Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value




What the Divine Darkness is

MOST exalted Trinity, Divinity above all knowledge, whose goodness passes understanding, who dost guide Christians to divine wisdom; direct our way to the summit of thy mystical oracles, most incomprehensible, most lucid and most exalted, where the simple and pure and unchangeable mysteries of theology are revealed in the darkness, clearer than light, of that silence in which secret things are hidden; a darkness that shines brighter than light, that invisibly and intangibly illuminates with splendours of inconceivable beauty the soul that sees not. Let this be my prayer; but do thou, dear Timothy, diligently giving thyself to mystical contemplation, leave the senses, and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intelligible, and things that are and things that are not, that thou mayest rise as may be lawful for thee, by ways above knowledge to union with Him who is above all knowledge and all being; that in freedom and abandonment of all, thou mayest be borne, through pure, entire and absolute abstraction of thyself from all things, into the supernatural radiance of the divine darkness.

But see that none of the uninitiated{1} hear these things. I mean those who cleave to created things, and suppose not that anything exists after a supernatural manner, above nature; but imagine that by their own natural understanding they know Him who has made darkness His secret place. But if the principles of the divine mysteries are above the understanding of these, what is to be said of those yet more untaught, who call the absolute First Cause of all after the lowest things in nature, and say that He is in no way above the images which they fashion after various designs; of whom they should declare and affirm that in Him as the cause of all, is all that may be predicated positively of created things; while yet they might with more propriety deny these predicates to Him, as being far above all; holding that here denial is not contrary to affirmation, since He is infinitely above all notion of deprivation, and above all affirmation and negation.

Thus the divine Bartholomew says that Theology is both much and very little, and that the Gospel is great and ample, and yet short. His sublime meaning is, I think, that the beneficent cause of all things says much, and says little, and is altogether silent, as having neither (human) speech nor (human) understanding, since He is essentially above all created things, and manifests Himself unveiled, and as He truly is to those only who pass beyond all that is either pure or impure, who rise above the highest height of holy things, who abandon all divine light and sound and heavenly speech, and are absorbed into that darkness where, as the Scripture says, He truly is, who is beyond all things.

It was not without a deeper meaning that the divine Moses was commanded first to be himself purified, and then to separate himself from the impure; and after all this purification heard many voices of trumpets, and saw many lights shedding manifold pure beams: and that he was thereafter separated from the multitude and together with the elect priests came to the height of the divine ascents. Yet hereby he did not attain to the presence of God Himself; he saw not Him (for He cannot be looked upon), but the place where He was. This, I think, signifies that the divinest and most exalted of visible and intelligible things are, as it were, suggestions of those that are immediately beneath Him who is above all, whereby is indicated the presence of Him who passes all understanding, and stands, as it were, in that spot which is conceived by the intellect as the highest of His holy places; then that they who are free and untrammelled by all that is seen and all that sees enter into the true mystical darkness of ignorance, whence all perception of understanding is excluded, and abide in that which is intangible and invisible, being wholly absorbed in Him who is beyond all things, and belong no more to any, neither to themselves nor to another, but are united in their higher part to Him who is wholly unintelligible, and whom, by understanding nothing, they understand after a manner above all intelligence.


How to be united with, and to give praise to Him who is the cause of all things and above all

WE desire to abide in this most luminous darkness, and without sight or knowledge, to see that which is above sight or knowledge, by means of that very fact that we see not and know not. For this is truly to see and know, to praise Him who is above nature in a manner above nature, by the abstraction of all that is natural; as those who would make a statue out of the natural stone abstract all the surrounding material which hinders the sight of the shape lying concealed within, and by that abstraction alone reveal its hidden beauty.{3} It is needful, as I think, to make this abstraction in a manner precisely opposite to that in which we deal with the Divine attributes; for we add them together, beginning with the primary ones, and passing from them to the secondary, and so to the last; but here we ascend from the last to the first, abstracting all, so as to unveil and know that which is beyond knowledge, and which in all things is hidden from our sight by that which can be known, and so to behold that supernatural darkness which is hidden by all such light as is in created things.


What is affirmed of God, and what is denied of Him

IN our Outlines of Theology we have declared those matters which are properly the subject of Positive Theology; in what sense the holy divine nature is one, and in what sense three; what it is that is there called Paternity, and what Filiation; and what the doctrine of the Holy Ghost signifies; how from the uncreated and undivided good those blessed and perfect Lights have come forth, yet remained one with the divine nature, with each other, and in themselves, undivided by coeternal abiding in propagation; how Jesus though immaterial became material in the truth of human nature; and other things taken from Scripture we have expounded in the same place. Again in the Book of Divine Names (we have shown) how God is called good, how Being, how Life and Wisdom and Virtue, with other names spiritually applied to Him. Then in the treatise of Symbolical Theology we saw what names have been transferred to Him from sensible things -- what is meant by the divine forms and figures, limbs, instruments, localities, adornments, fury, anger and grief; drunkenness, oaths and curses, sleep and waking, with other modes of sacred and symbolical nomenclature. I think you will have understood why the last are more diffuse than the first; for the exposition of theological doctrine and the explanation of the divine names are necessarily shorter than the treatise on symbolism. Because in proportion as we ascend higher our speech is contracted to the limits of our view of the purely intelligible; and so now, when we enter that darkness which is above understanding, we pass not merely into brevity of speech, but even into absolute silence, and the negation of thought. Thus in the other treatises our subject took us from the highest to the lowest, and in the measure of this descent our treatment of it extended itself; whereas now we rise from beneath to that which is the highest, and accordingly our speech is restrained in proportion to the height of our ascent; but when our ascent is accomplished, speech will cease altogether, and be absorbed into the ineffable. But why, you will ask, do we add in the first and begin to abstract in the last? The reason is that we affirmed that which is above all affirmation by comparison with that which is most nearly related to it, and were therefore compelled to make a hypothetical{5} affirmation; but when we abstract that which is above all abstraction, we must distinguish it also from those things which are most remote from it. Is not God more nearly life and goodness than air or a stone; must we not deny more fully that He is drunken or enraged, than that He can be spoken of or understood?


That He who is the supreme cause of all sensible things is Himself no part of those things

WE say that the cause of all things, who is Himself above all things, is neither without being nor without life, nor without reason nor without intelligence;{6} nor is He a body nor has He form or shape, or quality or quantity or mass; He is not localised or visible or tangible; He is neither sensitive nor sensible; He is subject to no disorder or disturbance arising from material passion; He is not subject to failure of power, or to the accidents of sensible things; He needs no light; He suffers no change or corruption or division, or privation or flux; and He neither has nor is anything else that belongs to the senses.


That He who is the supreme cause of all intelltgible things is Himself no part of those things

AGAIN, ascending, we say that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, nor opinion or reason; He has neither speech nor understanding, and is neither declared nor understood; He is neither number nor order, nor greatness nor smallness, nor equality nor likeness nor unlikeness; He does not stand or move or rest; He neither has power nor is power; nor is He light, nor does He live, nor is He life; He is neither being nor age nor time; nor is He subject to intellectual contact; He is neither knowledge nor truth. nor royalty nor wisdom; He is neither one nor unity, nor divinity, nor goodness;{7} nor is He spirit, as we understand spirit; He is neither sonship nor fatherhood nor anything else known to us or to any other beings, either of the things that are or the things that are not; nor does anything that is, know Him as He is, nor does He know anything that is as it is; He has neither word nor name nor knowledge; He is neither darkness nor light nor truth nor error; He can neither be affirmed nor denied;{8} nay, though we may affirm or deny the things that are beneath Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him; for the perfect and sole cause of all is above all affirmation, and that which transcends all is above all subtraction, absolutely separate, and beyond all that is.


To Caius the Monk

DARKNESS is destroyed by light, especially by much light; ignorance is destroyed by knowledge, especially by much knowledge. You must understand this as implying not privation, but transcendence{9} and so you must say with absolute truth, that the ignorance which is of God is unknown by those who have the created light and the knowledge of created things, and that His transcendent darkness is obscured by any light, and itself obscures all knowledge. And if any one, seeing God, knows what he sees, it is by no means God that he so sees, but something created and knowable. For God abides above created intellect and existence, and is in such sense unknowable and non-existent that He exists above all existence and is known above all power of knowledge. Thus the knowledge of Him who is above all that can be known is for the most part ignorance.


To the Same

How can He who is beyond all things be also above the very principle of divinity and of goodness? By divinity and goodness must be understood the essence of the gift which makes us good and divine, or that unapproachable semblance of the supreme goodness and divinity whereby we also are made good and divine. For since this is the principle of deification and sanctification for those who are so deified and sanctified, then He. who is the essential principle of all principles (and therefore the principle of divinity and goodness) is above that divinity and goodness by means of which we are made good and divine:{10} moreover, since He is inimitable and incomprehensible, He is above imitation and comprehension as He is above those who imitate and partake of Him.


To Dorotheus the Deacon

THE divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond{11} all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, "Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it." In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.

{1} The Uninitiated. -- The two classes of uninitiated here referred to are, first, the less spiritually minded among Christians, and secondly, the heathen. Corderius considers that by the first non-Christian philosophers rather than Christians of any kind are intended: but the Neoplatonist contemplatives could hardly be described in the terms here used, and they only could have been the "philosophers" in question. The distinction drawn by some between the words by which the two classes are designated (amuêtoi = not fully instructed, and amustai = not formally admitted) is perhaps fanciful, but is probably the true explanation of the classification intended. The impotence of the natural faculties in mystical contemplation is here stated as a first principle of mystical theology. Compare St John of the Cross, Asc. ii. 4: "It is clearly necessary for the soul aiming at its own supernatural transformation to be in darkness and far removed from all that relates to its natural condition."

{2} The Divine Attributes. -- God's attributes, such as wisdom, justice, goodness, etc., are human conceptions in themselves. We know them as they are manifested in the works of God, not as they exist in Himself. God is not, so to speak, the mere sum of His attributes, but the simple divine essence, which in different aspects is each of the divine attributes. Thus we truly say that God is love, justice, mercy, etc.; but we could not truly say that love, justice, mercy, etc., together constitute God. Therefore those who, in any sense, see God in Himself must contrive to go behind all those created forms in which His perfection is manifested. (See Summa Theol. I. xiii. 2, 3.)

{3} This illustration is used by Plotinus (de Pulcritudine, vii.), and is adduced as an argument against the identity of the author with the Areopagite by upholders of the contrary view. It expresses very precisely the attitude of mysticism towards the immanence of God, though it cannot be pressed as an illustration of the nature of immanence. The statue is revealed by abstracting superfluous material, as God is made known by abstracting all that is not God. But the residuum, which is the statue, is of the same nature as the abstracted superfluity; whereas the abstraction of what is natural leaves only the supernatural, or divine. Compare St John of the Cross, ii. 5: "In every soul God dwells and is substantially present . . . the soul, when it has driven away from itself all that is contrary to the Divine Will, becomes transformed in God by love."

{4} See preceding chapter.

{5} "Hypothetieal" (or comparative), i.e., setting one thing below another. God is infinitely higher than the highest created thing: and He is to be distinguished from all forms of created existence, high and low alike: yet He is more truly life than a stone (comparative or hypothetical affirmation): He is more absolutely not passionate than ineffable (comparative abstraction or negation). Thus in affirmation "more" is predicated of what is nearer to God; in negation, of what is remoter from Him (Corderius). In the hierarchy of creation, the higher the form of existence, the greater its resemblance to God: yet in all there is the infinite difference of the creature from the Creator. We have here the Theistic or Christian rendering of the Neoplatonic and Gnostic doctrines of emanation.

{6} The supreme, universal, or first cause cannot be identified with any of its effects, or with all of them together. The simplicity of the divine nature implies entire distinction from all created things. (See Summa Theol. I. 3. 8.)

{7} Neither one nor, etc. -- See Letter II. to Caius, where the sense is explained in which this statement is to be understood. There is a sense in which God is His own nature; i.e., as it is in itself, not in the inadequate sense in which alone it may be conceived or experienced by us. See Summa Theol. I. 3. 3, where it may be remarked that St Thomas says, not "Deus est Deitas," but "Deus est sua Deitas."

{8} He can neither be affirmed nor denied -- The divine nature cannot be adequately (though it may be truly) defined, either positively or negatively.

{9} Transcendence (huperochikôs). -- The ignorance by which man sees God is more, not less, than natural knowledge -- it is not ignorance of the objects of natural knowledge, but the rejection of such knowledge as out of relation to the supernatural sphere in which God is experimentally known.

{10} Inimitable, etc. -- Man's goodness and sanctity can resemble God's only analogically, not absolutely. We cannot imitate the unique pre-eminence of God, though we may endeavour with eventual success to fulfil His will perfectly, as He perfectly fulfils His own will.

{11} Beyond all things (meta panta), not "in" or "with" all things, as it has been translated, but "after" them -- i.e., from the human point of view, in which the natural comes before and is nearer than the supernatural.

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