Friday, July 12, 2013
Getting to Know St. Symeon the New Theologian
To read the writings of the Byzantine monk St. Symeon the New Theologian is like attempting to read fire - his words cut through the dross of more academic works on the subject of God with wild abandon and yet precise orthodoxy, nearly emulating the Psalms themselves in their cryings-out to God. His more ascetical and practical writings hit with an impact that is unforgettable and almost unforgiving towards lukewarm Christian living. And yet, somehow, this great saint still seems to remain an unknown in the Catholic West.
However, in the Catholic East (and of course the Orthodox East), St. Symeon seems to be a household name. The priest at my local Ukrainian Catholic parish cites him as a central influence, and I see him spoken of constantly in the world of Eastern Catholic writings. To be sure, his influence in Eastern thought is unimaginably huge - easily as much as the Pseudo-Macarian writings, St. Isaac the Syrian, and the Greek Fathers.
For myself, reading the Hymns of Divine Love was almost like an encountering the Psalms all over again, though with a different flavor. St. Symeon's words are not universal like King David's, though part of his theology is that he thought they should be. His emphasis on experiencing the uncreated light of God, central to Eastern hesychasm, was so intense that it received heavy criticism from his contemporaries. Quite strongly, he states that "those...whom I call heretics are those who say that there is no one in our times and in our midst who is able to keep the Gospel commandments and become like the holy Fathers..."1 - a powerful statement to consider.
As one can see, St. Symeon pulls no punches. His spirituality is one of direct experience and encounter of the living Christ, which it seems that he often finds difficulty articulating. Oftentimes, his hymns become lost in a kind of rapture as he seeks to find the right means of putting his experience to paper - often, he seems to have gotten himself into trouble in certain areas with the Church, and to be sure, his teachings were not widely accepted in his own day. Not only did he face rebellion and threats from his own monastic community, but was forced into exile as well for some of his teachings on the experience of God and certain views he held on the sacrament of confession.
Equally impacting are his more ascetical writings. Much like Pseudo-Macarius and other Desert Fathers, St. Symeon focuses very much on the reality of spiritual warfare, writing that it is "impossible to be completely free from conflict and not to be attacked by evil spirits."2 He continually speaks of the trials and tribulations of spiritual combat, and of the need for extreme humility and prayer.
Overall, St. Symeon the New Theologian has been a favorite of mine since I first encountered him. His spirituality is highly personal, heart-rending, and leaves no room for lukewarmness or casual Christianity - his is a fight or die theology. But it is also incredibly rich, comprising some of the best Christian poetry to have ever been written; truly, it stands alongside the works of St. Ephrem the Syrian without a doubt.
As Pope Benedict XVI once spoke eloquently of him, "we may sum up the teaching and mystical experience of Symeon the New Theologian in these words: in his ceaseless quest for God, even amidst the difficulties he encountered and the criticism of which he was the object, in the end he let himself be guided by love."3
1 - "Catechetical Oration", 39:3
2 - qtd. in Ignatius Brianchaninov, On the Prayer of Jesus, III
3 - General Audience, Sept. 16, 2009