Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistle 9

The late-5th- or early-6th-century figure Pseudo-Dionysios (or simply the Latin “Dionysius” or the French equivalent “Denys”) is a cardinal figure in the history of Western thought and civilization. Given his high importance for Christian theology East and West, one would think that he would be more read, or at least better-understood by specialists. Unfortunately, he is not well-understood, not even by the most prominent name in Denys studies, Paul Rorem. Alas, the most easily-available translation of Denys’ works are marked by the massive anachronistic distortions of Rorem’s Lutheran confessional bias (a topic for another time). There are also specialist biases in play from other Athenian-Pagan-Hellenistic directions, as the scholarship of Ronald F. Hathaway shows (Hathaway I have read with much more profit than Rorem, however). Eric Perl has the best introduction to Denys. Hieromonk (now bishop?) Golitzin wrote a necessary, complementary second. John D. Jones’ translation of the Divine Names is still the best English-translation text to begin digging into Denys himself.

I’ll be posting about Denys in the future, given my love for him and his value and importance (which needs much more articulation than I can possibly give it here). In the meantime, I thought that a good place to start would be to publish a comparative list of three translations of Denys’ Epistle 9, mostly about scriptural language. The Luibheid/Rorem translation is sadly the most easily accessible, the Parker translation unfortunately forgotten or unread, and the Hathaway translation is, lamentably, mostly gathering dust on university libraries (or in professors’ shelves). Given these injustices, this columned, comparative translation seemed worth sharing. I may offer more such in the future — a chapter or two each from the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. (Denys coined the term “hierarchy”, and it does not mean for him what it means for us.)

Denys’ approach to scriptural figures for God –or any figures for God at all– is markedly unlike any modern confessional theology. Such confessional theologies are dogmatically committed to the existence of secret truths about God that are simply unknowable to us until we are told them, and which reason –any model of reason or rationality– has no capacity to verify. This is idolatry, and Denys shows us the beginnings of seeing why and how this is so. (It also leads to atrocious psychological, social and political configurations, but I shouldn’t run too far, too fast.)

The occasional odd trail of periods was necessary, given my knowledge of HTML and of WordPress, to get the proper formatting. The asterisks* mark approximate page breaks in the Patrologia Graeca.

1987: LUIBHEID/ROREM 1969: HATHAWAY 1897: JOHN PARKER
1. My dear Titus, I do not know if the sacred Timothy, at the time he departed, was unaware of the theological symbols of which I have been offering interpretations.Certainly in my own Symbolic Theology I explained to him in detail all those scriptural passage concerning God which to the man in the street appear quite extraordinary.

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Among uninstructed souls the fathers of unspeakable wisdom give an impression of outstanding absurdity when, with secret and daring riddles, they make known that truth which is divine, mysterious, and, so far as the profane are concerned, inaccessible.

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That is why so many continue to be unbelieving in the presence of the explanations of the divine mysteries, for we contemplate them solely by way of the perceptible symbols attached to them.

What is necessary is to uncover them, to see them in their naked purity.

By contemplating them in this manner we can revere that * “source of life” flowing into itself.

We see it remaining within itself, a unique and simple power, source of its own movement and activity, which is never failing and which is the knowledge of all knowledge by virtue of its own perpetual self-contemplation.

Now I thought it necessary to explicate as well as I could to him and to others the great variety of sacred symbols used by scripture to reveal God, for if one looks at them from the outside they seem filled with incredible and contrived fantasy.

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Some examples. Regarding the transcendent generation of God, scripture speaks of God’s womb begetting God in a corporeal way. It speaks of the Word coming like a breath of air from a human heart. It depicts the Spirit as breathed * out from a mouth. It talks of the divine bosom embracing the Son of God and it present this to us in a bodily way. For physical imagery it resorts to trees, leaves, flowers, roots, bubbling fountains of water, radiant sources of shining light, together with all those other revealing depictions in the transcendent Word of God.

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In the domain of the mind, in the area of God’s providence, whether it be with respect to his gifts, his appearances, his powers, his attributes, his allotments, his abodes, his processions, his distinctions, or his unions, these are all variously represented in the forms of men, of wild or domestic animals, of plants, and of stones. God is clothed in feminine adornments or in the armor of barbarians. He is given the attributes of an artisan, be he potter, or refiner. He is * put on horses, or chariots, on thrones. Well-laid feasts are put on for him. He is represented as drinking, as inebriated, as sleeping, as someone hung-over.

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And what about his anger, his grief, his various oaths? His changes of mind, his curses, his rages, the various and equivocal sophistries he employs in order to evade his promises? What about the war of the giants, described in Genesis, during which, it is said, God was afraid of those powerful men and tricked them, even though they were building their tower not to harm anyone but for their own salvation? What about the council held in heaven for the purpose of cheating and deceiving Ahab?

And in the Songs there are those passionate longings fit only for prostitutes. There are too those other sacred picture boldly used to represent * God, so that what is hidden may be brought out into the open and multiplied, what is unique and undivided may be divided up, and multiple shapes and forms be given to what has neither shape nor form. All this is to enable the one capable of seeing the beauty hidden within these images to find that they are truly mysterious, appropriate to God, and filled with a great theological light.

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But let us not suppose that the outward face of these contrived symbols exists for its own sake. Rather, it is the protective garb of the understanding of what is ineffable and invisible to the common multitude. This is so in order that the most sacred things are not easily handled by the profane but are revealed instead to the real lovers of holiness. Only these latter know how to pack away the workings of childish imagination regarding the sacred symbols. They alone have the simplicity of mind and the receptive, contemplative power to cross over to the simple, marvelous, transcendent truth of the symbols.

* But there is a further point to understand. Theological tradition has a dual aspect, the ineffable and mysterious on the one hand, the open and more evident on the other. The one resorts to symbolism and involves initiation. The other is philosophic and employs the method of demonstration. (Further, the inexpressible is bound up with what can be articulated.) The one uses persuasion and imposes the truthfulness of what is asserted. The other acts and, by means of a mystery which cannot be taught, it puts souls firmly in the presence of God.

This is why the sacred initiators of our tradition, together with those of the tradition of the Law, resorted freely to symbolism * appropriate to God, regarding the sacraments of the most holy mysteries. Indeed we see the blessed angels using riddles to introduce the divine mysteries. Jesus himself speaks of God by means of parables, and passes on to us the mystery of his divine activity by using the symbolism of a table. It was right not only that the Holy of Holies should be kept free from the contamination of the mob, but also that human life which is undivided but also divided should receive in an appropriate way the enlightenment of divine knowledge.

And so the impassive element of the soul, as befits its nature, honors and rises up toward the most divine of realities by way of the carefully combined elements of the representations. These symbolic * veils are akin [to that part of the soul], as seen by the example of those who, having been taught the things of God in a way which is clear and unveiled, go on then to picture in themselves some image guiding them to a conception of the theological teaching which they have listened to.

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2. As Paul said and as true reason has said, the ordered arrangement of the whole visible realm makes known the invisible things of God.

By the same token, scripture writers in their consideration of a theme look at it sometimes in a social and legal perspective and sometimes purely and without any mixture with anything else. They look at it sometimes at the human and intermediate level, sometimes in a transcendent mode and in the context of perfection. Sometimes they rely on the laws governing visible things, sometimes on rules which * govern invisible things, and all this depending on what suits the sacred writings, minds, & souls.

Whether one looks at the question in its entirety or in individual detail theirs is not a discourse totally in the bare historical domain but one which has to do with life-giving perfection.

We have therefore to run counter to mass prejudice and we must make the holy journey to the heart of the sacred symbols. And we must certainly not disdain them, for they are the descendants and bear the mark of the divine stamps. They are the manifest images of unspeakable & marvelous sights.

It is not only the transcendent lights and the conceptual things –or, putting the matter more simply, the divine things– which are depicted in the various symbolic forms, as when, for instance, one describes the transcendent God as “fire” or when one describes the meaning of God’s conceptual scriptures as “afire.” It also is the case that the angelic ranks, conforming to God, intelligible and intelligent beings, are represented in diverse modes, with a great collage of forms &, among other ways, by way of figures * of fire.

This same image of fire takes on different meanings, depending on whether it refers to the God who transcends all conceptions, to the providential activities or reasons of God, or indeed to the angels themselves. In one instance one thinks under the heading of “cause,” in another under the heading of “sub-sistence,” in a third instance under the heading of “participation,” and in other instances under other headings according as their contemplation & wise arrangement determines.

For of course one cannot use sacred symbols * haphazardly. They have to be explicated in whatever way that is appropriate to the causes, subsistences, powers, orders, and dignities of which they are the revealing signs.

However, I must not allow this letter to go on too long. Let us consider the question which you put to me. What I am saying is this. All nourishment gives completion to the one being nourished. It makes up for whatever there is in him of incompletion and insufficiency. It supplies a remedy for his weakness and watches over his life, making it blossom and revive. It gives his life pleasure. In short, it does away with pain and with imperfection, giving him joy and completion.

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* 3. So then, scripture quite rightly sings the praise of that kindly wisdom, and indeed it is nowhere near enough to call it wise. For it prepares a mysterious mixing bowl, and, having first made ready some solid food, it pours a sacred drink into it and then, generously, with a great cry, it beckons to all who have need of it.

The divine Wisdom therefore makes ready two kinds of nourishment, the one solid and stable, the other liquid and flowing. It makes ready in a bowl the bounties of Providence. This bowl, being round & uncovered, has to be a symbol of the Providence which has neither a beginning nor an end, which is open to all and encompasses all. Proceeding outward to everything, it yet remains in itself and continues to be its unaltered self. It maintains its full and unfailing being, like the bowl which continues to be stable and secure.

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* It is said too that wisdom built itself a home and got ready there the solid food and drink as well as the bowl. This is said so that anyone giving a sacred meaning to the divine things would clearly discover that the universal cause of being and of well-being is also the perfect Providence which proceeds in stages upon everything. Thus Providence occurs everywhere. It contains everything

and, at the same time, it is something in something, but in a transcending way; in no way is it nothing in nothing. For it quite surpasses everything, being and standing and remaining forever in the sameness of its self, experiencing nothing whatever of change, never going out of its self, never leaving its own base and its own unaltered abode and place where in its goodness it engages in the fullness of its perfect Providence. * It is there that it proceeds step by step down to everything without ever ceasing to remain within itself. Always at rest and on the move it is never at rest or on the move, which is to say that, naturally and supernaturally, it can engage in its providential activities in the mist of abiding, and it can engage in its abiding in the midst of its providential activities.

4. What is meant by this solid food and this liquid nourishment? * The generous Wisdom is praised by saying that it makes a providential gift of both at the same time. I believe that by solid food is depicted a perfection and sameness of an intellectual and stable order, by virtue of which and during the exercise of a knowledge which is stable, powerful, unique, and indivisible, the divine things are shared with the intelligent workings of sense perception. It is in this way that Paul, himself a recipient of wisdom, imparted truly solid food.

As for liquid nourishment, this is the abundant outflowing which reaches out eagerly to all beings and which is a guide through all that is varied, multiple, and divided and which generously leads those it feeds to a simple, stable knowledge of God. This is why the divine and conceptual scriptures are compared to dew, to water, to milk, to wine, and to honey, for they have the power like water to * produce life, like milk to give growth, like wine to revive, like honey both to purify and to preserve.

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Such indeed are the gifts bestowed by the Wisdom of God on those drawing near with generous hearts. This is how Wisdom grants and pours over them the abundant flow of its unfailing delights. And truly they are delights! Which is why Wisdom is praised as life-giving, as child-rearing, as the One who renews and makes perfect.

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5. Taking holy delight according to this same sacred explication, one says of God, the cause of all good, that he is “inebriate,” and this is to convey that superabundance of delights unfathomable to the mind. * Better still, it is to convey the quite total and indescribable limitlessness of God’s well-being. In our terminology, inebriation has the pejorative meaning of an immoderate fullness, being out of one’s mind and wits. It has a better meaning when applied to God, and this inebriation must be understood as nothing other than the measureless superabundance of good things which are in him as Cause.

As for being out of one’s mind and wits, which follows drunkenness, in God’s case it must be taken to mean that incomprehensible super-abundance of God by virtue of which his capacity to understand transcends any understanding or any state of being understood. He is beyond being itself.

Quite simply, as “drunk” God stands outside of all good things, being the superfullness of all these things. He surpasses all that is measureless and his abode is above and beyond all that exists.

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* It is in the same way that we will understand the feasts of the saints in the kingdom of God. For the King himself will come, it says, and “have them sit at table and will serve them.” What this indicates is a certain common and harmonious sharing by the saints in the good things of God, an “assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven and the spirits of the just men made perfect.” And filled up * by everything good.

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We must think of the leading to the table as the rest from numerous labors, as a life without toil, as a commerce with God in light and in the land of the living, as a fullness of sacred joy, as the unstinted supply of everything blessed and good by means of which one is replete with happiness. It is Jesus himself who gladdens them and leads them to the table, who serves them, who grants them everlasting rest, who bestows and pours out on them the fullness in beauty.

6. I know well that you are going to ask me to explicate what it * means to say that God sleeps or that he wakes up. The sleep of God refers to the divine transcendence & to the inability of the objects of his providential care to communicate directly with him. His wakefulness refers to the care he takes to provide for the education and the salvation of those who need him. After I have shown this to you, you will then be able to move on to other theological symbols.

And I do not think that I need to go on and on, and thereby giving the impression that I have something new to say. I believe I have answered your request well and if I finish my letter now it is because I have discussed these things elsewhere.

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I am sending you the full text of my Symbolic Theology, where you will find explanations for the house of wisdom, the seven pillars, and the solid food, as divided into sacrificial offerings * and bread. All that has to do with the mixing of wine and the hangover of God after his inebriation, together with the other symbolism which I have been discussing just now, are more fully worked out in that book. I believe it to be a good investigation of all these symbols, and one which is in harmony with the sacred tradition and the truth of scripture.

I do not know, noble Titus, whether reverend Timothy departed without having heard certain of the theological symbols interpreted by me.In any case, in the Symbolic Theology I have carefully considered for him all the descriptions of God in the Oracles which seem to the many to be shocking.

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For disordered souls are imbued with unnatural dread whenever the ancient authors of inexpressible wisdom make divine, mystical, and holy truth known to the unholy by means of certain hidden and audaciously conceived riddles.

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It is because of this that the many do not believe what the Oracles say about the divine mysteries. For we contemplate them through the perceptible symbols which have grown round them.

One must strip these off in order to see them in themselves, naked and pure.

Observing them in this manner, we shall reverence a fountain of life flowing into itself,

looking upon it * as standing of its own nature, one certain power, simple self-moving, self-active, never leaving itself, but knowledge surpassing all knowledge and eternally contemplating itself by means of itself.

[1]This being so, we thought it necessary both for him and for others to give an exposition of the innumerable shapes with which the Oracles represent God. For viewed from the outside, what a number of incredible and monstrous shapes they do contain!

For example, representing the transcendent generation of God as the stomach of God generating corporeally; or describing Logos flowing out into air from a man’s heart which vomits it out, and Spirit breathed out of a mouth, and God-bearing * bosoms embracing the Son of God, things that they celebrate in a manner fitting to the body only. Or they describe these things as objects of nature, certain trees and branches and flowers and roots, or fountains of water bubbling up, or as the seductive sources of reflections of light, or certain other affirmative sacred descriptions of transcendent theological matters.

When treating God’s intelligible providence or gifts, or revelations, powers, properties, and allotments, or immanence and progressions or distinctions, or unities, they enclose Him in a human shape or in the varied shapes of wild or domesticated animals, of plants, and stones. They clothe Him in feminine ornaments and weapon and armor of barbarian make; they attribute to Him as an artisan the attributes of the potter and foundryman; they spread beneath Him horses, chariots, and thrones; they serve Him certain delectable meats, and characterize Him as drinking, as drunken, as sleeping, and as having a hang-over [afterwards].

What would anyone say about His violent passion, His grievances, innumerable oaths and repentances, His curses and malicious anger, His many and dubious quibbling excuses for the failure of promises, the battle of the Titans in Genesis, when He is said to scheme against those powerful he-men out of fear, and this when they were planning to build a home, not harming others but simply for their own salvation, or about that scheme contrived in heaven to harm and deceive Achab?

And what could anyone say about the risqué titillations befitting a prostitute in the Song of Solomon, and all other sacred compositions that attempt to render the form of God by putting forward and multiplying the visible shapes of things hidden, the division of things one and undivided, and shapes and many forms of things shapeless and formless? With regard to these, if anyone is able fittingly to see and distinguish their inner meaning, he will discover that they are all mystic things, of a divine form, and filled with much theological light.

Let us not believe that the visible appearances of composite things were modeled for their own sake, but rather that they protect inexpressible and invisible knowledge from the many, since things in all respects holy are not easily accessible to the unholy, but are revealed only to the genuine lovers of holiness as to persons who lay aside their childish fancies about the sacred symbols and are ready to pass in simplicity of mind and with an aptitude for the faculty of contemplation to the simple, supernatural, and more elevate truth behind the symbols.

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Besides it also must be understood that the theologians’ tradition is double, being on one hand not expressed in words and mystical, on the other, public and a matter of common knowledge; on one hand, symbolic and aiming at initiation, on the other, philosophic and aiming at demonstration; and what is not said is interwoven with what is said. One persuades and binds fast the truth of things said; the other fulfills and situates souls in God through a mystical guidance not [learned] by teaching.

Indeed, neither the holy leaders of our tradition nor those of the tradition of the Law hesitate to refer to the symbols [which are] * becoming to the divine in consecrating the most holy mysteries; but we see even the all-holy angels making divine things known through riddles and Jesus himself speaking about God in parables and handing down sacramental mysteries in the symbolic form of the table. It was right not only that the Holy of Holies should be preserved in their purity from the many, but also that divine knowledge should illuminate human life as such, which is both undivided and divided in a way suitable to itself;

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that the impassive part of the soul should define the simple, more inward meanings of godlike images, but that its passive part should naturally serve and strive towards the most divine things through the shapes of the typical symbols which have already been * contrived, since these coverings are akin by nature to it, a thing which is proved by the fact that those who have heard clear theological teaching without such coverings shape in themselves a certain form which leads them to the idea of such a theology.

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And thus the world order of all that is visible itself sets forth unseen things of God, as both Paul and true reason say.

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Wherefore, theologians view some things politically and as subject to law, others, with a view to purgation and purity; some humanly and mediately, but others from beyond the world and with a view to [ultimate] perfection, now [considering things] from the laws governing the visible [whole], now * from invisible [divine or natural] laws, according to what is suitable to sacred writings and minds and souls.

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For the logos lying before them, taken both as a whole and in its parts, is not a sterile narrative but rather a vivifying perfection.

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In opposition to vulgar misconceptions, we must therefore enter into the holy symbols [which are] becoming to God and not dishonor them, being as they are offspring and copies of divine characters and visible images of inexpressible and marvelous visions.

For not only transcendent light and intelligible things and, in a word, things divine are depicted in numberless symbols as, for example, God is said to be fire and the intelligible Oracles of God are said to be consumed in fire, but even the godlike orders of intelligible and intelligent * angels are depicted in varied shapes and forms and fiery configurations.

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The image of fire itself is understood one way when attributed to the God beyond knowing; in another, [when attributed] to his intelligible providences and logoi; in yet another, [when attributed] to angels; the first [being understood] as causal, the next as taking its substance [from a cause], the last as participation [reverting back to a cause], each in its own way as contemplative and scientific ordering * [choose to] define them.

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One should not confuse holy symbols by some chance criterion, but rather interpret them with reference to the causes or substances or powers or orders or values of which they are composite significations.

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But so that I may not extend my letter beyond the limits of propriety, let us proceed to the question before us. [In any case] we claim that all nourishment is conducive to the higher perfection of things nourished, filling up their imperfection and want, ministering to the weak, guarding their life and making it flourish, renewing it and giving them lively enjoyment [of life], simply urging on the unhappy and imperfect and acting as the source of their happiness and perfection.

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* It is well, therefore, that beneficent wisdom beyond all things wise is praised by the Oracles as setting out a mystical mixing bowl and pouring its sacred drink or rather, first serving solid nourishment and then with a proud proclamation benignly offering it to those in need who desire it.

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Thus, divine wisdom serves a double [kind of] nourishment, one solid and abiding, another liquid and flowing. And it is in a mixing bowl that it furnishes its providential beneficence. Since the mixing bowl is spherical and outspread let it be a symbol of providence over the whole without beginning and without end which spreads out above and encircles all things. And just as providence in going forth to all yet remains immanent within itself and stays in a condition of motionless sameness, forever standing fixed without departing from itself, so too the mixing bowl itself stands abidingly and compactly.

* Wisdom is also said to build a house for itself and in it to offer its solid food and drinks and the missing bowl, so that it will be clear to anyone who interprets divine things in a divine way that the cause of the being and well-being of all is also providence going forth to all and coming to be in all, which surrounds all;

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that it is the same in the same things and transcendent, and is in no way anything in anything but excels the whole, being eternally the same as itself, immanently standing and ever having the same condition in the same way, never becoming external to itself or departing from its own abode and motionless immanence, but even in it effecting its whole and entire providences, proceeding to * all beings and remaining immanent in itself, eternally standing and moving and neither standing nor moving, but as someone might say, having its providential activity in its immanence and its immanence in providence, both according to and yet transcending nature.

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But what then is the solid food and what, the liquid? Beneficent wisdom is hymned as giving these and having forethought for them. I * think that the solid food represents a composite symbol of that intellectual and abiding perfection and sameness in which divine things are participate as strong, unifying, and indivisible knowledge by those intellectual sense organs with which the most divine Paul, having received wisdom, transmitted his solid nourishment.

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The liquid food I think represents a dissolving stream which eagerly proceeds to all and conducts those whom it nourishes in goodness to simple, unwavering divine knowledge through things variegated, numerous, and divided. In this sense, the divine and intelligible Oracles are likened to dew and water, to milk, wine and honey. For they have life-giving power like * water, are productive of growth like milk, revive life like wine, and purify and preserve things from harm like honey.

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Divine wisdom gives these things to those who approach it in an unenvying spirit, providing for them and filling them full with a stream of unfailing good cheer. This truly is what it means to have good cheer. It is because of these things that [wisdom] is hymned as life-giving, as a nursing-mother, as renewal and ultimate perfecting [of the living].

According to the same sacred interpretation of good-cheer, even God, the cause of all good things, is said to be intoxicated from an overdose of good cheer on account of the superfluity and inconceivability of his * cheer or, to put it more strongly, on account of the ineffable immoderateness of His good health. In our case, of course, drunkenness is immoderate satiation and being out of one’s mind and wits; hence, in the best sense, in the case of God one ought never to think that drunkenness is anything but the measurelessness of all good things proceeding causally from Him.

And as regards being out of one’s wits, which ordinarily follows drunkenness, this ought to be considered to be God’s transcendence over any intellectual apprehension of Him, on account of which He excels comprehension, being above thinking and being thought and even being itself.

In a word, God is drunk with good things and stands outside them, being the measureless hyperbole of them all and their superfluity, and even dwelling outside of and beyond the whole of things.

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Anchoring ourselves to this [interpretation], we shall * take the banquets of the pious in the kingdom of God in the same way. For it is said that the King Himself comes and reclines and waits on them. These things indicate the common and concordant sharing of divine goods by the pious, and a church of the first-born [whose names are] inscribed in heaven, and spirits of just men perfected in all good things and filled with them.

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Their reclining, I suppose, is their rest * from many toils and a life secure from harm as well as a divine way of life in the light and region of living things filled with holy good feelings and an unenvying provision of blessed good things, with which they are filled with every happiness. Jesus Himself bids them to recline and be joyful and serves them, giving them eternal rest and distributing and pouring forth the fullness of beautiful things.

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But I realize that you will ask for an explanation as well of God’s * silent sleep and awakening. And when I say that divine sleep is God’s transcendence and His having nothing in common with the objects of His providence, but that awakening is the extension of His providential paideia or salvation to those who need it, you will then raise more questions about other theological symbols.

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Whence, believing it to be superfluous to go around in a circle saying the same things to the same people while seeming to say different things, and since we are aware that we have the same persuasion about things beautiful, I conclude my letter with what has been said, having given an exposition of more than you solicited in yours.

What is more, I send you the whole of my Symbolic Theology as such, in which you will find that with the house of wisdom, also the “seven pillars” are interpreted and its solid food divided into sacrifices and breads, and the question about the meanings * of the mixing of the wine, and the hangover after God’s drunkenness. Indeed what we have just been saying is articulated there in a more detailed way. It is, I believe, a good investigation of all symbolic matters, and is in agreement with the sacred traditions and truths of the Oracles.

I do not know, O excellent Titus, whether the holy Timothy departed, deaf to some of the theological symbols which were explained by me.But, in the Symbolic Theology, we have thoroughly investigated for him all the expressions of the Oracles concerning God, which appear to the multitude to be monstrous.

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For they give a colour of incongruity dreadful to the uninitiated souls, when the Fathers of the unutterable wisdom explain the Divine and Mystical Truth, unapproachable by the profane, through certain, certainly hidden and daring enigmas.

Wherefore also, the many discredit the expressions concerning the Divine Mysteries. For, we contemplate them only through the sensible symbols that have grown upon them.

We must then strip them, and view them by themselves in their naked purity.

For, thus contemplating them, we should reverence a fountain of Life flowing into Itself –

– viewing It even standing by Itself, and as a kind of single power, simple, self-moved, and self-worked, not abandoning Itself, but a knowledge surpassing every kind of knowledge, and always contemplating Itself, through Itself.

We thought it necessary then, both for him and for others, that we should, as far as possible, unfold the varied forms of the Divine representations in God in symbols. For, with what incredible and simulated monstrosities are its external forms filled?

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For instance, with regard to the superessential Divine generation, representing a body of God corporally generating God; and describing a word flowing out into air from a man’s heart, which eructates it, and a breath, breathed forth from a mouth; and celebrating God-bearing bosoms embracing a son of God, bodily; or representing these things after the manner of plants, and producing certain trees, and branches, and flowers and roots, as examples; or fountains of waters, bubbling forth; or seductive light productions of reflected splendours; or certain other sacred representations which explain superessential descriptions of God;

but with regard to the intelligible providences of Almighty God, either gifts, manifestations, or powers, or properties, or repose, or abiding, or progressions, or distinctions, or unions, clothing Almighty God in human form, and in the varied shape of wild beasts and other living creatures, and plants, and stones; and attributing to Him ornaments of women, or weapons of savages; and assigning working in clay, and in a furnace, as it were to a sort of artisan; and placing under Him, horses and chariots and thrones; and spreading before Him certain dainty meats delicately cooked; and representing Him as drinking, and drunken, and sleeping, and suffering from excess.

What would any one say concerning the angers, the griefs, the various oaths, the repentances, the curses, the revenges, the manifold and dubious excuses for the failure of promises, the battle of giants in Genesis, during which He is said to scheme against those powerful and great men, and this when they were contriving the building, not with a view to injustice towards other people, but on behalf of their own safety? And that counsel devised in heaven to deceive and mislead Achab;

and those mundane and meretricious passions in the Canticles; and all the other sacred compositions which appear in the description of God, which stick at nothing, as projections, and multiplications of hidden things, and divisions of things one and undivided, and formative and manifold forms of the shapeless and unformed; of which, if any one were able to see their inner hidden beauty, he will find every one of them mystical and Godlike, and filled with abundant theological light.

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For let us not think, that the appearances of the compositions have been formed for their own sake, but that they shield the science unutterable and invisible to the multitude, since things all-holy are not within the reach of the profane, but are manifested to those only who are genuine lovers of piety, who reject all childish fancy respecting the holy symbols, and are capable to pass with simplicity of mind, and aptitude of contemplative faculty, to the simple and supernatural and elevated truth of the symbols.

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Besides, we must also consider this, that the teaching, handed down by the Theologians is two-fold – one, secret and mystical; the other, open and better known – one, symbolical and initiative; the other, philosophic and demonstrative; –and the unspoken is intertwined with the spoken. The one persuades, and desiderates the truth of the things expressed, the other acts and implants in Almighty God, by instructions in mysteries not learnt by teaching.

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And certainly, neither our holy instructors, nor those of the law, abstain from the God-befitting symbols, throughout the celebrations of the most holy mysteries. Yea, we see even the most holy Angels, mystically advancing things Divine through enigmas; and Jesus Himself, speaking the word of God in parables, and transmitting the divinely wrought mysteries, through a typical spreading of a table. For, it was seemly, not only that the Holy of holies should be preserved undefiled by the multitude, but also that the Divine knowledge should illuminate the human life, which is at once indivisible and divisible, in a manner suitable to itself;

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and to limit the passionless part of the soul to the simple, and most inward visions of the most godlike images; but that its impassioned part should wait upon, and, at the same time, strive after, the most Divine coverings, through the pre-arranged representations of the typical symbols, as such (coverings) are, by nature, congenial to it. And all those who are hearers of a distinct theology without symbols, weave in themselves a sort of type, which conducts them to the conception of the aforesaid theology.

But also the very order of the visible universe sets forth the invisible things of Almighty God, as says both Paul and the infallible Word.

Wherefore, also, the Theologians view some things politically and legally, but other things, purely and without flaw; and some things humanly, and mediately, but other things supermundanely and perfectly; at one time indeed, from the laws which are manifest, and at another, from the institutions which are unmanifest, as befits the holy writings and minds and souls under consideration.

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For the whole statement lying before them, and all its details, does not contain a bare history, but a vivifying perfection.

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We must then, in opposition to the vulgar conception concerning them, reverently enter within the sacred symbols, and not dishonor them, being as they are, products and moulds of the Divine characteristics, and manifest images of the unutterable and supernatural visions.

For, not only are the superessential lights, and things intelligible, and, in one word, things Divine, represented in various forms through the typical symbols, as the superessential God, spoken of as fire, and the intelligible Oracles of Almighty God, as flames of fire; but further, even the godlike orders of the angels, both contemplated and contemplating, are described under varied forms, and manifold likenesses, and empyrean shapes.

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And differently must we take the same likeness of fire, when spoken with regard to the inconceivable God; and differently with regard to His intelligible providences or words; and differently respecting the Angels. The one as causal, but the other as originated, and the third as participative, and different things differently, as their contemplation, and scientific arrangements suggest.

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And never must we confuse the sacred symbols haphazard, but we must unfold them suitably to the causes, or the origins, or the powers, or the orders, or the dignities of which they are explanatory tokens.

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And, in order that I may not extend my letter beyond the bounds of propriety, let us come at once to the very question propounded by you; and we affirm that every nourishment is perfective of those nourished, filling up their imperfection and their lack, and tending the weak, and guarding their lives, making to sprout, and renewing and bequeathing to them a vivifying wellbeing; and in one word, urging the slackening and imperfect, and contributing towards their comfort and perfection.

III. Beautifully then, the super-wise and Good Wisdom is celebrated by the Oracles, as placing a mystical bowl, and pouring forth its sacred drink, but first setting forth the solid meats, and with a loud voice Itself benignly soliciting those who seek It.

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The Divine Wisdom, then, sets forth the two-fold food; one indeed, solid and fixed, but the other liquid and flowing forth; and in a bowl furnishes Its own providential generosities. Now the bowl, being spherical and open, let it be a symbol of the Providence over the whole, which at once expands Itself and encircles all, without beginning and without end. But since, even while going forth to all, It remains in Itself, and stands fixed in unmoved sameness; and never departing from Itself, the bowl also itself stands fixedly and unmovably.

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But Wisdom is also said to build a house for itself, and in it to set forth the solid meats and drinks, and the bowl, so that it may be evident to those who understand things Divine in a manner becoming God, that the Author of the being, and of the well being, of all things, is both an all-perfect providence, and advances to all, and comes into being in everything, and embraces them all;

and on the other hand, He, the same, in the same, par excellence, is nothing in anything at all, but overtops the whole, Himself being in Himself, identically and always; and standing, and remaining, and resting, and ever being in the same condition and in the same way, and never becoming outside Himself, nor falling from His own session, and unmoved abiding and shrine, –yea even, in it, benevolently exercising His complete and all-perfect providences, and whilst going forth to all, remaining by Himself alone, and standing always, and moving Himself; and neither standing, nor moving Himself, but, as one might say, both connaturally and supernaturally, having His providential energies, in His steadfastness, and His steadiness in His Providence.

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But what is the solid food and what the liquid? For the Good Wisdom is celebrated as at once bestowing and providing these. I suppose then, that the solid food is suggestive of the intellectual and abiding perfection and sameness, within which, things Divine are participated as a stable, and strong, and unifying, and indivisible knowledge, by those contemplating organs of sense, by which the most Divine Paul, after partaking of wisdom, imparts his really solid nourishment;

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but that the liquid is suggestive of the stream, at once flowing through and to all; eager to advance, and further conducting those who are properly nourished as to goodness, through things variegated and many and divided, to the simple and invariable knowledge of God. Wherefore the divine and spiritually perceived Oracles are likened to dew, and water, and to milk, and wine, and honey; on account of their life-producing power, as in water; and growth-giving, as in milk; and reviving, as in wine; and both purifying and preserving, as in honey.

For these things, the Divine Wisdom gives to those approaching it, and furnishes and fills to overflowing, a stream of ungrudging and unfailing good cheer. This, then, is the veritable good cheer; and, on this account, it is celebrated, as at once life-giving and nourishing and perfecting.

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According to this sacred explanation of good cheer, even Almighty God, Himself the Author of all good things, is said to be inebriated, by reason of the super-full, and beyond conception, and ineffable, immeasurableness, of the good cheer, or to speak more properly, good condition of Almighty God. For, as regards us, in the worst sense, drunkenness is both an immoderate repletion, and being out of mind and wits; so, in the best sense, respecting God, we ought not to imagine drunkenness as anything else beyond the super-full immeasurableness of all good things pre-existing in Him as Cause.

But, even in respect to being out of wits, which follows upon drunkenness, we must consider the pre-eminence of Almighty God, which is above conception, in which He overtops our conception, as being above conception and above being conceived, and above being itself;

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and in short, Almighty God is inebriated with, & outside of, all good things whatever, as being at once a super-full hyperbole of every immeasurableness of them all; and again, as dwelling outside and beyond the whole.

Starting then from these, we will take in the same fashion even the feasting of the pious, in the Kingdom of Almighty God. For He says, the King Himself will come and make them recline, and will Himself minister to them. Now these things manifest a common and concordant communion of the holy, upon the good things of God, and a church of the first born, whose names are written in heavens; & spirits of just men made perfect by all good things, and replete with all good things;

and the reclining, we imagine, a cessation from their many labours, and a life without pain; and a godly citizenship in light and place of living souls, replete with every holy bliss, and an ungrudging provision of every sort of blessed goods; within which they are filled with every delight; whilst Jesus both makes them recline, and ministers to them, and furnishes this delight; and Himself bequeaths their everlasting rest; and at once distributes and pours forth the fullness of good things.

But, I well know you will further ask that the propitious sleep of Almighty God, and His awakening, should be explained. And, when we have said, that the superiority of Almighty God, and His incommunicability with the objects of His Providence is a Divine sleep, and that the attention to His Providential cares of those who need His discipline, or His preservation, is an awakening, you will pass to other symbols of the Word of God.

Wherefore, thinking it superfluous that by running through the same things to the same persons, we should seem to say different things, and, at the same time, conscious that you assent to things that are good, we finish this letter at what we have said, having set forth, as I think, more than the things solicited in your letters.

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Further, we send the whole of our Symbolic Theology, within which you will find, together with the house of wisdom, also the seven pillars investigated, and its solid food divided into sacrifices and breads. And what is the mingling of the wine; and again, What is the sickness arising from the inebriety of Almighty God? and in fact, the things now spoken of are explained in it more explicitly. And it is, in my judgment, a correct enquiry into all the symbols of the Word of God, and agreeable to the sacred traditions and truths of the Oracles.

[1] See also the translation of this passage in Louth, Denys the Areopagite (New York: Continuum, 1989/2001), 22-23:

“Viewed from outside they seem full of so many incredible and fictitious fairy-tales. So, for example, in the case of the coming-to-be of God [the theogony] that is beyond being, they imagine the womb of God bodily giving birth to God, or the Word poured forth into the air from a human heart which sends it out, or they describe the Spirit as breath breathed out of a mouth, or the theogonic bosom embracing the Son: all this we celebrate in forms befitting bodily things, and we depict these things with images drawn from nature, suggesting a certain tree, and plants, and flowers, and roots, or fountains gushing forth water, or sources of light radiating beams of light, or certain other sacred forms used by the Scriptures to expound divine matters beyond being. In the matter of the intelligible providences of God, or His gifts, or manifestations, powers, properties, fortunes, abodes, processions, distinctions, and unions, the human imagination applies to God a variety of forms found among beasts and other living things and plants and stones, and arrays Him with with feminine ornaments and barbarian armour and with ornaments of ceramic and metalwork, as if he were a mere artisan. It supplies Him with horses and chariots and thrones, and provides delicately prepared banquets and depicts Him drinking, and drunk, and drowsy, and suffering from a hangover. And what about God’s fits of anger, His griefs, His various oaths, His moments of repentance, His curses, His wraths, the manifold and crooked reasons given for his failure to fulfill promises? And the battle of the giants [the gigantomachia] in Genesis, when God is said to have taken counsel out of fear of the power of those men who were building the tower not in order to injure others, but for their own safety, or that plot fashioned in heaven to deceive Ahab by a trick? What about the variety of sensual passions, passions appropriate to a prostitute, described in the Song of Songs, and all the other sacred signs that are daringly used to manifest God and to protect what is hidden, and make manifold and divided what is single and indivisible, and give a variety of form and figure to what is without form or figure?”

2 thoughts on “Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistle 9

  1. Pingback: An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Χάρις, Linguistic Singularity, and Confessional Projection | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, Book I | Into the Clarities

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