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​Cast Not Pearls

The Celestial Hierarchy

Dionysius the Areopagite



To my fellow-presbyter Timothy, Dionysius the Presbyter.

Every divine illumination, while going forth with love in various ways to the objects of its forethought, remains one.

Nor is this all: it also unifies the things illuminated.
'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights.'[James 1:17]

Moreover, Every Divine Procession Of Radiance

-from the Father, while constantly bounteously flowing to us, fills us anew, as though with a unifying power, by recalling us to things above, and leading us to the unity of the Shepherding Father and to the Divine One. For from Him and into Him are all things, as is written in the holy Word.

Calling then upon Jesus, the Light of the Father, the Real and True, 'Which lights every man that comes into the world, by whom we have access to the Father,' the Origin of Light, let us raise our thought, according to our power, to the illumination of the most sacred doctrines handed down by the Fathers, and also as far as we may let us contemplate the Hierarchies of the Celestial Intelligences revealed to us by them in symbols for our upliftment: and admitting through the spiritual and unwavering eyes of the mind the original and super-original gift of Light of the Father who is the Source of Divinity, which shows to us images of the all-blessed Hierarchies of the Angels in figurative symbols, let us through them again strive upwards toward Its primal ray. 

For this Light can never be deprived of Its own intrinsic unity, and although in goodness It becomes manyness and proceeds into manifestation for the uplifting of those creatures governed by Its providence, It abides eternally within Itself in changeless sameness, firmly established in Its own unity, and elevates to Itself, according to their capacity, those who turn towards It, uniting them in accordance with Its own unity. For by that first divine ray we can be enlightened only insofar as It is hidden by all-various holy veils for our upliftment, and fittingly tempered to our natures by the Providence of the Father.

Wherefore that first institution of the sacred rites, judging it worthy of a supermundane copy of the Celestial Hierarchies, gave us our most holy hierarchy, and described that spiritual Hierarchy in material terms and in various compositions of forms so that we might be led, each according to his capacity, from the most holy imagery to formless, unific, elevative principles and assimilations. 

For the mind can by no means be directed to the spiritual presentation and contemplation of the Celestial Hierarchies unless it use the material guidance suited to it, accounting those beauties which are seen to be images of the hidden beauty, the sweet incense a symbol of spiritual dispensations, and the earthly lights a figure of the immaterial enlightenment. Similarly the details of the sacred teaching correspond to the feast of contemplation in the soul, while the ranks of order on earth reflect the Divine Concord and the disposition of the Heavenly Orders. 

The receiving of the most holy Eucharist symbolizes our participation of Jesus; and everything else delivered in a supermundane manner to Celestial Natures is given to us in symbols.

To further, then, the attainment of our due measure of deification, the loving Source of all mysteries, in showing to us the Celestial Hierarchies, and consecrating our hierarchy as fellow ministers, according to our capacity, in the likeness of their divine ministry, depicted those supercelestial Intelligences in material images in the inspired writings of the sacred Word so that we might be guided through the sensible to the intelligible, and from sacred symbols to the Primal Source of the Celestial Hierarchies.


Divine and Celestial matters are fittingly revealed even through unlike symbols

I consider, then, that in the first place we must explain our conception of the purpose of each Hierarchy and the good conferred by each upon its followers; secondly we must celebrate the Celestial Hierarchies as they are revealed in the Scriptures; and finally we must say under what holy figures the descriptions in the sacred writings portray those Celestial Orders, and to what kind of purity we ought to be guided through those forms lest we, like the many, should impiously suppose that those Celestial and Divine Intelligences are many-footed or many-faced beings, or formed with the brutishness of oxen, or the savageness of lions, or the curved beaks of eagles, or the feathers of birds, or should imagine that they are some kind of fiery wheels above the heavens, or material thrones upon which the Supreme Deity may recline, or many-coloured horses, or commanders of arm- ies, or whatever else of symbolic description has been given to us in the various sacred images of the Scriptures.

Theology, in its sacred utterances concerning the formless Intelligences, does indeed use poetic symbolism, having regard to our intelligence, as has been said, and providing a means of ascent fitting and natural to it by framing the sacred Scriptures in a manner designed for our upliftment.

But someone may prefer to regard the Divine Orders as pure and ineffable in their own natures, and beyond our power of vision, and may consider that the imagery of the Celestial Intelligences in the Scriptures does not really represent them, and is like a crude dramatization of the celestial names: and he may say that the theologians, in depicting wholly incorporeal natures under bodily forms should, as far as possible, make use of fitting and related images, and represent them by the most exalted, incorporeal and spiritual substances amongst ourselves, and should not endue the Celestial and Godlike Principles with a multitude of low and earthly forms. For the one would contribute in a higher degree to our ascent by dissociating incongruous images from the descriptions of Supermundane Natures, while the other impiously outrages the Divine Powers, and leads our minds into error when -we dwell upon such unholy compositions. For we might even think that the supercelestial regions are filled with herds of lions and horses, and re-echo with roaring songs of praise, and contain flocks of birds and other creatures, and the lower forms of matter, and whatever other absurd, spurious, passion-arousing and unlike forms the Scriptures use in describing their resemblances.

Nevertheless, I think that the investigation of the truth shows the most holy wisdom of the Scriptures in the representations of the Celestial Intelligences which makes the most perfect provision in each case, so that neither is dishonour done to the Divine Powers (as they may be called), nor are we bound more passionately to earth by the meanness and baseness of the images. 

For it might be said that the reason for attributing shapes to that which is above shape, and forms to that which is beyond form, is not only the feebleness of our intellectual power which is unable to rise at once to spiritual contemplation, and which needs to be encouraged by the natural and suitable support and upliftment which offers us forms perceptible to us of formless and supernatural contemplations, but it is also because it is most fitting that the secret doctrines, through ineffable and holy enigmas, should veil and render difficult of access for the multitude the sublime and profound truth of the supernatural Intelligences. For, as the Scripture declares, not everyone is holy, nor have all men knowledge.

Again, if anyone condemns these representations as incongruous, suggesting that it is disgraceful to fashion such base images of the divine and most holy Orders, it is sufficient to answer that the most holy Mysteries are set forth in two modes: one, by means of similar and sacred representations akin to their nature, and the other through unlike forms designed with every possible discordance and difference. For example, the mystical traditions of the enlightening Word sometimes celebrate the Sublime Blessedness of the Superessential ONE as Word, and Wisdom, and Essence; proclaiming the Intellect and Wisdom of God both essentially, as the Source of being, and also as the true Cause of existence; and they make It equivalent to Light, and call It Life.

Now although such sacred forms are more venerable, and seem in one sense to surpass the material presentation, even so they fail to express truly the Divine Likeness which verily transcends all essence and life, and which no light can fully represent; for an other word and wisdom is incomparably below It. 

But at other times It is extolled in a supermundane manner in the same writings, where It is named Invisible, Infinite and Unbounded, in such terms as
indicate not what It is, but what It is not.  This, in my judgment, is more in accord with Its nature, since, as the Mysteries and the priestly tradition suggested, we are right in saying that It is not in the likeness of any created thing, and we cannot comprehend Its superessential, invisible and ineffable Infinity. If, therefore, the negations in the descriptions of the Divine are true, and the affirmations are inconsistent with It, the exposition of the hidden Mysteries by the use of unlike symbols accords more closely with That which is ineffable.

Accordingly this mode of description in the holy writings honours, rather than dishonours, the Holy and Celestial Orders by revealing them in unlike images, manifesting through these their supernal excellence, far beyond all mundane things. Nor, I suppose, will any reasonable man deny that discordant figures uplift the mind more than do the harmonious, for in dwelling upon the nobler images, it is probable that we might fall into the error of supposing that the Celestial Intelligences are some kind of golden beings, or shining men flashing like lightning, fair to behold, or clad in glittering apparel, raying forth harmless fire, or with such other similar forms as are assigned by theology to the Celestial Intelligences. But lest this thing befall those whose mind has conceived nothing higher than the wonders of visible beauty, the wisdom of the venerable theologists, which has power to lead us to the heights, reverently descends to the level of the inharmonious dissimilitudes, not allowing our irrational nature to remain attached to those unseemly images, but arousing the upward-turning part of the soul, and stimulating it through the ugliness of the images; since it would seem neither right nor true, even to those who cling to earthly things, that such low forms could resemble those supercelestial and divine contemplations. 

Moreover, it must be borne in mind that no single existing thing is entirely deprived of participation in the Beautiful, for, as the true Word says, all things are very beautiful. Holy contemplations can therefore be derived from all things, and the above-named incongruous similitudes can be fashioned from material things to symbolize that which is intelligible and intellectual, since the intellectual has in another manner what has been attributed differently to the perceptible. For instance, passion in irrational creatures arises from the impulse of appetites, and their passion is full of all irrationality; but it is otherwise with intellectual beings in whom the energy of passion must be regarded as denoting their masculine reason and unwavering steadfastness, established in the changeless heavenly places. In the same manner, by desire in irrational creatures we mean the instinctual innate tendency towards temporal materials things, or the uncontrolled inborn appetites of mutable creatures, and the dominating irrational desires of the body which urge the whole creature towards that for which the senses crave.

But when, using unlike images, we speak of desire in connection with Intellectual Beings we must understand by this a divine love of the Immaterial, above reason and mind, and an enduring and unshakable superessential longing for pure and passionless contemplation, and true, sempiternal, intelligible participation in the most sublime and purest Light, and in the eternal and most perfect Beauty. And incontinence we must understand as that which is intense and unswerving and irresistible because of its pure and steadfast love of the Divine Beauty, and the undeviating urge towards That which most truly is to be desired.

In the case of the irrational or the insensitive things, such as brutes among living creatures, or inanimate objects, we rightly say that these are deprived of reason, or of sense-perception. But we fittingly proclaim the sovereignty, as Supermundane Beings, of the immaterial and intellectual Natures over our discursive and corporeal reasoning and sense-perceptions, which are remote from those Divine Intelligences.

It is therefore lawful to portray Celestial Beings in forms drawn from even the lowest of material things which are not discordant since they, too, having originated from That which is truly beautiful, have throughout the whole of their bodily constitution some vestiges of Intellectual Beauty. 

Through these we may be led to immaterial Archetypes; the similitudes being taken, as has been said, dissimilarly, and the same things being defined, not in the same way, but harmoniously and fittingly, in the case both of intellectual and sensible natures.

We shall see that the theologians mystically employ symbolical explanations not only in the case of the Celestial Orders, but even for the presentation of the Deific Principles themselves. And sometimes they celebrate Deity Itself with lofty symbolism as the Sun of justice, as the Morning Star rising mystically in the mind, or as Light shining forth unclouded and intelligibly; and sometimes they use images of things on earth, such as fire flashing forth with harmless flame, or water affording abundance of life symbolically flowing into a belly and gushing out in perpetually overflowing rivers and streams.

The lowest images are also used, such as fragrant ointment, or the corner-stone, and they even give It the forms of wild animals and liken It to the lion and panther, or name It a leopard, or a raging bear bereaved of its young. I will add, furthermore, that which appears most base and unseemly of all, namely that some renowned theologians have represented It as assuming the form of a worm. Thus all those who are wise in divine matters, and are interpreters of the mystical revelations, set apart in purity the Holy of Holies from the uninitiated and unpurified, and prefer incongruous symbols for holy things, so that divine things may not be easily accessible to the unworthy, nor may those who earnestly contemplate the divine symbols dwell upon the forms themselves as the final truth. Therefore we may celebrate the Divine Natures through the truest negations and also by the images of the lowest things in contrast with their own Likeness.

Hence there is no absurdity in portraying the Celestial Natures, for the reasons mentioned, by discordant and diverse symbols: for possibly we ourselves might not have begun to search into the Mysteries which lead us to the Heights through the careful examinations of the holy Word, had not the ugliness of the imagery of the Angels startled us, not suffering our mind to dwell upon the discordant figures, but stimulating it to leave behind all material attachments, and training it by means of that which is apparent to aspire devoutly to the supermundane ascent.

Let these things suffice touching the corporeal and inharmonious forms used for the delineation of Angels in the sacred Scriptures. We must proceed to the definition of our conception of the Hierarchy itself, and of the blessings which are enjoyed by those who participate in it. But let our leader in the discourse be my Christ (if thus I dare name Him) who inspires all hierarchical revelation. And do thou, my son, listen, according to the law of our hierarchical tradition, with meet reverence to that which is reverently set forth, becoming through instruction inspired by the revelations; and, treasuring deep in the soul the holy Mysteries, preserve them in their unity from the impure multitude: for, as the Scriptures declare, it is not fitting to cast before swine that pure and beautifying and clear-shining glory of the intelligible pearls.


What is Hierarchy, and what is the use of Hierarchy?

Hierarchy is, in my opinion, a holy order and knowledge and activity which, so far as is attainable, participates in the Divine Likeness, and is lifted up to the illuminations given it from God, and correspondingly towards the imitation of God.

Now the Beauty of God, being unific, good, and the Source of all perfection, is wholly free from dissimilarity, and bestows its own Light upon each according to his merit;* and in the most divine Mysteries perfects them in accordance with the unchangeable fashioning of those who are being perfected harmoniously to Itself.

The aim of Hierarchy is the greatest possible assimilation to and union with God, by taking Him as leader in all holy wisdom, to become like Him, so far as is permitted, by contemplating intently His most Divine Beauty. Also it moulds and perfects its participants in the holy image of God like bright and spotless mirrors which receive the Ray of the Supreme Deity -which is the Source of Light; and being mystically filled with the Gift of Light, it pours it forth again abundantly, according to the Divine Law, upon those below itself. For it is not lawful for those who impart or participate in the holy Mysteries to overpass the bounds of its sacred laws; nor must they deviate from them if they seek to behold, as far as is allowed, that Deific Splendour and to be transformed into the likeness of those Divine Intelligences.

Therefore he who speaks of Hierarchy implies a certain perfectly holy Order in the likeness of the First Divine Beauty, ministering the sacred mystery of its own illuminations in hierarchical order and wisdom, being in due measure conformed to its own Principle. (1)

For each of those who is allotted a place in the Divine Order finds his perfection in being uplifted, according to his capacity, towards the Divine Likeness;  

What is still more divine, he becomes, as the Scriptures say, a fellow-worker with God, and shows forth the Divine Activity revealed as far as possible 'in himself.' For the holy constitution of the Hierarchy ordains that some are purified, others purify; some are enlightened, others enlighten; some are perfected, others make perfect; for in this way the divine imitation will fit each one.

Inasmuch as the Divine Bliss (to speak in human terms) is exempt from all dissimilarity, and is full of Eternal Light, perfect, in need of no perfection; purifying, illuminating, perfecting, being rather Himself the holy Purification; Illumination and Perfection, above purification, above light. supremely perfect; Himself the origin of perfection and the cause of every Hierarchy, He transcends in excellence all holiness.(2)

I hold, therefore, that those who are being purified ought to be wholly perfected and free from all taint of unlikeness; those who are illuminated should be filled full with Divine Light, ascending, to the contemplative state and power with the most pure eyes of the mind; those who are being initiated, holding themselves apart from all imperfection, should become participators in the Divine Wisdom which they have contemplated.

Further it is meet that those who purify should bestow upon others from their abundance of purity their own holiness: those who illuminate, as possessing more luminous intelligence, duly receiving and again shedding forth the light, and joyously filled with holy brightness, should impart their own overflowing light to those worthy of it; finally, those who make perfect, being skilled in the mystical participations, should lead to that consummation those who are perfected by the most holy initiation of the knowledge of holy things which they have contemplated.

Thus each order in the hierarchical succession is guided to the divine co-operation, and brings into manifestation, through the Grace and Power of God, that which is naturally and supernaturally in the Godhead, and which is consummated by Him superessentially, but is hierarchically manifested for man's imitation as far as is attainable, of the God-loving Celestial Intelligences.


Cast Not Pearls