Away from my family on study retreat, I went to St. Isidore’s for the Sunday English language mass. While looking up toward the dome before the service, I caught sight of the four Evangelists, in Baroque attitudes of dramatic inspiration, pages under their poised fingers, living creatures over their shoulders. I prayed something like the following:
Lord, you pour forth power and wisdom and goodness without cease
According to your own mode, which is limitless, simple and eternal.
The angels and the saints in heaven receive your revelation
And each reflect it according to their own mode,
Which is particular, intellectual and perpetual.
From the Church in heaven, we who are on earth receive this grace according to our own mode,
Which is individual, intellectual and physical, stretched out in time, marked by sin and forgetting.
Help me to perceive the perfect in what is imperfect, the eternal in what is temporal, the whole in what is in part.
For you are power, wisdom and goodness, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.
It was a scholastic prayer, I admit, but I came by it honestly and meant it sincerely. Since discovering for myself the notion in Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), I have joined my voice to others in the academy more accomplished than myself, in insisting anew on the importance of hierarchy in the Latin theology of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Supported by translations and commentaries related to the works of Dionysius the Areopagite—a sixth-century Syrian monk who made himself, in literature as in life, the Greek-philosopher disciple of St. Paul—the principle figures of our interest (Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Gallus, Robert Grosseteste, Hugh of St. Cher, Alexander of Hales, and Bonaventure) each display an understanding of revelation, and therefore, of theology, that depends upon the notion of hierarchia. The notion envisions a cosmos that has come forth from God, where every rational creature receives from God its being and mode of existence, and, provided it is not turned in upon itself because of sin, reflects his glory to those beings that exist in a lower mode. Archangels praise God to angels, and angels praise him to human beings, who have their own varied modes of existence based on their order in the church. Humans, as the link between intellectual and physical creation, have a role in raising the non-human creation up to God in praise and gratitude. Dionysius envisions a cosmos in ceaseless intellectual and “affective” motion, where the reciprocations of the individual levels form an inconceivably vast and more or less perfect mediatorial structure that reflects and draws in to God, the still center of being who is beyond being.
The reality, of course, is that “hierarchy” has been long and far out of fashion because of its abuse, even at this time, in politics and ecclesiology. Lip service to hierarchy justifies clericalism, tyranny, and the exploitation of the poor of this world. Reformers, Deists, Democrats and others have all attacked the notion for giving rise to these injustices. It is entirely understandable that a non-Christian should find the idea silly or even pernicious. But can a Christian who laughs at it have taken seriously those words of St. Paul: What do you have that you did not receive? (1 Cor 4:17)
With all respect to those who love social justice and hate tyranny, hierarchy in the medieval theological tradition does not deserve its poor reputation. Following scholars like Hans Urs Von Balthasar, M.D. Chenu, and Renee Roques, hierarchy turns out to have been conceived by the medievals (as it was by Dionysius himself), not as a reality in the order of being (as in non-Christian neoplatonic thought), but in the order of grace. It is not a way of giving social stratification the force of religious dogma. It is a way of conceiving the mediation or “condescension” necessary to accommodate what is simple and eternal and immutable to us, who are composed of parts, bound by time, and both grow and decay by means of constant change. It is not, as is sometimes falsely asserted, a substitution of the Cross for the Golden Chain of Being. At the very beginning of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Dionysius refers to Christ as “the source and being underlying all hierarchy.” As God and man, the Lord Jesus stands at the top and bottom of Jacob’s mystical ladder. Indeed, the constant communicating motion which occupies Dionysius so much in the Celestial Hierarchy can also be seen to represent the path of condescension traveled by Christ to us in the incarnation, and blazed by him in the resurrection and ascension. We participate in this same journey through our life in the Church, following in his footsteps. So, like Saint Patrick, looking at hierarchy, we see Christ behind us, Christ before us, Christ beside us.
None of this makes redundant the ranks of angels and saints Dionysius so carefully elaborates. In a disputed question on miraculous appearances of God in the Old Testament, Alexander of Hales wrote: “It is right that declaration always grow more and more: hence first through angels, afterwards through prophets, and finally through Christ.” Hierarchy is a four-dimensional reality: it is not only passed down from the Incircumscribable—through the intellectual to the physical, limited, and broken—in order to lift creation up to God (revelation, salvation); it is also passed along in history, from heavenly messengers to prophets, and finally by the God-man himself—who leaves us signs and witnesses, whose words and acts (and the commentaries and elaborations made on them) are still expanding in the present, like ripples on water: tradition, liturgy, family life. For me, hierarchy, more than the flat image of community, helps me to imagine what is meant by the mystical body of Christ.
So there I sat, having prayed my sincere but somewhat pompous prayer, knowing that I did not come to Christ by myself, and will not join him in heaven by myself either, hoping for the help of all those saints and angels, and also my brothers and sisters, huddled together on a windy December day in our little Baroque church on the Colle Pincio, to penetrate a little further into that incomprehensible mystery, and to separate from the sin that so easily besets. Then Br. Ronan asked me if I wanted to do the first reading. I said ‘yes,’ of course, and felt my pulse quicken and my hands sweat. I swelled with pride for having been asked, then burned with shame for having my head turned by so small a responsibility. I forgot to look it over. I said “the Lord be with you,” when I wasn’t supposed to. I found it difficult to find space to breathe. I read out the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel. (Isa 7:10-14)
I finished and sat down. And I understood something new about hierarchy.
Aaron Gies is visiting assistant professor of theology at St. Bonaventure University.