“You know, yokan always makes me think of Tanizaki. You’ve read Tanizaki, of course?”
“I don’t mean the fiction. Have you read In Praise of Shadows?”
“So you’ll recall where he talks about eating yokan as being like eating shadows, or something like that—how he calls it a quintessentially Japanese candy precisely because it’s so… well, so tenebrous, I suppose one might say. Because of its dark translucency. The way it lies on a dark dish all but invisibly in a dim room, and the way it melts on the tongue like a sweet shadow… or like a shadow of sweetness, it’s so mild. I don’t recall the exact wording, so perhaps I should read it again.”
“I recall it,” I said. “I love that book. I love the way Japanese culture has always been able to aestheticize everything… even violent death.”
“It’s so true,” he said. “And Tanizaki is right too. There’s a special Japanese virtuosity of the umbratilous, the nebulous, the… softly shadowed. It’s a sign of true reﬁnement to be able to love shadowy spaces… liminal intervals… places of transition. There’s a tacit metaphysics there too, in that aesthetic sensitivity to the dim and crepuscular, and to the moments and spaces of fluid indistinction… the junctures where possibility brieﬂy overwhelms actuality, where anything might emerge, where the mystery of being announces itself in the as yet undisclosed next moment. It speaks of the sheer fortuity of all of the world’s beautiful transformations. Dreams overwhelming waking thoughts. Unseen presences overwhelming visible absences. lt’s—how can a poor dog say it without lapsing into ecstatic gibberish?—it’s that lovely ﬂoating experience of suspense on the threshold of existence, where it seems anything might come into being. Twilight consciousness. And there’s a lovely metaphysical fragility there too, isn’t there? A sustained precariousness, as though at any moment the world might melt into potentiality again. Which is itself another revelation of the wonderful needlessness of the gift of being.” He heaved an especially deep sigh and his smile became distinctly melancholy. “In the modern world, flooded as it is at all times by shrill, brittle electric incandescences, lit by the leprous white glow of computer screens, we desperately need more shadows… more love of shadow as such. We need those places and moments in which the mind sees nameless things moving in the obscurity, in the dusk, and occasionally even knows itself as conjuring the world out of a more primordial, more timeless dreaming.” He fell silent, his eyes turned downward. It was many moments before I spoke.
“I think you found a way to say it very well. You always do. I know exactly what you mean— even if I couldn’t rephrase it in any way intelligible to myself.”Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart. Pages 320-322.
Since procession and reversion are in reality the same relation of dependence, a thing’s being made to be by God is not in any sense prior to its desire for him. Rather, the generation of the being consists in its tending toward God no less than in its coming from him. Thus reversion, as the activity of the being, is the being’s share in its own being made to be. As in Plotinus and Proclus, the product has an actively receptive role in its production, and if it does not exercise this activity it cannot exist. For Dionysius, God cannot make beings without their active cooperation, for without that activity they would not be anything. In every being, including animals, plants, and inanimate things, there is an element of ‘interiority’, of selfhood, an active share in its own being what it is and so in its own being. At the level of rational beings, this interiority takes the form of self-consciousness, of personhood and freedom. But the principle that any being’s reversion is creative of it means that there is something analogous to freedom and personhood at every level of reality, even in inanimate things.Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl
At the transfiguration, the apostles saw our Saviour’s face shining as the sun, and his raiment white as light, also a lucid cloud or body of light, out of which the voice came; which visible light and splendor was, not many centuries ago, maintained by the Greek church, to have been divine, and uncreated, and the very glory of God: as may be seen in the history wrote by the emperor John Cantacuzene.George Berkeley, Siris 187.
Remarkable to see this from Berkeley in an extended reflection on the metaphysics of light. (See this article for more.) Recalls this passage from Maximus the Confessor:
The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of His beauty inside every thing, . . . a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being.Cited in Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty (Pasadena, CA: Oakwood Publications, 2011) with footnote 25 pointing to Ambigua ad Iohannem, p. 9, paragraph 1148C, translated by Constas 2014 and Jeauneau 1988 (Latin translation by John Scottus Eriugena).
“Ah,” I said, sinking back onto my pillows, “that seems like it would be a hard sell among modern physicists.”From Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart..
“I’m not interested in being a salesman,” said Roland. “My interest isn’t scientiﬁc, after all. I’m just as happy to call that interval between inﬁnite actuality and inﬁnite potentiality the realm of Fairy, or the Dreamtime. I do wonder, though, whether the actualization of a world in the conventional consciousness of any given age might have a retroactive effect. Whether the past is in some sense changing with every new conformation of the cosmos in thought. Or perhaps, it might be better to say, whether the past as we know it, and as it connects to the conventional picture of the present, is changing. I mean, we know that in a sense entanglement is as much a temporal as a spatial inseparability and…” His voice trailed away.
Roland, David’s beloved dog, shares this summary of his philosophy with David early on in David Bentley Hart’s new book Roland in Moonlight:
It certainly seems reasonable to say that being is manifestation, that real substance is revelation, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable—and that, moreover, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. …It is only as an intelligible order, as a coherent phenomenon, that anything is anything at all, whether an elementary particle or a universe. …We must believe that being in itself is pure intelligibility. …Every act of conscious, unified, intentional mind is necessarily dependent upon infinite mind—which is to say, God. …Experience of the ‘natural’ proves to be ‘super-natural’ knowledge.
And here is Roland, a little later, commenting on vision as he watches the sunset with Hart:
It’s also possible that the qualitative consciousness that attends your physical visual sensations in this world isn’t really a feat of constructive representation—a symbolic translation of stimuli into a private picture of a world that exists only within your skull—but is instead actually a direct communion in the ontological and noetic forms of things, and that we see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion.
One day some time later, when I was leaving Elder Paisios’s cell, I recalled something that was troubling me and I mentioned it to him: “Elder, that yogi, Niranjan, was able to produce a light.”The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis
“What kind of light?” he asked.
“Once, when we were all sitting around him, his body suddenly started to give off a golden—yellowish light in the form of a continually expanding sphere, which eventually engulfed us all. I wasn’t the same afterwards—it altered my way of thinking. What was that light?”
Without saying a word, the elder gently lifted up his hand and placed it on my head. Suddenly, the entire yard was ﬂooded with a light that welled forth from the elder and could be seen in all directions. It was as powerful as a ﬂash of lightning, but it was continuous, showing no sign of passing away. Although it was intense, it didn’t hurt my eyes. On the contrary, I couldn’t get my fill of looking at this sweet, immaterial, noetic light. And, although the light was supernatural and rare—not like a white light, but more like glass, or water—there was still something so very natural about it that it didn’t startle me, but instead granted me a profound sense of joy. This light was all-embracing and intoxicating, yet it left my movements peaceful and my mind extremely lucid. Although I was absorbed by the vision of this light, I continued to see my natural surroundings. My five senses continued to function normally, while alongside of them another sense, a spiritual kind of vision, had begun to function as well. Although it was around noon and the sun was shining brightly, when the immaterial light began to emanate from Father Paisios, the sun’s light seemed weak by comparison, like that of the late-afternoon sun.
Photos above of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati and Elder Paisios of Mount Athos.
It may be felt that such doctrines make Dionysius into a mere “monist” or “pantheist.” God, he insists, is not something other than the world but is “all things in all things.” Again, if being is nothing but theophany, does this not imply that the world is not real at all, but only appearance? Such objections, however, represent a failure to understand the Neoplatonic metaphysics of manifestation and intelligibility. Dionysius’ metaphysics is not a form of “pantheism,” if by this we mean the doctrine that all things are God. On the contrary: every being, precisely in that it is a being, i.e. something distinct, ﬁnite, and intelligible, ipsofacto is not God. Indeed, since to be is to be intelligible and therefore to be ﬁnite, to be means to be not God. This, again, is precisely why God is beyond being. Every being, then, absolutely is not God. Nor are all things, taken as a totality, God, for “all things” is plural, a multiplicity of distinct intelligible beings. The God of Dionysius is “all beings and none of beings,” “all things in all things and nothing in any,” and in these formulas the “all” can never be separated from the “none.” As all things without distinction, God is neither any one thing nor all things in their plurality. All things, qua all things, the whole of reality, are absolutely other than God.Eric Perl in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite
But if Dionysius is not a monist or pantheist, neither is he a dualist, regarding God as another being over against the world. All things are not God, but God is not therefore something else besides all things. Such a notion, as the very words indicate, is manifest nonsense. If God were another being besides his products, he would be included as a member of a more inclusive totality, subordinated to a more embracing universal term, and distinct from the other members and therefore ﬁnite. If God were merely other than the world, he would be another thing and so not truly transcendent, but contained in the world. All things are other than God, but God is not other than all things. Since all things are not God, Dionysius is not a monist; but since God is not something else besides all things, neither is he a dualist.
Dionysius, like his fellow Neoplatonists, is able to negotiate a way between monism and dualism by means of the Platonic concept of appearance, taken up into the doctrine of being as theophany. The relation between an appearance and that of which it is an appearance is not a relation between two beings: the appearance is not another being, additional to that which is appearing. But in that the appearance, qua appearance, is not that which is appearing itself, neither is this a monistic reduction of the appearance to what is appearing. As Plato says, with reference to the status of sensibles as appearances of the forms, they are not being itself, the forms, but neither are they non-being, or nothing. The appearances both are and are not the reality; they are “in between“ being and non-being. So, for Dionysius, beings are not additional things other than God, in such a way that God and the world would constitute two things. But neither are they nothing, or illusion, as in a monist philosophy. Wherever we look, we are not seeing God, in that every being, every object of thought, is not God; and wherever we look, we are seeing God, as he appears, for every being, every object of thought, is nothing but a presentation or appearance of God.
To say that the world is the manifestation or appearance of God, then, is not to say that it is not real. Rather, Dionysius’ Neoplatonic point is that reality itself is appearance: to be real means to be intelligible, to be given to thought, and thus to be appearance. To go beyond appearance, in this sense of what is given to thought, is to go beyond being. As Dionysius’ Neoplatonic metaphysics is neither theism nor atheism, so also it is neither monism nor dualism, but can only be called, for want of a better term, “theophanism.” The relation between appearance and that which appears is irreducible to either unity or duality and cannot be expressed in any terms other than those of appearance, manifestation, image, expression. Only through this Platonic concept is it possible to understand Dionysius’ metaphysics or to make sense of the relation between the world and God without reducing the world to God (monism) or God to a being (dualism).
[Note: this is a short narrative by Elizabeth Russell written as a college course assignment on the topic of my mother’s death and our family’s goodbye to her. Also enjoy this wonderful reading of the story by Dr. Leslie Sillars, Professor of Journalism at Patrick Henry College.]
To my dear, beloved husband of almost 43 years:
You are trying to sleep right now behind me, fully clothed in your work attire, on a noisy crunchy plastic couch several feet shorter than you are. [You are] here with me in the hospital, after a very long hard day full of all kinds of stress, sacrificing, trying with all that is in you to serve me and help me. It’s a very appropriate picture of your life as my husband these many years…
He knows the words well by now. They bring back so many memories – raising nine children, years of missionary work in Taiwan, countless hikes and adventures and books read aloud in the evenings. The letter is creased and worn from many readings. He doesn’t know when she wrote it, exactly, but it must have been only a week or so before the end – before November 21, 2018, when cancer overwhelmed her body and sent her on ahead to God.
Steve and Faye Hake. Both of their names are etched into the headstone at his feet. They were not meant to be apart. Every month since her death, he has driven out to the cemetery to sit beside her in an old camp chair – reading her letter, reading his Bible, praying, remembering.
Today marks one year since her death. Here, among the cemetery’s bare trees and rolling hills, in the quiet and the cold, he has come to keep vigil with her. He will stay near her all day and all night.
It’s November 18, 2018. The Hakes’ small house, tucked into the rolling hills of West Virginia, is full of people. Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, and their whole family has gathered to celebrate. The living room overflows with grandchildren and games.
Faye spends most of her time in her bedroom, slipping in and out of a medicated sleep. She’s declining rapidly, and they all know it. But no one says anything.
Faye never wants to talk about death. Ever since she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in May 2014, she’s been fighting and planning and questioning the doctors’ grim diagnosis. She’s so optimistic and full of life – it simply isn’t in her nature to accept the statistics. Only 22% of patients with Stage IV breast cancer live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But Faye is determined to be in that 22%. If she can just gain a little strength, she can start another round of chemo, hold on a little longer… But Steve has known for a long time that she is dying. He can almost bear it if they do it all themselves – if they make sure it’s done right.
Months ago, he began researching natural burials and chose a local cemetery that allowed them. He bought a Walmart flat sheet to use for the shroud, and coils of hemp rope to lower her with. He asked his son-in-law Joel to carve the headstone – a smooth gray river rock taken from a property they’d loved. He even chose the hymns for her funeral. But he’s never been able to tell Faye any of it.
Steve’s oldest son Jesse pulls him aside.
“Have you asked Mom about everything? Is she okay with it?”
“I don’t know if I can,” he admits.
So Jesse goes into the bedroom, alone, to confront his mother with her death.
A few minutes later, she shuffles out into the kitchen. The room is crowded with children and grandchildren. Everyone is laughing – they’re making her an egg salad sandwich with pickles on top, some family joke. She laughs about the sandwich with them.
When the laughter dies down, she speaks quietly.
“Jesse told me about everything, and it’s okay.”
It’s very still. Then the jokes and laughter begin again, and that is all. But it’s enough.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 2018. Faye was taken to hospice yesterday and slipped away quietly this morning, sometime just after sunrise. Steve spent the night on the floor, lying beside her bed. Now, he and his children are bringing her home.
Somehow, they get her body into the back of the old van. When they reach home, four of the boys gently roll her onto blankets and begin carrying her inside. Steve walks with them, at her head. They wonder if the front or the back way is fastest. They choose the back door, but the room they are carrying her through is full of boxes and old furniture from a move. A table leg sticks out too far, and they wait in strained silence while one of the girls rearranges the furniture. Someone breaks into nervous laughter. It’s strange and sad and comical and Steve wonders, Are we doing this right?
He doesn’t know. But it helps that they’re doing this together. The vast wilderness of loss is not uncharted; it only feels that way. He clings to that moment in the kitchen, to her voice saying softly, “It’s okay.”
Steve knows that Faye is not here anymore. But the body still feels like her. So they dress her in her favorite clothes and drape her in her favorite blue-and-brown blanket. They fill the bedroom with flowers and prayers and readings from her favorite Bible passages. Someone is always in there with her, holding her hand. Her hands are cold; under her are 25 pounds of dry ice, to keep the body from decaying. But the pain is gone from her face. Her gray-brown hair has been smoothed back from her full cheeks. She looks almost like she did back in college.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Steve is mostly numb with the strangeness of it all, like an amputation. But a weary thankfulness washes over him – gratitude that at least they can honor her. At least they can say goodbye like this.
Two days later, Steve and his sons are digging her grave. The morning is cold. They take turns, shovels biting into the deep red soil and heaping it up on either side of the grave. Six feet deep, six feet long, two feet wide. It’s hard work, but it feels good to do it themselves.
He needs to know what it will be like for her. Struck by a sudden impulse, he lies down in the grave. Staring up at the pale blue sky, he thinks One day this will be me, next door.
A year later, night is falling as Steve sits beside the grave. He can still make out the pale letters on the headstone that read Steve and Faye Hake. Cancer now runs through his body, too. How long before he is laid next to her?
Steve doesn’t know. But he is not afraid.
He hopes that, when his kids dig his own grave, they scoot him over right next to her.
As dusk falls, he lies down beside her, huddled in an old sleeping bag. He stares up into the cloudy night-blue sky, and her words come back to him.
I am getting very sleepy and fuzzy with pain medicine now, at 1:19 a.m. in this hospital bed. You are snoring peacefully behind me, if not comfortably, on that couch. I hope to have a few more days, weeks, or months – if not years, possibly – to hear and enjoy your snoring that I sometimes flipped you over to avoid.
I will quit now. I love you, Steve…I can’t wait to bow down together before God someday…and afterwards, to express our gratitude…
Thank you for the lovely long hike. I love you, Steve.
More from Eric Perl’s book Theophany which so far is unpacking that “being as convertible with intelligibility is such an important idea for platonic thought [that has] disappeared with the rise of nominalism” (as a friend who better understands put it).
Despite differences of expression, the structure of participation, implying at once transcendence and immanence, remains the same in Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius: one and the same term is present in many different things, and as what is the same in all of them (immanent), it is other than and unconditioned by all of them (transcendent).
But if all the determinations of all things are the presence of God in them, then God is not merely “in all things,” as if he were in something other than himself. Rather, God is the whole content of reality, “all things in all things.” God “is all things as cause of all things, and holding together and prepossessing in himself all principles, all limits of all beings.” The various features, characters, or natures, the determinations found in a thing, constitute the entire intelligible content of that thing, all that there is in it for the mind to encounter. And since to be is to be intelligible, they constitute the whole of the thing itself. A being can be nothing but the totality of its intelligible determinations, down to the least details by which it is this particular thing and no other. The divine processions are “in” all things, then, not as contained in something other than themselves, but as constituting their entire content. God is the “cause” of all things, and so subject to all names, therefore, in that the entire intelligible content of all things, and hence the whole of reality, is nothing but the differentiated presence of God.
Eric Perl, in his book Theophany, quoting and explicating Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:
God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deiﬁcation of the deiﬁed and simplicity of the simpliﬁed and unity of the uniﬁed… and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.” He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings.” Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being.
…Here these “paradigms” or logoi contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identiﬁed as the deﬁning or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or deﬁning logos, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God—in—them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things.” This constitutive presence of God in all things is what Dionysius variously calls the “powers,” “participations,” “processions,” “providences,” “manifestations,” or “distributions” of God. All these expressions refer to God’s causal presence.