Sermon on St. Dionysius the Areopagite

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite. 20th c. mosaic, Athens. St. Dionysius the Areopagite. 20th c. mosaic, Athens.
How did the learned Athenian Dionysius, who is mentioned in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, become St Dionysius, whom we know from the Church calendar?

His first connection with the Gospel is in the tradition that, as a young man Dionysius studied in Alexandria in Egypt. This, with its huge library, was probably the greatest centre of learning in the ancient world. Dionysius was present there at the time of Christ’s Crucifixion. Seeing the sun darkened at that time, he is said to have uttered these words: ‘Either God the Creator is suffering, or else the end of the world is coming’. These words alone show the spiritual sensitivity of the young Dionysius and also prefigure his future destiny.

Returning to Athens and increasing in the wisdom of the age, Dionysius became a member of what was the Supreme Court of Athens, the Areopagus, which was situated just near the Acropolis in Athens. This is why St Dionysius is known as ‘the Areopagite’. A wise man who believed deeply in a God, but did not know Him, Dionysius was to recognize the True God only in the preaching of the Apostle Paul, as related in the book of the Acts. Thus ‘The Unknown God’ became known to Dionysius. Together with his wife Damaris, he received baptism from the Apostle Paul and later became Bishop of Athens and one of the Seventy Apostles.

After the martyrdom of his spiritual father the Apostle Paul, Dionysius conceived of the desire to follow in his footsteps. Thus, he left Athens and travelled to Greek settlements in the West. According to tradition, he ended up, not among the many Greeks in Rome, but elsewhere among Greeks in the Roman Empire, in Gaul, in what is today Paris. It was here at the end of the first century that the elderly Dionysius found martyrdom. On a hill just north of Paris, still known as Montmartre, the mount of the martyrs, he was crowned with heavenly glory together with two companions, the priest Rusticus and the Greek deacon Eleutherius.

In France St Dionysius came to be known as St Denis, becoming the Patron-Saint of France and his Cathedral became the famed place of burial of the French Kings. The French name St Denis was taken into English and corrupted to ‘Sidney’. So today we can consider that the patron of anyone called Sidney, and the patron of the Australian city of Sydney, is St Dionysius.

While in Athens, St Dionysius wrote much about mystical theology, no doubt inspired by the Apostle Paul’s experiences, when he had been ‘caught up to the third heaven’, and notably about the angels. Unfortunately, we have lost all the original manuscripts of these works. Fortunately, over 400 years afterwards, another writer set down the thoughts and experiences of St Dionysius. Adding to his insights, this later but unknown writer described the mystical traditions of St Dionysius, the Greek philosopher who had found Christ.

In St Dionysius, we see how humility and therefore faith – for without humility there can be no faith – are the source of healing of the mind and the spirit. Without humility, no philosopher, however great his mind, can find answers to deep questions. And without humility, no human soul can find peace. At the time of Dionysius, there were many philosophers in Greece, who had naturally rejected the silly fables of Greek mythology and its pantheon of ridiculous ‘gods’, but were too proud to admit of the existence of a Creator. Among those philosophers in particular were the contrasting self-promoting Epicureans and self-denying Stoics, mentioned in the book of Acts.

Unlike them, Dionysius admitted that there was a God, but was honest enough to admit that he did not know who He was. However, he did have the humility to recognize the previously Unknown God in the preaching of the Apostle. In this, Dionysius was quite different from the proud Athenians. We note that the Apostle Paul did not stay long in Athens, but moved on to less pretentious, less proud cities in Greece and elsewhere, in order to preach Christ, with greater success. It was only in Dionysius and Damaris that in Athens the Apostle found people who had enough humility to confess the Crucified and Risen Saviour.

In St Dionysius, we meet the merchant who found ‘the pearl of great price’, as is described in today’s Gospel. Dionysius found the Creator of the Universe and the Master of his life, who gave meaning to everything and so transformed his life. In St Dionysius, we meet one who knew a great deal in worldly terms, but yet humbly realized that in real, spiritual terms he knew nothing. And it was in humbly confessing that he knew nothing, that Dionysius came to know everything that man needs to know. This is the opposite of those ‘know-it-alls’, who think that they know everything, but in reality know nothing.

Thus, we see why faith thrives wherever there is humility, but dies wherever there is pretension and pride. Thus our Lord found faith among the fishermen of provincial Galilee, in Canaan and Samaria, but found crucifixion among the learned scribes and pharisees of Jerusalem. And greater faith is often to be found in small and poor parishes in the country than in large and rich parishes, in seats of ‘learning’ and great cities.

Thus we learn that Thus we learn that wherever there is humility, there is faith. And faith is the source of healing, not only of our bodies, but also of our minds and souls. It is only in humility and faith that the philosophers find healing for their proud minds. For as our Saviour Himself said to us: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. In other words: Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit healing of mind and soul and body.

Holy Father Dionysius Pray to God For Us!

Amen.

Orthodox England

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