First, the translation. This is a Victorian translation. I found it, by and large, fluid, but I suspect many will not. I do question some of his choices, and some things do not work in current English. One problem that is not John Parker’s fault is the fact that I kept on wanting to know what the Greek of the terminology was. When Dionysius talks about what Parker translates as nature in relation to Christ, is it actually physis? Given that the Areopagite is popular both sides of the Chalcedonian divide, this is a question of moment.
Second, Parker’s introduction. He does a good job of … introducing the pseudonymous author. And then he gives the circumstantial arguments for the authenticity of the Dionysian corpus. I would like to say that it should not detract from the potency and truth of a document such as this if it turns out to be a forgery (which I think it is). But I am not writing in 1894.
Third, the actual text. Ps-Dionysius has written two treatises translated here, ‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ and ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’. They go together. The second, in particular, makes no sense without the first, and you really do need the definition of hierarchy the first treatises provides. Moreover, the first treatise is of less moment for the Christian community without the second.
‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ divides the celestial beings into three orders and explains their functions. Here we see a deft affirmation of the transcendent God, totally Other from His creation, alongside the Neo-Platonic idea of divinity being communicated through what Plotinus would call ’emanations.’ Each order of angelic beings helps the order below it fulfil its destiny and function in the hierarchy, a main part of which is coming to as full a knowledge of God as each nature was designed to have. While those at the top have the fullest knowledge, those at the bottom are able to comprehend and contemplate as much of the divine majesty as they can due to the ministrations of the intervening orders. It is a harmonious whole, working together.
This translates into the second treatise. ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’ is a meditation on the liturgical rites of the Byzantine church in relation to those who perform them. Once again, from the bishop to the excommunicated, the grace of God is communicated through the sacraments, the Scriptures, the preaching, and the communal worship. Each order, clerical, lay, and monastic, has its own special role and place in the apprehension and contemplation of God, and all depend upon each other to fulfil their role.
It is easy to say of the first treatise, ‘Sure, sounds good to me,’ but the idea that, by virtue of his consecration, my bishop is closer to God than I am — that idea is hard to stomach, especially when you consider how many evil men and women, heretics and heterodox, have had hands laid on them. Yet somehow, we lay people are to find peace in resting in our place within the hierarchy. I do wonder what this looks like in practical terms beyond attentively listening to preaching and receiving the sacraments at the hands of the clerics at our churches.
Finally, the whole corpus of Ps-Dionysius is highly influential in both the eastern church and the western church. It is probably worth getting to know, although I think less worth your time than, say, Anselm of Canterbury.
Philosophically, it is frequently the case that we, as Christians, acknowledge that — without denying the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ nor the necessity of salvation through Jesus’ Name alone — other philosophies and religions are able, through their God-given reason and general revelation, to come upon truths. God being everywhere is part of the cause of the similarities between our faith and others. Humans being the same everywhere is also part of it.
This could also be the case in terms of art and the religious imagination.
Some similarities, such as St George in eastern icons and his similarity to late Roman images of men killing lions or soldiers spearing enemies, are derived inevitably from the fact that they were born in the same culture, the same world, the same milieu. It also is simply a sensible way to portray the event in question.
Other times, I am not so sure that the relationship is that simple and straightforward. In my most recent trip to the British Museum, I saw the very interesting friezes from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Emperor of Assyria. Besides including various images of his conquest of his enemies, there were also images that were more … cultic. Images of Ashurnasirpal protected by the gods or holding court or displayed in his regal glory or what have you.
Alongside the Assyrian king were a few beings described by the display as ‘protecting spirits.’ Here’s a photo I took of one:
Now, this image dates from around 850 BC. What I find interesting about it for the purposes of this post are its wings. Why wings? Do not the non-divine spirits — cherubim and seraphim — of the Old Testament (partly written, partly oral in 850 BC, right next door to Assyria) also have wings?
Not that cherubim-seraphim and Mesopotamian protecting spirits are the only ancient spiritual beings with wings.
The Egyptians did it, as in this from Tutankamun’s tomb (1323 BC):
Some websites call them Egyptian cherubim. Not knowing the Egyptian language, I will take their word for it; Egyptian (in all its forms, from hieroglyphs to Coptic) is a Semitic language like Hebrew and Arabic.
I am, however, more acquainted with the less ancient but still venerable world of the Greeks and Romans, famously represented in the Nike (or Victory) of Samothrace, a photo of which I snapped at the Louvre:
Not that Victory/Nike is the only ancient Graeco-Roman winged creature. There are also Sirens. Here’s one I saw at (I think) the P Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. I took this photo because, unlike the usual fare found on Attic black figure vases, this Siren is a bearded male:
More famously, of course, is our dear friend Eros/Cupid. Sometimes he’s a young man — for which I can only give you the famous Cupid and Psyche from the Louvre because I have taken no photos of ancient adolescent Cupids:
He’s also often reproduced as a little baby, such as helping keep the famous Prima Porta Augustus from falling down; here’s a cast that’s in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford:
Last, but important as well, is this Roman fresco of what can only be thought of as a Roman ‘fairy’ or some other such creature — a genius, I suppose:
I think you get the point. In the 1300s BC (and no doubt before), Egyptians were carving ‘cherubim’, in the 850s BC the Assyrians were carving protecting spirits, in the 300-400s (I reckon) Greeks painted a male siren on a pot, in the 2nd century BC the Greeks carved the Victory of Samothrace, in the 1st century AD the Romans carved the Prima Porta Augustus and painted a winged spirit (genius?) on a Pompeiian wall.
Besides revealing to you what I do on my holidays, these paintings illustrate quite literally my point: winged creatures of a metaphysical nature — cherubim, seraphim, genii, Victory, Cupid — are common to the art of the ancient world. And descriptions of spiritual beings from the Old Testament include wings. Why wings?
There are those who will say that they have wings because Israelite religion was influenced by the other Near Eastern religions and cultures next door. If this is true, it is true because the sovereign God allowed the people of Israel to accept those parts of his truth that the neighbours happened to apprehend as well. It is also possibly true because the human imagination is the human imagination.
Why do angels have wings? Because we humans imagine them to be light, airy spirits who can fly. And everything we observe in the physical realm that can fly — birds, bats, insects — has wings.
Wings are the similarity. But when we do comparative religions/philosophy/art (the comparative philosophy of religious art?), we must also consider the differences. What makes an Assyrian protecting spirit different from Solomon’s cherubim in the Temple? That we’ll never know. But we can look and see how they differ from Victory who differs from an Egyptian cherub from a male siren from cupid from a Roman genius.
If we look at the Coptic icon to the left, it does not bear very much resemblance to the Roman genius fresco, nor to the many Victories flying through the world. Indeed, the image of the winged angel does not in early Christian art imitate pagan winged creatures as clearly as it will in the Renaissance.
We have, for example, cherubim that are naught but wings and heads. I do not know how old this motif is, only that it is very old. The image to the right is not my own; I seem not to have snapped a single cherub photo! It comes from my friend Fr Ioannis; I do not how old this particular cherub is, unfortunately. However, you can find very stunning, similar images of mosaics in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, dating to the 1100s.
Not that all early Christian icons are bodiless cherubim, but the purpose of our surviving icons has shifted away from much classical art, I believe. This affects the representation of the subject. Most of our images, Eastern as well as Western, come after Iconoclasm, a debate that was live not only in the Byzantine world but in the Carolingian world as well.
In classical art, even religious art, the goal was to represent the human form and the natural world as ‘mimetically’ as possible — to capture the essence of a moment, whether buckling a shoe or slaying a bullock. The mosaics, frescoes, and other icons of the Byzantine and Mediaeval worlds, due to the battle over their very existence, are spiritualised images. The theology of the icon has infused its representation.
Thus, St Michael the Archangel is not a man with wings, but a spiritual being of great power, as he casts down the devil. In an icon found at the Byzantine Museum in Athens, he holds a sceptre and an orb. This is not simply borrowing from the world of pagan art by tossing wings on a man. There are symbols here, communicating particular truths about the world.
I think the wings are like terms such as hypostasis. They are there in part from the biblical witness that cherubim and seraphim are winged. But they are also there to communicate something to the onlooker in visual terms he/she will understand.
Hypostasis takes on a new life of its own in Christian theology, regardless of its previous history in pagan philosophy. But it is used in such a way that the pagan who comes upon the Cappadocian Fathers will have some sense of what they mean when they speak of Christ and the Father as separate hypostaseis, or what St Cyril means by Christ’s hypostatic union.
When someone raised in the culture of Victories and Cupids, ofwinged genii, of winged bulls with human heads, sees St Michael the Archangel, if illiterate, the point will come across immediately that this is no man. The being before our onlooker at St Michael is obviously spiritual. And the literate who may not know the Bible who reads ‘archangelos‘ will not be deceived into thinking this a man whose occupation in life had been chief messenger. This is a spirtual being.
This is why angels have wings. Not because the beings in reality do, but because we understand something specific about winged creatures. Because when God revealed himself to Isaiah, the Seraphim in the Temple had wings — a visual representation of spiritual beings meant to communicate their difference from us, their ability to travel as if on air, their immateriality.
The story is in Book III of The Life of St. Columba by Adomnán of Iona. In Chapter 8, he writes:
One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone. There, soon after he had begun his prayers — as he later disclosed to a few of the brethren — he saw a line of foul, black devils armed with iron spikes and drawn up ready for battle. The holy man realized in the spirit that they wanted to attack his monastery and slaughter many of the brethren with their stakes. Though he was alone against such an army of countless opponents, he was protected by the armour of St Paul and flung himself into a great conflict. The battle continued most of the day, and the hosts were unable to vanquish him while he could not drive them away from Iona on his own. Then the angels of God came to his aid, as he afterwards told a few of the brethren, and the devils were terrified of them and left the place.
The demons proceeded to Tiree where they invaded a monastery and caused sickness, of which many died. Only one died in Baithéne’s monastery because of the prayerful efforts of the abbot.
What this demon story has in common with the other two under discussion is the fact that the saint has gone out alone to pray when the demons attack. The lesson here, I believe, is that the Christian is to remember Christ’s exhortation and example to pray in secret, and spend time alone with God — and that, when we do this, the forces of evil will take note. The battle will ensue.
St. Columba is kept safe in this battle because of the armour of St. Paul, the armour of God, from Ephesians 6:10-17:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (NIV)
This armour is what we need as we wage peace in the battle against the forces of evil.
In this story, interestingly enough, we get a Peretti-an twist in the arrival of angels, unlike the arrival of Christ to aid Sts. Antony and Savvas. Of course, the image of the demons is much in keeping with the sort of thing Frank Peretti relishes, yet the battle is not. Savvas wins through prayer, the armour of God, and the mere arrival of angels, whose appearance is so fearsome to the demons that they flee.
This story reminds us that, if we have the supernatural worldview that accepts the demonic, the angelic is also a part of the broad world of the spiritual cosmos surrounding us on all sides. Angels are the messengers of God (literally), and they fight alongside the Christians in the battle against evil. First and foremost, we are not alone because Christ will never leave us or forsake us. We are also not alone, however, because the Lord of Hosts will send his hosts to battle with us and for us.
The arrival of angels is a reminder of the whole realm of “spiritual warfare”, the sort of thing evangelical teenagers get really excited about. Who knows what a battle in the heavenlies would like (Do they fight with swords or appear as people or chuck around mountains?) — but the biblical record seems to indicate that it does go on, and our role is that of faithfulness in prayer and growth in virtue.
This is much preferable to those who wish us all to become exorcists, for oftentimes that demonstrates an obsession with the Dark, with something that remains mostly unknown to we poor mortals.
Finally, the demons are driven by Columba to Tiree where they cause disease. Here we have an example of what our mediaeval forebears are constantly accused of doing, of attributing everything to the spiritual forces and being generally “superstitious.”
I have no wisdom to draw from the demonic source of disease. It, too, is driven away by prayer, but we know that already. When I consider the mediaeval universe and the bigness of today’s universe, physical and spiritual, I am reluctant to rule out the possibility of spiritually-caused disease. It’s not a strictly rational belief, but I don’t think the world is, either.
Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.
St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.
Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.
Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.
This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.
The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.
The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.
Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.
Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.
The path of Bollandist may be futile.
The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.
When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.
So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?
Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?
Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.
St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.
St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).
St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.
St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.
These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.
Given that it is Christmastide, I felt that looking at a member of the Holy Family was only appropriate.
According to tradition, Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage at the time of his betrothal to Mary. This handy detail allows Jesus to have brothers and sisters and for his mother to remain a perpetual virgin.* Whether we believe this tradition or not, it is most likely that St. Joseph was older than the BVM. That’s how things were — girls got married as soon as possible and were pretty much pregnant as earlier as biologically able. Unfortunately.
Joseph lived in Nazareth at the time of his betrothal to the BVM, and nearby was another village (the name of which escapes me) that had been trashed in a riot. This provided steady work for people in the carpentry business. Stuff needed to get built. It is entirely likely that he was doing work there; at this stage in history, most people who laboured with their hands were essentially day-labourers. Show up at the site or the market and get hired, then paid at the end of the day (like that parable Jesus tells about the guys who work in the vineyards). I imagine St. Joseph to have been one of these.
So here’s Joseph, our hard-working contractor, putting in many hours a day, preparing his household for the arrival of his wife.
Who, it turns out, is already pregnant. Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to put her away quietly. It is the ‘quietly’ part that is due to his righteousness, not the putting away. By doing things quietly, he could reduce shame (a big deal in societies more ‘Eastern’ than ours) and possibly even save her life.
St. Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy of the BVM was probably like this hymn from Christmas Eve sung by the Orthodox:
Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honour, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?
Joseph received his response from an angel in a dream who told him that the child from from the Most High.
What follows is what makes St. Joseph of Nazareth really stand out for me.
He decided to face the shame and not divorce Mary and raise this child on his own.
Now, much is made of the BVM given that she is one of the few (if not the only) biblical persons who receives a message from on high and says, “Let it be unto me according to your will.” However, to believe that Jesus is something special takes a lot less faith when you are the person who conceives virginally. But when you are the dude betrothed to the woman, to accept in faith the words of the angels requires larger faith.
I’m not saying Joseph had larger faith than the Theotokos. I’m just saying it takes a lot more trust to accept that the child is from God if you aren’t the person carrying the child in your womb. That’s all.
St. Joseph’s faith was not blind faith; he had a dream to go on. Dreams are kind of a big deal in the ancient world, and I think there’s more to them than Freud has led us to believe. But that’s a discussion for another time. Nevertheless, I think this saint is an example of how great our faith can be. We need to trust God and act accordingly. This is the great example of Joseph of Nazareth.
The next and last we hear of Joseph in the biblical record is when Jesus is “lost” at the Temple. Tradition tells us that he died during our Saviour’s youth. I see no reason to question, given that he is never again mentioned in the Gospels.
Let us pray to the Lord of Hosts for faith like that of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth. May we know Him well enough to trust Him so deeply.
*The needlessness of this doctrine and the fact that it makes Joseph into some sort of strange creature the like of which I know not are an obstacle for me swallowing the bitter pill of Orthodoxy, one reason why I have yet to sail up the Aegean to Byzantium.