Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Bishop of Athens, Martyr

[painting of Saint Dionysius]Article

The great apostle of the Gentiles, esteeming himself equally a debtor to the learned and to the unlearned, arrived at Athens about the year 51, seventeen years after our Lord’s crucifixion, and boldly preached the faith in that city, which had been for many ages the chief seat of the muses, where the chief studies of philosophy, oratory, and polite literature flourished. All matters belonging to religion were, by an ancient law of that state, to be determined by the great council of the Areopagites, which was still observed; for, though the Athenians were fallen under the Roman yoke, yet, out of regard to their learning, and to the ancient dignity of their republic, the Romans restored to them many of their ancient privileges, with the name and title at least of their liberty. Saint Paul therefore was summoned to give an account of his doctrine in the Areopagus. The apostle appeared undaunted in that august and severe assembly of proud sages, though Plato so much dreaded a like examination at this tribunal, that he on no other account dissembled his sentiments of the unity of God, and other like truths, of which he was himself perfectly satisfied, especially after his travels into Egypt, as Saint Justin Martyr testifies. Saint Paul explained before these learned senators the Christian maxims of repentance, purity of manners, the unity and omnipresence of God, his judgments, and the resurrection of the dead. The divine unction with which he delivered these great truths was an eloquence with which these masters of philosophy and oratory were unacquainted. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead shocked many, and was a great stumbling-block, though Plato and other eminent philosophers among them had established many sublime sentiments with regard to the immortality of the soul, and the rewards and punishments of a life to come; but that our flesh, which putrifies in the earth, and perishes to all our senses, shall, by the power of God, be raised again the same that dies, was what many of these wise men of the world looked upon as a dream, rather than a certain truth. Many, however, among them were exceedingly moved with the sanctity and sublimity of this new doctrine, and with the marks of a divine mission with which the preacher delivered himself; and they said to him they would hear him again upon that subject on some other day. Some whose hearts were touched by a powerful grace, and who with simplicity sought after the truth, not the idle gratification of curiosity, pride, or vanity, without delay addressed themselves to the apostle, and received from him full satisfaction of the evidence of the divine revelation which he preached to them. Among these there was a woman named Damaris; but the most remarkable among these converts was Dionysius, one of the honourable members or judges of this most venerable and illustrious senate. We are assured by the testimony of Saint Dionysius of Corinth, that Saint Dionysius the Areopagite was afterwards constituted bishop of Athens; and that this was done by Saint Paul himself we are informed by the Apostolical Constitutions, by Aristides cited by Usuard, and by several ancient martyrologists. Aristides, quoted by Usuard, and Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem, styled him a martyr. The Greeks, in their menologies, tell us that he was burnt alive for the faith at Athens. His name occurs in ancient calendars on the 3rd of October. The cathedral of Soissons is in possession of his head, which was brought thither from Constantinople, in 1205. Pope Innocent III sent to the abbey of Saint Denis, near Paris, the body of this saint, which had been translated from Greece to Rome.

We admire in this glorious saint, and other illustrious primitive converts, the wonderful change which faith produced in their souls. It not only enlightened their understandings, discovering to them new fields of the most sublime and important knowledge, and opening to their meditation the boundless range of eternity, and of the infinite riches of the divine goodness, justice, and mercy; but it also exerted the most powerful influence upon their wills. A spirit of the most sincere and profound compunction and humility was created in them, with a perfect contempt of the world, and all earthly things, and an entire disengagement of their hearts from all inordinate attachment to creatures. The fire of pure and ardent charity was also kindled in their hearts, which consumed all the rust of their passions, and purged their affections. From these virtues of humility and charity, which Christ declares to be the foundation of his spirit in a soul, arose an unalterable meekness, peace, fortitude, and constancy, with the whole train of virtues. Thus, by their conversion to the faith, they were interiorly changed, and became quite new men, endued with a temper truly heavenly, and animated with the spirit of Christ. The light of faith spreads its beams upon our souls. Why then has it not produced the same reformation and change in our wills and affections? This it cannot do whilst we refuse to open our hearts to this grace, and earnestly set not ourselves to remove all obstacles of self-love and the passions. Yet, till this change be wrought in our affections, we are earthly, strangers to the spirit of Christ, and want the mark of meekness and charity, by which those are to be known that belong to him. A Christian is not a mere name, or empty profession; it is a great and noble work; a work of difficulty which requires assiduous application, and continual pains; and in which the greater our endeavours and advances have been, with the greater ardour do we continually strive to advance higher towards perfection, saying with Saint Paul, Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I follow after. I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind, and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press towards the mark, to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Bishop of Athens, Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 19 October 2013. Web. 24 September 2014. <>