Be this as it may, Dionysius is unquestionably speaking of a psychological state to which he himself has been occasionally led. It must, however, be carefully distinguished from another psychological state, apparently the same and yet really quite different, of which there is also evidence in other writers.
Amiel speaks of a mental condition in which the self lies dormant, dissolved, as it were, and absorbed into an undifferentiated state of being; and it is well known that a man's individuality may become merged in the impersonal existence of a crowd. The contrast between such a state and Unknowing consists wholly in the difference of spiritual values and spiritual intensity. Amiel felt the psychic experience mentioned above to be enervating. And the danger is fairly obvious. For this psychic state comes not through spiritual effort but through spiritual indolence. And the repose of spiritual attainment must be a strenuous repose.
The same psychic material may take either of two opposite forms, for the highest experiences and the lowest are both made of the same spiritual stuff. That is why great sinners make great saints and why our Lord preferred disreputable people to the respectable righteous. A storm of passion may produce a Sonata of Beethoven or it may produce an act of murder. All depends on the quality and direction of the storm. So in the present instance. There is a higher merging of the self and a lower merging of it. The one is above the level of personality, the other beneath it; the one is religious the other hedonistic; the one results from spiritual concentration and the other from spiritual dissipation.
Apparently our souls are crystallizations, as it were, out of an undifferentiated psychic ocean. So our personalities are formed, which we must keep inviolate. To melt back, though but for a time, into that ocean would be to surrender our heritage and to incur great loss. This is the objection to mere psychic trances. But some have been called on to advance by the intensification of their spiritual powers until they have for a moment reached a very different Ocean, which, with its fervent heat, has burst the hard outer case of their finite selfhood, and so they have been merged in that Vast Sea of Uncreated Light which has brought them no loss but only gain.
Just as in early days some had special gifts of prophecy through the power of the Holy Ghost, but some through the power of Satan, and the test lay in the manifested results, so in the present instance. We cannot doubt that the experience is true and valid when we see its glory shining forth in the humble Saints of God.
To illustrate this experience fully from the writings of the Saints would need a volume to itself. Let us take a very few examples from one or two writers of unquestioned orthodoxy.
And first, for the theory of personality implied in it we may turn to Pascal, whose teaching amounts to very much the same thing as that of Dionysius. |Le moi,| he says, |est haissable. . . . En un mot, le Moi a deux qualités: il est injuste en soi, en ce qu'il se fait centre du tout; il est encommonde aux autres, en ce qu'il les vent asservir: car chaque Moi est l'ennemi et voudrait être le tyran de tous les autres.| Thus self-centred Moi, or Personality, is wrong inherently and not only in its results. And it is inherently wrong because a personality has no right to be the centre of things. From this we may conclude (1) that God, as being the rightful Centre of all things, is not a Moi, or Personality; and (2) that the transcendence of our Moi, or Personality, is our highest duty. What, then, is the goal to which this transcendence will lead us? Pascal has a clear-cut answer: |Il n'y a que l'Étre universel qui soit tel. . . . Le Bien Universel est en nous, est nous mêmes et ne'se pas nous.| This is exactly the Dionysian doctrine. Each must enter into himself and so must find Something that is his true Self and yet is not his particular self. His true being is deep within his soul and yet in Something Other than his individuality which is within his soul and yet outside of him. We may compare St. Augustine's words: |I entered into the recesses of my being . . . and saw . . . above my mind an Unchanging Light. Where, then, did I find Thee except in Thyself above myself?|
Now for the actual experience of Unknowing and of the Negative Path that leads to it. The finest description of this, or at least of the aspiration after it, is to be found in the following passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine:
|Could one silence the clamorous appetites of the body; silence his perceptions of the earth, the water, and the air; could he silence the sky, and could his very soul be silent unto itself and, by ceasing to think of itself, transcend self-consciousness; could he silence all dreams and all revelations which the mind can image; yea, could he entirely silence all language and all symbols and every transitory thing -- inasmuch as these all say to the hearer: We made not ourselves but were made by the Eternal' -- if, after such words, they were forthwith to hold their peace, having drawn the mind's ear towards their Maker, and He were now to speak alone, not through them but by Himself, so that we might hear His word, not through human language, nor through the voice of an angel, nor through any utterance out of a cloud, nor through any misleading appearance, but might instead hear, without these things, the very Being Himself, Whose presence in them we love -- might hear Him with our Spirit even as now we strain our intellect and reach, with the swift movement of thought, to an eternal Wisdom that remains unmoved beyond all things -- if this movement were continued, and all other visions (being utterly unequal to the task) were to be done away, and this one vision were to seize the beholder, and were to swallow him up and plunge him in the abyss of its inward delights, so that his life for ever should be like that fleeting moment of consciousness for which we have been yearning, would not such a condition as this be an 'Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord'?|
This passage describes the Via Negativa in terms of aspiration drawn (we cannot doubt) from experience. The soul must cast all things away: sense, perception, thought, and the very consciousness of self; and yet the process and its final result are of the most intense and positive kind. We are reminded of Wordsworth's --
|Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired.|
Perhaps more striking is the testimony of St Thomas à Kempis, since, having no taste for speculation, he is not likely to be misled by theories. In the Imitation of Christ occurs the following passage: |When shall I at full gather myself in Thee, that for Thy love I feel not myself, but Thee only, above all feeling and all manner, in a manner not known to all?|
Thus he speaks longingly of a state in which the individual human spirit is altogether merged and has no self-consciousness whatever, except the mere consciousness of its merging. It is conscious of God alone because, as an object of thought, it has gone out of its particular being and is merged and lost in Him. And the way in which St. Thomas describes this state and speaks of it as not known to all suggests that it was known to himself by personal experience.
The clearest and profoundest analysis of the state, based also on the most vivid personal experience of it, is given by Ruysbroeck. The two following passages are examples.
|The spirit for ever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self.|
|And, after this, there follows the third way of feeling; namely, that we feel ourselves to be one with God; for, through the transformation in God, we feel ourselves to be swallowed up in the fathomless abyss of our eternal blessedness, wherein we can nevermore find any distinction between ourselves and God. And this is our highest feeling, which we cannot experience in any other way than in the immersion in love. And therefore, so soon as we are uplifted and drawn into our highest feeling, all our powers stand idle in an essential fruition; but our powers do not pass away into nothingness, for then we should lose our created being. And as long as we stand idle, with an inclined spirit and with open eyes, but without reflection, so long we can contemplate and have fruition. But, at the very moment in which we seek to prove and to comprehend what it is that we feel, we fall back into reason, and there we find a distinction and an otherness between ourselves and God, and find God outside ourselves in incomprehensibility.|
Nothing could be more lucid. The moi is merged in the Godhead and yet the ego still retains its individuality un-merged, and the existence of the perfected spirit embraces these two opposite poles of fusion and distinction.
The same doctrine is taught, though with less masterly clearness, by St. Bernard in the De Diligendo Deo. There is, he says, a point of rapture where the human spirit |forgets itself . . . and passes wholly into God.| Such a process is |to lose yourself, as it were, like one who has no existence, and to have no self-consciousness whatever, and to be emptied of yourself and almost annihilated.| |As a little drop of water,| he continues, |blended with a large quantity of wine, seems utterly to pass away from itself and assumes the flavour and colour of wine, and as iron when glowing with fire loses its original or proper form and becomes just like the fire; and as the air, drenched in the light of the sun, is so changed into the same shining brightness that it seems to be not so much the recipient of the brightness as the actual brightness itself: so all human sensibility in the saints must then, in some ineffable manner, melt and pass out of itself, and be lent into the will of God. . . . The substance (i. e. personality) will remain but in another form.|
Of this transcendent experience St. Bernard bluntly says: |To experience this state is to be deified,| and |Deification| is a technical term in the Mystical Theology of both the Eastern and the Western Church. Though the word theosis was perhaps a Mystery term, yet it occurs, for instance, in the writings of St. Macarius, and there is therefore nothing strange or novel in the fact that Dionysius uses it. But he carefully distinguishes between this and cognate words; and his fantastic and uncouth diction is (here as so often) due to a straining after rigid accuracy. The Super-Essence he calls the Originating Godhead, or rather, perhaps, the Origin of Godhead (Thearchia) , just as he calls it also |the Origin of Existence| (ousiarchia). From this Origin there issues eternally, in the Universal stream of Emanation, that which he calls Deity or Very Deity (theotes or autotheotes). This Deity, like Being, Life, etc., is an effluence radiating from the Super-Essential Godhead, and is a distant View of It as the dim visibility of a landscape is the landscape seen from afar, or as the effluent heat belongs to a fire. Purified souls, being raised up to the heights of contemplation, participate in this Effluence and so are deified (theountai) and become in a derivative sense, divine (theodeis, theioi), or may even be called Gods (theoi), just as by participating in the Effluence or Emanation of Being all created things become in a derivative sense existent (ousiode, onta). The Super-Essential Godhead (thearchia) is beyond Deity as It is beyond Existence; but the names |Deity| (Theotes) or |Existent| (on) may be symbolically or inadequately applied to It, as a fire may be termed |warm| from its results though its actual temperature is of an intenser kind than this would imply. And the name of |Godhead,| which belongs to It more properly, is given It (says Dionysius) merely because it is the Source of our deification. Thus instead of arguing from God's Divinity to man's potential divinity, Dionysius argues from the acquisition of actual divinity by certain men to God's Supra-Divinity. This is only another way of saying that God is but the highest Appearance or Manifestation of the Absolute. And this (as was seen above) is only another way of stating the orthodox and obvious doctrine that all our notions of Ultimate Reality are inadequate.