists on his student placing everything—even good things—into the “cloud of forgetting,” in order to focus on God alone. He imagines that his student might ask, “What about good things? May I not think about them?” The rather complex reply subdivides both the active life and the contemplative life, placing them on a hierarchy in which the true contemplative must rise above absolutely everything, even the urge to meditate on Jesus’ suffering, or on the many gifts God has given us (135 ff.). While he is quick to admit that the world is full of good things that come from a very good God, the author’s goal is to help his reader rise above everything that is not God. This must include all of God’s works and even the urge to meditate on them:

When you ask me what this thought is that presses so hard upon you in this exercise, offering to help you in this work, I answer that it is a well-defined and clear sight of your natural intelligence imprinted upon your reason within your soul. And when you ask me whether it is good or evil, I say that it must of necessity be always good in its nature, because it is a ray of God’s likeness (135).

Such an urge can be used for evil, however, when it is “swollen with pride, and with the curiosity which comes from the subtle speculation and learning, such as theologians have, which makes them want to be known not as humble clerics and masters of divinity or devotion, but proud scholars of the devil and masters of vanity and falsehood” (136). The Cloud author may well have viewed Thomas Aquinas in exactly this way. And if Thomas’s thirst for knowledge had led him to build a box large enough to entrap God, no mystic could hope to find common ground with him. But this was not Thomas’s aim. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

In the opening discussion of the Summa, [Thomas] quickly led the reader to a conclusion which was that of the pseudonymous Dionysius the Areopagite long before, and which had become much more familiar among the theologians of Byzantium: ‘It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God.’ (413)

Like the author of Cloud, Thomas set himself on a lifelong quest to discover what is good. From the beginning of the Summa Theologiae he asserts that God is good, because that which is desirable is good, and all things desire their own perfection, which is represented by God (Ia, q. 6 a. 1). Here again he quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes in The Divine Names: “The good is that from which all subsist and are … for they are protected and held fast in its almighty power—and that into which all are returned according to the proper limit of each being” (Jones, 136). If God is perfection and God is the original cause of all things, and if we and all other creatures strive for perfection, then God must be good. And while Thomas calls poetry “the least of all the sciences” (Ia, q. 1 a. 9), he does not scorn it; rather, he insists that poetic metaphor is essential in helping us understand God. We are not able to understand God fully, but “God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.”

Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius to prove this point, too, from Celestial Hierarchy: “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils” (ibid.). In other words, a truth cloaked in metaphor is no less true. Some people who lack the capacity for the vigorous use of reason—perhaps some contemplatives Thomas knew?—may be better taught the same truth by a metaphor. And if poetry is less noble than science, as Thomas assumes, at least poetry is an appropriate vehicle for truth because it meets us where we are: in our human state of limitedness. Yet again, he references Pseudo-Dionysius to point out that “it is more fitting that divine truths should be expounded under the figure of less noble than of nobler bodies” (ibid.). Here Thomas is relying extensively on The Cloud of Unknowing’s primary source to prove God’s goodness logically and to point out the very limitations of his life’s work.

Had these two authors been contemporaries, we can imagine they might have looked down their noses at each other. It would not be difficult to find many other occurrences in the ensuing centuries of active and contemplative theologians rubbing each other the wrong way. But in their common reliance on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, we can see that there is an underlying logic to The Cloud of Unknowing, and that Thomas, in his own way, was something of a mystic. For Thomas Aquinas, the mysteries of God are a means to an end. In The Cloud of Unknowing, they are the end itself.

Works Cited

Fathers of the English Dominican Province, translators. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. 1920.

Jones, John D., Ph.D., translator. Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite: The Divine Names and Mystical Theology. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980.

Keeton, Thomas, ed. ThinkQuest. 1996. Oracle Education Foundation. 14 November 2011,

MacCulloch. Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009.

Walsh, James, S.J., ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York, 1981.

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