Saint Dionysius, who came of a rich and noble family, lived in Athens at the time of the Apostles. On account of the wisdom and virtue pagan learning afforded him, he was chosen one of the nine counsellors of the Areopagus, the high court and parliament of the city. As such, it was he who invited the great Apostle Paul, whom the Holy Spirit had brought to the city, to proclaim the good tidings of Salvation on the Areopagus. From the height of this rock overlooking the city, the simple tent-maker pulled to pieces the sophistries of the Athenian philosophers, and clearly showed that the unknown God, whom their unassisted reason had given them a vague notion of, was the Lord of heaven and earth, who made the world and everything in it, and who does not live in temples made by hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life, and breath and every thing (Acts 17:23 25). He told them that man is made in the image of God and is called upon to share the divine life in the very Son of God, Jesus Christ, who has taken our flesh has risen from the dead and will come to judge the world. Most of the audience mocked Saint Paul on hearing about the Resurrection of the dead, since the false wisdom of this world had completely darkened their minds. Even so, the hearts of several among them, including Saint Dionysius and Saint Hierotheus, were touched by these words of eternal life, and they believed. When Saint Paul spoke of the Saviour’s Passion and of the portents that occurred at his death, Dionysius recalled the solar eclipse, inexplicable to astronomers, that had happened years before when he was in Egypt completing his studies among learned men at Heliopolis. ‘Either God is suffering’, he had cried out then, ‘or this is the end of the world!’ This event prepared Dionysius and his master Hierotheus to recognize Him who overcomes the laws of nature when He so wills; so they listened eagerly to the holy Apostle’s teaching and asked him for Baptism.
After some time, Saint Paul departed to endure new tribulations, and left Saint Hierotheus as Bishop of Athens. Like the eagle that can look directly upon the brightness of the sun, Hierotheus was able to enter into the mysteries of God. But he wrote little, choosing rather to instruct his disciple Dionysius orally concerning the revelations beyond all speech that God granted him. On Hierotheus’ death, Dionysius became Bishop of Athens in his stead. God enabled him by His grace to put into writing the sublime teachings of his masters about the unutterable boundlessness of the divine Nature (to which none but the negative terms of apophatic theology are applicable) and about the unfathomable riches of His revelation through His Names and Energies that is the sum of affirmative theology. He described how the sensible world (that perceived by our senses) and the intelligible world (that apprehended by the illumined intellect) are united to God in a magnificently ordered hierarchy. He explained how the ecclesiastical hierarchy, from the bishop to the monk, manifests upon earth the nine orders of angels, and how the divine light is distributed to each person according to his degree of purification. Although some people have accused Saint Dionysius of borrowing the terminology of the Neoplatonic philosophers, the Orthodox Church, enlightened by his divine teaching, believes rather that it is the latter who have borrowed his language, albeit without being able to show, as does the Saint, that He who is beyond every name and all being and who dwells in the darkness more radiant than light, has appeared in the flesh so as to make us partakes of His light.
Saint Dionysius attained such heights of divine contemplation that he was accounted worthy of being numbered among the Apostles, and was wondrously transported to Jerusalem for the entombment of the Mother of God. On his return to Athens, he devoted himself for some time to converting the pagans and to guiding his spiritual flock. Towards the end of Nero’s reign, he visited Rome to give his master, Saint Paul, an account of his missionary activity. He was present at Paul’s martyrdom and then returned to Greece.
On a later visit to Rome, Saint Dionysius and his disciples, the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius, were commissioned by Saint Clement, the Bishop of Rome, to preach the Gospel in Gaul.+ When he had preached the word of truth in a good many places, Dionysius settled in Paris, which was then a small town sunk in the darkness of ignorance and paganism. He built a church there, in which he served the holy Mysteries and proclaimed the great works of God. He worked many miracles so that, in a while, the number of his disciples increased, and they set out to spread the holy Gospel in Britain and as far as Spain.
The renown of Saint Dionysius aroused the envy of the Devil, who gave the Emperor Domitian to understand that the Greek bishop who was preaching a new god was trying to provoke disorder and revolt. The imperial officers tried in vain to persuade Dionysius and his companions to deny God, for whom they lived and wished to die, and so, on being sentenced to beheading, the Martyrs were overjoyed. Not only did God give the holy Bishop the grace of knowledge and of teaching, but He also wanted to show in his martyrdom that, by faith, Christians have overcome death. So when Dionysius had been beheaded he stood up, to the amazement of all, took his head in his hands and walked thus for two miles until he met Catula, a godly woman, to whom he gave this precious relic. Saint Dionysius’ skull is now venerated in the Monastery of Dochiariou on Mount Athos, to which it was given by the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in the eleventh century.