Symeon The New Theologian

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN


For this Spirit, when He descends on you, becomes like a pool of light to you, which encompasses you completely in an unutterable manner. As it regenerates you, it changes you from corruptible to incorruptible, from mortal to immortal, from sons of men into Sons of God and gods by adoption and grace.

Discourses SYMEON

Origen was controversial in his lifetime and a threat to ecclesiastical authority thereafter. Though he and his ideas were anathematized by the church in A.D. 553, the spirit of his teaching suffused the churches and monasteries of the eastern Mediterranean. Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, but in establishing Constantinople as the second and favoured capital of the imperium, he laid the basis for a permanent division in the church. Whilst the western empire, fighting for survival and succumbing to invading tribal groups, produced a church desirous of ecclesiastical control of social structures and theological dogmas, the eastern empire remained sufficiently secure to check unrestrained priestly expansion and to encourage an experiential approach to the Divine. Monastic communities flourished in Greece, Anatolia, Lebanon and Egypt, and translated Origen's insistence on moral withdrawal from all worldly pursuits into a literal isolation.

Although Byzantine monasticism became ritualized and institutionalized, the coenobitic tradition remained close to eremitic practices originated by the Desert Fathers. Despite the extremes to which some hermits went, many used solitude to nurture meditation, and monastics adopted their techniques. Evagrius Ponticus had taught in the fourth century that mind in its natural state is transfixed in Deity. For him, Adam's Fall signified the advent of self-love, the primal evil which disassociated mind from its original focus. This error gave rise to discursive thought, the source of evil in the world, and only a turning inward in concentration could restore the mind to its natural condition. Discursive thought affects the passive aspect of the soul, producing the passions, which begin with basic human wants and end in full-grown self-love. Thus the eight steps of the demonic path start with gluttony, pass through sexual excess, avarice, grief, wrath, weariness and vainglory and culminate in pride. The coenobite sought through self-discipline and meditation to subdue the passions and attain a passionless condition which severed the mind from the senses and discursive thought. Then only could he seek to bring the mind back to Deity.

Evagrius was eventually declared a heretic, but his practical teachings were stripped from their theological framework and made the core of Byzantine psychology. Macarius, a mysterious figure in the fifth century, saw the human being as a redeemable psychosomatic unity. He transformed Evagrius' "prayer of the mind" into "prayer of the heart", for the heart is the spiritual centre of each individual, and it can be a sepulchre or a tablet on which spiritual truth is engraved. Since the heart is the battlefield between good and evil, the presence of the Divine is a possible and desirable experience for every human being. Although such doctrines can lead to psychic inversions, the monasteries sought to maintain balance through using the sacraments and liturgy as a stabilizing bond. Religious ritual was infused with mysticism and retained the impetus of its origins even while it replaced competing liturgical forms in the Orthodox Church. Diadochus, the fifth century bishop of Photice, insisted that Christian faith is individual experience, not personal belief or collective ritual, and John Climacus taught that the memory of Jesus should be united to one's breathing. Real redemption is deification, the communion of the individual with the transfigured Christos, not merely the recollection of and belief in some historical personage. For Maximus the Confessor, ascetic practice necessarily involves the negative achievement of passionlessness, which allows the power of love to be extended equally to all, but must also secure the positive transformation of love into pure agape.

The emphasis on the transmutation of eros into agape obscured the gnostic dimension of deification, but if it led coenobites to reject secular humanism, it also led them to oppose any religious compromises with the State. Thus the Eastern Church did not fall prey to debilitating temporal ambitions. This rich heritage of interwoven strands provided the material that was made into a new tapestry by Symeon the New Theologian. The title 'Theologian' was given in Orthodox tradition to only three teachers – John the Evangelist, who is the reputed author of the fourth Gospel, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Symeon – for only three have been recognized as true theologians, those enraptured with Deity. In Symeon the potent spirituality of Origen found new vitality through hesychasm, the theology of devotion and prayer. The Palamite Synod of 1341 summed up the central characteristic of Symeon's thought in the dictum: "The matrix of prayer is silence – hesychia – and prayer is the manifestation of the glory of God."

Symeon was born in A.D. 949 to Basil and Theophana in the town of Galatia in Paphlagonia. His parents were part of the Byzantine provincial nobility who had sided with the Macedonian Dynasty, and its accession brought prosperity to the Byzantine Empire and favour to Symeon's family. Exceptionally intelligent and uncommonly eloquent, Symeon studied in Galatia until the age of eleven, when his uncle introduced him to the court of the brother emperors, Basil and Constantine Porphyrogenetes. Symeon was welcomed into court life and there continued his education, including training in elaborate court protocol. At the age of fourteen he met Symeon the Studite, an unlettered monk from the enormous Stoudion, the chief monastery in Constantinople. Symeon was deeply affected by the monk's unassuming asceticism and radiant sanctity, and he wished to enter the Stoudion at once. His spiritual mentor, however, knew that the heart and not the inclinations of the moment had to be tested, and so he became Symeon's teacher while ordering him to remain at court. For the next fourteen years Symeon served the emperors as a court official and diplomat, managed the household of a patrician, and spent his nights in meditation and study.

By the time he was twenty, his effortless mastery of court society had aroused considerable envy, and his worldly appearance masked his vivid interior life. In that year he had a vision which he later recorded in the third person:

He saw nothing but light all around him and did not know whether he was standing on the ground . . . he was wholly in the presence of immaterial light and seemed to himself to have turned into light.

His mind ascended heavenward, and there he found an indescribably clear light and, bathed in its splendour, Symeon the Studite. His reverence for his teacher was immeasurably increased by this vision, and he redoubled his efforts to follow his instructions in every detail. At the age of twenty-seven Symeon was vouchsafed another luminous vision, after which his teacher allowed him to enter the Stoudion. Symeon placed himself wholly under the guidance of his teacher, a lay monk who was not a priest. When he was older, he wrote of obedience to one's spiritual guide:

Listen only to the advice of your spiritual father,
And answer him with humility.
As to God, tell Him your every thought,
Even to the simplest temptation, hiding nothing,
And do nothing without your teacher's advice.

Symeon's devotion and zeal soon distressed other monks at the Stoudion, and within a few months its abbot asked him to leave. His teacher took him to the monastery of St. Mamas, located near the Stoudion and known chiefly for its physical and moral decadence. Despite the uncongenial atmosphere, within a mere three years Symeon was tonsured a monk, ordained a priest and elected abbot of Mamas. He assumed responsibility for what his biographer, Nicetas Stethatos, called an enormous cemetery with an intensity of love for all and an unwavering firmness that delighted the serious and terrified the tepid. For the next twenty-five years he sought to make Mamas a coenobitic community founded on the teachings of Jesus, based on the doctrines of the early Fathers and rooted in the individual and inward realization of the Christos as a living force. In time his moral stature and erudition won the admiration of Constantinople, and monks from other communities were drawn to Mamas, along with influential ecclesiastics and nobles.

The gradual but perceptible change at Mamas angered monks accustomed to passive formalism and laxity in discipline, and eventually they fomented a rebellion. They attempted to seize Symeon during a service but they were driven out by his supporters. Appealing to Patriarch Sisinnios for relief, they were surprised to find that Symeon had strong support in the highest quarters. The unrepentant were exiled. Nonetheless, the priests who preferred speculative theology to inner experience were repelled by Symeon's charismatic standpoint. Several years after the rebellion Archbishop Stephen, chief theologian at the court, challenged Symeon to a debate on the nature of the Trinity, pitting the authority of the church hierarchy against the fruits of individual meditation. In the end he forced Symeon into exile. Resigning office in 1009, Symeon found a ruined chapel in the village of Paloukiton near Chrysopolis on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus, and there he and a few followers built a small monastery, where he devoted himself to writing and solitude. Eventually, the patriarch Sergios revoked the exile and offered Symeon an archbishopric, but the New Theologian declined the office, remaining in relative quiet until his death in A.D. 1022.

Symeon's preference for teaching based on meditation and prayer rather than pious elucidation of established authorities was not new to Byzantine Christianity. He knew all the writings well and did not challenge Orthodox teaching. Rather, he uncompromisingly assaulted the moral decay of ecclesiastical and monastic life, and, unlike the hesychastic teachers before him, appealed to his own mystical experience for verification of spiritual truth. Both of these standpoints were thought to be dangerous, especially by the bishops who found Symeon's Christ saying about them:

They unworthily handle My Body
And seek avidly to dominate the masses. . . .
They are perceived as brilliant and pure,
But their souls are worse than mud and dirt,
Worse even than some deadly poison,
These evil and perverse men!

This political audacity was compounded by Symeon's elevation of hesychastic experience to an epistemological principle, for he centered his understanding of Christianity upon the reality of direct experience of the Christos.

Symeon was saddened but not shocked by the petty vices and materialistic proclivities of monks supposedly dedicated to a spiritual life, but he was repelled by the mediocre level of their avowed aspiration. "I call heretics", he preached, "those who say that there is no one in our time in our midst who would observe the commandments of the gospel and become like the holy Fathers – those who pretend that this is impossible." Recognizing that such individuals could not be faulted in respect to beliefs, he added, "These people have not fallen into some particular heresy, but into all the heresies at once, since this one is worse than all in its impiety." Symeon felt that rationalizing away the necessity for individual effort destroyed the possibility of redemption through a misunderstanding of original sin. Adam's Fall, as recounted in the story of the Garden of Eden, had disastrous consequences, making mankind morally weak and spiritually infirm, but his guilt was not genetically transmitted to subsequent generations. A human being is not born in sin, but rather came to a fallen condition through the repetition of Adam's error. The fact that Adam, despite his folly, was the sovereign of Nature meant that salvation through grace was no deus ex machina but rather the possibility of deification through self-conscious union with the Christos within.

For Symeon, the doctrine that the church – all true Christians – is the body of the Christos was the basis for the mystical view that the individual is redeemed only when he is assimilated to the Christos. Belief in Christ could only be the necessary condition, whilst believing Christos is the sufficient and essential condition for deification. Thus the deified individual becomes a member of the body of the Christos, but simultaneously the Christos suffuses every aspect of the human being.

You make your home in each one of us
And you live in everyone,
And for us all you become our abode
And we live in you. . .
We become members of Christ
And Christ becomes our members:
Christ becomes my hand, Christ my foot,
And 1, wretch that I am,
Become Christ's hand, Christ's foot.

As the historical Jesus became one with his Father in Heaven, so each individual can become one with the Christos. Jesus is therefore the paradigm of the path of redemption – "the resurrection of Christ is the same as our resurrection" – as well as the exemplar of discipleship, for the obedience and humility he showed his Father is that which the individual should show his spiritual teacher. The liturgical year has meaning only if it is re-enacted in the inner consciousness of the individual.

Though deification is the gift of the Christos, it is bestowed only when the disciple has made every effort to assimilate himself in thought, word and deed to the Divine. This struggle for union is constant, consistent and deliberate. Whilst monks were divided into archaioi (novices) and teleioi (adepts), the practice of contemplation, inward prayer and one-pointed meditation was the same for both. As the monk learnt to bring his mind to a focus on an object of his choice – such as the name of Jesus – and eventually came to master concentration, he would discover that he had really just begun the path to enlightened union with the Christos. He had chosen to take on himself "the image of the angels" and had to translate his unspoken awareness into dispassionate action. Symeon's Discourses are replete with earthy metaphors that give reality to this daily effort. Speaking of the satanic force of attachment, which like a treacherous bandit slips into the dark corners of one's heart while one is unaware, he warned that bondage can begin with plausible obligations to relatives and friends, alleged duties that distract one from one's inward concentration. The disciple at first imperceptibly turns aside from his main purpose and, insensible to his wayward drift, strays.

The more he turns aside, the more the enemy, as it were, moves into the depth of his treachery and remains hidden as he penetrates more deeply, while he holds the rope of that attachment in his hands and, as he holds it securely, endeavours not to be recognized at all.

Symeon likened the struggle between the Christos and the dark side of human nature to a battle for the soul.

Suppose, brethren, that a man fights against ten or twelve. As he joins battle with them he at the first onset repulses all the first line of champions, the bravest of them, all at once and wounds them and strikes them down. If he afterwards sees one or two of them, rather miserable and weak, who had been left behind . . . will he not hasten to overpower them and tie their hands? . . . Were he out of sheer bravado and arrogance to put his weapons down and take his ease, lie down and sleep out of contempt for them, has he not freely surrendered himself to those wretches to be enslaved by them?

Although he admired great acts of renunciation and sacrifice, he knew that the "minor vices" too often subjugate the sincere aspirant. "If we are slaves to eating and drinking, to sleep, to sluggishness or sloth, to contradiction, disobedience and complaining.., what will our abstinence from the other evil deeds avail for our benefit?"

His firm moral advice was not astringent, for he believed that such words were authentic only when they sprang from a reservoir of love. Practice, consisting of collective worship and individual efforts to live a truly Christian life, provides the foundation for theoria, the highest contemplation. Since Deity is utterly incomprehensible, one cannot presume to formulate in concepts the truth about the Divine. Nonetheless, the realization that Deity is unknowable allows the mind to transcend philosophical and theological categories in meditation and, when the heart is pure, to experience the Ineffable Mystery through union with the Christos. Though this experience is temporary, without it one cannot speak of redemption, for only a glimpse of the Divine constitutes resurrection and reveals the meaning of spiritual existence. "Do not try to describe ineffable matters by words alone, for this is impossible.... Let us contemplate such matters by activity, labour, fatigue – in this way we shall be taught the meaning of the sacred mysteries." Until that moment when the disciple finds that he can dwell in mystic union even while active in the world, the signature of momentary insight and the promise of its permanence lie in an upwelling of impartial love. Indeed, asceticism without love is in vain.

True experience of the Divine is the realization of the presence in each human being of the Trinity – the incomprehensible Deity, its incarnation as the Christos in man, and as the Holy Spirit represented in the twin powers of love and will. As the Trinity, it is possible to see God with "spiritual sight" which is "no form, image or representation, but the formless Light". There is no other way to know the Divine than as this numinous refulgence, represented in the transfigured Christ and present in the receptive human being.

Do not say that it is impossible to receive the Divine Spirit.
Do not say that without him you can be saved.
Do not say that one can possess him unknowingly.
Do not say that God cannot be seen by men.
Do not say that men do not behold the Divine Light,
Or that it cannot be seen in the present time.

For Symeon, what is necessary is always possible. The mystic awakening to the Christos within is essential for the redemption of each person. This resurrection is not merely a present guarantee of post-mortem celestial bliss. It is the discovery of the Kingdom of Heaven even in the midst of mortality. "Let us not wait to see Him in the future, but strive to contemplate Him now, since John the Theologian tells us, 'We know that we have God in our hearts, from the Spirit which we have received from Him."' And he wrote on another occasion that "through the Holy Spirit the resurrection of all of us occurs. And I do not speak only of the final resurrection... . The Christos grants through His Holy Spirit, even now, the Kingdom of Heaven." Unlike most of his contemporaries, and so many since his time, Symeon thought that the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes were neither lofty ideals nor intimations of life at the end of time; they constitute practical advice for a way of life which discloses heaven on earth.

Symeon combined willing acceptance of traditional piety with a living awareness of spiritual realities and demonstrated that the two need not be incompatible. Despite the hostility his seriousness of purpose provoked amongst those who preferred religious sinecures to spiritual striving, he was canonized by the Eastern Church and named 'the New Theologian'. His call to authentic repentance left a lasting mark on the life of eastern Christendom, and his theology of light became the standard for Orthodox spirituality.