(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Little in fact is known of the author now called Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite apart from what can be adduced from his writings. This alleged disciple of Saint Paul and first bishop of Athens is commonly identified today as a late fifth or early sixth century Syrian monk. He had immense influence on Christian spirituality through the commentaries written on his works by Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century. In the ninth century he was translated into Latin by Johannes Scotus Erigena. Thomas Aquinas often cited him as an authority.

Mystical Theology, which begins with a prayer to the Trinity, is addressed to Timothy—perhaps Saint Paul’s disciple by that name. In regard to his own teaching, Dionysius claims the authority of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle. The chapters are geared toward motivating the reader to seek union with God in mystical contemplation rather than being content with some rational understanding of him. For this purpose the author insists that we not only purify ourselves morally but even leave behind rational thought and sense experience. Like many writers of this genre, he issues a warning against sharing this treatise with the uninitiated. The work falls very clearly on the side of the theology of negation or apophaticism.

We truly get to know God not by apprehending him with our understanding. The reasoning powers must enter into a passive stillness, allowing the highest faculty in the human person to possess God with a knowledge that exceeds understanding. This knowledge is a darkness that is beyond light. At this level we...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Maximus Confessor. “The Ascetic Life” and “The Four Centuries on Charity.” Translated and annotated by Polycarp Sherwood. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1955. The writings of Maximus helped to restore the balance between Neoplatonism and Christian orthodoxy; his commentaries on Dionysius enabled the work of Dionysius to have a profound effect on Christian spirituality.

“Mystical Theology”: The Glosses by Thomas Gallus and the Commentary of Robert Grosseteste on “De mystica theologia.” Translated with an introduction by James McEvoy. Dudley, Mass.: Peeters, 2003. Serious students of Bonaventure will be especially interested in the historic glosses. Bibliography, index.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Divine Names. Translated by the Editors of the Shrine of Wisdom. Brook, Surrey, England: Shrine of Wisdom, 1957. God is first considered in his undifferentiated aspect; then his differentiated aspect is examined in terms of his attributes represented by the divine names.

Sparrow-Simpson, W. J. “The Influence of Dionysius in Religious History.” In The Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, translated by C. E. Rolt. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1940. Remains perhaps the best study available in English concerning Dionysius’s overall place in the Christian tradition.