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  • The Mystery of Union with God: Dionysian Mysticism in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas by Bernhard Blankenhorn
  • Henk J. M. Schoot
The Mystery of Union with God: Dionysian Mysticism in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. By Bernhard Blankenhorn, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015. Pp. xxxiii + 508. $65.00 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-8132-2749-8.

This book presents the author's doctoral research—in modified version—done under the supervision of Gilles Emery, O.P., at Fribourg. The title is [End Page 290] correct and well chosen, but can easily lead a possible reader astray, thinking that the book is about Albert and—even more—Aquinas and mysticism. One of the fundamental tenets of this study, however, is that Albert's and especially Aquinas's receptions of Dionysian mysticism approach union with God as something that does not necessarily entail visions or other unusual aspects, and that is open to more than just a small elite. Aquinas even admits that union is open to all who are baptized and have progressed in the state of grace. To a certain extent, this book may be welcomed as a successful attempt to show how mysticism can be interpreted as relevant for every Christian who aims for holiness. The mystical science begins by faith and not some other special grace. It is not Hierotheus (the alleged first bishop of Athens, who figures prominently in the Dionysian corpus) nor "Moses in darkness" but John the Evangelist, Christ's best friend, who is Aquinas's model mystic (434).

The book—published in the Thomistic Ressourcement series with an adequate bibliography, index of names, and subject index—consists of three parts. The first deals with Dionysius and his early interpreters on union with God and mostly summarizes present scholarship on the issue. The original elements of this study are parts 2 and 3, concerned with Albert and Aquinas, respectively. The chapters and sections are organized in a way that reflects both a logical and a chronological order. With respect to the logical order, the author, before presenting Albert and Aquinas on union with God, first studies the underlying assumptions and doctrines ("background issues" and "doctrinal pillars") concerning anthropology, eschatology, the invisible missions of the Son and the Spirit, grace and the theological virtues, the gifts of the Spirit (especially the gifts of understanding and wisdom), the vision of God, and divine naming. The author then studies his protagonists in a historical way, dealing with their writings in chronological order. In the course of the book, a more doctrinal, synthetic approach is followed by an approach that focuses on texts and that presents a close analysis when studying Aquinas. This indirect approach, scholarly and careful as it is, presents the reader with a considerable challenge, asking perhaps for more patience than is typically found in the present day.

The central thesis of the book is summarized by the author as follows: "Albert and Thomas interpret Dionysian mysticism in a kataphatic way, emphasize our need for mediations as well as the mystic's active cooperation in union, and posit a trinitarian structure for union, all the while retaining a qualified apophatism, the noetic status of union, and the immediacy of God's conjoining action" (443). Each element of this summary can be elucidated by its reverse. Both Albert and Thomas can still be said to be engaged in negative theology, but they interpret the Dionysian corpus in a way that, to a certain extent, is much less apophatic. Elements of this reception include the way in which both of them attempt to retain their analysis of human cognition when accounting for mysticism. Mystical union does not leave human cognition behind or make the triplex via of divine naming superfluous. On the contrary, [End Page 291] on Aquinas's reading, the gift of understanding precisely consists in helping its recipient to understand "what God is not" (e.g., the dark cloud of Moses's vision), a "fine-tuning of his ears" listening to Scripture and Tradition (406). There is no passivity in divine union, but the human mind actively contributes, with the help of the invisible...


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