Pseudo-Dionysius is one of the most important ancient teachers of contemplation and is often honored in the Orthodox tradition. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote two groundbreaking books about the unknowable Creator: The Divine Names and The Celestial Hierarchy. Pseudo-Dionysius understood scripture to be a gateway into a deeper kind of knowledge that he called a holy “dazzling darkness.” He acknowledged that the seeker needs perceptible things like scripture, nature, people, divine images, vocalized prayer, and liturgies to provide a kind of holding environment and boundary markers for our journey. But, he said, “God is in no way like the things that have being and we have no knowledge at all of His incomprehensible and ineffable transcendence and invisibility.”1
Pseudo-Dionysius discusses the ascent story of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:9-18). Moses is purified and then he ascends to an illumined, clarifying plateau with God, from which he enters the darkness of God – what mystics call a “cloud of unknowing.” Pseudo-Dionysius describes an interior, intuitive journey, using words to speak about what ultimately cannot be put into words: a depth of silence that is eternal. In my experience this eternal silence is one that “existed” in the nano-second before the Big Bang, and that continues to exist in the cosmos and within us in the space or emptiness between our thoughts.
For Pseudo-Dionysius, reason, intellect, and imagination are useful tools of spiritual understanding, but eventually on the contemplative journey, they must be passed through, into divine Mystery. Everything in the material world is caused by something else in a dynamic, interactive cosmic story. But the First Person of the Trinity, the Creator, has no cause. Therefore, early theologians often called the Creator Uncaused. The First Person of the Holy Trinity is the Source of creation and therefore is not caused by anything in creation. Pseudo-Dionysius writes,
The Cause of all is above all… [It] is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion… It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware… It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding… It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being… There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial… It is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its pre-eminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.2
Because he used such startling self-negating and paradoxical words, Pseudo-Dionysius has sometimes been interpreted as one who suggests that we cannot know God at all, or speak of God at all. But others place him in the apophatic or via-negativa dimension of Christian experience—among those who reverence the Creator from the heart and the intuition, rather than from the intellect and words. Those of us who intend to know God directly and without words are caught in this contradiction, that we must use words to describe a wordless experience.
Paul Rorem, “The Uplifting Spirituality of Pseudo-Dionysius,” in Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff and Jean Leclercq, eds. Christian Spirituality I:Origins to the 12th Century, Vol. 16, World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (New York: Crossroad Press, 1989), pp. 132ff.
Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” trans. Colm Luibheid & Paul Rorem, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 140-141.