in this ascent, the sensible symbols are not merely left behind

A few key passages from the last chapter in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl:

Because being is theophany, all sense perception is an apprehension of symbols of God. In view of this metaphysical basis for his theory of symbols, Dionysius cannot and does not maintain the sharp distinction between intelligible “names” and sensible “symbols.”

…All symbols, in that they are both similar and dissimilar, at once reveal and conceal that which they symbolize, and this is the very nature of a symbol and hence of being as symbol. Not only does a symbol both reveal and conceal, but it does both in one: it conceals precisely in and as revealing, and reveals precisely in and as concealing. Every being, or symbol, is a differentiated expression, a presentation, a coming forth of God into openness, manifestness, availability. As such it reveals God, making him knowable in and as the content of that being. To know anything is to know God as manifest in that thing. The Platonic doctrine of participation, which Dionysius invokes in justifying the suitability of all things as symbols of God, makes it clear that the symbolized is not extrinsic to but present in the symbol, that the symbol is a genuine presentation of the symbolized. But to reveal God in this way is to conceal him. For precisely as differentiated, as finite, and hence as available, as a presentation, every being, or symbol, is not God himself and thus conceals him, leaving him behind, inaccessible, in the dark.

…Only by being concealed in symbols can God be revealed. For if he were not concealed, then what is revealed would be not God but some being, something which is and can be known. If we are truly to know God, if what is revealed is to be God himself, then what we know must be the unknowable, what is revealed must be concealed, for otherwise it would not be God that is known and revealed. Only by symbols is this possible. Hence, as Dionysius here indicates, there can be no non—symbolic knowledge of God, no knowledge of God without the concealment of symbolism. Only a symbol, in that qua symbol it conceals what it reveals, can make God known without objectifying him as a being, enabling us to know God without violating his unknowability, and thus truly to know God. The concealing is the revealing. Dionysius’ doctrine of symbols is thus another expression of the principle that God is given to every mode of cognition, including sense perception, and is inaccessible to all cognition whatsoever.

…It is never true to say, then, that we know God; not from his nature, for this is unknowable and surpasses all reason and intellect; but from the order of all beings, as presented-as-a-screen from him, and having certain images and likenesses of his divine paradigms, we go up, by way and order according to our power, to the beyond all things, in the taking away and transcendence of all things and in the cause of all things. Wherefore both in all things God is known and apart from all things.

…The symbolic nature of being is most fully realized in the angels. …The angels reveal what is hidden; they announce the divine silence; they present-as-screens lights which interpret what is inaccessible. These paradoxes capture the very essence of symbolism: to hide what it reveals by revealing it and to reveal what it hides by hiding it. Any interpretation, in that it is not the meaning itself but an interpretation of it, leaves behind, renders inaccessible, the meaning which it presents. But in view of Dionysius’ understanding of all being as theophany, and the doctrine that the angels possess in an eminent way all the perfections of lesser beings, this is true not only of the angels but, analogously, of all things. To be a being is to be a symbol, to interpret the inaccessible, to announce the divine silence.

…Because of the identity between revealing and concealing in symbolism, there is no opposition between the symbolic knowledge of God in and from beings and the union with God in unknowing by the taking away of all beings. The ascent from sense to intellect to the union above intellect, in which unknowing is the culmination and enfolding of all knowledge, is also the ascent from sensible symbols to intellectual contemplation to unknowing. …In this ascent, the sensible symbols are not merely left behind. For the very nature of a symbol is such that to know it is to unknow it. To understand a symbol as a symbol is to ignore it, to attend not to the symbol as an object in itself but rather to the meaning it concealingly reveals. Conversely, to attend to a symbol as an object in its own right is to fail to know it as a symbol. To a person who cannot read, for example, a written word is an object consisting of ink on paper. But a reader, in the very act of perceiving the word, is oblivious to the word as such and attentive only to its meaning. The more he ignores the word as an object, the more deeply immersed he is in the meaning, the more perfectly he is reading and the better he is knowing the word as what it really is, as a symbol. The non-reader might argue that the reader is simply disregarding the word in favor of something else; this is precisely the attitude of those who see in the Dionysian ascent from sensible symbols to intellectual contemplation to mystical unknowing a rejection or abandonment of sense and symbol. But in fact, of course, it is the reader, who in perceiving the word unknows it in itself, who truly knows and appreciates the word as word.

…The ascent from symbols is the penetration into them. To rise to unknowing, to remove all the veils, to take away all things, is most fully to enter into the symbols, or beings. At the peak, therefore, we find the perfect union of knowing and unknowing, in which all beings are most perfectly known in being wholly unknown just as a word is most perfectly known in being ignored, because all beings are nothing but symbols of God. The mystical union is not a non-symbolic encounter with God as an object other than all things. It is rather a penetration into all things to God who, as “all things in all things and nothing in any,” is at once revealed and concealed by all things. To ascend to unknowing is to see the darkness hidden and revealed by all light, to hear all things “announce the divine silence.”

…The incarnation is thus seen to be fully consonant with, and indeed the fullest expression of, the Neoplatonic philosophical conception of God as not any being but the power of all things, as pure Giving, as Overflow, or, in Dionysius’ terms, as Love. In this sense it is true, as has often been remarked, that Dionysius understands the incarnation in terms of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of procession and reversion. But this need not mean that the incarnation is merely another procession, additional to and parallel with the universal, creative procession of God to all things and all things from God. Rather, Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the “principle and perfection of all hierarchies” is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.

the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God

In Theophany by Eric Perl, when covering Dionysius on the nature and causes of evil, Perl ends with a wonderful explanation of the fact that any apparently successful theodicy is itself evil. Here is the full passage:

For Dionysius, evil is privation and lack and weakness and asymmetry and failure [usually translated as “sin” but literally having the negative meaning “missing” or “failing”] and aimless and beautyless and lifeless and mindless and irrational and purposeless and unstable and causeless and indeterminate and unproductive and inactive and ineffective and unordered and unlike and limitless and dark and insubstantial and itself no being whatever in any way whatsoever.

Dionysius’ inability, or rather refusal, to assign a cause to evil, then, marks not the failure but the success of his treatment of the problem. To explain evil, to attribute a cause to it, would necessarily be to explain it away, to deny that evil is genuinely evil at all. For to explain something is to show how it is in some way good. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Only by not explaining evil, by insisting rather on its radical causelessness, its unintelligibility, can we take evil seriously as evil. This is why most “theodicies” fail precisely insofar as they succeed. To the extent that they satisfactorily account for or make sense of evil, they tacitly or expressly deny that it is evil and show that it is in fact good. Dionysius’ treatment of evil, on the other hand, succeeds by failing, recognizing that the sheer negativity that is evil must be uncaused and hence inexplicable, for otherwise it would not be negativity and would not be evil.

It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

For a little more context, just before this passage in Theophany by Eric Perl, there is a fascinating summary of Plotinus defending an incoherent idea that matter is evil. Proclus rejected this as did Dionysius, both claiming that matter must be good. Here are the details regarding Proclus and Dionysius on this point:

Proclus differs from Plotinus by expressly rejecting the doctrine that evil is matter and that, as matter, it is necessary. He argues, more consistently than Plotinus, that “if matter is evil, one of two things is necessary: either to make the Good the cause of evil, or [to make] two principles of beings.” Either alternative is unacceptable. “Since matter is from the Principle, even this has its entrance into being from the Good. …Nor is evil from the Good.” To say, as Plotinus does, both that matter is evil and that it proceeds from the Good leads to absurdity: “Thus the Good will be evil, as the cause of evil, but evil will be good, as produced from the Good.” Proclus further argues that matter, precisely in that it is a necessary aspect of the sensible cosmos, cannot be evil: “But if matter is necessary for the All, and the cosmos would not be ‘this all-great and blessed god’ if matter were absent, how can the nature of evil still be referred to this? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another, and the latter is such that [the universe] could not be without it, but the former is privation of being.” By denying Plotinus’ identification of evil with matter, Proclus thus avoids the difficulty of claiming that evil is a necessary condition for the good cosmos.

…[Dionysius] expressly follows Proclus in denying Plotinus’ “notorious” position that “evil is in matter, as they say, in that it is matter.” Dionysius argues, first, that “if [matter] is in no way whatsoever, it is neither good nor evil. But if it is somehow a being, and all beings are from the Good, this too would be from the Good.” He goes on to take up Proclus’ cogent argument that if matter is necessary, it cannot be evil: “If they say that matter is necessary for the completion of all the cosmos, how is matter evil? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another.” Whatever is necessary for the perfection of the whole is not evil but good. If, as Plotinus argues, matter is necessary, then it cannot be evil. This argument is effective not only against Plotinus’ doctrine that matter is both evil and a necessary consequence of the Good, without which the (good) cosmos could not be produced, but also against all attempts, such as have been made from antiquity to the present, to explain the evils that occur in the world as necessary contributions to the perfection of the whole. Any such theory, as Dionysius here points out, does not explain evil but rather explains it away by claiming, in effect, that it is not really evil at all.

the entire hierarchy of reality, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God

There is no contradiction between the hierarchical structure of reality and the immediate constitutive presence of God to all things.

…Thus all things, at every level, participate directly in God in the manner appropriate to them. Therefore the hierarchical structure of reality, far from separating the lower orders of being from God, is itself the very ground of his immediate presence in all things. Every being participates directly in God precisely in and by occupying its proper place within the cosmic hierarchy: stones by merely existing; plants by living; animals by sensing, humans by being rational, angels by being intellectual. It is not hierarchical order, but rather an egalitarian leveling, that would violate the immediate participation of all things in God by blurring the differences and ranks of beings which constitute that very participation.

…The view that hierarchical order separates the lower ranks of creatures from God depends on the mistaken conception of God as the “first and highest being,” standing above the angels at the peak of the hierarchy of beings. If that were the case, then indeed only the highest beings would be in immediate communion with God. But since God is not any being but “all things in all things and nothing in any,” he does not stand at the top of the universal hierarchy but transcends and permeates the whole. “The goodness of the Godhead which is beyond all things extends from the highest and most venerable substances to the last, and is still above all, the higher not outstripping its excellence nor the lower going beyond its containment.” The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God, of unity and goodness, according to the different modes and degrees that constitute the different levels of being.

…Dionysius’ doctrine of analogous participation in God is thus closely parallel to Plotinus’ teaching that the nature of all things is their share in contemplation or intellectual activity (which itself is the manifestation of the One), so that the life of plants is a “growth-thought” and that of animals a “sense-thought.” The same principle can be found in Proclus, in the form of his well-known affirmation, “All things are in all things, but properly in each.” He goes on to explain: “In Being there is life and intellect; in Life, being and intellect; in Intellect, being and life; but each of these exists upon one level intellectually, upon another vitally, and on the third existentially.” For him, too, the less universal perfections are specifications of the more universal ones, so that, for example, living things have intellect “vitally,” i.e. in the mode of life, and intellectual things have life “intellectually,” i.e. in the mode of intellect.

From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl.
Great Chain of Being
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

the life of living things and being of beings

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.

God is in our sensuality

For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.

Julian of Norwich (commemorated today, May 8).

I contemplate the eternal rabbithood of God

Darwin and Christianity – Part 13: God and Creation” by Father Thomas Hopko.

You could contemplate a tree and know the glory of God himself in that tree. Now, the tree is not God. The sun is not God; the moon is not God. That’s what Genesis wants to say. But that they declare the glory of God, and that they even express ideas in the mind of God who is the Logos from before all eternity. So there’s a sense in which all creatures and every single creature, from the highest seraph to the lowest grain of sand and everything in between, so to speak, are showing forth in creaturely form what God is.

Fr. Bulgakov, a Russian theologian who was very dissatisfied with how Christian theology formulated the issue of the relationship of God and the world, and he brought forth his own theory of the divine chokmah, the premudros, the sophia of God, the divine wisdom as a way of trying to understand it—I think rather unsuccessfully, but nevertheless very interestingly and worth studying, but probably, ultimately, not acceptable—but he tried. He tried his best. But in any case, it’s probably better simply to follow the Church Fathers and Palamas in what they actually do, what they actually say.

But they affirm the mystery negatively, as Fr. Bulgakov pointed out. They said that divinity and creation, the uncreated and the created, or speaking, taking the cue from the divinity and the humanity, the one Person of Jesus Christ, are united in a perfect union, and then they use four negative adverbs: achoristos, adiairetos, atreptos, and asynchytos, in Greek, which means without separation and without division, but without fusion and without changing. So God is always God, creatures are always creatures, but there is a real union that is effected by the grace of God through his divine energies, where humanity really can become co-worker with God and can really be deified. Human beings can really know God through his divine actions and energies.

Ultimately these actions and energies of God, they all proceed from the Father, through the Son, and are accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit. And that means that all the divine energies and actions and operations of God, from creation to redemption to salvation to deification to transfiguration to glorification are all enacted by agency of the Logos who is incarnate as Jesus Christ—in other words, by the agency of Christ himself, as the Creed says, following St. Paul, “through whom all things were made”—and by the accomplishing action of the power of the divine breath, the divine wind, the divine Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the all-holy, good, and life-creating spirit.

So you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting in the world from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, the Spirit in us through the Son, taking us into communion with Father, and there really is a union without separation or division, but without fusion and mingling. God doesn’t become a creature; creatures don’t become God. God doesn’t stop being God; creatures don’t stop being creatures. God is always God, and he can’t stop being God, and creatures are always creatures and can’t stop being creatures.

Nevertheless, the union exists without a separation and a division. We abide in God; God abides in us. We in him, he in us—what the process theologians would call panentheism: God is in everything, and everything is in God.

…Bulgakov, when he tried to solve the problem of how uncreated relates to created, he said a sentence once which is unacceptable. He said the creation, wisdom in its created form—he [spoke] about the uncreated wisdom and the created wisdom—he said is God in created form, that the cosmos is God in created form. Well, that comes close to process theology. However, I think the classical patristic Orthodox theology, following the Bible, would say God doesn’t have a created form—God is God—but that creatures in the forms that they have show forth and manifest that which exists in an incomprehensible manner within the Godhead—that would be the truth, that there are the divine ideas, the divine logoi of all creation that exist in God and are somehow even actualized in the divine manner within the divinity.

As the Roman Catholic great monk, Thomas Merton, a writer, a thinker, a philosopher, a spiritual writer said, “When I go out to feed the rabbits, I contemplate the eternal rabbithood of God.” Now, he wasn’t a Platonist who said, “I go out and contemplate the perfect rabbit in the divine idea of rabbit that exists in the Platonic world of ideas.” What he meant by “the eternal rabbithood of God” was that God himself actualizes within divinity something somehow someway that we can’t even imagine that has its created form in that little rabbit or in that tree or in that lion. Here the holy Fathers would speak about all of these elements in creation being symbolic of God, and by the way, they are. Everything that exists in the created order can somehow symbolize and manifest God, can give us an idea of God.

Analogies are right, but the Christian theology goes beyond analogies. We not only can contemplate an idea of God through trees or through animals or what-all exists that there must be God, he must cause it, he must be beautiful, it must have a purpose—but in experiencing those very realities themselves, within them we actually touch God, because the claim would be God indwells everything, and if he didn’t, as the book of Job says, if God withdrew his breath, everything would disappear.

But there are the presence of God and the Logos of God in all things. The holy early Fathers spoke about the logoi in plural that are spread in through creation and have their created forms. So we could say there is a necessary connection between God and the world for sure, but it’s a world that God created and in some sense that God does not need to actualize everything that could possibly be actualized. God actualizes everything that can possibly be actualized, we would say philosophically, within the Godhead itself.

But then I think we could take the next step and say: Since God has decided to create, God has also decided to actualize in created form as creaturely expressions of what exists in an incomprehensible way within divinity in all the things that exist, and that all proclaim his glory and his wisdom and his power and his beauty and his strength; and that our groaning and in travail, as St. Paul says, until the revelation of the children of God when anything ultimately will be transfigured and deified, and everything will be filled with all the fullness of God and therefore creation will ultimately reach the omega point that it was created to be from the alpha point, the arche and the telos, what it was supposed to be from the beginning and ultimately will only reach and become and more perfectly become forever and ever in the coming kingdom of God when Christ comes in his glory at the end to bring to completion God’s plan which was there from the beginning which according to St. Paul was hidden even from the angels from before the foundation of the world. This is how Christians look at it, I believe.

a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

From The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

This passage was a generous gift this morning from a mother in the faith. I love this description of a “mysterious sanctuary” existing at “the point where our faculties originate” in which “we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by Him” and also where “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator.” In the last line, however, I would suggest that “outside the confines of space and time” should be amended to say “deeply within the confines of space and time.” Three realities indicate that our union with God is bodily (and therefore profoundly within the confines space and time):

  1. our being made in God’s image,
  2. the incarnation of God the Son (the Logos) as Jesus Christ,
  3. and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascend into heaven and to be seated on the throne of God.

God placed us in time and space as a means of communion with Him (who transcends time and space). Within the Christian tradition, I’ve read of three ways in which our communion with God is strictly within time and space:

  1. God is only in the present moment. The present is the only time in which we touch God’s eternity and commune with Him. We can be lead astray from God into the past (nostalgia or pride) or the future (worry or hubris). There are right relationships with the past (gratitude) and the future (hope) but only when we are grounded in our present communion with God.
  2. God only meets with us in our particular place (via our bodies and the material world that we inhabit). All of creation is designed to be sacramental and to bring our bodies into communion with God. Material things of all kinds (from the waters of baptism to the bones of saints) can carry great sanctity and be the gracious means of God’s communion with us.
  3. God stands at the door of our heart and knocks. All the saints who speak of communion with God in prayer speak of it as an inward but still clearly an embodied experience (or vision) of transcendent and unifying love, heat, or light. “To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing.” Our intuitive perception of eternal or ultimate truth and love are from the heart (a perceptive capacity that is called the nous). Our intellect (in our head) can perceive with bodily senses and can analyze these perceptions using rational thoughts. Our passions or desires were long associated with the stomach or liver. In between these upper and lower faculties is the heart. C.S. Lewis describes modern people as having become “men without chests” (in The Abolition of Man) because we have lost this middle capacity that unifies our thoughts and feelings with an intuitive inner vision of God’s love. This nous in our heart sees immaterial things, but it still has a strong association with a particular part of our body. Some desert fathers were very specific: “not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart …close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.” (This quotation and the one near the start of this bullet point are from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, which I posted about here.)

Therefore, to enter this “mysterious sanctuary” wherein “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator,” we must not let our minds or our feelings run freely. We must “descend into our heart” or “stand guard over our heart” and listen quietly there for God. This is not an emptying of our intellect; it is not a denial or leaving of our body; it is not an insensibility to the surrounding world or to the input of our five senses. Instead, this communion with God in the quietness of our hearts unifies and fills all of these other things. Out nous allows all of our other faculties (sensations, thoughts, and feelings) to be made potent and meaningful while remaining only supportive agents of our primary purpose: this steady gazing and quiet listening of our heart’s interior ears and eyes. There we may learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

True, at this table of the Lord, we do feast outside of time with those from many other places and many others times. However, all of us gathered there are doing so within each of our hearts in the reality of our particular places and our present moments. In doing so, we mysteriously bring together many particular times and places—transcending, unifying, and sanctifying these places and times without discarding or annihilating them. Each present time and unique material place gives access to the throne of God, where all times and places have their origins and find their true identities.

do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God

One of the fathers asked Abba Nistheros the Great, the friend of Abba Antony: “What good work should I be doing?” He said to him:

Are not all actions equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elias loved interior peace, and God was with him. So, do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God, and guard your heart.