Leaving aside questions pertaining to the authenticity of the work’s authorship, Saint Dionysius the Areopogite’s doctrine purification might seem to be a topic of such a narrow interest, that it would not be worth getting into. However, if we can invest the 20 minutes into “getting it,” it will help us make sense of the Patristics and open our minds as to how God is saving souls. Thankfully for all of us, this topic is not too complicated.
An Overview of Dionysius’ Doctrine of Angelic Purification. To set the stage for our analysis of Dionysius’s doctrine of purification, let us begin with a seemingly straight forward passage in On Heavenly Hierarchy:
Another declared glad tidings to the shepherds, as being purified by their separation from the multitude, and their quiet life, and, with him, a multitude of the Heavenly Host announced to those on earth that often-sung doxology. (4:4)*
*Note: All citations that appear in this simple form are from the same book.
The sense of the passage is obvious enough. The shepherds on Christmas are typological. They are Christian contemplatives. Their quiet life and separation from the world “purifies” them.
Now, let’s dig into what is going on here. For one, the term “purified” usually does not mean “separated.” This is why Dionysius takes care to actually specify how they were purified—by their separation.
Whenever a Greek speaker modifies the meaning of the term “purified,” they follow this protocol. It would be silly to presume that someone will simply infer an atypical meaning from a straightforward term.
For example, Saint Gregory Nazianzus in Par 16 of his 38th Oration speaks of Jesus Christ being purified in the Jordan River, but then immediately points out that what this meant is that He, in fact, purified the waters. This sort of intentional redefinition should be expected when using a term in an atypical sense. Earlier in Par 13, when Gregory asserts that the Theotokos was purified by Jesus Christ, there is no re-definition offered. The obvious implication is that “purified” is being intended to be understood in its traditional sense.
To the contrary, there is a different sense of purification that we ought to be inferring in 4:4 of On Heavenly Hierarchy. Specifically, not only are these shepherds separated, but they are in their separation being visited by “a multitude of the Heavenly Host.” As we shall see, the significance of this in Dionysius’ angelology is that this pertains to Theosis.
Within the heavenly hierarchy, the “numero uno” is God Himself. His divine energies illuminate Seraphim, which like the moon reflecting light, pass down illumination onto Cherubim, and so on to lower orders of angels. (cf. 9:2-3) These shepherds are illuminated a step below the angels. Hence, an ascetic and hermetic life helps purify oneself so that he can receive heavenly illumination. This is precisely Dionysius’ point.
We see the preceding theme laid out in a description as to how Saint Zechariah was given the news of his wife becoming pregnant:
Zechariah, sees one of the first Angels, as I think, and near God, (for the Angelic appellation is common, as I said, to them all), learning from God Himself the comforting words, as they are called, concerning this matter; and another Angel, of inferior rank, advancing to meet the first, as for reception and participation of enlightenment: then, by him instructed in the Divine purpose as from a Hierarch, and charged to reveal to the theologian that Jerusalem should be abundantly occupied by a multitude of people. (8:2)
We also see it put very plainly in a passage about how prophets receive prophecy:
…the worshippers of the true God were appointed leaders, for the interpretation of things shaped by Angelic visions revealed from God through Angels to holy men akin to the Angels, Daniel and Joseph. For there is one Prince and Providence over all…all the Angels who preside over each nation, elevate, as far as possible, those who follow them with a willing mind,* to It as their proper Head. (9:4)
*Orthodox doctrine specifies that faith is transformative in proportion to one’s cooperation with the divine will, the utmost cooperation bringing upon Theosis.
Dionysius, I argue, is intentionally telling us to open our minds and realize that “purification” in all of its applications is Divine illumination—a participating in His energies. We can begin to surmise this by unpacking the usage of “purification” in Dionysius’ angel-specific passages.
First, we see the theme of “purification” being intentionally redefined in a “positive” sense. In other words, it is not a purification from sin:
For I suppose we have sufficiently shewn above, that the purpose of every Hierarchy is an unswerving devotion to the divine imitation of the Divine Likeness, and that every Hierarchical function is set apart for the sacred reception and distribution of an undefiled purification, and Divine Light, and perfecting science. (7:2)
[T]he Hierarchical illuminations, according to which, each one participates–so far as is lawful and attainable to him, in the most spotless purification, the most copious light, the pre-eminent perfection. (10:3)
Dionysius rebrands the meaning of purification, calling it “undefiled” and “spotless.” Traditionally, purification pertains to the removing of a defilement or impurity. But this cannot be so with angels. It was important to specify that with at least angels, purification cannot mean this. We can also see, as I laid out before, that angels receive God’s energies and then distribute it to other angels.
But, is Dionysius’ concern simply how angels are illuminated? I argue that Dionysius infers that there is certainly a sense in which the shepherds (though clearly fallen in sin) received an undefiled purification—as they were illuminated due to their alleged ascetic spiritual preparation. The same can be said of the aforementioned prophets.
We can begin understanding the preceding by looking into Dionysius’ dense explanation of what purification is for the angels:
The first Hierarchy, then, of the Heavenly Minds is purified, and enlightened, and perfected, by being ministered from the very Author of initiation, through its elevation to It immediately, being filled, according to its degree, with the altogether most holy purification of the unapproachable Light of the pre-perfect source of initiation, unstained indeed by any remissness, and full of primal Light, and perfected by its participation in first-given knowledge and science. But to sum up, I may say this, not inappropriately, that the reception of the supremely Divine Science is, both purification, and enlightenment, and perfecting,–purifying, as it were, from ignorance, by the knowledge of the more perfect revelations imparted to it according to fitness, and enlightening by the self-same Divine knowledge, through which it also purifies, that which did not before contemplate the things which are now made manifest through the higher illumination. (7:3)
This is an information-packed paragraph, but in short even sinless angels are “purified” and “perfected” by participation in God’s energies (“the unapproachable Light…both purification and enlightenment.”) In what sense are angels “impure” (cf Job 15:15) and “imprefect?”
What is lacking in angels, apart from the grace of God (literally His energies), is “Divine Science”/”Divine knowledge.” In other words, an “intellectual” defect.
Now, this is not a defect per se, as defects, bad things, and evils do not have actual existence. Rather, defects are, in fact, privations. (cf On Divine Names Chap 4, Sections 18-35) To quote Dionysius:
[Evil is a] malady of nature, that which is the contrary to nature, is the deprivation of things of nature. So that there is not an evil nature; but this is evil to nature, the inability to accomplish the things of one’s proper nature. (On Divine Names, Chap 4, Section 26)
The Evil then is privation. (On Divine Names, Chap 4, Section 32)
The Evil, then, is not an actual thing, nor is the Evil in things existing. (On Divine Names, Chap 4, Section 34)
In short, the Evil (as we have often said) is want of strength and want of power, and defect, either of the knowledge, or the never to be forgotten knowledge, or of the faith, or of the aspiration, or of the energy of the Good. (On Divine Names, Chap 4, Section 35)
The angels apart from grace have a privation of enlightenment (“defect…of the knowledge”). This lack of utter perfection is corrected by illumination, and because it is a “correction” (of sorts), it is a “purification.”
The preceding has an application so much more profound than “how angels get smart.” Something simple, such as a moral defect like lust, is not actually (as in literal existence) evil according to the Fathers. It is a privation of what is good, because evil has no real existence according to Saints like Augustine (Handbook of Faith, Hope, and Love, Chap 11) and Gregory of Nyssa (Great Catechism, Chap 8).
And so, in the Patristic paradigm, any purification from a moral defect is (in fact) the same. Whether it is “undefiled” like the angels or ascetics, or defiled (repentant people undergoing baptism), both purifications are referred to by the Scriptures (Heb 6:4) and the saints (Saint Justin Martyr, First Apology Chap 61) as “illumination.” All purification is illumination, because it is a participation in God’s divine energies.
One may argue that I am taking Dionysius’ system and imposing it excessively upon the issue of soteriology (how men are saved). However, this is not the case. For one, Dionysius’ makes the connection between the purification within the heavenly hierarchy and that in the ecclesiastical hierarchy:
Wherefore by our sacerdotal tradition, the first Minds are named perfecting, and illuminating, and purifying Powers of the subordinate, who are conducted, through them, to the superessential Origin of all things, and participate, as far as is permissible to them, in the consecrating purifications, and illuminations, and perfections. (8:2)
Here, we see that ecclesiastical consecrations are “purifications”—another obvious modification of the term “purified” from its traditional, “negative” meaning. Consistent with what we have fleshed out previously, one may infer that a consecration brings one closer to God (in serving the liturgy and fulfilling the function of Christ for the Church). Therefore, it is “illuminating” and “perfecting” as it makes one more like Christ. It is akin to the purification of the shepherds, which is also an “undefiled purification.”
As we can see, people who are “sinful” in a general sense can still undergo an “undefiled” purification even if they have some real defilement, like original sin.
“Well, that’s your own inference,” someone may say. “Does Dionysius specifically directly address the issue of sinful people receiving ‘undefiled purification?'” Yes. Let’s unpack Dionysius’ treatment of the purification of the Prophet Isaiah after reading the Biblical passage in question:
So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.” (Is 6:5-7)
This is a fascinating passage for Dionysius to address, because on the face of it, it appears to contradict his re-definition of purification. The angel explicitly states that Isaiah’s iniquity and sin is being purified. How can this be “undefiled” and “spotless?”
If we look at th Is 6:5-7 using the shepherds and prophets as an example, it makes perfect sense. Dionysius’ discussion begins plain enough:
[T]he Seraphim…cleanses the Prophet. (13:1)
[T]he Angel who formed this vision for the purpose of teaching the theologian Divine things,–referred his own cleansing function to God. (13:3)
As we can see, the “purification” (here translated “cleansing”) is conflated with the Seraphim “teaching” Isaiah. Attainting to divine illumination and perfection through knowledge of the “Divine Science” is in a sense both “educational” and purifying. Let’s keep this in mind when Dionysius gives us the nitty-gritty of how this works:
This, then, the Theologian was taught by the Angel who was leading him to Light–that purification, and all the supremely Divine operations [lit. “energies”], illuminating through the first Beings, are distributed to all the rest, according to the relation of each for the deifying participations. Wherefore he reasonably attributed to the Seraphim, after God, the characteristic of purification by fire. There is nothing, then, absurd, if the Seraphim is said to purify the Prophet. For, as God purifies all, by being cause of every purification, yea, rather (for I use a familiar illustration) just as our Hierarch, when purifying or enlightening through his Leitourgoi or Priests, is said himself to purify and enlighten, since the Orders consecrated through him attribute to him their own proper sacred operations; so also the Angel who effected the purification of the Theologian attributes his own purifying science and power to God, indeed, as Cause, but to the Seraphim as first-operating Hierarch; as any one might say with Angelic reverence, whilst teaching one who was being purified by him, “There is a preeminent Source, and Essence*, and Worker, and Cause of the cleansing wrought upon you from me, He Who brings both the first Beings into Being, and holds them together by their fixity around Himself, and keeps them without change and without fall, moving them to the first participations of His own Providential energies (for this, He Who taught me these things used to say, shews the mission of the Seraphim), but as Hierarch and Leader after God, the Marshal of the most exalted Beings, from whom I was taught to purify after the example of God — this is he, who cleanses thee through me, through whom the Cause and Creator of all cleansing brought forth His own provident energies from the Hidden even to us.” (13:4; cf 13:3)
*This is a reference to the energy-essence distinction. Dionysius states in 13:3 that “the supremely Divine Power in visiting all, advances and penetrates all irresistibly, and yet is invisible to all, not only as being super-essentially [lit. “above essence”] elevated above all, but as secretly transmitting its providential energies to all.”
And so, there we have it. Isaiah’s purification from sin is, as I stated before, is the same sort of illumination that exists between sinless angel and sinless angel. This is because all purification is simply a moniker for participation in God’s energies. Period, full stop.
The preceding emphasis is extremely important, because those who debate what the meaning of “purification” is, but do not understand this teaching of Dionysius, confuse themselves and others. They create not only errors of both logic and etymology, but a crucial theological error. This is why sinful people can do purifying acts (such as the ecclesiastical hierarchy) and receive the same purification, but all of these are “undefiled” purification.
Ramifications of Dionysius’ Teaching. It is one thing to simply make an imaginary distinction between “regular” (i.e. “negative”) purifications from sin such as baptism and repentance and “extraordinary” (i.e. “positive”) purifications such as divine illumination. After all, we use words like good and evil, pure and impure. In common parlance, we seem to assert that these things are literal, substantial dichotomies.
However, to seriously posit there being an ontological difference between “positive” and “negative” purification, and thereby a substantial difference between good and evil, falls into the error of Manichaeism (and earlier Gnonstic heresies). Manichaeism posited that evil had a substance and was an ontological reality instead of a mere privation of good. Former-Manichee Saint Augustine and a knowledgeable opposer of Manichaean errors, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, for this reason were emphatic in their teaching that evil is a privation of good and that evil does not actually exist.
Conclusion. And so, Dionysius’ purposeful and heady parsing of purification’s meaning is obviously intentional. His point is not to give a pedantic description of how angels purify/illuminate one another for speculation’s sake. There is a pastoral concern here.
Specifically, how do we men attain to the angelic life? The obvious answer is that we “purify ourselves.” But, not really. We do not actually make ourselves cleaner or holier. Any great ascetic work gets deeper than this.
The real answer is consistent with the apophatic epistemology of Dionysius. God is the source of purification. Our works and wisdom cannot conform us in knowledge or action to the Christological reality, which is literally “essence beyond essence.” This is why Saint Maximus calls the Holy Trinity “God beyond God.” (Ambiguum, 21:16). How can one know God if He is “infinitely beyond all things an infinite number of times” (Maximus, Questions of Thalassius, 63.8-9)?
The answer is we can only know what God has revealed about Himself and what He is not. The practical application to this is that we, by our efforts, cannot know God or save ourselves. By pursuing the ascetic life and holiness, we make ourselves receptive to transformative grace. In so doing, we are “educated” and “enlightened” directly from God. This “purification” corrects the “defect” of being subsumed in human rationality and limitations, allowing us to be directly illumined by God’s energies. In so doing we can have a real union with God, a firsthand knowledge and experience with Him, though He is paradoxically inaccessible and “beyond all knowledge.” (Maximus, Ambiguum, 21:16) And so, the Christian is not in name alone living “the angelic life,” but by receiving the same purifying divine energies, is participating precisely in that exact life.
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