In this episode of “Walking The Way with The Saints”, we focus on St. Dionysius the Areopagite, whom we commemorate on November 19 according to the Syriac Orthodox Liturgical calendar. Deacon Daniel Malyon presents us with his research into the life and martyrdom of the saint and how his story inspires us to use our skills and talents to dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to the purpose of God.
Though a biblical saint, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Dionysius is one of the more obscure on the calendar and one whose impact and life after his conversion is lesser known due to historical conflation with other saints.
According to tradition, St. Dionysius was born in Athens in the first century and like many young men at the time was sent to Heliopolis to study. According to Church tradition, this is where he had his first unknowing experience of Christianity, and was a witness the eclipse following Jesus’ death, stating of it that, “Either the Creator of all the world now suffers, or this visible world is coming to an end.” Whether he understood the impact of this event and he later role in the Church is unlikely, however we see in this that he was willing to consider the incarnation even at this point of his life.
Following his studies, he returned to Athens and became a member of the Areopagus. It is here that he had his encounter with St. Paul. This is recorded in Acts 17, where St. Paul travels to Athens and gives his famous Areopagus sermon. In this sermon, St. Paul uses his understanding of the similarities between Hellenic philosophy and Christianity to allow the Greeks to rationalize the truth of the Christian faith. We are told there was a mixed reaction to this, though that “Some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17:34) From here he is believed to have travelled with St. Paul learning about the faith for around three years before he returned to Athens and was enthroned as its Bishop.
Regarding St. Dionysius’ Episcopacy, there is little known, though we are told by Eusebius that he was the first Bishop of Athens. We also know from tradition that he travelled often in missions to the West and established a reputation for his work in Germania and Gaul, bringing many to the faith. His greatest journey in his Episcopacy is, however, to Jerusalem, where it is said that he visited St. Mary and was present at her dormition. Orthodox Hagiography states of him that he wrote of this to St. Paul, saying, “The grace from her overwhelmed my heart and shook my very spirit. If I did not have in mind your instruction, I should have mistaken Her for the very God.” This experience gave him even more fervor for evangelism.
The last few years of St Dionysius’ episcopacy are not written of, though we know that following the Martyrdom of St. Paul, he also desired to die for Christ. He received this in AD 96, when St. Dionysius was seized and tortured for Christ, along with Rusticus and Eleutherius. All three were beheaded under the reign of the Emperor Domitian. Following his beheading St. Dionysius’ head rolled a rather long way until it came to the feet of Catula, a Christian. She honorably buried it along with his body.
The influence of St. Dionysius is far reaching, though often due to incorrect attribution of his name to key works due to medieval confusion. This has led to scholarly confusion over works and life of St. Dionysius, often conflated with Dionysius of Corinth and later writers using the name for their own works. The most famous of these works are The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, all three of which were very influential on mystical theology, especially in the West and had a great impact on our understanding of the cosmic nature of the Liturgy.
Regardless of this, the historical example of St. Dionysius outside of these attributions is a great one, his life tells us of a young man filled with wonder and curiosity, who found the answer to these in Christ and gave his whole existence from that point to the service of God. In his life, St. Dionysius witnessed the death of Christ, the dormition of St. Mary and also his own martyrdom, making him an example of faith in his acceptance of God’s will and living and abiding in it to the end.
May the prayers and blessing of St. Dionysius be with us all and glory be to God forever, Amen!
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