The Hieromartyrs Dionysius (Denis), Bishop of Athens, Presbyter Rusticus, and Deacon Eleutherius were killed at Lutetium (ancient name of Paris) in Gaul (modern-day France, where Saint Dionysius is honoured as patron of all France, under the French name-forms “Denis” or “Denys”). This occurred in the year 96 (another source suggests the year 110, during the time of persecution under the Roman emperor Dometian [81-96]).
Saint Dionysius lived originally in the city of Athens. He was raised there and received a fine classical Greek education. He then set off to Egypt, where he studied astronomy at the city of Heliopolis. Together with his friend Apollophonos he witnessed the solar eclipse occurring at the moment of the death by Crucifixion on the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Either now the Creator of all the world doth suffer, or this visible world is coming to an end,” Dionysius said then. Upon his return to Athens from Egypt, he was chosen to be a member of the Areopagus Council (Athenian high court).
When the holy Apostle Paul preached at the place of the Athenian Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34), Dionysius accepted his salvific proclamation and became a Christian. Over the course of three years Saint Dionysius remained a companion of the holy Apostle Paul in preaching the Word of God. Later on, the Apostle Paul established him as bishop of the city of Athens. And in the year 57 Saint Dionysius was present at the repose of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Already during the lifetime of the Mother of God, Saint Dionysius had journeyed especially from Athens to Jerusalem, so as to meet Her. He wrote to his teacher the Apostle Paul: “I witness by God, that besides God Himself, there be naught else in such measure filled with Divine power and grace. No one amongst mankind can fully grasp in mind what I beheld. I confess before God: when I was with John, who did shine out amidst the Apostles, like the sun in the sky – when I was brought before the countenance of the Most Holy Virgin, I experienced an inexpressible sensation. Before me gleamed a sort of Divine radiance. It transfixed my spirit. I perceived the fragrance of indescribable aromatics and was filled with such delight, that my very body became faint, and my spirit fain but could bear these signs and marks of eternal beatitude and Heavenly power. The grace from Her overwhelmed my heart, and shook my very spirit. Had I not in mind thine instruction, I should have mistaken Her for the very God. It is impossible to stand before greater blessedness than this, which I then perceived.”
After the death of the Apostle Paul, and wanting to continue on with his work, Saint Dionysius set off preaching into the Western lands, accompanied by the Presbyter Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius. They converted many to Christ at Rome, and then in Germany, and then in Spain. In Gaul, during the time of a persecution against Christians by the pagan authorities, all three confessors were arrested and thrown into prison. By night Saint Dionysius made Divine Liturgy with co-serving Angels of God. In the morning the martyrs were beheaded. According to an old tradition, Saint Dionysius took up his head, proceeded with it to the church and only there fell down dead. A pious woman named Catulla buried the remains of the saint.
The written works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite are of extraordinary significance in the Theology of the Orthodox Church [and also for late Medieval Western theology]. Over the expanse of almost four centuries – until the beginning of the fourth century – the works of this holy father of the Church were preserved in an obscure manuscript tradition, primarily by theologians of the Alexandrian Church. The concepts in these works were known and utilised by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius the Great – pre-eminent figures of the catechetical school in Alexandria, and also by Sainted Gregory the Theologian. Saint Dionysius of Alexandria wrote to Saint Gregory the Theologian a Commentary on the “Areopagitum.” The works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite received general Church recognition during the sixth-seventh centuries. Particularly relevant are the Commentaries written on them by the Monk Maximus the Confessor (+ 662).