Dionysius the Areopagite

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 God has revealed himself but also that human language is ultimately incapable of describing God. Instead of working like a painter, who builds up a painting by adding color to canvas, the "negative theologian" works more like a sculptor, removing stone to reveal a deeper reality.

While others, like Gregory of Nyssa, had used this method, Dionysius's writings helped spread it across Europe. The anonymous writer of the English book The Cloud of Unknowing, among other medieval mystical writers, owes a great deal to this mysterious author of mysticism.

Maximus the Confessor

Silenced witness
After a long life of standing against the arcane heresies of the seventh century, Maximus met his fate. In Constantinople he was brought to trial on charges of opposing a theological document supported by the emperor. His right hand and his tongue were cut off, punishing him for his written and spoken judgments. He was then carted to each of the 12 districts of the city and publicly whipped. At last the venerable abbot, 82 years old, was carried on a rough journey to a city on the Black Sea, where he died—a wordless "confessor" of theological orthodoxy.

A lifetime before, Maximus held an honored role in the imperial court that was later to condemn him. As a young man, he served as principal secretary to Emperor Heraclius, but he resigned that post, probably because he was uncomfortable with a shade of heresy in the emperor's opinions.

The problem was "monothelitism," which held that Jesus had only one will, the divine (rather than both human and divine wills). Joining a monastery in the Holy Land, Maximus began writing treatises against monothelitism, as well as guides to the mystical and monastic life.

Maximus dwelt particularly on the theme of theosis (commonly translated, "deification"), that is, human participation in the divine life. He taught that, since the center of all earthly history is the Incarnation, by which God dwells among us, the goal of human life is for us to dwell in God. With God's help, we can actually "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Redemption in Christ allows for the possibility of the full restoration of the image of God in the individual.

Several early church Fathers taught that "Christ became man that man might become God," but Maximus developed the concept fully.

His opposition to monothelitism cost him his life. From the age of 60 until his death, Maximus was engaged in debates, tried by tribunals, banished, recalled, and dragged about the Mediterranean basin in the throes of this controversy. It is this wordless, suffering confession of Maximus that has rung through Orthodox history like a bell.

John of Damascus

Image-conscious theologian
Visitors to an Orthodox Church are confronted with many unfamiliar elements of worship—incense, Byzantine chant, the custom of standing—but perhaps the most perplexing is icons, especially how Orthodox worshipers bow before icons and kiss them. Isn't this idolatry?

This question raged through the Christian world in the eighth and ninth centuries, and occupied the attention of two of the seven ecumenical (worldwide) church councils. The strongest defense of the practice came from a Christian living in the heart of the Islamic empire—John Mansur, a high official in the court of the caliph in Damascus.

The question didn't have so much to do with bowing and kissing, which are just one culture's way of showing respect (the sight of two Middle Eastern men kissing in greeting likewise looks strange to Westerners). The basic question was this: Are we allowed to paint pictures of Jesus, and other biblical figures, at all? Or is it forbidden by the Second Commandment? As Islam spread through the known world, bringing its absolute interdiction of images, Christianity was feeling the heat.

Yet the main threat to icons came not from the Islamic caliph but from the heart of the Byzantine Empire—indeed from the emperor himself, Leo III, who between 726 and 729 commanded the destruction of all religious likenesses, whether icons, mosaics, or statues.

In response John argued that icons were venerated but not worshiped. The distinction is crucial: a Western parallel might be to the honor with which a favorite Bible is read, cherished, and treated with honor—but certainly not worshiped. John insisted that worship was directed only toward God.

Second, John drew support from the writings of the early Fathers like Basil the Great, who wrote, "The honor paid to an icon is transferred to its prototype." That is, the actual icon was but a point of departure for the expressed devotion; the recipient was in the unseen world.

Third, John claimed that, with the birth of the Son of God in the flesh, the depiction of Christ in paint and wood demonstrated faith in the Incarnation. Since the unseen God had become visible, there was no blasphemy in painting visible representations of Jesus or other historical figures. To paint an icon of him was, in fact, a profession of faith, deniable only by a heretic!

At some point, John left the court and lived out his days at the St. Saba monastery in the hills west of the Dead Sea. There John's writing bloomed, both theological treatises and hymns; he is recognized as one of the principal hymnographers of Orthodoxy. But his fellow monks grumbled that such elegant writing was a distraction and prideful, and John was sometimes sent to sell baskets humbly in the streets of Damascus, where he had once enjoyed a high post.

John has been honored by East and West throughout church history, and in 1890 was named a doctor of the church by the Vatican.

Simeon the New Theologian

Cranky mystic
No one ever accused Simeon of being easy to get along with. First he refused the life of prestige at the Byzantine court that his parents had dreamed of for him. A school dropout, he cut a dashing figure in the streets of Constantinople in the latter part of the tenth century: "His clothing, his manner, and his bearing were so ostentatious that some people had evil suspicions about him."

That's Simeon's own assessment; no one could accuse him of being easy on himself, either. Yet even while living this dissolute life, his conscience was pulling him in another direction, and he unaccountably found himself searching for someone to guide him into a deeper spiritual life.

Simeon found his mentor in another Simeon, the saint known as Simeon the Studite. This monk resided at the monastery at Studion, in Constantinople. The young Simeon threw himself into the wise monk's advice with characteristic abandon, fasting, praying, and weeping all night for his sins.

During one of these all-night prayer sessions, he experienced the vision of the Divine Light, a recurrent feature of Orthodox spirituality. A biographer writes that it "suffused him, filled him with joy and made him lose all awareness of his surroundings."

What goes up must come down in the case of so volatile a personality. Simeon returned to his worldly ways for six or seven years, though with ambivalence: he interrupted his revels to consult with his beloved spiritual father, and then seemed to forget the elder Simeon's advice as soon as he left his cell.

At last a final break was made, and Simeon gave God all the glory, in a passage reminiscent of St. Augustine: "I did not see you—indeed, how would I have been able, where would I have found the strength to lift up my eyes, covered and choked as I was by the mire—you took me by the hair and forcibly drew me out of there."

Simeon joined the monastery at Studion but soon quarreled with his superiors, who felt the young man obeyed his spiritual father more readily than the abbot. Simeon moved to a smaller monastery nearby, where the real work of growing in faith began.

In Simeon's writing, the emphasis was on a personal encounter with God, an encounter, he believed, that should occur in every Christian's life, not just in that of monks and nuns. Simeon lived in an age when rigid formalism was threatening the life of the Spirit; Simeon called for personal commitment—yet without abandoning public liturgical life.

Gregory Palamas

Doctor of energies
Constantine Palamas was a devout man and an example to his family, even after death. As he lay dying, Constantine was tonsured a monk; after his death, his widow, two daughters, and three sons all entered the monastic life. One son, Gregory, showed particular promise. The emperor, jealous for his gifts, offered him riches and honor if he would serve him at court. The emperor's loss was the gain of Orthodox theology for centuries to come.

Gregory soon found himself embroiled in a controversy with an Italian-Greek monk named Barlaam, a controversy that revealed some key theological differences between the East and West.

In the West, theologians taught that the experience of God was always mediated. That is, the believer does not encounter God directly but rather through creation and especially through the sacraments. Eastern theologians, as far back as the fourth century, taught that the experience of God (through prayer or sacraments) was a direct knowledge of divinity, unmediated and uncreated. The Eastern Fathers elaborated on this idea by speaking of two separate aspects of God—divine essence and divine energies.

Gregory, in particular, argued that God was absolutely unknowable and transcendent in his essence; no human can ever know the inner being shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, the unknowable God was made known in Jesus Christ and is directly encountered in his energies. The energies of God (sacraments, grace, the miraculous experience of Divine Light) are as much God as is the essence of God. However, energies are accessible to the believer and essence is not.

Thus Gregory, while protecting the transcendence of God—a key theme in Orthodox thought and worship—was able to talk about a genuine encounter with God. The teaching won gradual acceptance, and was confirmed by a church council in 1351. Nine years after his death, he was canonized as a Father and doctor of the church, making his theological insights official teaching of the Orthodox Church.

Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green worship at Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, outside Baltimore, where Gregory is priest. Frederica is author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (Harper San Francisco, 1997).