Today, 3 October on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Dionysius (Denis) the Areopagite (†96). A convert of the Apostle Paul, St Dionysius is mentioned briefly in the Acts of the Apostles 17:34 as one of the few who ‘believed’ in response to the Apostle’s speech on the Areopagus, ‘Mars Hill’. He is remembered by the Church as a Hieromartyr, having become Bishop of Athens and being martyred later for his faith. But he is most famous in connection with the writings attributed to him: four treatises and ten epistles, which taken together constitute the most important works of Patristic mystical theology, known today as the Corpus Dionysiacum
. Thus, the French Benedictine Dom Prosper Guéranger calls him ‘the brightest star’ in the ‘constellation of mystics’ (The Liturgical Year: Time After Pentecost, Vol. V
, trans. The Benedictines of Stanbrook [Worcester: Stanbrook Abbey, 1903], p. 376). Here is the Life of St Dionysius in the Prologue
(St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4
, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 13):
He is counted among the seventy lesser apostles. This wonderful man was of a noble, pagan family in Athens. Finishing his education in Athens, he went to Egypt to learn more. One day while he was there, the Lord Christ breathed His last on the Cross, and the sun was darkened and it was dark in Egypt for the space of three hours. Then Dionysius cried out: ‘Either God the Creator of the world is suffering, or the world is ending.’ Returning to Athens, he married a woman called Damaris and had sons by her. He was a member of the highest court in Greece, the Areopagus, and was always thereafter known as the Areopagite. When the Apostle Paul preached the Gospel in Athens, Dionysius was baptised with his whole household (Acts 17:34). Paul consecrated him bishop of Athens (he having left his wife and children and status from love of Christ), and he travelled widely with Paul, coming to know all the other apostles. When his teacher, St Paul, suffered martyrdom, Dionysius desired to die such a death himself, so he went off to Gaul to preach the Gospel among the barbarians, accompanied by Rusticus, a priest, and a deacon called Eleutherius. They endured much but met with great success. By their labours, many were turned to the Christian faith and Dionysius built a small chapel in Paris (Author’s note: Some historians think that Dionysius of Paris was other than St Dionysius the Areopagite.) where he celebrated divine service. When he was ninety years old, he was seized and tortured for Christ, together with Rusticus and Eleutherius, until they were all three beheaded with the sword. The severed head of St Dionysius jumped a long way and fell in front of a Christian woman, Catula, who buried it with his body. He suffered in the time of Domitian, in the year 96. He wrote several famous works: on the names of God, on the heavenly and ecclesiastical hierarchies, on mystical theology and on the most holy Mother of God.
The identification with St Denis of Paris aside (while the inimitable Charles Coulombe considers the ‘pretensions’ of those who separate the Biblical, Athenian, Parisian, and literary Dionysii ‘exploded by the writings of such as Dom Guéranger and the martyred Archbishop Darboy’ I can’t figure out if he means these writings have made a convincing argument, or simply that he finds their pious opinion authoritative! See ‘Ultra-Realism FAQ’, Question 4
.), it has become merely a commonplace in modern scholarship that the author of the Areopagitic writings was not St Paul’s convert, but, usually, ‘an unknown Syrian bishop or priest ascetic who was a leading theologian of the early sixth century’ (Fr John McGuckin, ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology
, 2nd ed. [London: SCM, 2005], p. 104). Ordinarily, this is not the sort of issue I would raise at Logismoi, but I’m afraid there is so much confusion out there that it must be done if this post is to be of any value. For it is clear that the Church’s Tradition identifies the convert, the Bishop of Athens, and the writer at least, and the endless debates over authorship are in the end merely sophisticated speculation based on slim evidence. For these reasons, it seems to me that as Orthodox Christians we should accept the Corpus
as in some sense the work of St Dionysius, whether it represents a much later record of teachings passed down orally—Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna points out that ‘many Fathers have understood that, perhaps being part of oral tradition, they were written and composed after his repose’ (‘Questions and Answer about the Orthodox Faith’, Orthodox Tradition
, IV (2), p. 60)—or at the very least a later (holy) author’s understanding of what a ‘Dionysian’ tradition might be. The latter view has been expressed by Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) in his important study, 'Et introibo ad altare Dei': The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition
(Thessaloniki: Patriarchikon Idryma Paterikon Meleton, 1994), pp. 416-7, and a similar view articulated by Olivier Clément when he observes, ‘if the real Dionysius was a Greek thinker converted to Christianity, the texts ascribed to his authorship may be said truly to convey his spirit’ (The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text and Commentary
, trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone [London: New City, 1995], p. 326). I should note that the blogging traditionalist, John Sanidopoulos, has posted defences of the traditional attribution of the Corpus
to the 1st-c. convert of St Paul by, first
, the Rev. John Parker, whose arguments I read several years ago, and second
, by Fr Dumitru Stăniloae, who I had no idea supported the traditional authorship. Although I'm afraid the whole issue requires a better patristics scholar than I to sort out, I personally welcome any arguments in favour of tradition.
Certainly, I am convinced that Orthodox Christians ought not to speak of a ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’, and that we should always use the conventional English title of ‘Saint’, or some equivalent to speak of the author of the Corpus
, for this is how the other Fathers have referred to him. St Gregory Palamas calls him ‘Saint Dionysius’ (The Triads
, trans. Nicholas Gendle [NY: Paulist, 1983], p. 63), and St Maximus the Confessor refers to him as ‘the great divine preacher’ and ‘the revealer of God’ (Fr Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor
[London: Routledge, 1999], pp. 166, 188). But our bowing to Tradition must go beyond nomenclature and titles. We must also read the Corpus
itself as a part of the Orthodox Tradition. Although Western scholars—among them C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature
(Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 70-5, and Dame Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
(Chicago: U of Chicago, 1991), pp. 117-29—have shown how the Corpus
has, in Vladimir Lossky’s words, ‘often become the vehicle for neo-Platonic influences’ in Western theology, Lossky also argues forcefully and persuasively that this is because St Dionysius has been ‘poorly assimilated’ in the West, and that from an Orthodox perspective ‘the tradition of Dionysius marks a definite triumph over Platonic Hellenism’ (The Vision of God
, 2nd ed., trans. Ashleigh Moorhouse [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1983], p. 128). In addition to pp. 121-8 of The Vision of God
, Lossky has also done much to promote an Orthodox interpretation of the Corpus
in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
, trans. Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 1998), pp. 23-43, and his efforts have been followed by those of Fr Andrew Louth (see, for instance, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition
[Oxford: Oxford U, 1981], pp. 159-78, and this post
by Sr Macrina on Fr Louth’s comments in the Afterword to the new edition of Origins
, which I unfortunately still lack!), Fr Alexander Golitzin (see 'Et introibo', cited above, as well as articles here
), and, in Greek, Fr Nicholas Loudovikos (Η Αποφατική Εκκλησιολογία του Ομοουσίου: Η αρχέγονη Εκκλησία σήμερα
[The Apophatic Ecclesiology of the Same Substance: The Primitive Church Today] [Athens: Armos, 2002], pp. 54-68), as well as the Orthodox blogger known as Felix Culpa, in a series of posts responding mainly to the gross misunderstanding of St Dionysius by Fr John Meyendorff here
, and here
. Although such brilliant readings of St Dionysius as Fr Alexander’s were actually prompted by what he somewhere calls ‘the [later Syriac] monastic Sitz-im-leben
’ of the Corpus
, I see no reason why teaching that was articulated or made explicit only in later Tradition cannot be used to interpret an earlier expression of Christian theology, if we follow arguments like those of Parker or Stăniloae defending the traditional attribution to the 1st-c. convert of St Paul.
I will cite one example of the sort of reading these scholars have produced. Although in the works above, Lossky, Fr Alexander, and others deal with such weighty matters as St Dionysius’s Christology, his understanding of the divine energies, his angelic hierarchy, etc., one of the most interesting points of correction of the various misunderstandings of his teaching among scholars is a passage in Fr Louth’s Origins
on St Dionysius’s teaching about the Mysteries:
Denys also makes use of the [‘Neoplatonic] distinction between theoria (contemplation) and theourgia (theurgy). The ecclesiastical hierarchy fulfils its functions by ‘intellectual contemplations and by diverse sensible symbols, and through these it is raised in a sacred manner to the divine’ (EH V.i.2:501 C). These sensible symbols—the sacraments (in a broad sense)—are sometimes referred to by the word theourgia and its derivatives. The oil of confirmation is called theourgikotatos—literally, ‘most theurgical’. The use of the word is interesting, for it indicates that Denys thinks of the sacraments as Christian theurgy—Christian magic, if you like—or, using less loaded words, a Christian use of material things to effect man’s relationship with the divine. Here we see the ‘Christian Proclus’ using neo-Platonic language to express his understanding of the Christian sacraments. But, though he uses similar language, his meaning is basically different. For a neo-Platonist, theurgy—magic—worked because of some occult sympathy between the material elements used and the constitution of the divine. Theurgy, to a neo-Platonist, is natural—even if rather odd. The use of material elements in the sacraments, however, is a matter of institution, not of occult fitness: they are vehicless of grace not because of what they are materially, but because of their use in a certain symbolic context. (pp. 163-4)
This is a point worth keeping in mind when reading of the rôle of the Corpus
in the Western hermetic tradition as described by Yates (cited above).
As an aside, despite the consistent misunderstanding of St Dionysius in the West, his enormous prestige there (Thomas Aquinas quotes in 1,700 times, second only to the Scriptures) earned him a place in one of the great works of world literature. Dante, in Paradiso
XXVIII.130-135, grants the Areopagite a greater authority than the Latin St Gregory the Great when, having given the Dionysian version of the angelic hierarchy rather than the latter’s, he writes (The Divine Comedy 3: Paradise
, trans. Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynolds [NY: Penguin, 1962], p. 304):
When Dionysius with ardent zest
Pondered these orders of angelic bliss,
He named them in this way, the true and best;
But Gregory then differed over this,
And when his eyes were opened on this scene
He smiled to see how he had gone amiss.
It is unfortunate that so much space has had to be taken up treating these issues. But in order to make some small contribution to the appreciation and commemoration of the Saint himself on his feast, I offer a small selection from the Corpus
: ‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ I.1.3 (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works
, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem [NY: Paulist, 1987], pp. 146-7). As Dom Guéranger writes, quoting St Benedict, ‘To-day the incomparable teacher Dionysius presides over the assembly of the faithful. With East and West let us keep silence; for it behoveth the master to speak and teach, and it beseemeth the disciple to hold his peace and listen [RB
6:6]’ (p. 377):
All this accounts for the fact that the sacred institution and source of perfection established our most pious hierarchy. He modeled it on the hierarchies of heaven, and clothed these immaterial hierarchies in numerous material figures and forms so that, in a way appropriate to our nature, we might be uplifted from these most venerable images to interpretations and assimilations which are simple and inexpressible. For it is quite impossible that we humans should, in any immaterial way, rise up to imitate and to contemplate the heavenly hierarchies without the aid of those material means capable of guiding us as our nature requires. Hence, any thinking person realizes that the appearances of beauty are signs of an invisible loveliness. The beautiful odors which strike the senses are representations of a conceptual diffusion. Material lights are images of the outpouring of an immaterial gift of light. The thoroughness of sacred discipleship indicates the immense contemplative capacity of the mind. Order and rank here below are a sign of the harmonious ordering toward the divine realm. The reception of the most divine Eucharist is a symbol of participation in Jesus. And so it goes for all the gifts transcendently received by the beings of heaven, gifts which are granted to us in a symbolic mode.
The source of spiritual perfection provided us with perceptible images of these heavenly minds. He did so out of concern for us and because he wanted us to be made godlike. He made the heavenly hierarchies known to us. He made our own hierarchy a ministerial colleague of these divine hierarchies by an assimilation, to the extent that is humanly feasible, to their godlike priesthood. He revealed all this to us in the sacred pictures of the scriptures so that he might lift us in spirit up through the perceptible to the conceptual, from sacred shapes and symbols to the simple peaks of the hierarchies of heaven.
Although he does not quote this passage in particular, Dom Guéranger is obviously inspired by such words when goes on to praise St Dionysius ever more elabourately:
Honour to thee on this day of thy triumph! Honour to the Apostle of the Gentiles, who comes to meet thee, as his noble conquest, on the threshold of eternity. From early youth how thy soul yearned for that unknown God, whom the Apostle at length revealed to the longing aspirations of thy grand, upright nature! To the darkness of polytheism, to the doubts of philosophy, to the vague glimmers of confused traditions, suddenly succeeded the light of truth; and its triumph was complete. Thou, O Christian Plato, didst enlarge the horizon of philosophy, and didst so rectify its formulas that in them truth could be fittingly clothed. Thou, in thy turn, didst become an apostle; the distinction of Greek and Barbarian, that law of the ancient world, was lost in the common origin assigned by St Paul to all peoples; to the eyes of thy faith, slaves and freemen were equal in that nobility which makes the human race the race of God; while the charity, which overflowed in thy heart, filled it with the immense pity of God himself for the long ages of ignorance in which mankind had been plunged. (p. 383)
In conclusion, I offer, first, the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Dionysius from the Prologue
, and second, the Kontakion of the Hieromartyr in Tone 8 (The Great Horologion
, trans. HTM [Boston: HTM, 1997], p. 268):
Glorious saint Dionysius,
Wondrous theologian and lucid scribe!
His mind, gathered in his heart, he directed to God;
He witnessed heavenly mysteries and revealed them to us.
He perceived the glory of the heavenly orders
And described the hierarchy of heaven:
Principalities, Dominions, Virtues, Powers,
Wondrous Thrones, Seraphim,
Cherubim and Archangels,
Golden-winged Angels of God,
And the Mother of God.
He beheld all with fear,
And also that which shines above the dust of the earth:
Heavenly powers of infinite strength,
Immortal suns and stars most brilliant!
All that he witnessed, Dionysius made clear
And told to the Church.
Thus he adorned and enriched the Church,
And his accomplishments were made golden
By his bloody death for his Christ.
Now he shines in heaven;
And the angelic hosts, blazing with the glory of God,
Call Dionysius ‘Brother’.
Kontakion, Plagal of Fourth Tone
To thee, the Champion Leader
In spirit, thou didst pass through Heaven’s gates, instructed by * the great Apostle who attained to the third Heaven’s heights, * and wast made rich in all knowledge of things beyond speech; * and then thou, O Dionysius, didst illuminate * them that slumbered in the darkness of their ignorance. * Hence, we all cry out: * Rejoice, O universal Father.