The Symbolism of St. Dionysius the Areopagite

Richard RohlinSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

The life of St. Dionysius the Areopagite represents several challenges to the modern mind. There are, of course, a whole bevvy of scholars who question the idea of whether such a man even existed, still more who hold that the important corpus of works traditionally attributed to him actually originated from another hand many centuries later. This post is not meant to address these claims. However, I would argue that even the scholarly dismissal of the historical St. Dionysius’ actually participates symbolically with his story.

According to his life as found in the Synaxarion of the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Dionysius the Areopagite was a disciple of St. Paul, converted to Christianity when the latter preached his famous sermon on the Aeropagus (Acts 17). An important figure in the life of the early Church, St. Dionysius traveled with St. Paul and was present at the Dormition of the Theotokos. He continued his missionary activities after St. Paul’s martyrdom, travelling to Western Europe where he was eventually martyred in Gaul. His feast is celebrated on October 3.[1]

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the four works traditionally attributed to St. Dionysius: On the Celestial Hierarchy, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, On the Names of God, and On Mystical Theology. These works were fundamental to the thinking of authors as diverse as St. Maximus the Confessor and Thomas Aquinas (the latter of whom quotes Dionysius either second-most of any author, or the most, depending on who is counting). Often accused of representing a neo-Platonic interpretation of Christianity (and thus, some scholars have actually suggested that the author was himself a crypto-pagan), these works are part of the bedrock of the mystical theology of the Eastern Church. Thus, in the words of Orthodox theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1990), “Generally speaking the writings of Dionysius have been in the Orthodox world the grounds for the affirmation of the active presence of God in the life of the Church and in the world.”[2]

Importantly for students of Symbolism, it is in the Dionysian corpus that we first encounter the use of “hierarchy” as an abstract noun.

To the traditionally minded Christian, the importance of these works on the one hand, and the abundant scholarly skepticism about them on the other, represents a challenge. But the attentive student of symbolism will find these things resolved in the account of the saint’s martyrdom:

“After the death of the Apostle Paul, Saint Dionysius wanted to continue with his work, and therefore went off preaching in the West, 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 a persecution against Christians by the pagan authorities, all three confessors were arrested and thrown into prison. By night Saint Dionysius celebrated the Divine Liturgy with angels of the Lord. 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 fell down dead there. A pious woman named Catulla buried the relics of the saint.”[3]

Scholarship has separated the “body” (Latin: corpus), in the sense of the written text and its historical context from its “head”, in the sense of its source, origin, or organizing principle. For instance, On the Divine Names begins with an address to “Timothy the Fellow-Elder,” the recipient of two New Testament epistles and a fellow disciple of St. Paul.[4] By accepting the theological propositions of this text while discarding its proposed author, namely St Dionysius, and audience, namely Timothy, we separate the ideas of St. Dionysius from their “body,” that is, their historical embodiment in a particular text sent by a particular person to another particular person. Once this separation has been made, modern scholarship is free to try to fit that head to any number of other bodies, be they Neo-Platonist or crypto-pagan.

I would also suggest, though, that the story of St. Dionysius has a deep symbolic resonance for those of us who are seeking to recover a more pre-modern or symbolic understanding of the world—particularly  those of us who have been led by that quest into the bosom of traditional Christianity. It has been noted in many places (notably here and here by writers operating from within the Reformed tradition) that the rejection of a sacramental or symbolic understanding of the cosmos by the Protestant Reformers birthed secularism, and the accompanying estrangement of our “spirituality” from the world around us. Some hold that the rot set in farther back, placing its genesis in the debates about the nature of the Eucharist—and the consequent decoupling of symbol and reality—which took place in Western Europe during the final centuries of the first millennium.[5]

Regardless of its origin, we can see that this decoupling (one might say “decapitation”) has resulted in two closely related essential assumptions which today inform most of Western spirituality: the first is the idea that only those things which are “spiritual” matter, and that the body is at best a useful appendage ultimately to be discarded. The second is that “spiritual” things are thoughts that you think in your brain. Examples of this paradigm are too numerous to count:

First, I can remember when my aging grandmother was struggling with senility at the age of ninety-three, several people in my family made constant references to the fact that her soul had already mostly left her “earth-suit” because they equated her soul with her mind.

Second, for most Christians living in America today, sincerely thinking a deeply-held belief about God is considered salvific, while believing that an action taken with the body (such as passing through the waters of Holy Baptism, or receiving the Eucharist) is considered “works-righteousness.”

Finally, I would call your attention to a recent meme, one of several I have seen on social media over the last few months claiming that “you are a brain.” The humor of the meme relies on the fact that most people would agree that they are their brains, and that their bodies are not a fundamental part of their personhood.

We could summarize this problem simply by saying that our heads have been “disconnected” from our bodies.

The same scholars who reject St. Dionysius as the author of the Dionysian corpus would no doubt scoff at the idea that the martyr, after being decapitated, picked up his head and walked to a nearby church, where his head and body together were collected for burial. And yet, we see in this story the symbolic resolution both of the question of St. Dionysius, and of the crisis of embodiment which faces us today.

The Church continues to celebrate the feast of a historical St. Dionysius each year, and even allowing for scholarly tensions surrounding the authorship of the Dionysian corpus, the Church nonetheless remembers these important works in the context of this feast. By celebrating him as the author of these works, the Church shows us that they are not the disembodied theology of a Neo-Platonist nor the writings of a crypto-pagan, but part of the tradition of the experience of God which has been embodied in a specific historic community. Thus, at Vespers on the eve of his feast, the Church proclaims:

“Having entered in mind into the innermost darkness of the unapproachable light, thou didst learn the divine enigmas of the Word, O sacred Dionysius, disciple of Christ, and on earth thou didst manifestly explain the ranks of the angels.”
“The divine Paul, speaking forth publicly, fished for thee with the hook of grace, O wise one, and made thee a teacher of the sacred mysteries and a beholder of ineffable things, seeing in thee a chosen vessel. With him do thou pray, O right eloquent Dionysius, that those who hymn thee with love be saved.”[6]

In the Church, then, the head and body of St. Dionysius are reunited.

For those of us who seek to recover a symbolic understanding of the world, I would suggest that the story of St. Dionysius offers the only real long-term solution to the disembodiment which we have inherited from our culture. It will not be enough simply to read our way through all of the right reading lists, to listen to YouTube videos, to engage in online debates, or even to meet for discussions with like-minded people. We will not solve the problems of a disembodied reality merely by continuing to discuss them in a disembodied way (one is reminded of the phase “talking heads” used to refer to pundits on the airwaves). Ultimately, we must find a place where mind and body can be reunited so that personhood can be recovered.

Let’s pick up our heads and go to Church.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. “Hieromartyr Dionysius the Areopagite, Bishop of Athens.” Translated by Stephen Janos, Orthodox Church in America, 2001,[][]
  2. Stăniloae, Dumitru. Edited by John Sanidopoulos. Translated by Vlad Protopopescu, The Dionysian Authorship of the “Corpus Areopagiticum” According to Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, 13 Oct. 2009,[]
  3. St. Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works at 49. Paulist Press, 1987.[]
  4. See Schmemman, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, November, 2018. and Patistas, Timothy. The Ethics of Beauty. St Nicholas Press, January, 2020.[]
  5. Lambertsen, Isaac E. The Menaion of the Orthodox Church, Vol. 2 October, at 41. St John of Kronstadt Press, January, 2007.[]

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