Friday, October 9, 2015

Dionysius the Areopagite: a Believer Among The Sceptics

Icon of Dionysius the Areopagite
Today (October 9th) is the feast day of Dionysius the Areopagite.  We know very little for certain about this Saint, who is often confused with St. Dionysius of Paris (St. Denis), Patron of France, and also with a mystical writer living half a millennium later known as the Pseudo-Dionysius.  We do know that today’s Saint was among a handful of listeners converted by St. Paul when he spoke in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).  The title “Areopagite” which Luke gives him suggests that he was one of the legal scholars or philosophers who frequented the Athenian assembly place known as the Areopagus (Hill of Mars), which is where he heard St. Paul speak.  
    As such he was an unlikely convert, and the fact that he heard St. Paul at all was the result of a string of (seemingly) random events.  As Luke tells it in Acts, Paul doesn’t seem to have intended to go to Athens at all: he went there fleeing from hostile crowds in Thessalonika and Beroea.  Once he was there, the Apostle went about doing what he usually did:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there. (Acts 17:16-17)

Athens being Athens, there were some who took a professional interest in what St. Paul had to say:

Some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him. And some said, "What would this babbler say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"--because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you present? For you bring some strange things to our ears; we wish to know therefore what these things mean." (Acts 17:18-20)

    The traditional designation of what comes next as the “Sermon on the Areopagus” can be misleading.  The greek word translated “took hold of him”, ἐπιλαβόμενοι, comes from a word that means to “seize” or “arrest”. Paul was not so much invited to come share his views as he was brought in for questioning.  However he got there, he saw an opportunity to evangelize, and he made the most of it.  Like any good teacher, he starts out with some praise to put his audience in a receptive frame of mind:

"Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” (Acts 17:22)

He quickly uses this opening to bring them in the direction he wants to go, using their own religious observance to introduce Jesus Christ:

For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (Acts 17:23).

He goes on to tell the Athenians that this God who is “unknown” no longer is the Creator of the Universe and, in contrast to the Olympian gods of the Greeks, is completely apart from and beyond His creation; that he has made us to seek him out; that we are fashioned in his image, as opposed to pagan idols that we model after ourselves; that he forgives our previous worship of these false divinities because we knew no better, but now that the full truth has been revealed, we will be held responsible, and that he has given us a sign of all these things by raising Jesus Christ from the dead (Acts 17:24-31).

St. Paul On The Areopagus, by Mariano Fortuny

    This last point proves to be a little too much for some of his listeners, who “mocked” when “they heard of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 17:32); others seemed at least to keep an open mind, saying "We will hear you again about this"(Acts 17:32).  A small number went further:

But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them (Acts 17:34).

A small beginning, it seems, but Jesus tells us in another place in Scripture that small beginnings often lead to something much greater:

"The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)

    It’s not difficult to see in the learned sceptics of the Areopagus the forerunners of today’s cultural leaders and opinion makers.  As we saw above, St. Paul finds a way to respect his listeners without watering down his own message, even when most of them seem to reject the Good News, just like those in John’s Gospel who say “This is a hard saying.  Who can listen to it?” (John 6:60).  And just as Jesus allows those doubting disciples to walk away, Paul doesn’t try to change his message to win back the scoffers.  And of course not all of them turn a deaf ear: Dionysius, Demaris, and a few others will be the seed of a much greater Christian community in Athens.
    The spirit of our age would probably look familiar to the crowd on Athens’ Mars Hill, an age sceptical of everything except its own cleverness.  We can take heart from St. Paul’s boldness in proclaiming the Gospel and St. Dionysius’s courage in the face of the hostility or indifference of his peers.  May God grant us all their steadfast Faith.