Dionysius the Areopagite


400s?
Mystery writer

The true identity of the author known as Dionysius the Areopagite is unknown. Yet somehow this is appropriate; his writings are not concerned with things earthly, material, or historical, but are suffused with the mysterious—the otherworldly and eternal.

He was initially identified as the Dionysius converted by Paul in Athens, following the sermon at the altar "To an unknown God." Later he was thought to be St. Denis, the third-century bishop of Paris and Frankish patron saint.Scholars now believe this great spiritual writer lived in the fifth century and was perhaps a Syrian monk. Hence, many now call him the "pseudo-Dionysius." His true identity may never be known.

While scholars ponder this mystery, Dionysius pondered other mysteries, producing four treatises and ten letters that were among the most valued works in both East and West all through the Middle Ages.

Perhaps most influential was Mystical Theology, which addressed the relationship between God and the human soul. In Celestial Hierarchy, Dionysius described the nine ranks of angels, who serve as intermediaries between the divine and the earthly. (In an angel-obsessed time such as ours, that classic work may be waiting to be rediscovered.) In Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Dionysius examined how the church's sacraments enable believers to become "deified." Finally, Divine Names described the being and attributes of God. In such words, Dionysius took mystical theology beyond its previous limits.

In such works, Dionysius used a theology of negation, also called "apophatic" theology. He explored the nature of God by peeling away human illusions, describing "not what he is, but what he is not." Such an approach recognizes both that ...

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