During his general audience on May 14, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on the Fathers of the Church. He spoke about Dionysius the Areopagite, a theologian from the sixth century who strove to present knowledge of God that surpasses rational understanding and culminates in spiritual perfection, thereby transforming contemplation.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, during our catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, I would like to speak about a rather mysterious figure ? a theologian from the sixth century whose name is unknown to us but who went by the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite when he wrote.
By using this pseudonym, he was referring to an event from Scripture that St. Luke recounts in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles. St. Paul was preaching at the Areopagus in Athens to an elite group of Greek intellectuals. In the end, most of his listeners were not interested and walked away making fun of him.
Nevertheless, St. Luke tells us that a few approached Paul and embraced the faith. St. Luke gives us two names: Dionysius, a member of the court of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris.
The fact that the author of these books chose the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite some five centuries afterwards indicates that he intended to put the wisdom of the Greeks at the service of the Gospel in order to facilitate the encounter of Greek culture and intellectual life with Christ?s message.
He wanted to do what Dionysius intended to do ? facilitate the encounter between Greek thought and St. Paul?s message.
Being Greek, he would become a disciple of St. Paul and a disciple of Christ. Why did he hide his name and choose a pseudonym instead?
We have already revealed part of the response: He wanted to express the fundamental intent of his thought. Yet there are two hypotheses regarding his desire to remain anonymous and his use of a pseudonym. One hypothesis says that this false identity was intentional. By dating his works back to the first century ? St. Paul?s era ? he would be able to give his literary works a quasi-apostolic authority. This hypothesis does not seem plausible to me.
A better hypothesis is the second one: He did so as an act of humility.
He did not want to give glory to his own name and create a monument to himself through his works. He truly desired to serve the Gospel by creating a theology of the Church that was not individualistic and based on himself.
In reality, he was successful in elaborating a theology that we can date with certainty back to the sixth century, yet we cannot attribute it to any one personality from that era. It is a theology that is somewhat separated from the individual, a theology that expresses a common thought and a common language.
That era was an era of bitter controversies following the Council of Chalcedon. Yet he, in his Seventh Epistle, tells us the following: ?I do not want to cause any controversy. I simply speak the truth. I seek the truth.?
The light of truth itself will cast itself upon any error and shine forth all that is good.
Using this as a principle, he purified Greek thought and related it to the Gospel. This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, also expresses a true spirit of dialogue by not dwelling upon the things that separate us but by seeking the truth of the Truth itself. Truth will shine forth and stamp out error.
Therefore, despite the fact that the theology of this author is, we might say, ?supra-personal? and truly ecclesial, we can situate it within the sixth century. Why?
He found the Greek spirit, which he placed at the service of the Gospel, in the books of a certain man named Proclus, who died in Athens in 485.
This author belonged to a later period of Platonic thought, a current of thought that had transformed Plato?s philosophy into a type of religion, whose eventual objective was to create a grandiose apology for Greek polytheism and pave the way for a return, following the success of Christianity, to the ancient Greek religion.
Its aim was to demonstrate that, in reality, divinities were the forces that were at work in the universe. Consequently, polytheism should be considered to be truer than monotheism with its single God as creator.
Proclus presented a grandiose cosmic system of divinities and mysterious forces, through which man, in this deified universe, could find a way to godhood. Moreover, he made a distinction between the path for those who were simple people ? those who were not in a position to attain the apex of truth and for whom certain rituals would suffice ? and the path for those who were steeped in wisdom and who would have to purify themselves in order to attain pure light.
As you can see, this type of thinking is profoundly anti-Christian. It is a delayed reaction against Christianity?s victory ? an anti-Christian use of Plato at a time when a Christian rendition of this great philosopher was already under way.
It is interesting that this pseudo-Dionysius dared to avail himself of this thought in order to show the truth about Christ and to transform this polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God.
In God?s harmonious cosmos, every force is a song of praise to God. He demonstrated this great harmony ? this symphony of the cosmos ? that extends from the seraphim, the angels and archangels to man and all living creatures. Together they reflect the beauty of God and are a song of praise to God.
Thus, Dionysius the Areopagite transformed a polytheistic image into a song of praise to the Creator and his creation. In this way, we can discover the essential characteristics of his thought. First of all, it is a song of praise to the universe. All of creation speaks about God and is a song of praise to God. Since the creature is a song of praise to God, the theology of pseudo-Dionysius becomes a liturgical theology.
God is found, above all, by praising him and not just through reflection. Moreover, liturgy is not something that we have put together, something that we have invented in order to have a religious experience during a certain amount of time. It consists of singing with the choir of creation and entering into the reality of the universe itself.
In this way, liturgy, which appears only ecclesiastical, becomes something larger and greater, uniting us with the language of all of creation. He tells us that we cannot speak about God in an abstract way.
Speaking about God is always ? here he uses the Greek word ? a hymnein ? singing to God in the great song of creation, which is reflected and made concrete in liturgical praise.
Nevertheless, even though his theology is cosmic, ecclesial and liturgical, it is also profoundly personal. He created the first great mystic theology. With him the word ?mystic? acquired a new meaning.
Up until this time, this word was, for Christians, equivalent to the word ?sacramental,? that is, everything that belongs to the mysterion (the sacrament). With him, the word ?mystical? took on a more personal and intimate meaning: It expresses the soul?s journey toward God.
How do we find God? Here we observe once again an important element in his dialogue between Greek philosophy and Christianity, particularly biblical faith.
Apparently everything that Plato says and everything that his great philosophy says about God is loftier and truer; we might say today that the Bible appears to be rather ?barbarian,? simple, and pre-critical.
But he points out that this necessary so that we might understand that even the loftiest concepts about God will never attain his true greatness. They are always inadequate.
These images help us understand that God is truly above every concept; we find more truth in the simplicity of images than in great concepts. The face of God is our incapacity to truly express what he is.
In this way we speak about a ?negative theology,? and Pseudo-Dionysius does so himself.
It is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is. Only through these images can we guess what his true face is. Yet, on the other hand, the face of God is very concrete: It is Jesus Christ.
Even though Dionysius shows us, along with Proclus, the harmony within the celestial choirs in such a way that it seems that all of them are dependent upon each other, the truth is that in our journey toward God we are still very far away from him.
Pseudo-Dionysius shows us that, in the end, the path to God is God himself, who draws close to us in Jesus Christ.
In this way, a great and mysterious theology becomes very concrete, both in interpreting the liturgy and in speaking about Jesus Christ.
Through 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, first of all by St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who discovered the conceptual instruments for interpreting St. Francis? legacy ? so simple and profound ? in this great mystical theology.
St. Francis, along with Dionysius, tells us that in the end love sees more than reason. The shadows of reason have no access to where the light of love is. Love sees and love is an eye; experience gives us much more than reflection. Bonaventure saw in St. Francis what this experience meant. It is the experience of a very humble, realistic path day after day. It is to walk with Christ, taking up his cross.
In this poverty and in this humility ? in the humility that is also experienced throughout the Church ? there is an experience of God that is greater than that which is attained through reflection. In it, we truly touch the heart of God.
Today, Dionysius the Areopagite assumes fresh relevance. He appears as a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, whose most notable characteristic is the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that he can be spoken of only in negative terms, that God can only be spoken of with the word No, and that we can only reach him by entering into this experience of the ?No.? Here we can see a similarity between the thought of Dionysius the Areopagite and that of the Asian religions. Today he can be a mediator like he was between the Greek spirit and the Gospel.
Thus, we see that dialogue does not accept superficiality. It is only when one enters into the depths of an encounter with Christ that an ample space for dialogue opens up. When one finds the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for everyone: Controversies disappear and it is possible to understand one another or at least to speak to one another and to draw closer together.
The path toward dialogue consists precisely in being close to God in Christ, in the depths of our encounter with him, in the experience of the truth that opens us up to the light and helps us to go out to meet others ? the light of truth and the light of love.
In the end, he tells us to take the path of experience, of the humble experience of faith, day after day. At that point, the heart widens and can see and can cast light upon reason in order to see the beauty of God.
Let us ask the Lord to help us today to place the wisdom of our time at the service of the Gospel, discovering anew the beauty of faith and of an encounter with God in Christ.