After the Man of Sorrows departed from the scene of his ministrations – dying according to some, ascending into heaven or withdrawing eastwards to Kashmir according to others, the small bands of his followers were desolate and in disarray. Jesus raised them from the feeble concerns of worldly life in a geographical hinterland on the fringes of the far-flung Roman Imperium and stirred them with his moral challenge of immortal life. The shock of separation induced an initial paralysis which dissolved in the dawning upon their consciousness of the incomparable significance of the Christos that had descended into their midst. Mary held the faithful together, urging them to be true to their sacred obligations. Several disciples soon went out into the world to share the message of the Son of Man and so passed beyond the screen of recorded history. Thomas, whom Jesus initiated according to the Gnostic gospel that bears his name, journeyed to India – to remain with his master? – to found a group which would survive as the mysterious St. Thomas Christians.
The earthly family of Jesus had hardly been involved in his mission and ministry, mainly to marvel and sometimes to wonder if he were sane. As some disciples began to form the first church in Jerusalem, they found themselves revered as the kin of Jesus and soon became influential. James, the putative brother of Jesus, secured the grudging tolerance of the temple authorities while Peter sought to depict the followers of Jesus as Jews who had been under sacred instruction from a holy prophet. Saul, however, had been educated at the great rabbinical college in Tarsus, and he could readily see that the enthusiasm of some Christians signalled a threat to strict and traditional interpretations of the Torah, the Law. En route to Damascus to enquire into the spread of Christian doctrine there, he was struck down in the road by an indescribable vision of the Christos. Blinded for three days, he emerged from this initiatory experience a transformed human being whose spiritual awareness was so vast and magnanimous that it could be conveyed only through the language of myth and metaphor. As a symbol of spiritual rebirth, he adopted the name Paul, meaning small', signifying that he who had been great in the Law was humble before the Divine. Paul flatly rejected the notions current in Jerusalem that the essential message of Jesus was for Jews alone and that Christians were obliged to practise Mosaic law and temple customs. He initiated a movement based upon the propositions that the Christos is in each person, that It is called forth into manifestation through total self-transformation (death of the separate and emergence of the immortal soul), and that the heart of the teaching is universal love.
Paul's relations with the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem were strained at best and often openly hostile, and so he spread the teachings of Jesus in Asia Minor and Greece, gathering supporters among Jews and non-Jews alike. On one sojourn Paul visited Athens and delivered public discourses upon the theme of spiritual death and resurrection. Many Athenians demurred, perhaps because his doctrines too strongly suggested what was safeguarded in the Mysteries. According to the Acts of the Apostles (17:34), "some men joined him and became believers, including Dionysius, a member of the court of Areopagus; also a woman named Damaris, and others besides". Paul travelled on to Corinth, and modern history records very little of Dionysius the Areopagite. Legend always associated him with the most mystical aspect of Paul's teaching. According to some, he became the first bishop of Athens, a person worthy of teaching the innermost meaning of Pauline Christianity in the same city where the secrets of Eleusis were still whispered from mouth to ear, where the Academy of Plato preserved his philosophy and the Stoa taught the peace of detachment and the performance of duty. As century followed upon century, Dionysius became a misty figure of reverence, the honorary father of philosophical mysticism in Eastern Christendom.
The first centuries of the Christian church witnessed ferocious debates over the nature of Christ. Was Jesus physically God on earth? Was he overbrooded by Christos? Did he have a human and a divine aspect? Did he manifest Christos in a way that any human, containing the germ of Christos within, could at least potentially? The definition of the nature of Jesus sets the parameters within which the crucial concept of salvation can be elaborated. Is man saved by the grace of Christ? Or through Christ? Or by becoming Christ? One's understanding of salvation in turn defines the function of the institution of the Church. If one can experience merging with Christ or awakening the Christos-principle within, the Church can merely help a little in one's efforts. If salvation is granted by Christ from outside the individual, then the Church could claim to dispense – or at least determine – salvation. The Eastern churches were at war amongst themselves and with Rome over an allegedly spiritual doctrine whose implications for church politics were as obvious as they were serious. in AD. 451 the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, enunciated the view that Jesus had two distinct natures, human and divine, but many Eastern ecclesiastics recognized this doctrine as fatal to the view that each human being is innately divine. They set out the doctrine designated as Monophysitism, the teaching that the divine and human are wholly united in Christ. This, the Monophysites held, is the meaning of "the Word made flesh", but rather than suggesting that the Divine is degraded into the concrete and corruptible, they held that in Christ the physical and psychic aspects of man are transformed into the divine nature.
In AD. 533, the year after Justinian had closed the Platonic Academy in Athens as well as other non-Christian schools, and launched the castigation of the teachings of Origen, a council in Constantinople heard Severus, patriarch of Antioch, defending the Monophysite position by appealing to the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagite. Despite the defeat and eventual eradication of the Monophysite standpoint, the writings ascribed to Dionysius decisively affected the subsequent development of the Eastern church. Though mentioned in Rome by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century, the writings of Dionysius remained almost unknown in Western Christendom until AD. 827 when the Byzantine Emperor Michael the Stammerer sent a copy to the French King Louis the Pious. Louis deposited these works with Hilduin, abbot of St. Denys. Hilduin claimed that Clement of Rome sent Dionysius to France where he was martyred on the hill upon which the monastery of St. Denys is situated. By sanctifying Dionysius, his link with Denys, the patron saint of France, Hilduin secured the highest respect for the Dionysian doctrine. When John Scotus Erigena translated the writings into Latin a generation later, their popularity was assured. A medieval chronicler wrote that "the Mystical Divinity ran across England like deer". Aquinas venerated these teachings, and the great Flemish mystic John of Ruysbroeck derived his deepest inspiration from them. Thus Dionysius altered the nature of Eastern Christianity and nourished the less favoured mystical tradition in the West.
Who was Dionysius, the author of the Celestial Hierarchy, the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology? Many have simply insisted that he is the same as the Dionysius who followed Paul. Others, recognizing the close affinities between these works and the doctrines of later neo-Platonic philosophers, especially Proclus, surmise that a Syrian monk assumed the name of the legendary Athenian mystic, a practice common enough in the ancient world. Some have even suggested that Proclus himself penned these works. Whatever the truth of authorship of these books, their luminous words express the true spirit of Paul, the philosophical idiom and divine theurgy of the neo-Platonists and the tradition of Dionysius the Areopagite.
Origen, brilliant disciple of Ammonius Saccas and conscientious head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria, was the first Christian to expound 'a single body of doctrine', a universal theology that embraced all the arenas of life and death in Nature visible and invisible. When attacked by the jealous Alexandrian bishop Demetrius, he retired to Caesarea where he had been ordained and had laboured with much honour and deep respect until his death. The gnostic spirit of his teachings rested upon his fidelity to the inner tradition of the Alexandrian church which distinguished between exoteric Christianity as a preparatory way of life, and the esoteric teachings given only to those who were ready for initiation into what Clement called 'the Great Mysteries'. Reinforced by the indigenous mystical awareness of Asia Minor, influenced also by the Babylonian magi, Chaldean hierophants, Greek Mystery-schools and Palestinian apocalyptic heterodoxy, the Origenist standpoint prevailed in the Cappadocian churches long after Rome had abandoned it in its quest for strict ecclesiastical control and Alexandria had been replaced by Constantinople as the centre of Eastern Christendom. Here Christianity remained a vital existential faith vivified by direct experience and demanding the cultivation of intellect. Origen's appeal to the oral tradition, subsequently abandoned and eventually condemned by the Church at large, was followed by the Cappadocians and by Dionysius, who invokes his own teacher Hierotheus. The scriptures, they taught, contain those truths sought by true philosophers in the Platonic sense, and when found, they fill the seeker with the prismatic radiance of divine Light.
Nature visible and invisible is one vast theophany, the moving image of That which is ever at rest, or to reverse the metaphor, the momentary pause or impassive frame of That whose motion is infinitely rapid. In its ultimate super-celestial aspect, it is God as the sun, from which the intelligible creative powers emerge as rays, whose action in human consciousness is called knowledge, or gnosis, because it leads humanity back to the deific Source. Thus Dionysius could agree with Proclus that "knowledge is a kind of conversion". Universal nature can be conceived under three aspects: the ever-abiding first principle, prior to and transcending all activity; the creative procession of its intelligent power through a matrix of eternal ideas and manifesting as effects; and the return of these effects through the matrix of ideas to the first principle. This threefold pulsation of existence can be called mone (the one),proödos(going forth) and epistrophe (return). Every sensible and intelligible thing in the universe is constituted by this triple principle which manifests on distinct levels as ousia (existence, being), dynamis (power, potentiality) and energeia (action, actuality). For Dionysius, human existence is made significant by the fusion of theoria and praxis, theory and practice. In the spiritual quest, theoria is specifically theologia, the philosophy of the Divine, and praxis is theourgia, the theurgy of spiritual self-transformation. Theologia and theourgia are blended inwardly in abstract contemplation and outwardly in sanctified action. The universe is thus seen as monadic and triadic. From the standpoint of physics, rest and motion, the universe appears as mone,proödosand epistrophe; from the perspective of psychology, it appears as ousia, dynamis and energeia.
Not even the super-essential One of the neo-Platonists refers to Deity as utterly transcendent, the Divine Darkness which is beyond knowing and naming. Since 'God' is only one of the names of God as noeton, an object of knowledge, it cannot be applied to That which remains ever Nameless. The Divine Triad or Thearchy, the supreme manifestation of Deity, may be known through three theologies. Cataphatic theology is the science of the Divine asproödos, efficient cause, the discovery of the eternal ideas which are attributes of God. Symbolic theology is the science of Deity as epistrophe, final cause, the return to the source through sensible and intelligible symbols. Mystical theology is the science of God as mone, beyond sense and intellect, negating the attributes of Deity and leading towards the ultimate and immutable agnosia, the unknowing of the Unknowable. True theology guides contemplative experience until the aspirant achieves henosis, super-intelligible union with God, merging consciously into the Divine Darkness which is absolute super-sensible Light. The triple theology corresponds to the three broad stages of the soul's ascent: cathartic or purifying, illuminative or insightful, and unitive, the mystic vanishing of the separative soul into the Nameless and Unknown.
While the super-essential Divine cannot be known, to noeton, the highest object of knowledge, is Deity as efficient cause, and the supreme name for to noeton is agathonumia, the Good, intimating the boundless dispensation of divine compassion which marks the line between inseparable unity and the unity of all separations. As a triad, it encompasses arche, peras, and synoche, the beginning and the end, as well as the bond of continuity joining them, and furthermore the theophanous descent and ascent which illumines the sojourn of the soul.
Nous, pure mind, can know the Good, and so manifests as a divine name giving rise to the metaphysical triad of Wisdom, Life and Being, and to the meta-psychological triad of Wisdom, Power and Peace. This triad was enshrined in sacred architecture by the Emperor Constantine in his three great Byzantine churches, Hagia Sophia (now a mosque), Hagia Dynamis and Hagia Eirene. Containing being and non-being within itself, going forth to give life to all things, and harmoniously restoring the many to the One, the Good manifesting as Wisdom, Power and Peace reflects the ceaseless mone,proödos, epistrophe.
This triad is also reflected on the plane of eternal ideas. As paradigms, they abide in the Divine Essence, but they go forth through the whole of nature as 'divine volitions', and as immanent logoi they constitute the ladder of ascent to the source. Logoi are the concern of symbolic theology, leading the aspirant from the sensible to the intelligible, the prelude to the negation that leads from the known to the Unknowable and to agnostic union with the transcendent Darkness. Visible and invisible, sensible and intelligible, Nature is suffused by the logoi and is therefore a world of symbols. When any thought, action or object is stripped of its materiality and location in space and time, its significance is a theophany. Reflecting the triadic nature of their source, the logoi dispose symbols in three hierachies, legal, ecclesiastical and celestial, corresponding to things, men and angels. The universe is a theophanous sacred order in which each element strives towards ever more complete deiformity. The ascent from the legal to the ecclesiastical hierarchy is the purgation of materiality from symbols and the purification of the soul. The ascent from the ecclesiastical to the celestial hierarchy is the iridescent illumination of symbols so that the enlightened soul can discern the One through them. The last stage is the transcendence of purest significance into union with the One which is theosis, true deification of the soul.
These hierarchies are distinct but are reflected in one another; the process of purification, illumination and transcendence occurs at each stage of the soul's ascent to the Divine. The symbols in the legal hierarchy veil the logoi and are shown in proper rituals. Ecclesiastical symbols can be 'read' analogically, displayed in theurgy and preliminary initiation, reflected in true sacraments. The symbols of the celestial hierarchy are the theoi noes, the angels or intelligences who are 'heralds of the divine Silence'. Since nous is inseparable from the objects of knowledge and thus inseparable from the Good, at this level ousia, dynamis and energeia imply one another. The illumination of the prismatic light presaging the One Light provides the basis of theurgy in the sympatheia, cosmic interconnectedness, of all things. The angelic Mysteries consist of seraphim, 'the burning ones' who are the immediate source of light, cherubim, 'the effusion of wisdom' who transmit the light, and the thrones upon whom the light falls.
Mystical theology removes even the iridescent significance of symbols through negations pointing to the hidden Deity, deus absconditus. Beginning with hyper-objects, 'the hidden objects of contemplation', the aspirant in profound meditative awareness comes to realize that he is meditating upon that which transcends contemplation. This is agnosia, the unknowing beyond highest knowledge, and here the soul experiences the most ineluctable joy not as a mental or emotional state but as concrete reality. This is 'the place where God is'. The final step, unanalysable and indescribable, is the instantaneous transition from agnosia to henosis, union with and conscious experience of the Divine Darkness, beyond being and non-being, hyperousia, super-being, Be-ness Itself.
The connections between metaphysics, ethics and meta-psychology are apprehended in a single intuition which may be experienced as the triunity of ousia, dynamis and energeia. The purifying, intellective and negating ascent to the Divine shuns anthropomorphic conceptions of Deity and the false absolutizing of human traits. Rather it is the painful yet joyous path that leads beyond pain and joy to numinous realms in which the dichotomies of material thought and the categories of space, time and becoming dissolve into luminous Being and suddenly sink into the emptiness of sempiternal Nothingness.
Dionysius the Areopagite taught that man should not humanize God; he should divinize man and thus reflect in his thought and action the universal order. In stripping away the conditional attributes of Deity, man sheds all confining characteristics until he becomes the absolute nothing which is the infinite fullness of the Divine Darkness. This universal vision of human potentiality is neither concerned with the stress on original sin nor obsessed with personal salvation. It focusses upon the gradual but assured progress towards that universal enlightenment which is the redemption of the world.
The Areopagite's torch, sometimes held high, sometimes veiled, was carried down the centuries in the theologies of light in the Eastern churches and the blazing insights of Western mystics, revivifying, dignifying and preserving the teachings of Jesus, the Son of Man who called upon all human beings to become true sons of God.