Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Dionysios the Areopagite
Meet St. Dionysios the Areopagite.
St. Dionysios (commemorated October 3) is said to be the same Dionysios who was converted to Christianity by the preaching of St. Paul in Athens. St. Paul gave his famous sermon on the Unknown God of the Athenians on a place called the Areopagus, the place where the court of appeals (also called the Areopagus) met. It was thus among lawyers and educated men that St. Paul proclaimed that God “does not dwell in temples made by hands.” While most of the hearers that day in Athens rejected and mocked St. Paul’s teaching, a few were converted and two are listed by name: a woman named Damaris and one Dionysios the Areopagite.
Now, not to go too far down a historical rabbit hole, but I should probably mention that many scholars dispute whether or not the writings attributed to St. Dionysios, known collectively as the Corpus Dionysiacum, were, in fact, written by the same Dionysios mentioned in Acts or by anyone in the first century for that matter. It is claimed that the language in his writings and some of the liturgical allusions he makes could not possibly have been historically appropriate until the fifth or sixth century after Christ. Thus, in spite of his commemoration by the Church as both the Pauline convert and the author of an elegant body of theological writing, you may hear the Athenian lawyer referred to as “Dionysios the Areopagite” and the theological writer as “Pseudo-Dionysios.”
Whew. Let’s crawl back out of that one. St. Maximos the Confessor, who relied heavily on the writings of St. Dionysios for his own theological thought, accepted the Church’s defense that there was only one Dionysios and that he was the convert of St. Paul in Athens and the author. That’s good enough for me.
What’s really important about St. Dionysios is not the century in which he lived, but what he shared with us through his complex, but beautiful writings. St. Dionysios thought a lot about words and images and meaning. He wondered at what the relationship between the words and images of Scripture and the reality they described could be. Was God actually a pillar of fire in Exodus? In what way are the angels actually winged men and wheels of fire and six-winged, many-eyed creatures? Why do we call God Wisdom and Love and Truth? How is that we could ever be called wise or loving or truthful if these are the names or attributes of God? How can we know God if He is of a different nature than any created thing?
Big questions, right? Here’s a little of what I take away from the exposition St. Dionysios gives of his own experience of God.
God goes outside of Himself to create, and so all Creation is outside of and apart from God, and yet, in creating, God imbues all things with Himself in a manner proper to their purpose, their logos or ordering principle. All things–from blades of grass to words on a page to the angels in heaven to you and me– are intended to reveal God while never encompassing or defining him. Thus, when the sun gives light, it symbolizes the Illumination which Christ brings; when a dog is living, it symbolizes the Life which God alone gives; when a man is good, it symbolizes the only One who is good. Dionysios is quick to remind us, though, that while God is the source of illumination, of life, of goodness, he is actually beyond all those things. You can’t get stuck in the image. As soon as you think you’ve found God in a reflection in the world, you realize that He is not there. Dionysios sees this not as a flaw in the Creation, but as its divine purpose–that everything created can point to the Creator without itself becoming an idol in His place. Our very being is found in our ability to be icons of God, in our reflecting the One Who Is. The entire created order reveals God in its very existence, and yet nothing in the world is anything like God.
That’s a lot to take in and really just a little of what St. Dionysios has to say. Here are a few more of his contributions:
- An extensive description of the ranks of the angels
- A thorough description of the ranks of the clergy and the order of the Liturgy
- Ever hear of apophatic theology? Dionysios is your guy.
Up for a challenging, but beautiful and enlightening read? Check out the full works of St. Dionysios.
God is all things in all things and nothing in any. -On the Divine Names VII.3