Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pseudo-Denys and His Interpreters

It has been many years since I read the whole corpus of Pseudo-Dionysius. But I am reading it again, now, and it is as if for the first time. This is due in part to the fact that it is a much newer translation than I had read in the past; in part, too, to the clarification over the years of the interpretive model of the two ways of knowing that I have been working on.
I had always thought that Pseudo-Denys was misinterpreted; now I am sure this is the case. What prompted me to re-read these texts are some fascinating snippets that have been quoted in other texts. The pressure has been building up until a few days ago I was reading Margaret Barker's Great High Priest (highly recommended). She quotes a phrase from Pseudo-Denys' Celestial Hierarchy (145C) about 'the hidden mind' which I did not recall—and which, of course, made going back to the texts irresistible.
Once again the text itself is showing me that what is generally thought of as Neoplatonism is something of a fabrication by readers (Barker is an exception) who approach it with the idea that there is only one way of thinking, a linear one. Perhaps they do not have any praxis—or if they do, perhaps it's misguided. Perhaps they are in thrall to the enormous pressure of four or five centuries of opinions of earlier scholars who have come up with the usual clichés: these texts are dualistic, world-denying, creation-hating, etc., etc. etc. when of course they are nothing of the sort.
The same mistakes are made interpreting Pseudo-Denys as all the other ancient, patristic, and medieval authors who are writing about the mind's work with silence. Pseudo-Denys does not denigrate the creation: rather he is talking about a shift of attention. He does not hate the creation but rather points to it as a way to find God. He is not advocating a kind of escapism but showing how the two ways of knowing can be harnessed to work together. His God is not too small, to use J.B. Phillips' phrase: he wants to communicate the wonder that it is we who are too small and yet, even in the face of our littleness, God manages to help us find our shared nature with the divine and a transfigured perspective. He praises silence as the most perfect praise, but he doesn't denigrate other forms of praise, such as the Psalms. His emphasis is on God reaching to us, as much as our reaching to God. He is very balanced in this respect. Pseudo-Denys God is kenotic; his writing is soaked in scripture—well, you get the drift.
As I read I find it difficult to believe that some of the people who have written about him—Paul Rorem being an exception—have in fact read the text. But perhaps they are trapped by the 'received wisdom' of the Academy (which turns out far too often to be not so wise) and the hall of mirrors of their own linearity.
The one difficulty I am having, as with all modern translations of ancient, patristic, and medieval writers, is with some of the language the translator has chosen to use, such as 'grasp', and I am going to have to schedule myself for a long and painful (because my Greek is practically non-existent) session with the Patrologia Graeca. But worth it. And perhaps more than worth it.
Do have a go at this author. I'm using the Luibheid/Rorem translation—Rorem wrote a wonderful commentary on the texts—which is very readable. Even better is his book 'Biblical and Liturgical Symbols within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis'. Just beware of that word 'grasp' and similar words!


Blogger Chris Huff said...

Thank you so much, Maggie. You just broke loose a log-jam for me in my reflections on biblical interpretation. You reminded me of an entire lexicon I had shelved long ago, something that re-equips me for a task ahead. Bless you.
Chris +

3:25 pm, October 12, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

During my 'silence' time last night I opened my bible to Proverbs 28:1

"The wicked flee when no man pursueth,
the virtuous are as bold as lions."

This spoke to me. It's so important to build up our spiritual stockpiles by being still and beholding.

When we turn our backs on God we feel uncomfortable in our own skin and so we run away, but nothing is chasing us...

But when we gradually begin to live in the reality that God is the Source of all things and God loves us, that God is listening but that we are not God, we can just sit and be held by God and know that nothing can hurt us - no misfortune can take away God's love.

God wants us to be bold like lions. =) I feel pretty bold today.

Let us pray for all those without winter clothing/warm shalter.

Blessings always,


6:44 pm, October 13, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...


Lewis Hyde has two books with title beginning The Gift. Both look interesting however, the one you referenced is The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property?


10:51 pm, October 13, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

It's called 'The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World'.

7:52 am, October 14, 2013  
Anonymous Matthew said...

Thanks for this Maggie - it looks as if Pseudo-Denys will be well worth reading. In the past you have mentioned writers like Richard of St Victor, Marguerete Porete and Nicholas of Cusa. I wonder if you might be able to recommend some good translations of their work and some good places to start reading them.

8:43 am, October 15, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks for your comment, Matthew. Unfortunately all the translations are tainted by a) a solely linear approach—the translators do not use the model of the two ways of knowing becoming a single, seamless process and b) the misuse of the word 'experience' along with suspicious words such as 'grasp'. I have checked the Classics of Western Spirituality series translation of Richard of St Victor's 'Mystical Ark' and the translator inserts 'experience' where it doesn't exist in the Latin, often in the most absurd places such as when the author is talking about excessus mentis. If there is excessus there can be no mens, no interpretation, and therefore no experience. In fact, the word doesn't come into usage until very late in the 14th c in England and even in French today though this is changing, expérience means experiment, not the solipsistic nuances that the modern word carries. Steven Chase's book on Richard has the same problem. I have not yet checked the Greek for Pseudo-Denys or the French for Porete, but if you use these CWS translations, be aware of the pitfalls of these words.

9:17 am, October 15, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those two Lewis Hyde books are the same one with different titles. "The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property" is the original title, but they're all the same on the inside.

Maggie, I'm glad you like the book.


2:37 pm, October 15, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To MS: Love of self, neighbour and God are not three different loves but the same love. And it is what is mysterious about neighbour, self and God where the love dwells, both giving and receiving, inherent and overflowing, not what we can know.

2:07 pm, October 17, 2013  
Blogger gadarene said...

I am so glad you like the guy! I bet I have read his works a hundred times over the years and still do even last night. Why is it that the only folks that I am at home with are dead? Speaking of Gift, have you read The Gift: Creation by Schmidt? On my 14th reading of it. The joy is that every single word (!) is chosen! And the creation part is not the new agley stuff! Life changer for me, like Dionysius..... As always, you are in my thoughts and prayers and thanksgivings. You are still a de Light!

4:41 pm, October 17, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Should these Margaret Barker books First Temple / Jesus / Early Christianity best be read in the order published? They seem to build one onto the next.


6:59 pm, October 23, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

It would probably be a good idea to read them in order if you've got the time!

8:06 pm, October 23, 2013  

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