The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, tr. by John Parker, , at sacred-texts.com
To my Fellow Presbyter Timothy. Dionysius the Presbyter.
What is the traditional view of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and what is its purpose?
We must, then, most pious of pious sons, demonstrate from the supermundane and most sacred Oracles and traditions, that ours is a Hierarchy of the inspired and Divine and Deifying science, and of operation, and of consecration, for those who have been initiated with the initiation of the sacred revelation derived from the hierarchical mysteries. See, however, that you do not put to scorn things most holy (Holy of Holies); but rather treat them reverently, and you will honour the things of the hidden God by intellectual and obscure researches, carefully guarding them from the participation and defilement of the uninitiated, and reverently sharing holy things with the holy alone, by a holy enlightenment. For thus, as the Word of God has taught us who feast at His Banquet, even Jesus Himself--the most supremely Divine p. 68 Mind and superessential, the Source and Essence, and most supremely Divine Power of every Hierarchy and Sanctification and Divine operation--illuminates the blessed Beings who are superior to us, in a manner more clear, and at the same time more intellectual, and assimilates them to His own Light, as far as possible; and by our love of things beautiful elevated to Him, and which elevates us, folds together our many diversities, and after perfecting into a uniform and Divine life and habit and operation, holily bequeaths the power of the Divine Priesthood; from which by approaching to the holy exercise of the priestly office, we ourselves become nearer to the Beings above us, by assimilation, according to our power, to their abiding and: unchangeable holy steadfastness; and thus by looking upwards to the blessed and supremely Divine self of Jesus, and reverently gazing upon whatever. we are permitted to see, and illuminated with the knowledge of the visions, we shall be able to become, as regards the science of Divine mysteries, purified and purifiers; images of Light, and workers, with God, perfected and perfecting.
Then what is the Hierarchy of the Angels 225 and Archangels, and of supermundane Principalities and Authorities, Powers and Lordships, and Divine Thrones, or of the Beings of the same ranks as the Thrones--which the Word of God declares to p. 69 be near, and always about God, and with 226 God, naming them in the Hebrew tongue Cherubim and Seraphim--by pondering the sacred ranks and divisions of their Orders and Hierarchies, you will find in the books we have written--not as befits their dignity but to the best of our ability--and as the Theology of the most holy Scriptures guided, when they extolled their Hierarchy. Nevertheless, it is necessary to say this, that both that, and every Hierarchy extolled now by us, has one and the same power, throughout the whole Hierarchical transaction; and that the Hierarch himself, according to his essence, and analogy, and rank, is initiated in Divine things, and is deified and imparts to the subordinates, according to the meetness of each for the sacred deification which comes to him from God; also that the subordinates follow the superior, and elevate the inferior towards things in advance; and that some go before, and, as far as possible, give the lead to others; and that each, as far as may be, participates in the truly Beautiful, and Wise, and Good, through this the inspired and sacerdotal harmony.
But the Beings and ranks above us, of whom we have already made a reverent mention, are both incorporeal, and their Hierarchy is both intelligible and supermundane; but let us view our Hierarchy, comformably to ourselves, abounding in the variety of the sensible symbols, by which, in proportion to our capacity, we are conducted, hierarchically p. 70 according to our measure, to the uniform deification --God and Divine virtue. They indeed, as minds, think, according to laws laid down for themselves; but we are led by sensible figures to the Divine contemplations, as is possible to us. And, to speak truly, there is One, to Whom all the Godlike aspire, but they do not partake uniformly of this One and the Same, but as the Divine balance distributes to each the meet inheritance. Now these things have been treated more systematically in the Treatise concerning "Intelligible and Sensible 227 ." But now I will attempt to describe our Hierarchy, both its source and essence, as best I can; invoking Jesus, the source and Perfecting of all Hierarchies.
Every Hierarchy, then, is, according to our august tradition, the whole account of the sacred things falling under it, a most complete summary of the sacred rites of this or that Hierarchy, as the case may be. Our Hierarchy, then, is called, and is, the comprehensive system of the whole sacred rites included within it, according to which the divine Hierarch, being initiated, will have the communication of all the most sacred things within himself, as chief of Hierarchy. For as he who speaks of Hierarchy speaks of the order of the whole sacred rites collectively, so he, who mentions Hierarch, denotes the inspired and godly man--the skilled in all sacred knowledge--in whom the whole p. 71 Hierarchy is clearly completed and recognized within himself.
Head of this Hierarchy is the Fountain of Life, the Essence of Goodness, the one Triad, Cause of things that be, from Which both being and well-being come to things that be, by reason of goodness 228 . Of this most supremely Divine blessedness --exalted beyond all, the threefold Monad, the really Being,--the Will, inscrutable to us, but known to Itself, is the rational preservation of beings amongst us and above us; but that (preservation) cannot otherwise take place, except those who are, being saved are being deified. Now the assimilation to, and union with, God, as far as attainable, is deification. And this is the common goal of every Hierarchy,--the clinging love towards God and Divine things divinely and uniformly ministered; and previous to this, the complete and unswerving removal of things contrary, the knowledge of things as they are in themselves; the vision and science of sacred truth; the inspired communication of the uniform perfection of the One Itself, as far as attainable; the banquet of contemplation, nourishing intelligibly, and deifying every man elevated towards it.
Let us affirm, then, that the supremely Divine Blessedness, the essential Deity, the Source of p. 72 deification, from Which comes the deification of those deified, bequeathed, by Divine Goodness, the Hierarchy, for preservation, and deification of all rational and intellectual Beings. And to the supermundane and blessed inheritances there is bequeathed something more immaterial and intellectual (for Almighty God does not move them to things divine, from without, but intelligibly, since they are illuminated as to the most Divine will from within, with brilliancy pure and immaterial), but to us--that which has been bequeathed to them, uniformly, and enveloped, is bequeathed from the Divinely transmitted Oracles, in a variety and multitude of divisible symbols, as we are able to receive it. For the Divinely transmitted Oracles are essence of our Hierarchy. And we affirm that these Oracles--all such as were given from our godly initiators in inspired Letters of the Word of God --are most august; and further, whatever our leaders have revealed to us from the same holy men, by a less material initiation, and already akin, as it were, to the Heavenly Hierarchy, from mind to mind, through the medium of speech, corporeal, indeed, but nevertheless more immaterial, without writing. Nor did the inspired Hierarchs transmit these things, in conceptions clear to the commonalty of worshippers, but in sacred symbols. For it is not every one that is hallowed; nor, as the Oracles affirm, does knowledge belong to all. p. 73
Necessarily, then, the first leaders of our Hierarchy, after having been filled themselves with the sacred gift, from the superessential Godhead, and sent, by the supremely Divine Goodness, to extend the same gift successively, and, as godly, earnestly desiring themselves the elevation and deification of those after them, presented to us--by their written and unwritten revelations--in accordance with their sacred injunctions, things supercelestial, by sensible images, the enfolded, by variety and multitude, and things Divine, by things human, and things immaterial, by things material, and the superessential, by things belonging to us. Nor did they do this merely on account of the unhallowed, to whom it is not permitted even to touch the symbols, but because our Hierarchy is, as I said, a kind of symbol adapted to our condition, which needs things sensible, for our more Divine elevation from these to things intelligible. Nevertheless the reasons of the symbols have been revealed to the Divine initiators, which it is not permitted to explain to those who are yet being initiated, knowing that the Lawgivers of things divinely transmitted deliberately arranged the Hierarchy in well-established and unconfused ranks, and in proportionate and sacred distributions of that which was convenient to each, according to fitness. Wherefore trusting in thy sacred promises (for it is a pious duty to recall them to thy recollection) -- that, since every Hierarchical sacred word is of binding p. 74 force, thou wilt not communicate to any other but those Godlike initiators of the same rank with thyself, and wilt persuade them to promise, according to hierarchical regulation, to touch pure things purely, and to communicate the mysteries of God to the godly alone, and things perfect to those capable of perfection, and things altogether most holy to the holy, I have entrusted this Divine gift to thee, in addition to many other Hierarchical gifts.
68:225 See Epistle to Trallians.
69:226 John i. 1.
70:227 Ap. C. viii. 16.
71:228 Creation through goodness--not necessity.