St Dionysis the Areopagite (96 AD)

Memory celebrated October 3

St Dionysius the Areopagite was one of the first Athenian disciples of the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:34) and the first bishop of Athens. He was martyred in Paris and is commemorated on October 3. A number of works (including The Divine Names, Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchies, and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy) have been attributed to him which have influenced basic Orthodox teaching and inspired later Orthodox theologians such as St Maximus the Confessor (7th century). It is generally accepted that these works, in their present form, were probably written in the fifth century, because they seem to have been unknown to earlier Christian centuries, and their style and content indicate that they are later in date. Irrespective of the authorship of these works, the Orthodox world finds no difficulty in regarding them as in the tradition of St Dionysius, and through him, of St Paul the Apostle.

The following is an example of the work attributed to St Dionysius. Here he uses the language of paradox and symbolism to describe God, in terms that we can be understand.

Leave the senses and workings of the intellect, and all that the senses and intellect can perceive, and all that is not and that is; and through unknowing reach out, so far as this is possible, towards oneness with Him who is beyond all being and knowledge. In this way, through an uncompromising, absolute and pure detachment from yourself and from all things, transcending all things and released from all, you will be led upwards towards that radiance of the divine darkness which is beyond all being.

Entering the darkness that surpasses understanding, we shall find ourselves brought, not just to brevity of speech, but to perfect silence and unknowing.

Emptied of all knowledge, man is joined in the highest part of himself, not with any created thing, nor with himself, nor with another, but with the One who is altogether unknowable; and, in knowing nothing, he knows in a manner that surpasses understanding.

St Dionysius uses the symbol of 'darkness' with the meaning expressed in Exodus 20:21 - The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. God is not called 'darkness', but appears to dwell in darkness because of our inability to grasp His essence or inner-nature. In other words, the darkness is in us, and not in Him.

This is in accordance with St John Chrysostom (407), who states that we can not behold God's nature or essence, but He chooses to manifest Himself in forms that we can comprehend.

However, the different forms under which God is said to have appeared, proves that these manifestations were merely condescensions to the weakness of human nature, which requires something that the eye can see and the ear can hear. They were only manifestations of the Deity adapted to man's capacity; not the Divine Nature itself which is simple, incomposite, and devoid of shape. So, also, when it is said of God the Son that He is 'in the bosom of the Father', when he is described as 'standing', or 'sitting on the right hand of God', these expressions must not be interpreted in too material a sense; they are expressions accommodated to our understanding, to convey an idea of such an intimate union and equality between the two Persons ... is in itself a mystery.

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