Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Chapter 3

In this part of my series I will be discussing Chapter 3 of the Divine Names. (First entry here) Chapter 3 of the Divine Names is a bit more disappointing for anyone looking for philosophical content.  In Chapter 3 Pseudo-Dionysius spends most of his time talking and bragging about his teacher Hierotheus.  But there is some interesting reflection on prayer in this chapter that is worth talking about.  Early in the chapter Pseudo-Dionysius reflects on prayer and how to make sense of it having an effect.

He suggests that before any inquiy into the divine should be preceded by “stretch[ing] ouselves prayerfully upward.”  It is here that he gives two interesting analogies to attempt to understand the power of prayer.

The problem is that we are praying to a God that is, for P-D, radically transcendent, but also radically immovable and unchanging.  So then prayer should be thought of, for P-D, as something like the dance that moved the mountain.

Have you heard this story?  A man has a house in the valley, and decides that his house is too close to the mountain.  He goes to a sage and asks him how he can move the mountain.  The sage tells him to pack his entire house up, place it on his back, and do a special dance.  The man follows these instructions and, lo and behold, the mountain is moved far from his house.  The dance: face the mountain, and take two steps backward, the one step forward and repeat.

P-D thinks of prayer much like this special dance:

<blockquote>Picture ourselves aboard a boat.  There are hawsers joining it to soe rock.  We take hold of them and pull on them, and it is as if we were dragging the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward a rock.  And, from another point of view, when someone on the boat pushes away the rock which is on the shore he will have no effect on the rock, which stands immovable, but will make space between it and himself, and the more he pushes the greater will be the space.</blockquote>

<blockquote>That is why we must begin with a prayer before everything we do, but especially when we are about to taalk of God.  We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.</blockquote>

The idea here is that prayer is a thing that draws us nearer to the divine.  This is by God’s power and not by ours.  We don’t harm the independence and unchangeability of God by engaging in prayer.  Instead prayer is a way of pulling ourselves closer to God.

We ought to pray before engaging in reflection on the divine nature, bringing ourselves closer to the divine light which may help us understand.

The only other thing of philosophical interest here is a view of the degree of discomfort Pseud0-Dionysius has with saying anything about God.  He would almost be Wittgensteinian about the whole thing if it weren’t for the fact of his deep confidence that the scriptures are divinely revealed and say true things about God.  This is all that is keeping Dionysius on the task of talking about the divine at all.  If Pseudo-Dionysius were to live in an age without divine revelation, he would simply prefer to pass over such things in silence.  Next time we’ll break the silence with P-D and finally get into the bulk of the theological theorizing.

Tune in every MWF for more content.

Peace be with you.
-JS

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