If we look for the ‘mystical’ in the Dionysian corpus, what we find is something deeply traditional: mystikos and related words are indeed favourites with Dionysius, but they fit perfectly into the context we have already outlined. And that is a context of biblical and liturgical symblism … the ‘mystical’ meaning is what these biblical and liturgical symbols refer to. … Dionysius is concerned with the cosmic order disclosed by the biblical revelation and celebrated in the Christian liturgy.

But whatever Dionysius meant in the sixth century, and continued to mean for the Byzantine world, he suffered a strange alteration when he came to be known in the Latin West.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 206-207.

Father Louth notes the re-evaluation of Dionysius work in recent years in which the depiction of him as a pagan Neoplatonist is giving way to the recognition of him as someone who used the framework of late Neoplatonism to express fundamentally Christian ideas that are dependent on Scripture and the liturgy.

While Dionysius’ reception in the West is a complex story that is not yet fully understood, the new linguistic, cultural and ecclesial context meant that his works, and particularly his understanding of the mystical, came to acquire rather different shades of meaning leading to a distinction, perhaps even a divorce, between the sacramental and the mystical. Louth writes:

… in translation – and in a Latin culture increasingly removed from the East Byzantine world to which Dionysius himself belonged – Dionysius assumed a different aspect. Again we can keep to the word mystikos, the history of which we are tracing. We have seen that in the Greek of the Fathers it means ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’, and is etymologically linked to the word mysterion, which refers both to the Gospel of the Incarnate Word, and to the sacraments. The biblical and the sacramental fit together. But in Latin things start to come apart: mysterion is either translated sacramentum, especially when it refers to sacraments or sacramental actions (there was no notion of seven sacraments until the twelve century), or transliterated as mysterium. It is often remarked – right through the Middle Ages – that mysterium means sacramentum, but what was obvious in Greek comes to be inferred in Latin. Mystikos is invariably translated mysticus, but its association with the sacramental is obscured. So a collection of associations evident in Greek becomes something that is at best inferred in Latin, and sometimes lost altogether. Mysterium and mysticus begin to develop a life of their own. (207)

This shift in meaning is also influenced by two further factors.

Firstly, the liturgical focus of Dionysius’ work is less immediately obvious in a Western context as the liturgical world that he explores had become increasingly foreign to Western Christians as the Eastern and Western liturgical traditions had gone their separate ways. As a result

whereas in the traditional understanding of Dionysius, which is still found in the West as late as the twelfth century, the two works on the hierarchies – the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesial Hierarchy – form the centre of gravity, to which Dionysius’ other works relate, by the thirteenth century, the two works on the hierarchies fade into the background, and the centre of gravity becomes either the Divine Names, interpreted as a logical treatise about divine predication – so the Scholastics – or the Mystical Theology – as with the growing, largely vernacular ‘mystical’ movement. (208)

Secondly, Dionysius was now read against a very different cultural and theological background, coloured by the rediscovery of Augustine in the twelfth century. Augustine’s vision focused more on the drama of the individual soul than on the structures of a liturgical society and the cosmic dimension of Dionysius’ thought receded into the background and was forgotten.

These two factors allow the ‘mystical’ to lose its anchoring in the biblical and liturgical, as with Dionysius and the Fathers, and offer it another context: that of the individual. (208)

In the next post, I shall report on Father Louth’s discussion of the shifts that occurred in the understanding of the Body of Christ in the Medieval West.


For anyone interested in more on this:

  • Father Louth has written a book on Dionysius the Areopagite, which I am sure is worth reading, but which I unfortunately won’t get to for quite a while.
  • Felix Culpa of Ora et Labora had a series of posts (I, II, III, IV & V) earlier this year in which discussed twentieth century Orthodox readings of Dionysius.
  • Father Louth has an essay on “The body in Western Catholic Christianity” in Religion and the Body (edited by Sarah Coakley) in which he discusses the influence of Augustine’s shift to interiority in more detail. I read it about a year ago and don’t have access to it at the moment, but intend writing more on it when I get hold of it again.