Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) –Life – Spirituality – Doctrine
“In the Light of Christ”
(By Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
Reviewed by Emmanuel N. Stamatiou
1. Brief Biography
1. Saint Symeon the New Theologian was the greatest of the Byzantine mystical writers.
2. He was born in 949 at Galatea in Paphlagonia (Asia Minor) of parents who belonged to the political Byzantine aristocracy, possessing wealth and influence in political affairs.
3. At the age of about 11, Symeon was brought by his father to Constantinople to be educated in the schools of the capital and then go into the emperor’s service. At that time Basil, Symeon’s uncle, held an important position at court and intended to present his nephew to the court, but the young Symeon declined the honour.
4. Still young in years, about 20, he lived in Constantinople a life of great discontent, the dissolute life of a young man in the capital city.
5. Affected, it seems by reading books on spirituality, especially saints’ lives, Symeon deeply felt the wretchedness of his condition and began to search for a holy man to guide and reconcile him to God.
6. After much prayer God revealed to him an old monk named Symeon the Pious at the monastery of Studios in Constantinople.
7. He then entered a new stage of his life. Although he continued to work in the world managing the house of a certain patrician, he devoted his nights to prolonged prayer. During one of these nightly prayers he experienced his first vision of a light that suffused him, filled him with joy and made him lose all awareness of himself and of his surroundings.
8. However, this first period of religious enthusiasm and mystical enlightenment, which Symeon attributed to the prayers of his spiritual father, did not last long. He soon returned to the worldly, dissolute life he had earlier and fell into greater evils than before. Symeon reveals, “Unhappy that I was, I plunged into a pit, into the mire of my shameful deeds and thoughts. I surrendered to the enemies (demons) lurking in darkness. Not a single being, not even the whole world turned into one, would have been able to make me re-ascend or deliver me from their hands.”
9. Nonetheless, it seems that during this stage which lasted 6-7 years, Symeon did not entirely separate from his spiritual father. He writes, “I do not know how to explain this, but love and confidence in that saintly old man remained in my heart, unknown to myself.. It is because of this and through his prayers that after years had gone by, God, the lover of mankind, was merciful to me, through him he drew me away from my great blindness and freed me from the depths of evil.”
10. Miraculously rescued from the deep pit of evil and its mire, Symeon decided to renounce the world and became a monk at the age of 27 years.
11. At 31 years, he was made abbot of the monastery of St Mamas of Xerocercos.
12. He resigned in 1005 after being abbot for almost 25 years and devoted himself at the monastery to a solitary life.
13. In 1009 he wrote his “Hymns of the Divine Love”.
14. He died on 12/03/1022 at the age of 73 years.
2. Saint Symeon’s Teachings
At the Patriarch’s residence, Stephen of Alexandria who was wise and learned and jealous of Symeon, seized the opportunity to catch him out with a difficult theological question thereby demonstrating Symeon’s ignorance. Assuring a monk of friendship he said to Symeon, “Tell me, how would you distinguish the Son from the Father, through a conceptual distinction or a real distinction?” Symeon gave him a written answer the next day – “God the Father is not separated from the Son by a conceptual distinction; He is inseparable from the Father. He has the same nature but a different hypostasis (person). To say the Father is separated from the Son ‘by real distinction’ is characteristic of an atheist seated in complete darkness. The Son extends through the entire cosmos and fills everything, entirely separated from the Father, yet remaining entirely with the Father. The Spirit who proceeded from the Father, in a way that cannot be expressed, has been sent by the Son of men. It is only through the Holy Spirit, and not through knowledge that one perceives the Holy Trinity.”
(i) On Knowledge of God – It is only when Christ begins to speak in our heart through His Holy Spirit that we acquire knowledge about Him. Knowledge of God is not acquired through studies. It is acquired through revelation. Without revelation by the Holy Spirit, worldly wisdom does not allow us to enter into the mysteries of God. Through the working of the Spirit of God, they are revealed in mental contemplation to those to whom it has been given and is constantly given through grace from above. If one does not obtain such conscious vision of the mysteries of God – in contemplation, knowledge and experience here on earth, he will not have the slightest knowledge of the eternal life that springs from the Spirit and continues forever. He will not contemplate the light of God and will remain dead and insensible, then just as now.
(ii) On Scripture – St Symeon says, “It did not take me long to arise and to search for the treasure that lies concealed in Holy Scripture.” Nothing is more advantageous for the soul who has chosen to meditate day and night upon the Law of God than to search Divine Scripture. However, a person who does not have the grace of the Holy Spirit cannot understand Scripture. Scripture alone without spiritual experience is insufficient. We need to also obey God’s commandments. God will then reveal Himself to us and then we will be able to contemplate the Divine mysteries that are hidden in Divine Scripture.
(iii) On the Holy Eucharist – The unworthy derive no profit from the Holy Eucharist and the Divinity remains inaccessible to them, for they do not know God. Only a conscious communion, one which a person feels inwardly united to God, is an authentic and true communion. A worthy communicant is one who leads a life in obedience to the commandments of Christ and the teachings of the Holy Fathers, in a permanent state of repentance. Frequent and conscious communion is the centre of spiritual life. The Eucharist is the mystery of God’s love for man.
(iv) On the Vision of Light – God can only be known through his energies and by seeing the light which he sends. No one can speak of this light without the soul’s eye (nous). One must have a personal experience and be enlightened himself. In this state of vision the saints are filled with ineffable joy and happiness because they have acquired within themselves the Light of Christ. The light produces tears and loss of consciousness. One does not know whether one is in or out of the body. They veil their faces since they cannot bear the brightness of their garments. As soon as they are united essentially to God Himself and deserve to see Him and partake of Him, they are no longer attracted by the image of His works or by the shadow of things visible.
(v) On the Holy Spirit – The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and is sent to men by the Son by grace. The grace of the Holy Spirit brings life to our souls. It produces knowledge and full understanding. It opens our closed and clouded mind. It is the “key of knowledge” referred to in Scripture where Christ says – “Woe unto you lawyers, for you have taken away the key of knowledge”.
(vi) On Sacramental Baptism – St Symeon says that – “Sacramental Baptism is essential for salvation. Small children baptised by the Holy Spirit are not only sanctified and protected but also entirely freed from the tyranny of the devil. Marked by the seal of the life-giving cross, they become sheep of Christ’s flock and chosen lambs. However, sacramental baptism is not sufficient to attain the fullness of Christian life. You need purification; a second baptism with the Holy Spirit through repentance. Christ said, “John baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
This has been a quick sketch of Saint Symeon’s mystical way, based on his writings. By renouncing his own will, practising humility and especially unceasing, heartfelt prayer, he regained the clarity of spiritual sight that he lost at the age of 20 years through a dissolute life when he was still young and inexperienced in the spiritual life. With the prayers and guidance of his spiritual father and inner purification Symeon reached the highest summit. In an intimate, personal and unifying encounter he met Christ and Christ transformed his entire being into light by speaking in his heart through the Holy Spirit.
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