During his general audience on Sept. 16, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Symeon the New Theologian, an Eastern monk from Asia Minor. As a young man, he embarked on a career as a civil servant but quickly felt a call to religious life as a monk.
Symeon was a prolific writer, and his writings reflect his deep understanding of the presence and the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the baptized. He teaches us that Christian life is an intimate and personal communion with God and that true knowledge of God comes not from books, but from an interior purification through conversion of the heart. According to Symeon, union with Christ is not something extraordinary, but the fruit of the baptism that all Christians share.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will reflect on Symeon the New Theologian, a monk from the East, whose writings have influenced Eastern theology and spirituality in a significant way, especially as regards the experience of mystical union with God.
Symeon the New Theologian was born in 949 in Galatai in a noble family from the province of Paphlagonia in Asia Minor. As a young man, he went to Constantinople for his studies and entered into the service of the emperor.
However, he did not feel attracted to a career as a civil servant, and, under the influence of some inner illuminations he had been experiencing, he set out to look for someone who could provide guidance for him at a time when he was filled with questions and doubts — someone who could help him progress on his journey towards union with God.
He found a spiritual director in the person of Simeon the Pious (Eulabes), a humble monk from the monastery of Studios in Constantinople, who gave him a treatise to read by Mark the Monk entitled Spiritual Law.
Symeon found a teaching in this text that made a strong impression on him:
“If you seek spiritual healing,” he read, “then heed your conscience. You will find something useful in everything it tells you is wrong.”
From that moment on, as he himself wrote, he never went to bed without asking if his conscience had any reason to reproach him.
Life as a Monk
Symeon entered the monastery of the Studites. Unfortunately, however, his mystical experiences and his extraordinary devotion to his spiritual father were a source of difficulties.
He transferred to the small convent of St. Mammas, which is also in Constantinople, where he became the superior — the egumen — three years later. There, he carried on an intense quest for spiritual union with Christ, which gave him a great deal of authority.
It is interesting to note that he was given the name of “New Theologian” even though tradition had reserved the title of “Theologian” for two people — John the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Symeon was the victim of misunderstanding and exile, but he was rehabilitated by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius II.
Symeon the New Theologian spent the last phase of his life in the monastery of San Makrina, where he wrote a large part of his works, becoming even more famous because of his teachings and his miracles. He died on March 12, 1022.
His best-known disciple, Niceta Stethatos, who collected and recopied Symeon’s writings, published a posthumous edition of them and later wrote his biography. Symeon’s works consists of nine volumes that include separate volumes of Theological Discourses, Gnostic Discourses and Practical Discourses; three volumes on Catecheses that are directed to monks; two volumes called Theological Treatises and Ethical Discourses; and a volume of Hymns. He also wrote numerous letters.
Even today, all these works hold a position of honor in the Eastern monastic tradition.
Symeon focused his reflection on the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who have been baptized and on the awareness that they should have of this spiritual reality. Christian life, he emphasized, is an intimate and personal communion with God.
God’s grace illuminates the heart of
the believer and leads him to a mystical vision of the Lord.
Following these lines, Symeon the New Theologian insists on the fact that true knowledge of God does not come from books, but from spiritual experience — from life in the Spirit.
Knowledge of God stems from a journey of inner purification, which begins with the conversion of the heart thanks to the power of faith and love. This journey must pass through profound repentance and sincere sorrow for one’s sins in order to achieve union with Christ, the source of joy and peace, the light of whose presence fills us.
For Symeon, such an experience of God’s grace was not an exceptional gift for a few mystics, but the fruit of baptism manifest in the life of all the faithful who have a serious commitment to Christ.
My dear brothers and sisters, this is a point on which it would be worthwhile for us to reflect! This saintly monk from the East reminds us all to pay utmost attention to our spiritual life, to God’s hidden presence in us, to sincerity of conscience, and to purification and conversion of the heart, so that the Holy Spirit might truly be present in us and guide us.
If, in fact, we are concerned with good reason with tending to our physical, human and intellectual growth, it is even more important not to overlook our interior growth, which consists in knowing God — truly knowing him, not just from books, but interiorly and in communion with him — so as to experience his help at all times and in all circumstances.
Basically, this is what Symeon describes when he recounts his own mystical experience. One night as a young man before entering the monastery, while he was spending an extended time in prayer at home asking God for help in resisting temptation, he saw a light fill the room. Later, after he entered the monastery, he was given spiritual books to instruct him, but reading them did not give him the peace he was seeking. He felt, as he himself recalls, like a poor little bird without wings.
He humbly accepted this situation without rebelling. Then, the visions of light once again began to multiply. Seeking assurance that they were authentic, Symeon asked Christ directly, “Lord, are you really here?” He felt a “Yes” resound in his heart and was deeply comforted.
“That was the first time, Lord,” he later wrote, “that you judged me, your prodigal son, worthy of hearing your voice.”
However, he was not completely at peace, even with this revelation. He wondered whether this experience was merely an illusion. Finally, one day something happened that was fundamental for his mystical experience. He started to feel as though he were “a poor man who loves his brothers” (ptochós philádelphos).
He saw many enemies around him who wanted to set traps to ensnare him and who wanted to do evil to him. Nonetheless, this stirred up an intense feeling of love for them.
How could he explain it? Obviously, such love could not have come from him himself. It must have had its source elsewhere.
Symeon realized that this love came from Christ present in him, and everything became clear to him. He had the sure proof that the fountain of love in him was Christ’s presence and that to have such love in him, which surpassed his own personal intentions, was an indication that the source was within him.
Therefore, on one hand we can say that Christ does not enter us without a certain openness to love; on the other hand, though, once he does, Christ becomes a fountain of love and transforms us.
Lessons for Today
Dear friends, this experience remains even more important for us today in order to find the criteria whereby we will know if we are really close to God, if God is there, and if God lives in us. The love of God grows within us if we remain united to him through prayer and through listening to his word, and through an openness of our hearts.
Only God’s love makes us open our hearts to others and makes us sensitive to their needs, bringing us to consider everyone as our brother and sister and inviting us to respond to hatred with love and to offenses with forgiveness.
Reflecting on Symeon the New Theologian, there is one other element of his spirituality that we can highlight.
In the ascetic lifestyle that he advocated and that he followed, his strong emphasis on and the attention he devotes to an inner experience confers an essential importance on the spiritual father of the monastery. When Symeon himself was a young man, as we already noted, he found a spiritual director who helped him greatly and for whom he always maintained great respect — to the point that he even venerated him publicly when he died.
This remains valid today as all of us — priests, consecrated religious, laypeople and especially the young — are invited to seek counsel from a good spiritual director, one who is capable of accompanying each individual in a profound knowledge of self, thereby leading him or her to intimate union with the Lord so that their lives may increasingly conform to the Gospel.
To advance in our relationship with the Lord, we always have need of someone to guide us and of some form of dialogue. We cannot do it simply through our own reflection. Finding such a guide is part of the ecclesial nature of our faith.
In conclusion, we can summarize the teaching and mystical experience of Symeon the New Theologian. In his incessant search for God, despite the difficulties he encountered and the criticisms he endured, he allowed himself to be guided by love.
He was able both to live out and to teach his monks that it is essential for us as disciples of Christ to grow in love, thereby growing in the knowledge of Christ himself, so we might say with St. Paul: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).