Dionysius and the Divine Darkness

Oleg Korolev Peresvet, Oslyabya, Divine Gloom

(Painting: “Divine Gloom” Oleg Korolev)


In Acts 17:22-37 the Apostle Paul delivers his well known sermon at the Areopagus. This was a place in Athens where the great philosophers and intellectuals of the day would meet to reason with each other. The account reads:

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:


Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead 32

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Of particular interest for this essay is the conversion of Dionysius the Areopagite. In the account it is important to note several facts: the Areopagus was a place of Greek philosophy and the center of the Greek intelligentsia, Paul’s sermon centers on the altar to the Unknown God, and the apophatic language Paul employs to describe how one may approach God (particularly v.27).

Around the 5th century a corpus on mystical theology began to surface under the alleged authorship of Dionysius the Areopagite. Among these writings were The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and numerous epistles. Although not without controversy, these writings were soon integrated into the theology of many of the Church Fathers, and have since held a prominent place in both the Eastern and Western traditions, particularly in the Apophaticism of the Eastern Church. It was long held that the Dionysian writings were authentic, and dated back to the apostolic era. But through the criticism of both Nicholas of Cusa and Lorenzo Valla (15th century) the authenticity of the Dionysian Corpus came into question. Today they are held to be the writings of an unknown 5th century writer.

Regardless of who wrote the Dionysian works, their impact on Christian theology, and more precisely the Christian mystical tradition, is unparalleled. Their influence can be seen in many later Eastern Church Fathers including St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John of Damascus, and St. Gregory Palamas along with St. John of the Cross and the in the 14th century English work The Cloud of Unknowing in the West to name only a few.

The works of Dionysius show a heavy reliance on the language and terminology of Neo-Platonism. Although this fact has often been used by modern theologians to discredit Dionysius’ place as a Christian theologian, an honest and thorough reading of Dionysius reveals such attacks to be ill-founded. As shown by Vladimir Lossky, a careful reading of Dionysius shows not a regurgitation of common Neo-Platonic concepts, but a turning of Neo-Platonism on its head.[1] As with many of the Greek Fathers, Dionysius employed the language of Neo-Platonism because at the time it was the best language available for conveying theological truths. But through this language Dionysius leads his reader beyond the abstract God of the Greeks, beyond the categories of the One and the Many, to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God whose Divine light left his servant Moses glowing from the encounter.

The Divine Darkness

Theology can be broadly categorized into two approaches; the cataphatic and the apophatic. Cataphatic theology deals with what can be said of God; it speaks in positive language of what we can know of him. In contrast, the apophatic tradition approaches God negatively; stripping away what is finite and surface to come to the God of eternity. Dionysius likens participating in the apophatic way of knowing God to being

Like sculptors who set out to carve a statue. They remove every obstacle to the pure view of the hidden image, and simply by this act of clearing aside they show up the beauty which is hidden.[2]

Apophatic theology lends itself to mysticism because it claims that our best knowledge of God is something that is far beyond our intellect, wholly ineffable, and something that we can only know through experience. It would be incorrect to understand these two ways of theologizing as a matter of personal preference, for the underlying justification for apophatic theology depends on its ultimate superiority to cataphatic theology. In describing God we limit him to our language, our concepts, and our points of reference. Thus, by the very act of describing God we come to “an imperfect way” of knowing him.[3] To truly know God we must approach him “in a way that befits God.”[4] This way must not limit him to our own finite and limited concepts. For Dionysius this means that to truly know God we must approach him “in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence”[5] or through a process of unknowing. The remainder of this section will describe this way of knowing God in which “language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.”[6]

A theologian embarking on the apophatic way is presented with the difficulty of describing the indescribable. The very act of putting words to paper places the theologian in the precarious position of attempting to describe the process of transcending description and categorization and embracing mystical experience. This cannot be done without first going through cataphatic theology. Thus Dionysius begins his project with The Divine Names. In this work we can hear the deep struggles of the author; pressing language to its very limits, continually arriving at paradox and absurdity, and through such gropings leading the reader closer to the God beyond god. Dionysius presents different descriptions of God which both reveal and conceal who he is. Each affirmation made as to who God is must be immediately followed by its negation. Is God eternity, essence, being, time, beginning, becoming, immanence, and transcendence? Yes . . . but he is not. All of these attributes end in God, but God does not end in them. Thus,

When we talk of God as being without mind and without perception, this is to be taken in the sense of what he has in superabundance and not as a defect. Hence we attribute absence of reason to him because he is above reason, we attribute lack of perfection to him because he is above and before perfection, and we posit intangible and invisible darkness of that Light which is unapproachable because it so far exceeds the visible light.[7]

We have come to a place where we can no longer speak of God in terms of perfection, love, beauty, eternity, essence, being, the One or any other concept. We must approach the God who transcends these categories, and to do so we must reach a state of cataphatic amnesia, where the knowable is emptied from our minds. Through the process of unknowing the stagnant, limited, and ultimately dead concepts of who God is we experientially arrive at an ineffable knowledge of the God beyond knowing; a knowledge

Achieved in a union far beyond mind, when mind turns away from all things, even from itself, and when it is made one with the dazzling rays, being then and there enlightened by the inscrutable depth of Wisdom.[8]

Here we can no longer speak; Moses cannot see, cannot speak, can only catch a glimpse of the passing presence of God in the darkest heights of Mt. Sinai. He is left so affected by the Divine Light that his face must be veiled when he returns to his people. Peter, James, and John do not know what to say at the sight of the transfigured Christ. Afraid and in awe Peter suggests they build a tabernacle right then and there. This is not the arena of theology which identifies Christ with humanity as he hangs on the cross, but the unveiling of a Divine Glory which leaves humanity speechless, knowing only the simple fact that “it is good for us to be here.”[9] And so it is with us as we leave all categories, all senses, all reality behind us and gropingly come to the Light beyond the darkness that is beyond light. We know nothing, we are speechless, we are out of our senses and know only that we never wish to leave the immersive presence of this Divine Light.

But we may have gotten ahead of ourselves. Let us for the moment return to the darkness, the unknown beyond all knowing. On one level we may say that the surface way of knowing Dionysius speaks of is simply head knowledge, and that he is thus pressing his reader to get outside his head and to learn through experience. This is true, but there is more to what he is getting at. The process Dionysius is promoting is not simply stepping outside of our intellect, but rather the stripping away of all our concepts. This goes far deeper than the intellect. Both consciously and unconsciously we hold many preconceived notions. In relation to God these may include who God is, how he relates to us, how we are able to experience him, and how we may respond to him. Such preconceptions affect every aspect of our being. So when we approach God with an airtight theological system that has removed all but a select few irreducible mysteries we will find a very small God; a semi-tame god who is clearly not the ravishing, penetrating, blinding, overwhelming fiery lover spoken of by the mystics. To encounter such an untamed God we must approach him on his terms, not our own. And so Dionysius prays that we may be able to let go of our limited and confining understanding and truly see God:

I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledge so as to see, so as to know, unseeing and unknowing, that which lies beyond all vision and knowledge. For this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings.[10]

To be speechless, to see nothing, to know nothing; to sit in silence and resist our deepest longing to fill such spaces with something . . . something to end such terrifying silence. This deep silence is the silence of death; the silence of eternity. We long to know God, but we dread the thought of entering into these dark chasms void of being, void of explanation, void of our imagination. But it is in this dark void, “amid the deepest shadow . . . amid the wholly unsensed and unseen” where we find that we are immersed in “overwhelming light” which completely fills “our sightless minds with treasures beyond all beauty.”[11]

In this darkness we find God. Like gazing at the sun, to behold God is to simultaneously experience the fullness of light and to be blinded.

The divine darkness is that ‘unapproachable light’ where God is said to live. And if it is invisible because of a superabundant clarity, if it cannot be approached because of the outpouring of its transcendent gift of light, yet it is here that is found everyone worthy to know God and to look upon him.[12]

 And thus we arrive at the ultimate paradoxical end of Apophaticism: “and such a one, precisely because he neither sees him nor knows him, truly arrives at that which is beyond all seeing and all knowledge.”[13] To know the unknowable, this is the mystical fact of Christianity. Where the eastern religions tend to end with the person dissolving into the Divine Being, and Judaism and Islam leave us forever separated from the transcendent God, Christianity holds onto the paradox of the distinct yet known. Infinitely unknowable, yet forever known. Thus we return to our Creator; known but speechless; understood, yet beyond our intellect; immersed in the Divine Energies of the immanently transcendent God; yet senseless.


Lossky Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976.

Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

[1] Lossky mystical theology of eastern, 25.

[2] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works  (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 138.

[3] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 25.

 [4] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, 107.

 5] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, 135.

 [6] Ibid., 139.

  [7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid., 109.

[9] Mark 9:5 (New King James Version).

[10] Ibid., 138.

[11] Ibid., 135.

[12] Ibid., 265-6.

[13] Ibid., 266.