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Mystical Theology and Philosophy


John Scotus Eriugena (including a remark on Eriugena's name)
Nicholas Cusanus (nothing there as yet)
Teresa of Avila (containing an extensive Ciccarelli biography)

Plotinus (205-270)

Background to Neoplatonism (200CE onwards)

The most important Neoplatonist was Plotinus (205-270), whose influence in Christian theology has been extensive. The influence of Neoplatonism is clearly evident in Origen (185-254) and Augustine (354-430).

Plotinus was a pagan Neoplatonist philosopher. He believed with Plato that we have to know the world as it really is if we are to live truly good lives. So he was led to meditate on the ultimate reality, as this was initially defined in the terms of Middle Platonism, in a quest to understand how all that is could be thought of as unified, in Parmenides’ sense.

Plotinus noted that even the Middle Platonists’ extension of Plato in terms of a Supreme Mind and the Forms which are its thoughts involved a kind of duality; though they were intimately related, since Forms are the expressions of Mind itself, a distinction remains. He posited, therefore, a higher, the One above being from which all of the plurality of Being emmanates, beginning with Mind and the Forms, and followed by everything else in the hierachy of Being.

The One

For Plotinus, the One is beyond Being and Not-Being, and nothing can be said of it literally (Plotinus sometimes calls it the Good without intending to attribute a property to it). The universe is an overflow of the One into Being, and thus into plurality, full of life and movement and development, flowing out of and back into the One. But when seen from the outside, as it were, from the perspective of the One, the universe is an unwavering, absolute, undifferentiated, perfect unity. These two visions of reality are held together in Plotinus’ thought by his theory of emmanation and return, and constitute his solution to the problem of the One and the Many.

Emmanation and Return

Emanation (Plotinus): the process in which the One pours over into all of the realms of being.

Three Primal Hypoastases (Plotinus): One, Mind, and Soul.

The story of emmanation and return goes through something like the following stages in a kind of eternal, timeless movement.

  • The One automatically overflows into Mind, which is the power of thought.
  • In thinking, Mind is loving the One, and seeking to represent it, and so gives birth to the Forms, which are all of the possible ways Being can appear in the world. In this process of thinking-out Being, the forms of Being are actually emmanated.
  • The lowest form of Being is the sort that can’t think everything eternally in a grand vision of Being, like Mind’s representation of the One, but which must think successively. Thus temporal Being, or Soul, is emmanated. (One, Mind and Soul are the three primal hypostases). Soul, like Mind, loves Being, and seeks union with it, so it contemplates the Forms by which it can participate in Mind’s loving vision of the One.
  • At the lowest reaches of Soul, still expressions of the fullness of possibilities of Being, is the world of matter. Humans are embodied soul, and the higher part of their soul strives to be free of the lower, material part of their soul, in order more purely to envision the One through participation in Mind’s loving representation of it.
  • By concentrating on the world of the Forms, therefore, and shunning every aspect of the material world, the human soul can return to the One even while embodied in the world of matter. Thus Soul, even in its lowest form, returns to the One in a kind of mystical ascent up through the hierarchy of Being.


Origen (c.185-c.254) was an Alexandrian theologian. In his thought, the Neoplatonic vision of Being as emmanation from and return to the One is retained, with some modifications to take account of sin. Perhaps the most important aspect of Plotinus’ influence on Origen is in his view of the Trinity and his Christology. Origen appears to have held (like Arius did, later, who spoke of the Second Person of the Trinity as "the firstborn before time of all creation") that God the Father is the One, and that the Son is eternally generated (or emanated, in Plotinus’ terms) from the One somewhat like Mind is. Thus the Son has lesser being than the Father, but (when the Spirit is worked into the picture) the Trinity is still an intimate unity of a sort. This generally Neoplatonist point of view was an important and generally depreciated player in the subordinationist debate, which was one of the controversies eventually addressed in the Council of Nicea (325) and the Nicene Creed.

For Origen, the drama of salvation is played out not in human history, but in the upper reaches of the realm of Soul, and merely enacted in the world of matter; only in this way could the salvation secured for humans—the possibility of overcoming sin so as to enjoy mystical ascent to God through union of the soul with Christ’s soul—be made efficacious. Nothing so spectacular and important could be secured in the realm of matter, for Origen. Origen has a richly imaginative cosmology in which his grand vision of salvation is worked out in detail but we will not broach that subject here.

Plotinus’ influence is especially important on Augustine, to whom we come later, for he provided Augustine with a way to think of God as spiritual, and of the spiritual as the all-determining reality. Coming to terms with spiritual realities was the most important goal of life for Augustine.

Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500)


The collection of writings of a now unknown author were appealed to in 533 by Monophysites who assumed that they had come from Dionysius the Areopagite, mentioned in Acts 17:34. This proved to be a mistaken hypothesis, but held good for over a thousand years, so the incorrect reference has been retained, and we now describe the author as Dionysius, the Pseudo-Areopagite, or simply Pseudo-Dionysius or sometimes Pseudo-Denys.

The four extant works (apart from a number of letters) were probably written around 500CE, and are good examples of Christian Neoplatonism:

  • Celestial Hierarchy, giving account of the metaphysics of God’s mediation to humanity via the various orders of angels.
  • Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, giving an account of Church authority, sacraments, and several types of spiritual life (purgation, illumination, and union) by which human nature is deified.
  • Divine Names, on the nature and attributes of God.
  • Mystical Theology, describing the mystical ascent of the soul to God.


Pseudo-Dionysius developed themes already in Plotinus bearing on the non-sensibility and non-conceptuality of God, or the One, but combines these ideas with Christian doctrine.

Pseudo-Dionysius held, like Plotinus, to the "mystical ascent" view of salvation, which can be expressed using the term theiosis, or theopoiesis. This process involves becoming free of the world of appearances ("unknowing"). In the disoriented state that results, we may encounter divine illumination ("ray of divine darkness").

Theiosis: divinization through intimate union of the soul with God.

Pseudo-Dionysius articulated a distinction within theological method on the basis of the non-conceptuality of God, namely, via positiva and via negativa.

Via positiva: A trajectory of affirmations of non-literal descriptions of God, organized from the most apt to the least apt, that indirectly indicates what God is by a richness of names.

The via positiva, which Pseudo-Dionysius used in the Divine Names, allows for positive language about God, on the understanding that such talk would inevitably refer only analogously and trajectorily, and never literally, to God. Thought of as an aspect of mystical practice, the via positiva begins by using the most apt names for God and leads steadily toward a cacophany of naming in which everything imaginable, not matter how inapt, is used as a name for God. The final state of this practice—an unbroken roar of indistinguishable names—is a rich silence, though under an unusual and perhaps unexpected description.

Via negativa: A trajectory of denials of literal descriptions of God, organized from the least apt to the most apt, that indirectly indicates what God is by ruling out what God is not.

The via negativa, which Pseudo-Dionysius used in the Mystical Theology, insists on speaking negatively about God, ruling out that which the divine mystery is not as a way of speaking indirectly of what the divine mystery is. Thought of as an aspect of mystical practice, the via negativa begins by negating the least apt characterizations of God and the proceeds to negate even the most honorable and lofty names for Gd that we can imagine. The final state of this practice is a silence that is potentiated by the memory of the trajectory of negations, which serve as a way of indirectly conceiving of God beyond all names and categories.

3. Influence

Pseudo-Dionysius had an enormous influence on Christian theology, which demonstrates both the power of the Neo-Platonic mood of ancient and early medieval theology and the strength of mysticism in Christian theology in many places in this period. Even Thomas Aquinas, 800 years later, consistently quotes from his writings.

John Scotus Eriugena (810-877)

There is no information here about Eriugena (though you can read some notes on his thought in the Dictionary of Theology elsewhere on this site), but a note on his name may be interesting. Both Baird & Kaufman and Copleston comment that "Scotus" and "Eriugena" both refer to the fact that JSE was from Ireland. In the 9th century, Ireland was also called Scotia Maior, and the Irish were referred to as Scoti. The Oxford English Dictionary lists "Scot" as referring to the ancient Gaelic speaking people inhabiting Ireland, and who also settled in northwest Great Britain in the 6th century; this is how Scotland got its name. Until the end of the 9th century, "Scot" was an ordinary term for Irish folk, but after that, apparently following relations between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scots of northern Britain, the word was no longer used for inhabitants of Ireland.

Nicholas Cusanus (1401-1464)

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Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)


1518: Teresa was born in Avila

Teresa's father was Don Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda (d.1544), a relatively well-to-do merchant. Her mother was Do?a Beatriz Davila y Ahumada (d.1528), her father’s second wife. There were 12 children in the family.

The story is told (in Ribera, Yepes, and in Teresa's own Life) that, as a child (about 7 years of age), Teresa and a 10 year-old brother ran away from home, intending to go to Africa to become martyrs, "winning thus cheaply," they thought, the "glory of heaven." An uncle caught them, however, just outside the city walls. She is also reported to have attempted to build a hermitage in their back orchard with the same brother, so that they could become hermits, having been unsuccessful in their attempt to become martyrs, but the walls of their construction kept falling down.

1528: Teresa’s mother dies. Teresa is thereafter raised by her half-sister until the age of 16, and then lives for one-and-a-half years at an Augustinian convent. She struggles with the idea of a religious vocation.

c.1535: Teresa runs away to the Carmelite House of the Incarnation, and then receives her father's permission to enter the order. Teresa remains at Incarnation until 1563, just after the foundation of St. Joseph's.

Incarnation was under the Carmelite "mitigated rule." Apparently of the about 140-180 nuns, many were there not so much for the sake of a religious vocation as for lack of other resources such as marriage was relied upon to provide. One biographer comments that New World exploration had drained many eligible husbands from the area. There was no enclosure. The nuns were able to remodel their habits as fashions changed, to wear jewelry, to socialize fairly freely.

1539-42: period of severe illness, even paralysis. Teresa considered herself "cured" of this acute sickness by prayers to St. Joseph, and remained devoted to this saint throughout her life.

mid-1550's: from this time, Teresa begins to experience spiritual "transformation," including visions, "supernatural visitations," and rapture.

c.1559-62: Teresa experiences, perhaps several times, her famous "transfixion" or "piercing" by a cherub with a golden, fiery-tipped spear. She records this in her Life as follows:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision. . . . It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful--his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. . . .I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. (Life, 29.16-17)

1562: the foundation of St. Joseph's of Avila under the original Carmelite rule.

1565: Teresa’s complete’s her Life.

1582: Teresa dies on the way home from one of her foundations.

1587: Diego de Yepes writes a biography of Teresa

1590: Francisco de Ribera, S.J. writes a biography of Teresa

1622: Teresa is canonized by Gregory XV.

1970: Paul VI declares Teresa a doctor of the church.


The original Carmelite rule of St. Joseph's of Avila was known as "discalced" and "reformed." The rule was much stricter about the vow of poverty, enclosure, and daily discipline. Teresa had planned the foundation over a period of time, encouraged by visions of Christ, and a growing conviction about discipleship and the life of prayer she wanted to lead. It is from this period, in fact, that she calls herself Teresa of Jesus. She finally obtains permission from Rome; there is much resistance from ecclesiastics, nuns of the mitigated rule, and townspeople (because this new convent would not be endowed). Teresa is soon allowed to transfer from Incarnation to St. Joseph's.

Teresa states that while she was planning this foundation, she asked the opinion of several of her spiritual directors, particularly about the primitive rule and the strict practice of poverty. One of these, Fr. Ib?ez, sent a "theological" and discouraging reply. Teresa responded that "in order to escape from my vocation, the vow of poverty I had made, and the perfect observance of the counsels of Christ, I did not want any theology to help me, and in this case I should not thank him for his learning." (Life, 35.5). (Normally, Teresa praised intelligence and learning as a necessary quality of spiritual directors.) Fr. Ib?ez changed his mind a few days later.

At the command of the general of her order, Teresa went on to establish 15 other "discalced" or reformed convents; an account of this activity is provided by Teresa in her Foundations (1576). In the course of her second foundation in 1567, she meets Juan de Yepes y Alvarez (John of the Cross), whom she convinces to become one of the first members of a men's discalced Carmelite house. Greatly impressed by her spiritual gifts, he remains her friend, supporter, and spiritual director for the rest of her life.

Before the formal separation of the Calced and Discalced Carmelites in 1579-80, members of discalced houses endured persecution from anti-reformist forces. There is a pretty spectacular story about John of the Cross' imprisonment and escape during this period of persecution.

Teresa traveled to these various "foundations" with a few companion sisters, friars, and laymen. The sisters, in order to maintain their discipline, traveled in covered mule-drawn carts which were "like purgatory under the beating sun." But Teresa's accounts say that they endured this "with contentment and joy" by recalling hell, or by contemplating "their work and sufferance for God." Teresa insisted on following the rule fairly closely, even on these trips, and carried a little bell that she rang when it was time to pause for offices. One of the friars (Graci?n) who accompanied her commented that "it was extraordinary to see how particular the Mother was about the provision of necessaries for those who accompanied her: she seemed to think of nothing else--she might have been going about on mules all her life." (Complete Works, vol. 3., xiii).

Although Teresa is remembered for her foundation of Carmelite houses under the much stricter discipline of the primitive rule, and for her own practice of discipline and rigorous prayer, she was not a dour person: her contemporaries comment that she was cheerful, vigorous, and practical in her affairs; strict but not extreme about enforcing the rule; and compassionate for those in her care.


Teresa's autobiographical Life was written in obedience to her confessor and spiritual directors: as a response to these kinds of religious experiences, and "to give an account of the state of her soul" so that she might not be led astray. She always worked closely with confessor-priests. Among her friends, advisors, and spiritual directors were a number of Jesuits (the Jesuit order was founded in 1540), with whom she had a close association throughout her life. The Life was kept by the Inquisition and not published until after her death. It was considered spiritually "dangerous" for many, because of its accounts of visions and revelations. It was not judged by the censoring Dominicans, however, to be against doctrine. One of the Dominicans comments that, although he suspected Teresa's visions to be "of God," her vivid accounts could be misleading for others: such things, he says "were always to be afraid of, especially in women, who are very ready to believe they come from God."

Way of Perfection (Camino de Perfecci?n, 1573) and Interior Castle (Las Moradas, 1588) are two of her noted works on the spiritual or "mystical" life and prayer. From her "transformative" experiences of the mid-1550's on, Teresa continues to practice intense disciplines of prayer, and to write about these under the guidance of her spiritual directors. In a famous account from Interior Castle of the "Prayer of Union", Teresa uses the image of a silkworm /butterfly to describe this "stage" of spiritual transformation.

Sources for this report

Teresa of Avila. Life, 5th ed. Edited by David Lewis. London: Thomas Baker, 1924. Includes the Relations .

The Complete Works of SaintTeresa of Jesus. 3 vols. Edited by E. Allison Peers, from the critical edition of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa (c.1915). London: Sheed & Ward: 1946.

Auclair, Marcelle. Saint Teresa of Avila. Translated by Kathleen Pond. London: Burns Oates, 1953.

Beevers, John. Saint Teresa of Avila. Garden City, NY: Hanover House; Division of Doubleday and Co., 1961.

Eliade, Mircea, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 14. S.v. "Teresa of Avila," by Peter T. Rohrbach.

Walsh, William Thomas. Saint Teresa of Avila: A Biography. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1943.

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