by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
In last Sunday’s Epistle Reading, St Paul said, “…it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6-15).
Two-thousand years ago, a young boy, named after a pagan god, Dionysios, was brought by his father to Alexandria Egypt to study at the great library there and be given a classical education. He was a thoughtful and reflective boy, curious and always eager to learn more about the world around him. On a walk into the desert one spring day, he experienced a supernatural event. The sun suddenly went dark from noon till three in the afternoon (Matthew 27:45). Little Dionysios had never seen anything like it…and so he took careful note of the date and time of day. Since the sky had taken on the deepest and darkest azure he’d ever seen, it seemed to him that there was something involving God’s heart in this mystical occurrence. So, when he wrote down the time and date, he also wrote what he inwardly sensed from the remarkable event, “God suffers.”
Eventually, that young boy grew up, and moved to Athens, Greece. There, he found a beloved wife, and together, they began raising a family. He was a faithful pagan and a member of the city’s council, who regularly met at the Areopagus on Mars Hill. The city culture was such that various types of philosophers of Athens consistently came there to share and trade their knowledge, and many of the city’s inhabitants routinely gathered there, hoping to gather new ideas for discussion.
A man name Paul (part of a new religious sect called Christians) had recently arrived in Athens and was stirring up a lot of attention (Acts 17:16-34). Every morning he went to the Jewish synagogue to have conversations with Jews. Then, every afternoon, he would go from the synagogue to the marketplace to buy lunch for himself and engage in a lively dialogue with any of the pagans he could find there. People were happy to talk with him, because in Athenian society everyone enjoyed thinking—interrelating in exchanges about science and art and religion and any kind of wisdom that could be gleaned. This was why people of that time so loved living in Athens. Paul, who had a classical Greek education (trained at the feet of Gamaliel, the most famous and highly esteemed teacher in his day) was articulate enough to contrast and compare their wisdom with an unconventional, Transcendent Wisdom, who existed from before all time. One day in the town square, Paul was engaging with several people about the Good News of Jesus…and the resurrection of all people through Him. But Paul’s message proved to be so different from anything they’d ever heard before—so astonishing—that they had to bring him straight to the Areopagus, so that this Gospel could be contended with by the most learned of their philosophers, inspired by the idols that surrounded them. So, after bringing Paul there, they asked him, “Tell us again about this new teaching you’ve been proclaiming. Can you please explain to us what it all means?”
There on the hill, amidst statue after statue—a sea of the pagan gods—Paul found himself also surrounded by a great crowd of learned people, one of whom was Dionysios the Areopagite. Trying to whet their appetite, Paul wisely began with this observation: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. So, you are unfamiliar with the very thing you worship—and this God is the One I am here to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, is the Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us.” Then quoting from their famous Cretan, philosophical poet, Epimenides, Paul asserted, “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” And then quoting from another famous Roman, Stoic philosopher, Aratus, Paul added, “We are His offspring.” In a brilliant move, Paul was using one of their own pagan gods (“The Unknown God”) and quoting from their own pagan philosophers and poets to reveal to them the One True God. Saint Paul continued on, saying, “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that this God is like a humanly fashioned image of gold or silver or stone. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to change the way they think about God and their relationship with Him. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”
There, in the shadow of the Parthenon, the Apostle Paul went on to describe, in great detail, the day of Jesus’ death, when the sun went supernaturally dark for three hours. Dionysius, remembering the miraculous event from his boyhood, asked Paul how many years ago this was. When Paul told him the date and time, Dionysius was shocked with astonishment. That was the incomprehensible midday nightfall he’d recorded all those years earlier, as a boy…and come to find out, God had indeed suffered terribly. All this time, that transcendently deep azure of brilliant darkness had haunted the soul of Dionysius, and now by God’s grace, this mystery was being revealed through Saint Paul’s teaching. Dionysius immediately requested that he and his entire family be baptized into Christ. Later, he was elevated to the role of Bishop of Athens. Still carrying within his soul that brilliant azure of divine darkness he experienced as a child, he wrote inexhaustibly about the mystical knowledge of God. Although his original manuscripts were lost, his scholarly disciples reconstructed them and his teachings from memory. This is why the writings we have from him are sometimes referred to as Pseudo-Dionysios.
In the teachings of St Dionysius, we see how humility and faith are the only way one finds healing for the mind and the spirit. Regardless of intellectual depths one’s mind can fathom, without the humility of wonder, no philosopher, can find answers to life’s deepest questions. And without humility, no human soul can find peace. Only a few, like Dionysios, were humble enough to realize that there might be a God they didn’t yet know—a God who transcends anything the pagans could dream up in their wisdom.
St Dionysius is often depicted against a backdrop of azure blue, reminding us of that time in his childhood when God revealed Himself from the divine mystery of Holy Friday’s midday darkness. Sometimes also, instead of a blue background, St Dionysios icons portray him with an azure halo, shining in the brilliant darkness of God’s hidden reserve. It speaks of our hope of seeing beyond vision; knowing union with God beyond knowledge; and of entering into the presence of the One who is beyond being.