2 Timothy 3:16
(New Jerusalem Bible) 'Teach them to be holy'.
But that isn't
what I heard.
"Teach them to behold."
And of course I
nearly fell off my chair.
In one way, it
doesn't matter which was said, and in another way, it does matter. It doesn't matter because
beholding and holiness go together. It does matter because if you try to teach
people to be self-consciously holy, holiness will evade them: they may tear themselves apart,
they may become pious prigs, they may lose their minds, but they won't become
holy as long as they are trying to. It's the paradox of intention again.
Holiness is about self-forgetfulness.
Seeking to the
beholding is another matter altogether. Seek to the beholding, and everything
else will be added unto you, including holiness; it's just that you won't know about it. You won't know about it because you won't care any longer: your attention will be focused elsewhere, into the love that is a single embrace of
God, neighbour, self.
I've just about
finished reading The Divine Names, and
as usual, I don't agree with most of the stock interpretations. Maybe this is
arrogance on my part; maybe it's just the reality of applying the two ways of
knowing model. It seems to me that Pseudo-Denys is doing what he says he is doing in The Divine Names, that is, praising, hymning the unknowable God and the insights that God gives to those who behold—insights that must be taken lightly and provisionally, never more than hints of the God who surpasses all knowing and all language.
first thing Pseudo-Denys says is: 'With a wise silence we do honor to the inexpressible .
. . with our beings shaped to songs of praise, we behold the divine light, in a manner befitting us, and our
praise resounds for generations' (italics mine. The word 'behold' also occurs at the beginning of the Mystical Theology. I haven't re-read the Ecclesiastical Hierarchcy or the Letters yet. But it's interesting that in the Celestial Hierarchy Ps Denys understands hierarchy as a way of ascent and self-emptying, the activity of the divine acting in the person, NOT humans setting themselves up as a controlling bureaucracy. The inner eye, as it were, is continually beholding—I haven't checked the Greek yet—but in 165A he says that a hierarchy '...is forever looking directly at the comeliness of God, and is like God in its self-emptying open to receive the overflowing, self-emptying abundance of God). [Later: it's at 168A; those who behold are 'perfected'. It's also interesting that each level of the hierarchy should 'generously' raise up those below and should themselves be raised to beholding.]
Then he seems to outline
the way the mind works. (Later on, in the Celestial Hierarchy 143C, he talks plainly about 'the hidden
mind'.) Over and over in the
treatise he tells the reader that he is writing hymns of praise to the names
that arise as insights. But I have never come across anyone who takes him at
face value on this. Most scholars insist that he is doing abstract metaphysics,
that in spite of his apologies for using Neoplatonic language, he is a
dyed-in-the-wool Neoplatonist because he insists on speaking of God as 'the
One'. A commentator in the Classics of Western Spirituality volume says he is doing 'metaphysics' and 'spirituality' in combination; of course what we think of as 'spirituality' didn't exist until the 20th century! I think of Divine Names is, rather, a psychodynamic hymn of praise.
We have to
remember that Pseudo-Denys comes out of a Syriac tradition, Syriac being a
dialect of Aramaic. In other words, for all that he uses Neoplatonic language
he may have more of a semitic mind than a Greek one. He is soaked in scripture, and so is the treatise. Sebastian Brock in The
Luminous Eye suggests that the Divine
Names may be a riff on Ephrem's poem on
metaphor. I think this is very likely, and I also have long had a hunch that
the Mystical Theology is a riff
on John the Solitary's hymn to silence:
How long shall
I be in the world of the voice and not of the world of the word? For everything
that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world
there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I
be voice and not silence, when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden
things; when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice
nor word can bring?
The point I am
trying to make is that when Pseudo-Denys talks of 'the One' he could just as
easily be alluding to the Great Commandment in Deut. 6:4: 'Hear O Israel, the
Lord our God, the Lord is one', and to the restatement of the Great Commandment in Matthew 22: 37-39, as well as to Neoplatonic philosophy. In fact,
given his love for puns as well as his multi-culturalism, it is not far-fetched
to think that he may be alluding to Semitic, Christian, and Neoplatonic notions
all at once in a kind of allusive cluster. This suggestion is supported by what he writes in 980B:
'The reality is that all things are contained beforehand in and are embraced by the One in its capacity as an inherent unity. Hence scripture describes the entire thearchy, the Cause of everything, as the One. Furthermore, "there is one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ and "one and the same Spirit," and this is so in the overwhelming indivisibility of that oneness of God within which all things are banded together as one in the possession of a transcendent unity and in the transcendence of their preexistence. So all things are rightly ascribed to God since it is by him and in him and for him that all things exist, are co-ordered, remain, hold together, are completed, and are returned'.
It's quite possible I'm missing the boat; it's also quite possible that the controversies surrounding Pseudo-Denys' writings are examples of scholars tripping themselves up by too much complexity, especially in their reading of a text that is about ultimate simplicity.