I knew a man in Christ... whether in the body, I cannot tell, or whether out of the body, I cannot tell—God knoweth—such a one was caught up to the third heaven… into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter (2 Cor 12:2-4).
On Friday, October 27, 2023, the Pappas Patristic Institute sponsored a panel at the Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference (PMR) at Villanova University.
The panel looked at how the mysticism of the Church Fathers was developed across the medieval Christian world, from sixth-century Ethiopia to tenth-century Byzantium to fourteenth-century England. Read the abstracts below.
Tsehaye Dedimas Beyene
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
Mysticism and the Holy Cross in the Works of Saint Yared the Axumite
The purpose of this paper is to investigate how mysticism is expressed in the theology of the Cross as found in the works of the sixth-century Ethiopian hymnographer St Yared the Axumite (505-571). It presents the patristic mysticism of the Axumites as a quest for the historical reality of the holy Cross and an elaboration of Christian worship centered on the Tree of the Cross. The argument in this paper is based on lesser known and hitherto untranslated Ge’ez hymnographic manuscripts of St Yared as sources for his theologically-rich contributions to the Ethiopian liturgy and the Ethiopian ecclesiastical tradition more broadly.
Andrew de Carion
University of Houston
“A Beme of Goostly Light”: The Nature of Light and Darkness in The Cloud of Unknowing
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a late fourteenth century Middle English text on contemplative prayer, explores the impossibility of communicating contemplative experience while at the same time making sharp use of striking metaphorical images. The contradiction at the heart of this text opens up inquiry into some of the central religious questions of the fourteenth century, such as the orthodoxy of vernacular mystical writings, the suitability of Wylciffe’s Bible translations, affective spirituality, and Lollard iconoclasm. The Cloud-author takes pains to qualify his expressions. He explains that the “derkness” in contemplation should not be “ymagined” as “the derkist night of wynter” and that the intrusion of a “beme of goostly light” is not able to be explained by his “blabryng fleschely tongue.” These expressions strike one in their evocative sensuality, so typical of The Cloud-author’s period, yet they also push the reader beyond the use of their “witts.” The Cloud of Unknowing utilizes not only medieval allegorical language and the intense corporeality of late medieval affective devotion, but also a unique understanding of Dionysius the Areopagite’s apophatic theology. This understanding is filtered through western affective interpretations by Thomas Gallus and Robert Grosseteste of The Mystical Theology, which give The Cloud’s language of vision its unique contribution to debates over spiritual experience and expression.
Recontextualizing Eden: The Soul as a Noetic Paradise in the Mystical Theologies of Symeon the New Theologian and Niketas Stethatos
This paper examines a conceptualization of the human soul as a noetic paradise that mirrors the structure of the biblical Garden of Eden in the mystical theologies of eleventh-century Byzantine monk Symeon the New Theologian and his disciple Niketas Stethatos. Throughout the course of this paper, I argue that Symeon and Niketas are in fact drawing upon an earlier allegorical interpretation applied to the Edenic narrative known as the “human paradise of the virtues” concept. Appearing first in Philo of Alexandria and developed in later centuries by Gregory Nazianzen and Maximus the Confessor, this human paradise concept uses the Garden of Eden as a model for the human soul wherein notable Edenic features become linked to, for instance, the soul’s intellect or the four cardinal virtues.
In his work of theological poetry later titled the Hymns of Divine Love, the New Theologian poetically addresses an encomium to the Lord thanking Him for His creation of man as “another paradise” upon the earth. While Symeon primarily uses this human paradise concept in order to emphasize the transformational nature and moral dimension of mystical experience, I argue that he simultaneously introduces a twofold model of Eden which is material and noetic. In Symeon’s model, the human soul is revealed to be the intelligible and “rational” counterpart of the earthly and material Garden of Eden described in the Genesis narrative. Building upon this twofold understanding of Eden, Niketas Stethatos devotes an entire treatise to this concept wherein he systematically delineates the “exact nature” of this noetic paradise within the soul.
This paper begins, therefore, with an analysis of the New Theologian’s poetic articulation of this noetic paradise in hymn forty-seven, before delving into Niketas Stethatos’ elaboration of this concept in his treatise On Paradise. Through close examination of this fascinating intersection of Christian anthropology and biblical cosmology, I will show that this anagogical interpretation of the Garden of Eden by Symeon the New Theologian and Niketas Stethatos not only affirms the significance of the Edenic paradisal model as the locus of humanity’s mystical encounter with the divine, but also sheds light upon the intimate relationship of structural analogy between the psychosomatic human being and the material cosmos.
The Pappas Patristic Institute is grateful to the organizers of the PMR Conference and to all who attended the session.