St. Dionysius the Areopagite
After the death of the Apostle Paul, and wanting to continue on with his work, Saint Dionysius set off preaching into the Western lands, accompanied by the Presbyter Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius. They converted many to Christ at Rome, and then in Germany, and then in Spain. In Gaul, during the time of a persecution against Christians by the pagan authorities, all three confessors were arrested and thrown into prison. By night Saint Dionysius made Divine Liturgy with co-serving Angels of God. In the morning the martyrs were beheaded. According to an old tradition, Saint Dionysius took up his head, proceeded with it to the church and only there fell down dead. A pious woman named Catulla buried the remains of the saint.
The writings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite hold great significance for the Orthodox Church. Four books of his have survived into the present: “Concerning the Celestial Hierarchy”, “Concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”, “Concerning the Names of God”, “Concerning Mystical Theology”; additionally, there are ten letters to various persons.
The book, “Concerning the Celestial Hierarchies”, was written actually in one of the countries of Western Europe, where Saint Dionysius was preaching. In it is expounded the Christian teaching about the Angelic world. The Angelic (or Celestial-Heavenly) hierarchy comprises the nine Angelic Ranks: Seraphim (“Seraphimy”), Cherubim (“Cheruvimy”), Thrones (“Prestoly”). Dominions (“Gospodstva”), Powers (“Sily”), Authorities (“Vlasti”), Principalities (“Nachala”), Archangels (“Arkhangely”), and Angels (“Angely”).
The purpose of the Divinely-established Angelic Hierarchy – is the ascent towards God-likeness through purification, enlightenment and perfection. The highest ranks are bearers and mediatory-sources of Divine Light and Divine life for the lower ranks. And not only are the mind-endowed, bodiless Angelic hosts included in the spiritual light‑bearing hierarchy, but also the human race, created anew and sanctified in the Church of Christ.
The book of Saint Dionysius, “Concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchies”, is a continuation of his book, “Concerning the Celestial Hierarchies”. The Church of Christ in its universal service is set upon the foundation, just like the Angelic ranks, of sacerdotal principles established by God.
In the earthly world, for the children of the Church, Divine grace comes down imperceptibly – in the holy Sacraments of the Church, which are spiritual in nature, though sense-perceptible in form. Only but few even amongst the holy ascetics were able to behold with earthly eyes the fiery-visage in nature of the Holy Mysteries of God. But outside of the Church sacraments, outside of Baptism and the Eucharist, there is not the Light-bearing saving grace of God, – there is neither Divine-knowledge (“Bogopoznanie”) nor Theosis (“Obozhenie” or Deification).
The book, “Concerning the Names of God”, expounds upon the way of Divine-knowledge through a Saint John of the Ladder-like progression of the Divine Names.
The book of Saint Dionysius, “Concerning Mystical Theology”, likewise sets forth the teaching about Divine-knowledge. The theology of the Orthodox Church is totally based upon what is experienced of Divine-knowledge. In order to know God – it is necessary to be in propinquity to Him, to have some measure to come close nigh unto Him, so as to attain to a condition of Communion-with-God (“Bogoobschenie”) and Deification (“Theosis” or “Obozhenie”). This condition is most of all accomplished by prayer. This is not because prayer in itself brings us close to the Incomprehensible God, but rather that the purity of heart in true prayer brings us in appropinquity to God.
The written works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite (they are entitled “Areopagitic”) are of extraordinary significance in the Theology of the Orthodox Church [and also for late Medieval Western theology]. And over the expanse of almost four centuries – until the beginning of the VI Century, the works of this holy father of the Church were preserved in an obscure manuscript tradition, primarily by theologians of the Alexandrian Church. The concepts in these works were known and utilised by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysios the Great – pre-eminent figures of the catechetical school in Alexandria, and also by Sainted Gregory the Theologian. Saint Dionysios of Alexandria wrote to Saint Gregory the Theologian a Commentary on the “Areopagitum”. The works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite received general Church recognition during the VI-VII Centuries. Particularly relevant are the Commentaries written on them by the Monk Maximos the Confessor (+ 662, the account about him is under 21 January). [trans. note: although many scholars suggest that the “Areopagitum” was actually written by an anonymous VI Century figure who employed the in-antiquity common pious device of borrowing an illustrious name, this in no way diminishes the profound theological significance of the works, nor discredits the sainthood of the one, or possibly subsumed sainthood of the other; it is of no essential relevance here outside of historical speculations, the “ad authoritatem” methodology of which often are of questionable veracity].
In the Russian Orthodox Church the teachings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite about the spiritual sacerdotal-principles and Deification were at first known of through the “Theology” of the Monk John Damascene (Comm. 4 December). The first Slavonic translation of the “Areopagitum” was done on Athos in about the year 1371 by a monk named Isaiah. Copies of it were widely distributed in Russia. Many of them have been preserved to the present-day in historic-manuscript collections – among which is a parchment manuscript “Works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite” belonging to Sainted Kiprian, Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’ (+ 1406) – in his own handwriting.
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.