The intrepid explorer of Patristic literature first encounters the writings of Dionysius shrouded in a gray mist of neo-platonic jargon and monastic mysticism. Appearing and reappearing in the dense fog, like a distant mountain peak, is the enigmatic term: hierarchy. Dionysius the Areopagite, or the 5th century Syriac writer most scholars believe the actual writer to be, returns repeatedly to this concept. Hierarchy is the lens through which Dionysius perceives the entire cosmos: the angelic realm, the Church, and the human soul. In the course of this paper, we will unravel Dionysius’ concept of hierarchy, explaining its relationship to revelation and symbol. We will demonstrate the close parallels between Dionysius’ thought and other Syriac writings: The Liber Graduum and St. Ephraim’s Hymns on Paradise. Finally, we will offer a solution to the apparent disparity of the mediated vision of God met with in Dionysius’ Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, and the unmediated vision witnessed in his Mystical Theology. At this paper’s conclusion, we hope to have cleared some of the fog surrounding Dionysius’ concept of hierarchy and to have argued for both the necessity of hierarchy and our ultimate transcendence of it.
To begin simply, a hierarch refers merely to a leader of sacred rites, or to put it more plainly: a high priest. But, Dionysius is not one to keep things simple. Andrew Louth reminds us that Dionysius expected his readers to be aware of the etymology of hierarchy, being constructed of two words: sacred and principle source. Especially the idea of “first cause” had far reaching implications for how Dionysius understood and developed this word. We can begin to measure the profound depth of his concept of hierarchy in the definition he provides in the third chapter of his CH. He writes, “If one talks then of hierarchy, what is meant is a certain perfect arrangement, and image of the beauty of God which sacredly works out the mysteries of its own enlightenment.” Thus, hierarchy is not a static condition but a dynamic progression that both deifies and is deified. It is not a single entity but a series, an arrangement and ordered (τάξις) sequence of roles. It is the “first cause” in as much as it is the sacred source by which enlightenment passes from the highest order to the lowest. Dionysius explains further, “on each level, predecessor hands on to successor whatever of the divine light he has received and this, in providential proportion, is spread out to every being.” Mediation is inherent to Dionysius’ concept of hierarchy. In the Ecclesiastical Hierarchies he writes, “It is the all-holy ordinance of the divinity that secondary things should be lifted up to the most divine ray through the mediation of the primary things.”
This raises the inevitable question: does Dionysius’ hierarchy necessarily reserve a direct relationship and knowledge of God to a select few, leaving all else to rely upon a vast series of mediations? Not a few scholars have accused Dionysius of imbibing the wine of Neo-Platonism to the detriment of a perceived sobriety of early Christian ecclesiology. John Meyendorff, in his book Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, criticizes Dionysius’ vision as being “Fenced in within the structure of the hierarchies, the relationships between God and man are conceived in a purely individualist manner and are completely determined by the system of intermediaries.” In the realm of the ecclesiastical hierarchies, “The Dionysian hierarch,” Meyendorff continues, “is essentially a Gnostic and one who is initiated into a mystery.”6 The Church as a community, Meyendorff fears, has been forsaken and exchanged for a Church where only the sacred ministers receive unmediated divine vision behind an impregnable veil of mystery while the laity are made to stand outside in awe, receiving divine illumination only in mitigated doses.
There is no denying Dionysius use of Neo-platonic conceptions. However, I believe that such a disparaging view of Dionysius could be reversed by a shift in orientation. The scholars Andrew Louth and Alexander Golitzin would have us look at the hierarchies from the perspective of revelation and symbol. Louth writes, “The hierarchies are a vehicle for Theophany: they are a Theophany.” Dionysius relates, “All hierarchic operations have this in common, to pass the light of God on to the initiates.” In other words, each order of the hierarchy illumines those orders below them only by becoming Light and hence a revelation of Light. “For those transcendent rays,” Dionysius explains, “prefer to give off the fullness of their splendor more purely and luminously in mirrors made in their image.” Louth summarizes by noting that this deifying Light “is not a light that shines on the created order, but rather through it.”
Golitzin goes a step further by presenting Dionysius’s vision of hierarchy as symbol. He writes, “Hierarchy forms, in its entirety, a holy σύμβολον, a figure of angel’s beauty and of God’s, a meeting of heaven and earth that takes place at once in the assembly of the Church, and within the human heart.” Golitzin is speaking here specifically of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which he sees as the core and pivot of the entire Corpus Dionysium. In the hierarchy of the Church’s symbols—the architecture of the building, the orders of the clergy and laity, the baptismal font and the holy altar—“one is given to behold mysteries [ἀενίγματα] of contemplation worthy of God represented in mirrors natural and suited to human beings.” But here, Golitzin betrays a much different understanding of symbol than its conventional meaning.
We see symbol typically as something—a figure, an action—that stands in the place of or reminds us of something ontologically different. Sebastian Brock, in his introduction to St. Ephraim’s Hymns on Paradise, provides us with a patristic understanding of symbol, shared by Ephraim, Dionysius, Maximus, and many others. He writes, “The Fathers employ the term ‘symbol’ in a strong sense, quite different from that of modern usage: for them a symbol actually participates in some sense with the spiritual reality it symbolizes.” Symbol or in the Greek σύμ-βολον, means literally a bringing together of two realities, a re-presentation. The symbol and what it symbolizes are therefore intimately linked ontologically. Hierarchy as symbol is then an order or arrangement that makes present a reality otherwise hidden. Before examining this concept further in the CD, I would like to look at two examples in the Syriac patristic tradition predating Dionysius.
The Liber Graduum or Book of Steps is a late 4th or early 5th century work by an anonymous Syriac writer. In its thirty discourses, the author argues for the necessity of participation in the visible Church. He writes, XII.2 (120) “For our Lord and His first and last preachers did not erect in vain the Church [. . .] It is through these visible things, however, that we shall be in these heavenly things, which are invisible to eyes of flesh, our bodies becoming temples and our hearts altars.” In this admonition, the author presents a hierarchy in which the visible Church is the means of ascent to the heavenly Church, and the heavenly Church to the Church of human person and the altar of the human heart. Nonetheless, each Church, each hierarchy within the greater hierarchy, is absolutely essential. This is made perfectly clear in the twelfth discourse, where the author writes, “Without this visible church a person will not live in that [church] of the heart and in that higher [heavenly church.]” Like Dionysius, the Liber Graduum, sees the Church—the ecclesiastical hierarchy—as symbol within symbol.
The Liber Graduum further arranges the visible Church into three orders: The Sick, the Upright, and the Perfect. We find this same pattern repeated in St. Ephraim’s Hymns on Paradise. In this collection of poems, written sometime in the mid-4th century, St. Ephraim presents a vivid image of Paradise as a mountain, comprised of a hierarchy of three levels. In his second hymn, he explains, “The lowest part [is] for the repentant, the middle for the righteous, the heights for those victorious, while the summit is reserved for God’s Presence.” He says later, “To the degree that one level is higher than another, so too is its glory the more sublime.”
But Paradise, in Ephraim’s vision, is itself a symbol, both of the Church and of the human person. We are in fact a hierarchy of body, soul, and spirit. In his ninth “Hymn on Paradise,” Ephraim sings, “Far more than the body is the soul, and more glorious still than the soul is the spirit, but more hidden than the spirit is the Godhead.” Yet, in no sense is the body inferior to the soul, nor the soul to the spirit. St. Ephraim continues, “At the end the body will put on the beauty of the soul, the soul will put on that of the spirit, while the spirit shall put on the very likeness of God’s majesty” In other words, each lower participates in the glory of the higher faculty, and finally in God’s uncreated energies, without losing its distinction and particular characteristics. Hierarchy, in its realized, eschatological fulfillment is not the ascension of the superior over the inferior, but rather the perfect arrangement wherein God’s Light penetrates all.
Having formed this backdrop, we return to our earlier question: does Dionysius’ hierarchy necessarily reserve a direct relationship and knowledge of God to a select few, leaving all else to rely upon a series of mediations? Observed in isolation, such passages as the following would suggest such a model. Dionysius writes in his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy:
“Every hierarchy, including the one being praised by us now, has one and the same power throughout all its hierarchal endeavor, namely the hierarch himself [and here Dionysius has in mind the person of the bishop], and how its being and proportion and order are in him divinely perfected and deified, and are then imparted to those below him according to their merit, whereas the sacred deification occurs in him directly from God. Subordinates, in turn, are to pursue their superiors and they also promote the advance of those below them, while these too, as they go forward, are led by others.”
Dionysius goes on to describe the multiple hierarchal models that occur within the Church: The hierarchy of Bishop (hierarch) Priest, Deacon, who respectfully perfect, illumine, and purify; the hierarchy of those being perfected, illumined, and purified, among who are the laity, the catechumens and the penitents; and the hierarchy of the Church’s sacraments: The Holy Myron performed in the Holy of Holies, the Synaxis celebrated in the holy place or nave, and the rite of Baptism, conducted in the outer court or narthex.
There is no denying that hierarchy, thus observed, appears as a series of barriers, set up by a rising clericalism, to prevent the vast majority of Christians from “profaning” holy things. Indeed, Dionysius makes this quite apparent when he encourages the bishop Timothy to “see to it that you do not betray the holy of holies . . . Keep these things of God unshared and undefiled by the uninitiated.” But is there yet another way of looking at hierarchy? Golitzin would have us think so. He argues that Dionysius—in his hierarchies—offers a completely idealized vision of the Church’s architecture and liturgical functions. Hierarchy, Golitzin adds:
“[Is] more than simply the mode ordained for the orderly transfer of information. It is as well the symbol, icon, or revelation of the very structures of grace. When looking toward the altar of the Church, we are called upon to do more than consider the physical presence of the sacraments, clergy and faithful. We are ultimately asked to discern in these symbols [. . .] the presence of Christ, the stable ranks of the angels, the eternal outflowings of the divine powers, and ourselves.”
I believe the following passage in the EH is key to grasping this perspective:
“The differences in clerical function represent symbolically the divine activities and since they bestow enlightenment corresponding to the unconfused and pure order of their activities , their sacred activities and holy orders have been arranged hierarchically in the threefold division of first, middle, and last so as to present . . . an image of the ordered and harmonious nature of divine activities.”
This is nothing more than what we already observed in both the Liber Graduum and the Hymns on Paradise. Hierarchy is symbol, a symbol to reveal to us what would otherwise by hidden. In this sense, the veil reveals. Remove the veil, and our eyes would be blind to what lay beneath. Ultimately, hierarchy is a means of divine vision, not the prevention thereof. The goal and fulfillment of hierarchy is deification, of every single person, provided only that they present themselves as worthy vessels of God’s grace. Dionysius provides this completely positive aspect of hierarchy when speaking of the order of the catechumens. He writes, “Helped on by those at a higher level, helped on as far as the very first ranks, following the sacred rules of order he will be uplifted to the summit where the Deity is.”
This brings us finally to the apparent disparity between the mediated vision of the hierarchies and the unmediated vision met with in the Mystical Theology. I believe the answer lies in our previous quote. The summit, the goal, the telos of every hierarchy is the mystical vision of the “dazzling darkness” found in the MT. As we witnessed in the Liber Graduum and the Hymns on Paradise, Dionysius sees all hierarchies as a symbol of the hierarchy of the person. In his 8th Epistle, he draws a direct parallel between the τάξις of the liturgical assembly and the inner order of the soul. In Dionysius’ vision, every person is called to stand as hierarch before the altar of his heart; every person is called to cry with the seraphim “holy, holy, holy;” every person is called to ascend the paradise within and to gaze with noetic eyes on its bright summit where God is.
But such vision, as the author of the Liber Graduum was firm in stating, is only possible within the hierarchy that God has ordained for the sake of His great love for us. Our bodies do not experience the incorporeal presence of God but through mediation. Likewise, the laity do not receive illumination but through the mediation of the sacraments. But in no wise does the necessity of mediation signify an inherent inadequacy or inferiority. Christ Himself, when he took on the veil of our flesh, participated in a mediated state. And in Him, St. Ephraim’s vision of the body and soul participating in the beauty of God achieved its perfect fulfillment and recapitulation. In the words of Fr. Maximos (Constas), such was a “mediated immediacy,” and so also in us immediacy is necessarily one that is mediated. Hierarchy is therefore the necessary structure that allows each one of us to ascend the mountain, where even the hierarchies are transcended. And we realize, that all along, the mist that enveloped the hierarchies, that appeared below, as an impenetrable wall lying before us, was in reality the bright cloud of mystical theology that is God.