The Symbolism of Hagiography

Richard RohlinSymbolic World Icon
May 9, 2023

In my previous article (The Symbolism of St. Dionysius the Areopagite) I argued that the vita1 of St. Dionysius contains within it a fractal pattern which addresses both the controversies around his historicity and works, as well as the struggles that we face when we try to recover a symbolic understanding of the cosmos. Two of the questions which have come up in subsequent conversations about St. Dionysius are worth addressing, because they reveal the challenges which we as moderns face when reading hagiography, as well as how important hagiography is to the project of recovering a symbolic understanding. These questions have been phrased a variety of ways, but I will condense them into two:

  1. “Do you really think he actually picked up his head and walked to a church?” which is to say: “that seems like an unlikely thing and I’m not inclined to believe in miracles, especially ones I don’t find in the Bible.”
  2. “Is this story of his picking up his head just a Christianization of an older story about a decapitated person carrying their own head, of which there are plenty in mythology and folklore?”

To address these two questions, I would like to attempt to lay out a symbolic understanding of how hagiography works, and make a case for why hagiography is so important to our understanding of the patterns by which reality manifests. I will begin from what might seem at first glance an unlikely starting point: Dr. Timothy Patistas’s wonderful essay “The Mystical Architect,” which uses the works of architect Christopher Alexander to comment on St. Maximos the Confessor (who was himself commenting on St. Dionysius the Areopagite). Patistas engages with Alexander’s book The Timeless Way of Building, which begins with

a kind of riddle: in the buildings and places that we most love and that feel to us the most alive, there is some quality that we cannot quite capture in words. Something “extra” is going on there which we recognize as important, although we cannot name it. Alexander then deepens the riddle: what if the undefinability of this quality is the result not of its vagueness but of its astounding specificity? This nameless quality is too precise for words, Alexander says. He refers to this characteristic of good places as “the Quality without a Name,” and he goes on to argue that the search for this quality is the fundamental search not only in building and the arts, but in every human life. We are all governed by an eros for something ineffable which, when we find it, will give order and meaning to our souls and lives. 2

In architecture, the Quality without a Name manifests itself through various patterns, which Alexander gives names like “Intimacy Gradient,” “Stair-case as a Stage,” “Common Areas at the Heart,” “Couple’s Realm,” “Children’s Realm,” “Child Caves,” “Light on Two Sides of Every Room,” and so on. These patterns, argues Patistas, are really examples of the logoi, “a term coined by St. Maximos to describe the distinct inner principle of each created thing—[the logoi] are themselves not “things” but rather… the particular ways that the Master kneels down and washes the feet of his creation.” 3 That is to say: the logoi are the ways that each thing in creation participates in the Logos “according to the particular aspect of Christ which it has been called to share.”

It should be understood that these patterns are invitations rather than impositions to participate: they represent the freedom of each created thing to participate in the Master-pattern, the Logos, who is Himself entirely free.4 One of the interesting things that arises from this is that the more deeply a thing (a house, for instance) conforms to the patterns, the more it somehow manages to transcend them, becoming a very specific and concrete instance that does not seem bound to being merely a collection of features.  

We who live in American suburbia suffer from a dearth of beautiful and functional architecture; most of the housing developments near me are full not of houses, but of buildings which seem to be trying to imitate houses. But I can think of one or two places in my life which have conformed to these patterns in a deep way: many years ago, my wife and I visited a friend’s house for weekly Scottish country dance lessons. The house was an old house, built in the Victorian era, when houses were still built with traditional patterns in mind. And yet, I never thought: “how perfectly this house conforms to the ‘intimacy gradients’ pattern.” The house simply was what it was: old, drafty, a little eccentric, full of light and good cheer, a place where people drank tea in its drawing room and danced in its great hall. I only spent a few hours there each week during a certain season of my life, and yet I can remember that it felt more like a place than any of the houses in which I’ve lived.

What does all of this have to do with hagiography, you ask? The logoi, the Patterns, do not exist merely in architecture, but are present at every level of creation. When we encounter the Patterns in storytelling, we are inclined to systematize them (for instance, the “Hero’s Journey”) or to label them as tropes. And yet, these patterns are not really a system, for a writer can only get away with slavishly following a certain narrative system for so long before their writing begins to feel dead and wooden. On the other hand, there is a way to participate in these patterns at a deeper level, and this is the work of the true artist. The more deeply a narrative participates in the patterns, the more “true,” but also the more “mythic” it becomes.

Some patterns in storytelling might include: “The Hero Gets Up After Being Knocked Down”; “Rivers as Thresholds”; “A Monster Guards the Door”; “Virgin and Child in a Cave”; “The Mentor Dies”; “Drowning as Baptism” and so on. While these are patterns we might expect to encounter in folklore, mythology, or religious literature, we also find all of them in the recent film 1917, a movie which seems far more mythic, and therefore more true, than most contemporary fantasy movies and TV shows.

Following Patistas’s line of argument, we might say that good stories participate in the “tropes, or modes, or mannerisms through which Christ the Logos lends his life to the world.”5 In defining the relationship between the Logos and the logoi, Patistas is very explicit: if the Logos (the ongoing theophany of Beauty which draws non-being towards being, according to St. Dionysius) is Christ Crucified, the logoi are “Christ crucified in us”—in rocks, in trees, in houses, in stories, and most of all in human beings, of whom the entire cosmos is symbolic. But how does a structure, or a story, consent to be crucified with Christ? Patistas explains that this happens following the Beauty-Goodness-Truth movement which is the central thesis of The Ethics of Beauty:

In the case of the doorway to a home, the co-crucifixion is also the “death” that, for example, the specific doorway “dies” to the thousand other ways that it could be a doorway, but that would not fully capture the Pattern in this particular place. The precise shape and placement and materials used—all this precision, this fixing, all this “it must be exactly this and no other way,” this nailing down, is of course a crucifixion—until the doorway becomes so Good, so fully carrying all the forces there, that it is True, and thus also radiantly Beautiful to an extent that cannot be pictured before the door has actually been built. This is not how we build doorways anymore.6

Apply this to storytelling, and I think you will understand why The Lord of the Rings has struck so many people as deeply true and also profoundly Christian, even though it contains no explicit references to the Christian religion: as a narrative, it participates in the Patterns to a high degree, which is a way of saying that it (and its author) consent to be crucified with Christ. As it does, it moves from merely “fantasy” to something mythical and profound—something which is greater than the sum of its parts. It becomes something more than a collection of tropes, almost a living thing.  

I think that this approach might help the postmodern mind understand hagiography, both because hagiography is a narrative about a particular human life, and because postmodernism has already disposed us to think of human life and personhood in terms of narrative. Houses that participate most fully in the Patterns become almost magical, the kind of places we expect to be full of magical wardrobes—or at the very least, the kinds of private nooks and crannies Alexander calls “Child Caves” where the imagination is free to play. Stories that participate fully in the Patterns become mythic, which is to say that they harmonize Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in a way which goes beyond the mere details of the narrative of the tropes of which they consist. And human lives, when they participate most fully in the Patterns—when they consent to become totally crucified with Christ—become saintly in concrete, wondrous, and wonder-working ways.

Thus the pattern “Stalwart Defender of Virginity” that we find in Artemis or Athena in Greek mythology is more fully expressed in that class of saints the Church calls “Virgin Martyrs,” and because Christ is so fully crucified within them and within their stories, the hagiography can tell us of their beauty without making them the object of our lust, as classical and neo-classical portrayals of Artemis usually did. These young women (and men, in some cases) defend their virginity not as a means of retaining their power and independence, but out of a deep eros7 for Christ, and they defended it not by violence, but by consenting to suffer with Christ. This should help us understand the phenomena which we sometimes encounter (and indeed, should expect to encounter) of common elements between pre-Christian mythology and folklore and the lives of the saints: it is the same pattern in both cases, but in the case of the Virgin Martyrs the participation is at a higher level, which is why the Virgin Martyrs are more “real,” more concrete, though their stories still contain elements of the wondrous and the mythical.

The Greek goddess Artemis and St. Lucy

These wondrous elements are not merely “wishful thinking” on the part of hagiographers, but rather what we should expect if in fact the saints are participating in the Patterns at the highest possible level, for miracles are the pinnacle of reality, and not exceptions to it8. According to St. Maximos, the participation of the saints actually goes beyond the Patterns (which are present at the level of created things), for they partake of the Uncreated Grace of God which is made present to them in the Divine Mysteries, and in noetic prayer9. This is why St. Sophrony of Essex could say that “Prayer is infinite creation, the supreme art,” for in deep prayer, God invites the saints to participate in the creation of their own personhood10. Indeed, the saints are such real persons that to the person who loves a saint and knows them well, their official vita—far from seeming far-fetched—may actually seem bare and factual compared to the reality of the holy person.

We see this even in the relationship between children and their parents: the knowledge, skills, self-control, longsuffering, and trials of a parent will seem superhuman to a young child, if they understand it at all. But by imitating the behavior of their parents they are eventually drawn deeper into the Pattern of adulthood, one which they begin by embodying only dimly (by playing “house” or “cops and robbers” or “supermarket”). When we read the story of St. Dionysius, we come to it as children come to their parents. We should not assume we understand everything that is happening in this story, any more than a child understands how his parent is able to drive a car or apply for a mortgage, for naïve literalism and materialistic skepticism alike hold numerous pitfalls. To read the story of St. Dionysius is to come into contact with a pattern (in this case, the proper relationship of our heads to our bodies) which we ourselves have been called to manifest, but here it is present at the highest possible level. It seems wondrous to us. And yet, by imitating that pattern to the best of our ability, we ourselves are raised to a more perfect personhood. This is what St. Paul has in mind when he tells us “imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” 11

Our first approach to reading hagiography must therefore be mystical, for to encounter a saint is to encounter the deep mystery of personhood. This mystical reading requires, first and foremost, an “unknowing” of the limits of our own personhood—of our own feeble attempts to participate in the Patterns. It is for this reason that the Fathers of the Church have long considered the reading of hagiography to be an ascetic discipline, one which should be cultivated specifically to counter the passion of pride, for pride is a false knowledge of one’s own personhood, an attempt to seize personhood without crucifixion.

If fairy tales show us the Patterns at their most abstract, hagiography reveals them to us at their most concrete, fully caught up within the mystery of human personhood. I believe this is what St. Irenaeus meant when he said that “the glory of God is a man fully alive,” something which he wrote en route to his martyrdom.12 If we desire to embody the Patterns of the symbolic world in a concrete way, we must look to the saints.

But how are we to read the various legends which seem to have accreted over time, especially those which have actually been rejected by official Church hagiography? In my next article, The Symbolism of St. Andrew, I will argue that such legends are what we should expect to find, for the saints possess what Patistas calls “the wildness of real persons,” and suggest that the symbolic understanding provides us with a means of reading these legends.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. The Church’s received hagiography of a saint.
  2. Patistas, Timothy. The Ethics of Beauty at 424. St Nicholas Press, January, 2020.
  3. Ibid at 437.
  4. See Luke 14:16-24.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid at 460-1.
  7. Eros is a Greek word for sexual desire, and more broadly, for deep desire or longing. This word is used by St. Dionysius and his commentators for what Patistas refers to as “Love’s mad self-forgetting,” a deep desire for communion with Christ.
  8. Pageau, Jonathan and Marceau, JP. “Miracles and Their Role in Creation.” YouTube. November, 2020.
  9. Patistas, The Ethics of Beauty at 457-8.
  10. St. Sophrony of Essex. His Life is Mine at 77. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2020.
  11. 1 Corinthians 11:1
  12. St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies at Book 4 Chapter 34 Section 7. Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885

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