Okay, first of all, let me say that I’m very interested in Christian mysticism. I know for some people the word “mysticism” and “mystic” or “mystical” sound new age-y, or airy fairy or whatever, but the Christian mystics have a profound place in our history, and I find studying them quite fascinating. That said, this may be hard for some of you to wrap your head around, while others might find it fascinating too.
So, day one of Lent week 3, Monday 26th of Feb we’re looking at a snippet of one famous old school Christian mystic named Dionysius (or, as some would wind up calling him, Pseudo-Dionysius) who dates back to the late 5th and early 6th century.
His basic stance was echoed by nearly all Christian mystics, and it is this: A truly spiritual, mystical encounter with God is transcendent and no words can really explain it.
Dionysius (and others) would describe their inward spiritual connection with God in terms of “climbing higher” or “ascending” spiritually. And they’d describe their experiences as sort of an out of body, higher consciousness type of thing beyond intellect where there are actually no human words or ways to explain or describe. They’ve had an encounter with God that has literally left them speechless.
The deeper in meditation with God he goes the “higher” he goes to a place of transcendence and, “the more it climbs [his spirit presumably] the more 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.”
The notion that God is indescribable is not new. We all know and sing that song by Chris Tomlin, “Indescribable.” I guess the problem is we long to find words to help us describe God. The Bible does the same, though we all really know that God is beyond the descriptive words our limited minds have come up with.
The mystics say, and believe, they found a way to plunge into the darkness of unknowing to commune with the one who transcends all things. Herein lies this type of theology dubbed “negative theology.” I don’t think the name really does it justice, but that’s what it’s called.
What negative theology does is highlight all the things that God isn’t, as opposed to all the human words and concepts that we, over time, have conjured up to say that God is.
*Warning* this is where things might get controversial.
Dionysius won’t even refer to God with a human pronoun, such as He or even She, but rather It because God is beyond our concept of “he” or “she” and he doesn’t find it helpful, I suppose. Nor does he even say “God” and I suspect that has something to do with automatic presupposed conceptions of God that we default to when we say “God.” But anyway, here’s a list of some of the descriptions from Dionysius:
“It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding…It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding…It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it IS not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor Is it life. It is not substance, nor is it eternity or time…It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it spirit, in the sense in which we understand the term [Jono speaking: I’m going to come back to this line later]. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being…There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial…it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and…free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.”
Wow, right?! It causes us to call into question whether or not this dude is actually talking about God or something else entirely because at a glance it’s hard to agree with some of this: to say God isn’t light when Scripture indicates otherwise that Jesus is the Light of the World; to say that God isn’t one or oneness or divinity or goodness totally sounds counter to what we say we know about God.
But the point of pointing these things out is to extenuate the fact that in reality God is completely unfathomable; completely indescribable. God is beyond any human concepts or words. I totally believe and affirm that.
HOWEVER, God has come to us and has met us in the middle, so to say, so that we can understand enough to say we know God/Him/Her/It. I think that the word of God through Scripture is given to us so that we can understand what we are capable of understanding about God, and that Jesus took form of a human so that we, as humans, can know God as much as we can being limited to the fact that we are human.
That line that I said I’d come back to about “not in the sense in which we understand the term,” I think applies to all of those descriptors that Dionysius says God isn’t. And that’s because they’re earthly, human words used to grab just a semblance of who God really is.
I’ve never had a mystical encounter with God, at least not in the way it’s explained here. But I do sort of envy it a little. I truly believe and would say that I’ve experienced being in the presence of God – technically it’s all the time, though there are times where it feels more obvious than others. But to experience communion with God in a transcendent, inexpiable way that leaves me literally unable to utter a single word of what it was like eludes me, while simultaneously attracts me.
What do you think?
And while you think, here’s that song you’ve been singing in your head the whole time you’ve been reading this.