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Knowing and Not Knowing

Love: The Highest Form of Knowing

Friday, January 31st, 2020

Knowing and Not Knowing

Love: The Highest Form of Knowing

Friday, January 31, 2020

My good friend, Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio, has written a wonderful autobiography. In it she recounts how her parents decided to name her Denise. (She would have been named Denis had she been a boy.) Later in life, she was delighted to find a meaningful connection with the man who first approached theology in an explicitly mystical way in his text Mystical Theology. Delio writes: 

When I was doing my doctoral work in theology at Fordham University, I was introduced to the master of mystical theology, Denis the Areopagite, or Pseudo-Dionysius [who wrote in the late fifth to early sixth century]. I was immediately struck by the name “Denis”—the mysterious person who wrote the most exquisite words stretching into the mystery of the incomprehensible God. . . . God is the name of absolute divine mystery beyond any speech or thought or movement. God’s love is so tremendous, this mystical writer claimed, that God is like a sober drunk, falling over himself in the desire to share divine life.

God, the eros of divine love
God, agape, giving Godself away
God, ek-static, standing outside Godself, in the creation of the world
God, the volcanic eruption of divine life.

Because God’s eros is cosmic, Dionysius claimed, the whole universe is drawn to God, who is always utterly transcendent. God is both hidden and revealed, and there is no access to the hidden God except by way of God manifested in creation. We long for God because God longs for us; God eternally desires to give Godself away in love so we can give ourselves in love; love always stands outside itself in the other.

To be united to God we must “break through” the sensible world and pass beyond the human condition to move beyond knowing to unknowing, from knowledge to love. In his De mystica theologia Denis wrote: “As we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.” [1] . . .

Christian mystics understood love as the core of reality and spoke of a deep relationship between love and knowledge. “Love is the highest form of knowing,” Saint Augustine wrote. [2] Gregory the Great said, “Love itself is a form of knowing” (amor ipse notitia est), meaning that the love by which we reach God implies a form of knowing above ordinary reason. [3] William of St. Thierry put it beautifully in this way: “In the contemplation of God where love is chiefly operative, reason passes into love and is transformed into a certain spiritual and divine understanding which transcends and absorbs all reason.” [4]

Wisdom is knowledge deepened by love. The wise person knows more deeply by way of love than by way of argument because the eye of the heart can see the truth of reality. Hence the wise person is one who knows and sees God shining through everything, even what seems ugly or despised.

References:
[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid (Paulist Press: 1987), 139.

[2] For example Bernard McGinn, who writes, “Love and knowledge are intertwined in Augustine’s mystical consciousness.” See Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, vol. 1 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (Crossroad: 1994), 235.

[3] Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism—1200-1350, vol. 3 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (Crossroad: 1988), 82.

[4] McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, 82.

Ilia Delio, Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian (Orbis Books: 2019), 5-6, 200-201.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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