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An Interesting Passage from On the Divine Names


[Note: the text is taken from On the Divine Names and Mystical Theology, published 1920, translation by C. E. Rolt.]

(This treatise is addressed to Timothy)

Now perhaps there is need of an explanation why, when our renowned teacher Hierotheus hath compiled his wonderful Elements of Divinity, we have composed other Tractates of Divinity, and now are writing this present as if his work were not sufficient. Now if he had professed to deal in a ordered system with all questions of Divinity, and had gone through the whole sum of Divinity with an exposition of every branch, we should not have gone so far in madness or folly as to suppose that we could touch these problems with a diviner insight than he, nor would we have care to waste our time in a vain repetition of those same truths; more especially since it would be an injury to a teacher whom we love were we thus to claim for ourselves the famous speculations and expositions of a man who, next to Paul the Divine, hath been our chief preceptor. But since, in his lofty 'Instructions on Divinity,' he gave us comprehensive and pregnant definitions fitted to our understanding, and to that of such amongst us as were teachers of the newly initiated souls, and bade us unravel and explain with whatever powers of reason we possessed, the comprehensive and compact skeins of thought spun by his mighty intellect; and since thou hast thyself often-times urged us so to do, and hast remitted his treatise to us as too sublime for comprehension, therefore we, while setting him apart (as a teacher of advanced and perfect spirits) for those above the commonality, and as a kind of second Scriptures worthy to follow the Inspired Writings, will yet teach Divine Truths, according to our capacity, unto those who are our peers. For if solid food is suited only to the perfect, what degree of perfection would it need to give this food to others? Wherefore we are right in saying that the direct study of the spiritual Scriptures and the comprehensive teaching of them need advanced capacities, while the understanding and the learning of the matter which contribute thereto is suited to the inferior Initiators and Initiates. We have, however, carefully observed the principle: Whatsoever things our Divine Preceptor has thoroughly dealt with and made clearly manifest we have never in any wise ventured thereon, for fear of repetition, nor given the same explanation of the passage whereof he treated.

[Klong's Remarks]: I was a bit humored by Timothy's returning the treatise of Heirotheus with the remark that it was 'too sublime for comprehension.' Was Timothy being tactful and yet offering a mild rebuke at the same time? I'm not sure a 5th century forger would be this subtle, therefore I see this as possible evidence for geniuneness. Let us continue this passage, paying attention to the amount of ink that Dionysius expends in his defence of his teacher Hierotheus.

For even among our inspired Hierarchs (when, as thou knowest, we with him and many of our holy brethren met together to behold that mortal body, Source of Life, which received the Incarnate God, and James, the brother of God, was there, and Peter, the chief and highest of the Sacred Writers, and then, having beheld it, all the Hierarchs there present celebrated, according to the power of each, the omnipotent goodness of the Divine weakness): on that occasion, I say, he surpassed all the Initiates next to the Divine Writers, yea, he was wholly transported, was wholly outside of himself, and was so moved by a communion with those Mysteries he was celebrating, that all who heard him and saw him and knew him (or rather knew him not) deemed him to be rapt of God and endued with utterance Divine. But why should I tell thee of the divine things that were uttered in that place? For, unless I have forgotten who I am, I know that I have often heard from thee certain fragments of those enraptured praises; so earnest hast thou been with all thy soul to follow heavenly things.

[Klong remarks] This certainly is a remarkable passage. In his defense of Hierotheus, his beloved teacher, Dionysius mentions that they were together with the Apostles at this gathering of Apostles. Clearly Dionysius is not just writing a private letter to Timothy here (and he tells us as much at the beginning of section 3 below), but a treatise that he intended to publish to some extent among his students and peers. For those who don't believe the writings are genuine, but 5th century pseudographs, these mentions of James and Peter and the remarkable circumstances here are just another example of Pseudo-Dionysian name-dropping. To Klong, however, the passage holds together as a somewhat emotional plea for the acceptance of the wisdom of Hierotheus, and therefore of Dionysius himself. Let us now continue to the end of Chapter 3, section 3.


But, to say nothing of those mystical experiences (since they cannot be told unto the world, and since thou knowest them well), when it behoved us to communicate these things unto the world and to bring all whom we might unto that holy knowledge we possessed, how he surpassed nearly all the holy teachers in the time he devoted to the task, in pureness of mind, in exactness of exposition, and in all other holy qualities, to such a degree that we could not attempt to gaze upon such spiritual radiance. For we are conscious in ourselves and well aware that we cannot sufficiently perceive those Divine Truths which are granted to man's perception, nor can we declare and utter those elements of Divine Knowledge which are given unto man to speak. We fall very short of that understanding which the Divine men possessed concerning heavenly truths, and verily, from excess of reverence, we should not have ventured to listen, or give utterance to any truths of Divine philosophy, were it not that we are convinced in our mind that such knowledge of Divine Truth as is possible must not be disregarded. This conviction was wrought within us, not only by the natural impulse of our minds, which yearn and strive for such vision of supernatural things as may be attained, but also by the holy ordinance of Divine Law itself, which, while it bids us not to busy ourselves in things beyond us because such things are both beyond our merits and also unattainable, yet earnestly exhorts us to learn all things within our reach, which are granted and allowed us, and also generously to impart these treasures unto others. In obedience to these behests we, ceasing not through weariness or want of courage in such search for Divine Truth as is possible, yea, and not daring to leave without assistance those who possess not a greater power of contemplation than ourselves, have set ourselves to the task of composition, in no vain attempt to introduce fresh teaching, but only seeking by more minute and detailed investigations to make more clear and plain that which the true Hierotheus hath said in brief.