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!