Naming God: Pseudo-Dionysius and the Mystic Faith

Editors Note: This is a review of Pseudo-Dionysius' "The Divine Names." Available in Pseudo-Dionysius Complete Works.Trans. Colm Luibheid. New York: Paulist Press; 1987, 47-133.

As the Christmas season approached, like many involved in ministry, I am began to focus in and decide how our church will celebrate Advent this year. This Advent season remains for me anyway the highlight of the Christian year. For my money sermons, songs, and stories centered on hope and yearning remain my favorites. For that reason I was enraptured by Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Divine Names, particularly on what was said about this important topic. In his third chapter, the author wrote that “all things must desire, must yearn for, must love the Beautiful and the Good. Because of it and for its sake, subordinate returns to superior, equal keeps company with equal.” (79). The heart of the teaching of this wise, if unknown, writer can be found in his discussion of the Beautiful and the Good and its relationship with the world at large.

This motif of procession and return stood at the heart of the teaching in question. From the beginning the good author set before his (or her) readers the image of the godhead as like the sun. There is the core of the thing itself and then there are the rays of energy, light, and heat which radiate out from it. This idea of procession stood in the relationship of humanity and all of creation to its creator. In this way the Beautiful and the Good work to warm and illuminate all of creation. “It clears away the fog of ignorance from the eyes of the mind and stirs and unwraps those covered over by the burden of darkness” (75).

For the author, then, evil exists as an accident. “Evil things are not immobile and eternally unchanging but indeterminate, indefinite, and bearing themselves differently in different things” (94). The doing of wrong becomes simply misplaced longing. It is trying to scratch that itch in an improper and illegal manner. Demons are evil in that they opposed the Good. The soul acts evilly when it resists this same Divine reason. The body sins when it attempts to fulfill its desires unnaturally.

For this reason, the remembrance of the Good, this imprint of the beautiful on the soul of man and upon all of creation acted, acts, and will always continue to act as that thumb prick of conscience, that still small voice that begs to be heard above the din and clamor of our fallen world. To quote a much less authoritative source it is the Beautiful and the Good which shout out to us and say this fallen state of affairs is but a “piece of wool pulled over your eyes” to keep you from realizing the true state of your affairs. The Beautiful and the Good are that nagging feeling that keeps one awake late at night wondering how this can be all there is.

So it is that the author can say that “this divine yearning brings ecstasy so that the lover belongs not to self but to the beloved” (82). The author taught that God as the Beautiful and the Good is to be yearned for, but He is also the source of all yearning. As one yearns one is like god, and as one is fulfilled one becomes unified with Him. To become enmeshed in this process means that one becomes wrapped in the process of coming and going, preceding and returning. In this way God exists as the love and lover, the sun and its rays coalescing together and creating the heat and warmth of feeling in one choosing to luxuriate in its rays.

As he discussed this important topic the author pointed to a collection known as the Hymns of Yearning. I must say that I am unfamiliar with these hymns; yet, sometimes feel that my own tradition often gets it right in our own music as we point to this process of yearning and desiring God. One of my favorites verses, which I request sung especially in this upcoming season simply repeat the following refrain:

“I need You like the rain
Come to me and sing again
I long for Your love so much
I’ve wanted Your pure touch

You are beautiful, beautiful
You are beautiful, beautiful
So beautiful, beautiful

I need You to be here
Come to me, I can feel You near
I love You, You are my hope
You love me as Your own”[1]

These are words that I think the author of The Divine Names would heartily approve.

[1] Sam Lane. “Beautiful.” Vineyard Music USA. CCLI 3672774.


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