Eucharistic Reflections: Denys the Areopagite, Bonaventure, Hadewijch, and Meister Eckhart

In the final chapter of The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Denys Turner asserts that our contemporary ideas of what constitutes "mysticism" have tended to focus on a kind of experientialism that would seem very foreign to the historical authors we classify as mystical theologians.  Rather, beginning with observations offered by Andrew Louth on the mystical theology of Denys the Areopagite, Turner suggests that what the modern reader has collapsed to an experience of the presence of God is actually a phenomenon deeply rooted in worship, liturgical practice, sacrament, and private prayer.[1]

Rather than ends unto themselves, these moments are part of a pattern of affirmations and negations which prepare the worshiper for what lies beyond our sensual experiences.  What follows are some reflections on the role of liturgy as catalyst for the mystical experiences described by several authors presented in this course.

Dionysius the Areopagite

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Denys the Areopagite is believed to have been a Syrian monk, writing in the late fifth or earlier sixth century.  His work spread to the Latin West where it became the basis for apophatic or negative theology.

Heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism, Denys writes of a created order with a celestial hierarchy and an ecclesial hierarchy which serve as conduits for the outward flow of the grace of God from the Source, cascading downward through the levels of creation, each overflowing and passing on that grace to the next level where it is received to the created capacity and overflows further.

While Denys's writings on the hierarchies are fairly detailed and extensive, his Mystical Theology lays out a succinct schema of emanation from God and the manner of return to the ineffable source in three movements.

First, a cataphatic exercise in contemplation enumerates and ponders the images of God as "good, existent, life, wisdom, power,"[2] etc.

But having affirmed these images, the second movement is one of apophaticism in which these images of God are negated.  Beginning with what seems intuitive – God is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless, not a material body, not a shape or a form – the negations move ever onward – "not soul or mind, nor does it [Instructor Comment: Do you refer to God or the Godhead here?]  possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding."  Stepping as though up a scale of attributes, the contemplation continues until it reaches a Source which is "free of every limitation, beyond every limitation."

But in the last short phrase Denys then turns to a third movement: "it is also beyond every denial." [3]  With this final clause, the negation of negation leads to a place of silence where we are left without words to describe that which is ineffable.  [Instructor Comment:  Although there is a reading, to which I subscribe, arguing in favor of an ongoing dialectic of affirmation and denial. Then it never ends.]

Prof. Denys Turner

Prof. Denys Turner

Turner points to Andrew Louth's suggestion that Denys experienced this silence in the liturgy, moving from the first half in which prayers, petitions, and declarations are made, to the holy inner space in which the mystery of the Eucharist is performed.

For Denys, the mystical experience is not one of cloistered contemplation and individual subjectivity, but rather is an exoteric ritual of the worshiping community – a mystery on display among the faithful rather than a secret practice hidden away for only the few.  However, the mystery is not found in the words, but in the silences.

[Instructor Comment:  Two comments, Bryce. First, I am not really sure about the exoteric, as Dionysius makes many comments about privileged access. Also, even if there is a liturgical setting, we still have these texts that are to be read and require a hermeneutic. I do not think in other words that claiming a liturgical context substitutes for that. Of course this is not so much directed against you as against Turner.]

Building on Louth's insights, I offer this moment from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the beginning of The Liturgy of the Faithful and The Eucharistic Offering as an illustration.  Having dismissed the catechumens and others who have not been ritually initiated into the full fellowship of the Church ("illuminated" through baptism), the worshipers offer up Cherubic hymn:

Let us who mystically represent
the Cherubim and who sing
the thrice-Holy hymn
to the life-creating Trinity
now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive
the King of All, who comes upborne
by angelic hosts,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

This simple sentence is sung, in groups of two and three words, repeating and progressing a bit further each time, while the celebrant of the Eucharistic feast offers prayers of purification in preparation for the journey to come.

Andrew Louth

Fr. Andrew Louth

In his own writing, Louth draws out the parallels between the liturgical prayers of purification and Moses' own preparation for traveling up the mountain, into the darkness of God.

Pointing out that the text of the Mystical Theology is addressed to the Hierarch Timothy, he suggests that Denys is describing the liturgical ritual of the church in which the hierarch and his chosen aids enter into the veiled mysteries of encounter with God.[4]

Though there is no specific mention of the Eucharistic celebration in Bonaventure's Journey of the Mind to God, it is interesting to note the parallels in his work with several moments in the Eucharistic liturgy as he inscribes the steps of the journey upon the wings of the Seraph of Isaiah's vision of the Temple of God.[5]  Indeed, mention of seraphim and cherubim bring to mind common liturgical images, lifted from Isaiah's vision, and coopted for the use of Christian worship that borrows the imagery of the Temple as the dwelling place of God where the sacrifice of praise is offered up during the Eucharistic feast.

In Chapter V of the Journey, Bonaventure overlays his metaphor of the six-winged Seraph with a geographic map, representing the journey from the atrium, to the Tabernacle, into the Sanctuary, and finally into the Holy of Holies.[6]  The upper wings of the Seraph are then correlated with the Cherubim atop the Ark of the Lord, which are further imbued with new meaning:  contemplation of the invisible God.

The first Cherub symbolizes the contemplation of the divine unity which Bonaventure refers to as "being," followed by a contemplation of the Trinity of persons within the Godhead.  In the first of these two movements, the one who has climbed the ladder of contemplation comes to understand the essential simplicity of God and is "enlightened to some extent by the illumination of Eternal Light."[7]  Continued admiration of the changeless, perfect simplicity of God floods the mind with even further light.

Moving to the sixth contemplation, that of the Persons of the Trinity, Bonaventure rehearses the well-worn tropes of the Father, generated Son, and the spirated Holy Spirit.  But true to the precepts of apophatic theology he issues a warning:

"But when you contemplate these things, take care that you do not think you can understand the incomprehensible."[8]

The negations continue to push us beyond the realm of language into the ineffable.  And Bonaventure's warning is well-placed, as allusions to the Trinity, commonly heard throughout the liturgy, are especially vulnerable to becoming taken for granted.  [Instructor Comment:  I know you give a Trinitarian, Dionysian reading of Bonaventure, but do not forget the deeply Augustinian imprint of the work through the theory of the vestiges. Your interpretation does need to account for that.]

St. BonaventureHaving expounded on the Cherubim that compose the Mercy-Seat upon the Ark, Bonaventure turns finally to the supreme image of the Christ enthroned upon them.  Here he describes the union of all things in Christ:  the first Principle united with man, the eternal and the temporal.

Here we encounter the culmination of Temple theology:  the presence of the living God.

Though not explicitly stated in Bonaventure's work, this is the essence of Eucharistic theology.  The priests have approached the Mercy-Seat where they discover the self-giving God incarnate.

As James White has pointed out, various families of liturgical practice have their own distinct flavors and choices of language.  In the Eastern tradition, The Divine Liturgy begins the words of institution with "On the night before he was to be handed over…" while in the Catholic West the emphasis was on "who on the day before he suffered…"[9]  [Instructor Comment:  Isn’t that a bit of generalization? It certainly seems not true of the early Middle Ages, where there was an emphasis on the triumphant Christ, the pantocrator, and even the cross was a sign of victory rather than suffering.]  And true to the Western emphasis on the suffering Christ:

"He who turns his full countenance toward this Mercy-Seat and with faith, hope, and love, devotion, admiration, joy, appreciation, praise and rejoicing, beholds Christ hanging on the Cross, such a one celebrates the Pasch, that is, the Passover, with Him."[10]

St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata by Giotte de BondoneThe Seraph of Isaiah's vision of the Temple is here wed to the Seraphic vision of St. Francis in which Francis received the stigmata as a sign of his suffering with Christ.

In the Holy of Holies, where the priests of the Temple encounter the presence of the Living God, we find the crucified Christ.

Those who would enter into this mystery experience death to the outer world and find themselves, like the thief on the cross, with Christ in Paradise.

Here there is no intellectual activity, only union with God and being set aflame by the Holy Spirit.  In the absence of images, Bonaventure returns to the words of Denys the Areopagite:

Abandon the senses, intellectual activities, and all visible and invisible things—and, oblivious to yourself, let yourself be brought back, in as far as it is possible, to union with Him Who is above all essence and all knowledge.  And transcending yourself and all things, ascend to the superessential gleam of the divine darkness by an incommensurable and absolute transport of a pure mind.[11]

Again, the lines of the Cherubic hymn echo, "Let us …now lay aside all earthy cares that we may receive the King of all…"  Let us enter into the divine darkness – the light so bright it cannot be seen – and lose ourselves in the presence of God.  [Instructor Comment:  In Bonaventure this emphasis on the suffering Christ comes out of his Franciscan heritage and I do not think there is a Dionysian counterpart to that. In fact, Dionysius’ Christology is somewhat controversial.]


Hadewijch of Antwerp


In her own reflection on "Oneness in Eucharist,"[12] Hadewijch describes a mystical union with Christ that bears some of these same hallmarks, though its visual manifestation is completely different.

While Bonaventure speaks the language of priestly processions and liturgical ceremony, Hadewijch's vision appears quite simple by comparison.  In place of seraphim and cherubim, a lone eagle approaches her from the altar, announcing the opportunity for union with the Lord.  Her initial image of Christ:  a three-year old infant, taking from the ciborium a piece of his Body and approaching with the chalice.

In an instant the child Christ transforms into the man who presented himself to his friends on the day before the Crucifixion.

"Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is; and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is."[13]

Here Hadewijch makes particular note of the customary, liturgical context that provides the basis for her encounter.  Yet hidden within the everyday occurrence of the liturgy, she goes on to experience the ineffable:

"After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity."[14]

She describes the union in incarnational terms, body pressed to body.  But then something else happens:

"I saw him completely come to nought and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me.  Then it was to me as if we were one without difference."[15]

Hadewijch also falls to a form of negation, first no longer able to sense the presence of Christ, but then further experiencing the negation of her own identity.

"After that I remained in a passing away in my Beloved, so that I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself; and I was changed and taken up in the spirit, and there it was shown me concerning such hours."[16]

In the 13th century, women like Hadewijch were denied both entry to the priesthood and formal education in the university.  Thus her vision of union with God lacks the embellishments provided by formal education and clerical training.

Yet even without these flourishes, the vision of union with Christ draws from the same common experience of the Eucharistic liturgy.  And in its own way, Hadewijch's vision is just as destabilizing as the Neo-Platonic ascent into the cloud of darkness described by her more learned fellow Christians.  [Instructor Comment:  This I really agree with, and it would have been interesting to make this more central to your argument in the paper.]

In the encounter with the child-become-man Jesus and the subsequent pressing of limbs and rapturous joy, Hadewijch succeeds in first painting a startling image of physical intimacy that is then swept away by the ineffable union with Christ.

Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart

But lest we confuse the liturgy with the experience of God, we close out this reflection on the words of Meister Eckhart, who urged his audience to let go of the actual content of the liturgy and pietistic practices.  To concentrate on these too intently is to get trapped in the form, closing off opportunities for divine encounter that move beyond our words.

Eckhart describes those who are "possessively attached to prayer, to fasting, to vigils, and to all kinds of exterior exercises and penances" as "married."[17]  [The question is though whether he criticizes the liturgical context here or the excessive concentration on part of the liturgy implying their isolation from that context more than the context itself. After all, we have many of his sermons, which would have been preached in and imply respect for that context.]

Drawing out his metaphor, he explains that those who have attachments are deprived of the freedom to wait upon God and wait for what God will do in them.   Instead of seeking after experiential signs or waiting for certain emotional states, Eckhart encourages confession of sin and participation in the Eucharist.  And again, the promise of union with God – a union that transforms the senses, "weening them from outward distractions and temporal things," dissolving the lines between communicants and God.[18]

Thus in the stillness of the Eucharistic event, where there are no more words to express the unfolding mystery, we find traditions both Eastern and Western attempting to convey images of the ineffable encounter with that which is beyond conceptualization.  But contrary to the pictures painted today of lone mystics seeking highly individualized and subjective experiences, we find members of the worshiping communities who are drawn into the mystery through the public work of the people.

[1] Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 258-259, 268-269, 272.

[2] Dionysius Pseudo, Colm Luibhéid, and Paul Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 139.

[3] Ibid., 141.

[4] Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, Outstanding Christian Thinkers (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1989), 101.

[5] Bonaventure, Philotheus Boehner, and Stephen F. Brown, The Journey of the Mind to God (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1993), 6.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 34.

[10] Bonaventure, Boehner, and Brown, 37-38.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Hadewijch and Columba Hart, The Complete Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 280-282.

[13] Ibid., 281.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 282.

[17] Eckhart, Edmund Colledge, and Bernard McGinn, Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 178.

[18] Ibid., 271.

[Instructor Comment:  I think that you overinterpret some aspects here relating to liturgy, especially since they may or may not apply to Dionysius but do not seem to apply in the same way to Bonaventure or Hadewijch.  Of course your comments are always insightful and well crafted but please do not automatically prefer the Eastern to the Western context, as such generalizations seldom work.  You may also want to be a bit more critical of Louth, who has a particular position on this —very experiential in fact but since it is ecclesial Turner does not object—, which is not necessarily the only one to take.]

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