Christians feast Saint Dionysius the Areopagite today. He was appointed by the Apostle Paul as the first bishop of Athens after he became a Christian while hearing Paul teach on the Areopagus (Acts 17). Among other places, Dionysius is always depicted in the icon of the Dormition with the other bishops who were there: James, the brother of the Lord, Timothy and Heirotheus. Stories about Dionysius pour forth across time like exotic treasures from a viking trove. For example, while living in Alexandria, Egypt years before his conversion, he noticed the sky darkening one day and remarked at the time that either the creator of the world must be suffering or the world must be ending (later learning that this was the day of Christ’s crucifixion). After becoming a Christian, Dionysius traveled to see Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and to hear from her directly about her son who had died, returned from the grave and ascended into heaven. Dionysius reports that if he had not known anything about Mary, he would have immediately recognized her as a remarkable and holy woman because she radiated a divine light. For most of Christian history, Dionysius was also thought to have traveled to Paris in Gaul where he died a martyr. However, most historians of hagiography now consider Saint Dionysius (or Denis) of Paris to have been another saint with the same name. Either way, Saint Dionysius of Paris is the most famous cephalophore of the many who appear in Western Christianity, and most images of this saint show him carrying his own head (with the halo sometimes with the head and sometimes where the head should be and sometimes partially in both places). The account was much loved of Dionysius the Areopagite picking up his own head after his decapitation and carrying it to the church to deliver a powerful sermon on the beauties of repentance before he finally laid himself down to rest.
Among the many potent and beautiful materials connected to Dionysius the Areopagite, are a set of astounding writings that patristic scholars continue to marvel over. Most scholars today would say that these writings are by a later person working within his school of teaching:
- Divine Names (Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων)
- Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας)
- Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας)
- Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας)
- Ten epistles
Despite having a reputation for extraordinary (almost alienating) profundity and depth, these writings are loved by the whole church and considered well within the framework of all that was shared by the mothers and fathers of the church within its earliest years.
Not knowing Greek and being one who loves to find excellent shortcuts in my learning, I recently read a summary of all that Dionysius taught by a leading contemporary American scholar (professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University). I highly recommend Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric David Perl. While focusing on the core metaphysical system that is astoundingly consistent and rigorous throughout the works of Dionysius, Perl (a devout Christian himself) does cover angelology and the nature of sin along with the incarnation. In fact, Perl’s book concludes: “Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the ‘principle and perfection of all hierarchies’ is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.”
So what is taught by this school of Saint Dionysius? Everything around us each moment that we see, feel, smell, hear and touch is a manifestation of God—a theophany. Everything that exists does so only because it is intelligible by our nous (the mind’s eye or the mind of the heart). We cannot ultimately distinguish between intelligibility and existence. All intelligibility is also a simultaneous revelation of God and a hiding of God in one and the same event. God is not one of all the things that exist but is instead the source of all that is revealed or made intelligible. This means that God does not exist but makes all existence possible, that God is no thing but is revealed by all things. This relationship between God and creation defies explanation under the categories of either monism or dualism and is sometimes called non-dualism. All of creation is simply the manifestation of God while also the veil that keeps God eternally hidden.
Sensations (our five physical senses) inform our nous (mind’s eye or inner perception) but are not needed in order for our mind to see things. We can perceive the life of angels, for example, without the need of our physical senses. However, despite expounding an understanding of the world that makes spiritual bodies more substantial than material bodies, Dionysius does not in any way disparage or undermine material things. He writes explicitly that Plotinus was wrong about matter being evil and develops a line of thought from Proclus to argue that matter is a direct gift of God and a revelation of God’s own love, life and goodness. Dionysius repeatedly clarifies that there is no lack of divine goodness or power within any of the furthest reaches of the hierarchies or emanations that connect together the world revealed to us by God. It is not that spirit is closer to God and matter is further from God. Both come directly from God, but matter depends up on spirit and mind for its existence in a hierarchy of being that continually holds everything together. “The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God.”
There would be pages to write here in summarizing the wonderful and life-giving teachings that we receive in such clear terms from the school of Dionysius. He clearly identifies sin, evil and suffering and states the case most boldly and unequivocally that these have not final place in the life of God into which we are invited and which is restored for us in incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Dionysius goes so far as to say that any attempt to give a reason or a purpose to evil (any kind of theodicy) is itself the greatest of evils. Evil is a contingent, purposeless and irrational lack being or intelligibility that ultimately can only be made full and good.
When we see and feel the sensible world around us, we gather all of these sensations up into a wholeness of perception until we see all of these sensations united together with the higher forms that hold them together. In this form of seeing with our mind, there is no leaving of any physical sensations behind but a weaving together of them all so that we can perceive them as a unified whole within the life of God who is both fully revealed by this wholeness of vision (the immanent and immediate source of all that is) and entirely hidden (transcendently apart from every thing as the one and constant source of each thing’s existence). God is, as Augustine says—at one and the same time—higher than my utmost and more inward than my innermost. God’s transcendence is the result of his profound immanence.