Viithe Psychology Of Contemplation

Be this as it may, Dionysius is unquestionably speaking of a psychological state to which he himself has been occasionally led. It must, however, be carefully distinguished from another psychological state, apparently the same and yet really quite different, of which there is also evidence in other writers.

Amiel speaks of a mental condition in which the self lies dormant, dissolved, as it were, and absorbed into an undifferentiated state of being; and it is well known that a man's individuality may become merged in the impersonal existence of a crowd. The contrast between such a state and Unknowing consists wholly in the difference of spiritual values and spiritual intensity. Amiel felt the psychic experience mentioned above to be enervating. And the danger is fairly obvious. For this psychic state comes not through spiritual effort but through spiritual indolence. And the repose of spiritual attainment must be a strenuous repose.

The same psychic material may take either of two opposite forms, for the highest experiences and the lowest are both made of the same spiritual stuff. That is why great sinners make great saints and why our Lord preferred disreputable people to the respectable righteous. A storm of passion may produce a Sonata of Beethoven or it may produce an act of murder. All depends on the quality and direction of the storm. So in the present instance. There is a higher merging of the self and a lower merging of it. The one is above the level of personality, the other beneath it; the one is religious the other hedonistic; the one results from spiritual concentration and the other from spiritual dissipation.

Apparently our souls are crystallizations, as it were, out of an undifferentiated psychic ocean. So our personalities are formed, which we must keep inviolate. To melt back, though but for a time, into that ocean would be to surrender our heritage and to incur great loss. This is the objection to mere psychic trances. But some have been called on to advance by the intensification of their spiritual powers until they have for a moment reached a very different Ocean, which, with its fervent heat, has burst the hard outer case of their finite selfhood, and so they have been merged in that Vast Sea of Uncreated Light which has brought them no loss but only gain.

Just as in early days some had special gifts of prophecy through the power of the Holy Ghost, but some through the power of Satan, and the test lay in the manifested results, [17] so in the present instance. We cannot doubt that the experience is true and valid when we see its glory shining forth in the humble Saints of God.

To illustrate this experience fully from the writings of the Saints would need a volume to itself. Let us take a very few examples from one or two writers of unquestioned orthodoxy.

And first, for the theory of personality implied in it we may turn to Pascal, whose teaching amounts to very much the same thing as that of Dionysius. "Le moi," he says, "est haissable. . . . En un mot, le Moi a deux qualités: il est injuste en soi, en ce qu'il se fait centre du tout; il est encommonde aux autres, en ce qu'il les vent asservir: car chaque Moi est l'ennemi et voudrait être le tyran de tous les autres." [18] Thus self-centred Moi, or Personality, is wrong inherently and not only in its results. And it is inherently wrong because a personality has no right to be the centre of things. From this we may conclude (1) that God, as being the rightful Centre of all things, is not a Moi, or Personality; and (2) that the transcendence of our Moi, or Personality, is our highest duty. What, then, is the goal to which this transcendence will lead us? Pascal has a clear-cut answer: "Il n'y a que l'Étre universel qui soit tel. . . . Le Bien Universel est en nous, est nous mêmes et ne'se pas nous." [19] This is exactly the Dionysian doctrine. Each must enter into himself and so must find Something that is his true Self and yet is not his particular self. His true being is deep within his soul and yet in Something Other than his individuality which is within his soul and yet outside of him. We may compare St. Augustine's words: "I entered into the recesses of my being . . . and saw . . . above my mind an Unchanging Light. [20] Where, then, did I find Thee except in Thyself above myself?" [21]

Now for the actual experience of Unknowing and of the Negative Path that leads to it. The finest description of this, or at least of the aspiration after it, is to be found in the following passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine: [22]

"Could one silence the clamorous appetites of the body; silence his perceptions of the earth, the water, and the air; could he silence the sky, and could his very soul be silent unto itself and, by ceasing to think of itself, transcend self-consciousness; could he silence all dreams and all revelations which the mind can image; yea, could he entirely silence all language and all symbols and every transitory thing--inasmuch as these all say to the hearer: 'We made not ourselves but were made by the Eternal'--if, after such words, they were forthwith to hold their peace, having drawn the mind's ear towards their Maker, and He were now to speak alone, not through them but by Himself, so that we might hear His word, not through human language, nor through the voice of an angel, nor through any utterance out of a cloud, nor through any misleading appearance, but might instead hear, without these things, the very Being Himself, Whose presence in them we love--might hear Him with our Spirit even as now we strain our intellect and reach, with the swift movement of thought, to an eternal Wisdom that remains unmoved beyond all things--if this movement were continued, and all other visions (being utterly unequal to the task) were to be done away, and this one vision were to seize the beholder, and were to swallow him up and plunge him in the abyss of its inward delights, so that his life for ever should be like that fleeting moment of consciousness for which we have been yearning, would not such a condition as this be an 'Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord'?"

This passage describes the Via Negativa in terms of aspiration drawn (we cannot doubt) from experience. The soul must cast all things away: sense, perception, thought, and the very consciousness of self; and yet the process and its final result are of the most intense and positive kind. We are reminded of Wordsworth's--

"Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired." [23]

Perhaps more striking is the testimony of St Thomas a Kempis, since, having no taste for speculation, he is not likely to be misled by theories. In the Imitation of Christ [24] occurs the following passage: "When shall I at full gather myself in Thee, that for Thy love I feel not myself, but Thee only, above all feeling and all manner, in a manner not known to all?"

Thus he speaks longingly of a state in which the individual human spirit is altogether merged and has no self-consciousness whatever, except the mere consciousness of its merging. It is conscious of God alone because, as an object of thought, it has gone out of its particular being and is merged and lost in Him. And the way in which St. Thomas describes this state and speaks of it as not known to all suggests that it was known to himself by personal experience.

The clearest and profoundest analysis of the state, based also on the most vivid personal experience of it, is given by Ruysbroeck. The two following passages are examples.

"The spirit for ever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self." [25]

"And, after this, there follows the third way of feeling; namely, that we feel ourselves to be one with God; for, through the transformation in God, we feel ourselves to be swallowed up in the fathomless abyss of our eternal blessedness, wherein we can nevermore find any distinction between ourselves and God. And this is our highest feeling, which we cannot experience in any other way than in the immersion in love. And therefore, so soon as we are uplifted and drawn into our highest feeling, all our powers stand idle in an essential fruition; but our powers do not pass away into nothingness, for then we should lose our created being. And as long as we stand idle, with an inclined spirit and with open eyes, but without reflection, so long we can contemplate and have fruition. But, at the very moment in which we seek to prove and to comprehend what it is that we feel, we fall back into reason, and there we find a distinction and an otherness between ourselves and God, and find God outside ourselves in incomprehensibility." [26]

Nothing could be more lucid. The moi is merged in the Godhead and yet the ego still retains its individuality un-merged, and the existence of the perfected spirit embraces these two opposite poles of fusion and distinction.

The same doctrine is taught, though with less masterly clearness, by St. Bernard in the De Diligendo Deo. There is, he says, a point of rapture where the human spirit "forgets itself . . . and passes wholly into God." Such a process is "to lose yourself, as it were, like one who has no existence, and to have no self-consciousness whatever, and to be emptied of yourself and almost annihilated." "As a little drop of water," he continues, "blended with a large quantity of wine, seems utterly to pass away from itself and assumes the flavor and color of wine, and as iron when glowing with fire loses its original or proper form and becomes just like the fire; and as the air, drenched in the light of the sun, is so changed into the same shining brightness that it seems to be not so much the recipient of the brightness as the actual brightness itself: so all human sensibility in the saints must then, in some ineffable manner, melt and pass out of itself, and be lent into the will of God. . . . The substance (i. e. personality) will remain but in another form." [27]

Of this transcendent experience St. Bernard bluntly says: "To experience this state is to be deified," and "Deification" is a technical term in the Mystical Theology of both the Eastern and the Western Church. Though the word theosis was perhaps a Mystery term, yet it occurs, for instance, in the writings of St. Macarius, and there is therefore nothing strange or novel in the fact that Dionysius uses it. But he carefully distinguishes between this and cognate words; and his fantastic and uncouth diction is (here as so often) due to a straining after rigid accuracy. The Super-Essence he calls the Originating Godhead, or rather, perhaps, the Origin of Godhead (Thearchia) , just as he calls it also "the Origin of Existence" (ousiarchia). From this Origin there issues eternally, in the Universal stream of Emanation, that which he calls Deity or Very Deity (theotes or autotheotes). This Deity, like Being, Life, etc., is an effluence radiating from the Super-Essential Godhead, and is a distant View of It as the dim visibility of a landscape is the landscape seen from afar, or as the effluent heat belongs to a fire. Purified souls, being raised up to the heights of contemplation, participate in this Effluence and so are deified (theountai) and become in a derivative sense, divine (theodeis, theioi), or may even be called Gods (theoi), just as by participating in the Effluence or Emanation of Being all created things become in a derivative sense existent (ousiode, onta). The Super-Essential Godhead (thearchia) is beyond Deity as It is beyond Existence; but the names "Deity" (Theotes) or "Existent" (on) may be symbolically or inadequately applied to It, as a fire may be termed "warm" from its results though its actual temperature is of an intenser kind than this would imply. And the name of "Godhead," which belongs to It more properly, is given It (says Dionysius) merely because it is the Source of our deification. Thus instead of arguing from God's Divinity to man's potential divinity, Dionysius argues from the acquisition of actual divinity by certain men to God's Supra-Divinity. This is only another way of saying that God is but the highest Appearance or Manifestation of the Absolute. And this (as was seen above) is only another way of stating the orthodox and obvious doctrine that all our notions of Ultimate Reality are inadequate.

[25] The Sparkling Stone, chap. iii.

[26] The Sparkling Stone, chap. x.


In the treatise "Concerning the Divine Names," Dionysius seeks to reconcile his daring conceptions with Scripture. Nor can he be said to fail. His argument, briefly, is that in Scripture we have a Revealed Religion and that things which are Revealed belong necessarily to the plane of Manifestation. Thus Revealed Religion interprets to us in terms of human thought things which, being Incomprehensible, are ultimately beyond thought. This is merely what St. Augustine teaches when he says [28] that, the Prologue of St. John's Gospel reveals the mysteries of Eternity not as they actually are but as human thought can grasp them. [29] The neo-Platonism of Dionysius does not invalidate Scripture any more than that of Plotinus invalidates the writings of Plato. Dionysius merely says that there is an unplumbed Mystery behind the words of Scripture and streaming through them, just as Plotinus and other neo-Platonists hold that there is an unplumbed Mystery streaming through from behind Plato's categories of thought. And if it be urged that at least our Lord's teaching on the Fatherhood of God cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of a Supra-Personal Godhead, the answer is near at hand. [30] For the Pagan Plotinus, whose doctrine is similar to that of Dionysius, gives this very name of "Father" to his Supra-Personal Absolute--or rather to that Aspect of It which comes into touch with the human soul. [31] Moreover in the most rigidly orthodox Christian theology God the Father is not a Personality. St. Augustine, for instance, [32] teaches that the "Persons" of the Trinity are Elements whose true nature is unknown to us. [33] They correspond however, he says, to certain elements in our individual personalities, and hence the human soul is created (he tells us) not in the image of one Person in the Godhead but in the image of the whole Trinity. [34] Thus he by implication denies that God the Father is, in the ordinary sense of the word, a Personality. And the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas is very similar. [35] It may, perhaps, even be said that the germ of the most startling doctrines which Dionysius expounds may be actually found in Scripture. A state, for instance, which is not knowledge and yet is not ignorance, is described by St. Paul when he says that Christians "know God or rather are known of Him." [36] This is the mental attitude of Unknowing. For the mind is quiescent and emptied of its own powers and so receives a knowledge the scope and activity of which is outside itself in God. And in speaking of an ecstatic experience which he himself had once attained St. Paul seems to suggest that he was, on that occasion, outside of himself in such a manner as hardly, in the ordinary sense, to retain his own identity. [37] Moreover he suggests that the redeemed and perfected creation is at last to be actually merged in God (hina e ho Theos ta panta en pasin [38] ). And the doctrine of Deification is certainly, in the germ, Scriptural. For as Christ is the Son of God so are we to be Sons of God, [39] and Christ is reported actually to have based His own claims to Deity on the potential Divinity of the human soul. [40] Moreover we are to reign with Him [41] and are, in a manner passing our present apprehension, to be made like Him when we see Him as He is. [42]

Now all the boldest statements of Dionysius about the ultimate glory for which the human soul is destined are obviously true of Christ, and as applied to Him, they would be a mere commentary on the words "I and the Father are One." [43] Therefore if Christ came to impart His Life to us so that the things which are His by Nature should be ours by Grace, it follows that the teaching of Dionysius is in harmony with Scripture so long as it is made to rest on the Person and Work of Christ. And, though Dionysius does not emphasize the Cross as much as could be wished, yet he certainly holds that Christ is the Channel through which the power of attainment is communicated to us. It must not be forgotten that he is writing as a Christian to Christians, and so assumes the Work of Christ as a revealed and experienced Fact. And since he holds that every individual person and thing has its pre-existent limits ordained in the Super-Essence, therefore he holds that the Human Soul of Christ has Its preexistent place there as the Head of the whole creation. That is what he means by the phrase "Super-Essential Jesus," and that is what is taught in the quotation from Hierotheus already alluded to. No doubt the lost works of Dionysius dealt more fully with this subject, as indeed he hints himself. And if, through this scanty sense of the incredible evil which darkens and pollutes the world, he does not in the present treatise lay much emphasis upon the Savior's Cross, yet he gives us definite teaching on the kindred Mystery of the Incarnation.

[28] Com. on St. John, Tr. I. 1: "For who can declare the Truth as it actually is? I venture to say, my brothers, perhaps John himself has not declared it as it actually is; but, even he, only according to his powers. For he was a man speaking about God--one inspired, indeed, by God but still a man. Because he was inspired he has declared something of the Truth--had he not been inspired he could not have declared anything of it--but because he was a man (though an inspired one) he has not declared the whole Truth, but only what was possible for a man."

[29] [What Augustine says is that St. John, because he was only human, has not declared the whole Truth concerning Deity. But this is very different from saying that what St. John has declared does not correspond with the eternal Reality. While Augustine holds that the Johannine revelation is not complete, he certainly held that it was correct as far as it goes. Augustine had no conception of a Deity whom the qualities of self-consciousness and personality did not essentially represent. It is more than questionable whether Augustine would have accepted the statement that the Prologue of St. John's Gospel does not record the mysteries of Eternity "as they actually are." Augustine had a profound belief that God as He is in Himself corresponds with God as He is revealed.--Ed.]

[30] [The writer argues that Christ and Plotinus both employ the same expression, Father, to the Deity. But the use of the same expression will not prove much unless it is employed in the same meaning. No one can seriously contend that the Pagan Plotinus meant what Jesus Christ meant of the Fatherhood of God. Surely it is unquestionable that the Fatherhood of God meant for Jesus Christ what constituted God's supreme reality. It was employed in a sense which is entirely foreign to the metaphysical doctrine of a Supra-Personal Deity. The Semitic conception of the Godhead was not that of a neo-Platonist metaphysician.--Ed.]

[31] e.g. Enn. I. 6, 8: "We have a country whence we came, and we have a Father there."

[32] [What Augustine says is that we do not speak of three essences and three Gods, but of one essence and one God. Why then do we speak of three Persons and not of one Person? "Why, therefore, do we not call these three together one Person, or one Essence and one God; we say three Persons, while we do not say three Gods or three Essences; unless it be because we wish some one word to serve for that meaning whereby the Trinity is understood, that we might not be altogether silent when asked, what three, while we confessed that they are three?" 1. Augustine's distinction is between the genus and the species. Thus Abraham Isaac and Jacob are three specimens of one genus. What he contends is that this is not the case in the Deity. 2. The essence of the Deity is unfolded in these Three. And "there is nothing else of that Essence beside the Trinity." "In no way can any other person whatever exist out of the same essence" whereas in mankind there can be more than three. 3. Moreover the three specimens of the genus man, Abraham Isaac and Jacob, are more, collectively, than any one of them by himself. "But in God it is not so; for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together is not a greater essence than the Father alone or the Son alone." What he means is that the Trinity is not to be explained by spatial metaphors (De Trin. vii. II). Augustine then is not teaching that the Persons of the Trinity are Elements whose true nature is unknown to us. He certainly does teach that Personality in the Godhead must exist otherwise than what we find under human limitations. But Augustine's conception of Deity is not the Supra-Personal Absolute. To him the Trinity was not confined to the plane of Manifestation. We have only to remember how he regards Sabellianism to prove this. Moreover, who can doubt that Augustine's psychological conception of God as the Lover, the Beloved and the Love which in itself is personal, represented to his mind the innermost reality and ultimate essence of the Deity? God is not for Augustine a supra-personal something in which both unity and trinity are transcended. The Trinity of Manifestation is for Augustine that which corresponds with and is identical with the very essential being of Deity. God is not merely Three as known to us but Three as He is in Himself apart from all self-revelation.--Ed.]

[33] De Trin. vii. 11: "Why . . . do we speak of Three 'Persons' . . . except because we need some one term to explain the meaning of the word 'Trinity,' so as not to be entirely without an answer to the question: 'Three What?' when we confess God to be Three."

[39] New Testament, passim.

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