St. Dionysius on the Angelic Hosts

St. Dionysius the Areopagite ca. 5th cent.

[F]ollowing on what Scripture has revealed to us, a hymn of praise must be offered up to the heavenly hierarchies. I must describe the sacred forms given to these heavenly ranks by Scripture, for one has to be lifted up through such shapes to the utter simplicity of what is there. We cannot, as mad people do, profanely visualize these heavenly and godlike intelligences as actually having numerous feet and faces.They are not shaped to resemble the brutishness of oxen or to display the wildness of lions. They do not have the curved beak of the eagle or the wings and feather of birds. We must not have pictures of flaming wheels whirling in the skies, of material thrones made ready to provide a reception for the Deity, of multicolored horses, or of spear-carrying lieutenants, or any of those shapes handed on to us amid all the variety of the revealing symbols of Scripture…

One would likely then imagine that the heavens beyond really are filled with bands of lions and horses, that the divine praises are, in effect, great moos, that flocks of bird take wing there or that there are other kinds of creatures all about…

This question must now be discussed, and our explication must begin with the question of why the Word of God seems to honor the depiction of fire above all others. You will find that it depicts not only flaming wheels, (Dn. 7:9) but also burning animals (Ezek. 1:13, 2 Kgs.2:11) and even men who are somehow aglow. (Ezek. 1:4-7, Dn. 10:7, Mt. 28:3, Lk. 24:4) It places masses of lighted embers surrounding these heavenly beings (Ezek. 1:13, 10:2) and rivers roaring with endless fire. (Dn. 7:10) It speaks of fiery thrones (Dn. 7:9) and invoking the etymology of the word “seraphim”, it describes them as on fire and attributes to them the characteristics and activity of fire. In general, whether the reference be to high or low within the hierarchy, the Word of God always honors the representation of fire. And indeed it seems to me that this imagery of fire best expresses the way in which the intelligent beings of heaven are like the Deity…

The simple and yet “manifold wisdom” (Eph. 3:10) clothes the naked and speaks of how they are accoutred. So I must therefore try to offer an explication of the sacred vestments and the sacred instruments attributed to the intelligent beings of heaven. I think that the shining and fiery robe (Rv. 9:17, 15:6) symbolizes the divine form. And the power to illuminate is a consequence of the inheritance of heaven which is the abode of light. It makes all things enlightened in the mind and is enlightened in the mind.

The priestly vestment (Ezek. 9:2, 10:6-8) signifes the capacity to guide spiritually to the divine and mysterious sights, and to consecrate one’s whole life. And cinctures (Ezek. 9:2 LXX) are an indication of the control exercised by these intelligent beings over their generative powers. They signify also their practice of gathering together, their unifying absorption, the harmonious ease with which they tirelessly circle about their own identity. The sceptres (Jgs. 6:21) designate royal power and sovereignty with which they guide the achievement of everything. The spears and the axes (Ezek. 9:2) represent their discriminating skills amid the unlikeness of things, the sharp clarity and efficacy of their powers of discernment. The geometric and architectural equipment (Ezek. 40:3, Am. 7:7, Zec. 2:1 LXX, Rv. 21:15) has to do with their activity in founding, building, and bringing to completion, in fact they have to do with everything connected with the providence which uplifts and returns their subordinates.

Occasionally the depicted instruments (Rev. 8:6, 14:14-17, 20:1) of the holy angels symbolize the judgments of God regarding us, some representing correcting discipline or punishing righteousness, some pointing to freedom of danger, the completion of discipline, the return to earlier felicity, or else the grant of new gifts great and small, gifts which can be seen or which are of intellect. To sum up, a discerning mind would not be hard put to find a correlation between visible signs and invisible reality.

They are also named “winds” (Ps. 104:4, Heb. 1:7) as a sign of the virtually instant speed with which they operate everywhere, their coming and going from above to below and again from below to above as they raise up their subordinates to the highest peak and as they prevail upon their own superiors to proceed down into fellowship with and concern for those beneath them. One could add that the word “wind” means a spirit of the air and shows how divine and intelligent beings live in conformity to God. The word is an image and a symbol of the activity of the Deity. It naturally moves and gives life, hurrying forward, direct and unrestrained, and in this virtue of what to us is unknowable and invisible, namely the hiddenness of the sources and the objectives of its movements. “You do not know” says Scripture, “whence it comes and whither it goes.” (Jn. 3:8)

The Word of God represents them also as clouds. (Ezek. 1:4, 10:3, Rev. 10:1) This is to show that the holy and intelligent beings are filled in a trancendent way with hidden light. Directly and without arrogance they have been first to receive this light, and as intermediaries, they have generously passed it on so far as possible to those next to them. They have a generative power, a life-giving power, a power to give increase and completion, for they rain understanding down and they summon the breast which receives them to give birth to a living tide.

The Word of God furthermore attributes to the heavenly beings the form of bronze, of electrum, of multicolored stones, and if it does so the reason lies in the fact that electrum, which contains gold and silver, symbolizes both the incorruptible, priceless, unfailing, and unpolluted radiance of gold as well a the gleam, the gloss, the splendor, and the heavenly glow of silver. As for bronze it recalls either fire or gold, for the reasons given. With regard to multicolored stones (Rev. 4:3, 21:19-21), these must be taken to work symbolically as follows: white for light, red for fire, yellow for gold, green for youthful vanity.

I feel we should now move on to the sacred explication of those animal figures attributed by Scripture to the intelligent beings of heaven.

Consider the form of the lion. (Ezek. 1:10, 10:14, Rev. 4:7, 10:3) It must be taken as revealing their powerful indomitable command. And the heavenly beings approximate as much as they can the hiddenness of the unspeakable Deity, by covering the tracks of their own intellects. Humbly and mysteriously they draw a veil over the upward journey of divine enlightenment.

The figure of the ox (Ezek. 1:10, Rev. 4:7) is a token of strength and might, of the capacity to plough deeply the furrows of knowledge on which the fertile rains of heaven will fall. The horns are the mark of the power to guard and be invincible.

The eagle (Ex. 19:4?, Ezek. 1:10, 10:14, Dn. 7:4, Rev. 4:7) tells of regal might, of the thrust to the pinnacle, of the speeding wing, of the agility, readiness, speed, and cunning to lacte nourishing food, of contemplation which is freely, directly, and unswervingly turned in stout elevations of the optical powers toward those generously abundant rays of the divine sunshine.

Horses (2 Kgs. 2:11, 6:17, Zec. 1:8-10, 6:1-5, Rev. 6:1-8, 19:14) mean obedience and docility. Their whiteness is the gleam of their kinship with the light of God; their blue color is the sign of hiddenness, the red is the power and sweep of fire; the piebald is the alliance of opposite extremes, and the capacity to move from one to the other, that adaptability of superior to inferior to superior which come of return and providence.

I must now look at the reason for applying to heavenly beings the title of rivers, wheels and chariots. The rivers of fire (Dn. 7:10, Ezek. 47:1) signify those divine channels which are forever dispensing their generous and unchecked flow and nourishing with their life-giving fruitfulnes. The chariots (2 Kgs. 2:11, 6:17, Ps. 104:3, Zec. 6:1-8) signify the fellowship binding together beings of the same order. As for the winged wheels (Ez. 1:15-21, 10:1-13, Dn. 7:9) which go ahead with neither twist nor swerve, these have to do with the power to keep right on along the staight road, directly and without wandering off, and all this because the wheel of their intelligence is guided in a way which ha nothing in of this world.

This, then is what I have to say regarding the sacred representations. (The Celestial Hierarchy)