Monday, October 28, 2013

More Random Thoughts on Pseudo-Dionysius' Writings

I'm now reading the Eccesiastical Hierarchy. It's confirming a hunch that has been growing all the way through the corpus, and that is that I wonder if he isn't being ironic when he talks about hierarchies; first because his hierarchies do exactly the opposite of the human hierarchies of his day and even more of ours, i.e., members of each level of the hierarchy show generosity in the imparting of wisdom, the 'hidden knowledge' necessary to their uplifting. They desire to help those in an inferior position to be raised up by God (instead of crushing imagined rivals underfoot). 

Of course this knowledge isn't 'hidden' except in the sense that you can't teach someone pure mathematics who doesn't have a basic foundation in algebra. You can't teach someone about unknowing who isn't even aware of her own illusion. Contemplatives are often accused of 'elitism' but it is rather the fact that there are staging-posts along the way, different for each person, which must be passed through before he or she is capable of even recognizing the next one that lies ahead. Paul's use of athleticism as a metaphor perhaps pushes fewer emotional buttons: we admire Olympic athletes from afar but we don't call them 'elitist' because we know how much hard work they have put in, a capacity for work we can't even imagine. The same is true of knowledge of God: to grow into God, you have to do the work.

Which brings us to he next aspect of this question, which is that of Pseudo-Dionysius' emphasis on union. Over and over he uses the qualifier, 'according to their capacity'. A toddler can run a hundred metres, but it will take him many times longer than Usain Bolt. When a thimble is full it is no less full than a bucket. Full is full. The idea is to become a bigger bucket.

So, in a sense, there are no hierarchies. He almost says this in Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 272C: '...every hierarchy, including the one being praised by us now, has one and the same power throughout all its hierarchical endeavor....'

I'm not putting this very well because I've just started thinking about it, but you can see that from certain points of view, the author is continually undermining the very idea of hierarchy. He frequently refers to the Gospel of John, and perhaps the clearest statement in the bible about the elimination of hierarchy (having just said in the previous chapter that 'the system' cannot behold) is what Jesus says in John 15:15, 'I no longer call you servants . . . but friends.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Teach Them to Behold

2 Timothy 3:16 (New Jerusalem Bible) 'Teach them to be holy'.

But that isn't what I heard.

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. 
Almost the 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 ' 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.

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!

Monday, October 07, 2013

To Autumn


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Something whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
They hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Grace and Disgrace

A while back I wrote a post that mentioned an island where everything is shared. I couldn't remember the name, but yesterday I caught the programme where I first heard about it: the first episode of the BBC series 'South Pacific'. The name of the Island is Anuta. If you want to view this lovely programme (it has the most perfect, lyrical surfing shots you'll ever see), and you live in the UK, it's on BBC iPlayer for the next six days. The bit about Anuta starts at about minute 38. The entire programme is worth watching, but the segment about this island is unique.

By contrast to Easter Island where the populace competed in the building of giant stone sculptures and in the process destroyed the paradise which their ancestors had originally encountered, the people of Anuta have lived on their island in harmony with its ecosystems for 400 years. This island is tiny: one sixth of a square mile in the middle of nowhere. For most of its history, the island has been too far from other inhabited islands to trade. Everything is shared. The population density is equal to Bangladesh. There are still people who live their entire lives on this island. They live in harmony with their environment, never taking too much, either from the land or the sea. Their outriggers look as though they are made of driftwood, and they are careful of the few trees the islands support.

It is possible to live like this: granted, the people of Anuta appear to have an idyllic place, but they also face hardship: nine major typhoons a year churn across the Pacific. They have had to learn to put enough food aside in storage underground in case a typhoon devastates their crops of taro and breadfruit.

To illustrate, here is another quotation from Lewis Hyde's The Gift, p. 38-9:

"One man's gift [in a gift society] must not be another man's capital...the increase that comes of a gift exchange must remain a gift and not be kept as if it were the return on private capital...Capitalism is the ideology that asks that we remove surplus wealth from circulation and lay it aside to produce more wealth. To move away from capitalism is not to change the form of ownership from the few to the many, but to cease turning so much surplus into capital, that is to treat most increase as a gift. It is quite possible to have the state own everything and still convert all gifts to capital, as Stalin demonstrated...the locus of ownership having nothing to do with it.

"...To speak of the increase of gifts is to speak of something simultaneously material, social, and spiritual. Material wealth may be produced in the course of a commerce of gifts (in the cases at hand, for example, food is gathered and preserved for the winter, canoes are constructed, lodges are built, blankets are woven, banquets prepared, and so forth and so on). And yet no material good becomes an item of commerce without simultaneously nourishing the spirit (of the salmon [in Northwest Coast and circumpolar societies, the bones of fish are returned to the sea so that the inua may make more fish], of the tribe, of the race. To reverse the vector of the increase may not destroy its material portion (it may even augment it) but the social and spiritual portions drop away....To say, then, that the increase of a gift must itself be a gift is to ask that we not abandon the increase-of-the-whole in favor of a more individual and more plainly material growth.

"To restate this choice in slightly different terms, a circulation of gifts nourishes those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods. Furthermore,  although these wider spirits are a part of us, they are not 'ours'; they are endowments bestowed upon us. To feed them by giving away the increase they have brought us is to accept that our participation in them bring with it an obligation to preserve their vitality. When, on the other hand, we reverse the direction of the increase—when we profit on exchange or convert 'one man's gift to another man's capital'—we nourish that part of our being (or our group) which is distinct and separate from others. Negative reciprocity strengthens the spirits—constructive or destructive—of individualism and clannishness."

As I type these words, the government of the United States is going through the shut-down process, thanks to a small group of extremists who believe that the destruction of the group by the dominance of the few is the only way forward.

To say that this attitude and this situation are a disgrace, and that America is shamed, is a gross understatement.

[Hyde, p. 46]: "...the parking lots and aisles of discount stores may be where the restless dead of a commodity civilization will tread out their numberless days."

[Hyde, p.48]: "p. 48 ...Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us, only when we have come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again. Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. ...[It] is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms..."