The Priest Martyrs Dionysius (Denis), Bishop of Athens, Presbyter Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius
Commemorated on October 3
The Priest Martyrs
Dionysius (Denis), Bishop of Athens, Presbyter Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius
were killed at Lutetium (ancient name of Paris) in Gaul [modern-day France,
where Saint Dionysius is honoured as the patron saint of France, under the
French name-forms "Denis" or "Denys"]. This occurred in the
year 96 (another source suggests the year 110, during the time of persecution
under the Roman emperor Dometian (81-96). Saint Dionysius lived originally in
the city of Athens. He was raised there and received a fine classical Greek
education. He then set off to Egypt, where he studied astronomy at the city of
Heliopolis. Together with his friend Apollophonos he witnessed the solar
eclipse occurring at the moment of the death by Crucifixion on the Cross of the
Lord Jesus Christ. "Either now the Creator of all the world doth suffer,
or this visible world is coming to an end", – Dionysius said then. Upon
his return to Athens from Egypt, he was chosen to be a member of the Areopagus
Council (Athenian high court) ["Areo-pagus" means literally
Mars(Ares)-hill, a location in Athens anciently].
When the holy Apostle Paul preached at the place of the Athenian Areopagus (Acts 17: 16-34), Dionysius accepted his salvific proclamation and became a Christian [trans. note: Dionysius was one of the few converts of Saint Paul at Athens. It is very significant and highly symbolic that the pagan Greeks had situated at the Areopagus the "altar to the Unknown God", Whom actually Saint Paul preached the knowledge of. The subsequent "via negativa" or "apophaticism" of Saint Dionysius is an especially important contribution to both theology and philosophy]. Over the course of three years Saint Dionysius remained a companion of the holy Apostle Paul in preaching the Word of God. Later on, the Apostle Paul established him as bishop of the city of Athens. And in the year 57 Saint Dionysius was present at the repose of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Already during the lifetime of the Mother of God, Saint Dionysius had journeyed especially from Athens to Jerusalem, so as to meet Her. He wrote to his teacher the Apostle Paul: "I witness by God, that besides the verymost God Himself, there be naught else in such measure filled with Divine power and grace. No one amongst mankind can fully grasp in mind, what I beheld. I confess before God: when I was with John, who did shine out amidst the Apostles, like the sun in the sky – when I was brought before the countenance of the Most Holy Virgin, I experienced an inexpressible sensation. Before me gleamed a sort of Divine radiance. It transfixed my spirit. I perceived the fragrance of indescribable aromatics and was filled with such delight, that my very body became faint, and my spirit fain but could bear these signs and marks of eternal beatitude and Heavenly power. The grace from Her overwhelmed my heart, and shook my very spirit. Had I not in mind thine instruction, I should have mistaken Her for the very God. It is impossible to stand before greater blessedness than this, which I then perceived".
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 account about the Sobor-Assemblage of the Bodiless Powers of Heaven is located under 8 November).
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.