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Symeon the New Theologian

Monk (949 - 12 March 1022) - from Galatia, Paphlagonia (now Turkey)
Saint of the Orthodox Churches

Symeon the New Theologian: Theological Discourse 3 -
“God is light” (1Jn 1,5), an infinite and incomprehensible light. The Father is light, the Son is light, the Spirit is light: all three are a light that is single, simple, without composition, outside time, in an eternal sameness of dignity and glory. Then, all that comes from God is light and is shared amongst us as coming from the light: the light of life, the light of immortality, the light that is the source of life, the light of living water, charity, peace, truth, and the door to the Kingdom of heaven; the light of this heavenly Kingdom itself, the light of the bridal chamber, nuptial bed, paradise and its delights; the land of the gentle, crowns of life; the light of the very clothing worn by the saints. Light of Christ Jesus, Savior and King of the universe, light of the bread of his spotless flesh, light of the chalice of his precious blood, light of his resurrection, light of his face; the light of his hand, his finger, his mouth, his eyes; our Lord's light, his voice, as light from light. The Consoler is light, pearl, mustard seed, true vine, leaven, hope, faith: light!

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish + video

"Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we pause to reflect on an Eastern monk, Symeon the New Theologian, whose writings have had a notable influence on the theology and spirituality of the East, in particular with regard to the experience of mystical union with God. Symeon the New Theologian was born in 949 in Galatai, Paphlagonia, in Asia Minor, into a provincial noble family. While he was still young he moved to Constantinople to complete his education and enter the Emperor's service. However, he did not feel attracted by the civil career that awaited him. Under the influence of the inner illumination he was experiencing, he set out in search of someone who would guide him in the period of doubt and perplexity he was living through and help him advance on the path of union with God. He found this spiritual guide in Symeon the Pious (Eulabes), a simple monk of the Studios in Constantinople who advised him to read Mark the Monk's treatise, The Spiritual Law. Symeon the New Theologian found in this text a teaching that made a deep impression on him: 'If you seek spiritual healing, be attentive to your conscience,' he read in it. 'Do all that it tells you and you will find what serves you.' From that very moment, he himself says, he never went to sleep without first asking himself whether his conscience had anything with which to reproach him.

Symeon entered the Studite monastery where, however, his mystical experiences and extraordinary devotion to his spiritual father caused him some difficulty. He moved to the small convent of St Mamas, also in Constantinople, of which 3 years later he became abbot, hegumen. There he embarked on an intense quest for spiritual union with Christ which gave him great authority. It is interesting to note that he was given the title of the "New Theologian", in spite of the tradition that reserved this title for two figures, John the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzus. Symeon suffered misunderstandings and exile but was rehabilitated by Patriarch Sergius II of Constantinople.

Symeon the New Theologian spent the last stage of his life at the Monastery of St Marina where he wrote a large part of his opus, becoming ever more famous for his teaching and his miracles. He died on 12 March 1022.

The best known of his disciples, Niceta Stethatos, who collected and copied Symeon's writings, compiled a posthumous edition of them and subsequently wrote his biography. Symeon's opus consists of 9 volumes that are divided into theological, gnostic and practical chapters, 3 books of catecheses addressed to monks, 2 books of theological and ethical treatises and 1 of hymns. Moreover, his numerous Letters should not be forgotten. All these works have had an important place in the Eastern monastic tradition to our day.

Symeon focused his reflection on the Holy Spirit's presence in the baptized and on the awareness they must have of this spiritual reality. "Christian life", he emphasized, "is intimate, personal communion with God, divine grace illumines the believer's heart and leads him to a mystical vision of the Lord." Along these lines, Symeon the New Theologian insisted that true knowledge of God does not come from books but rather from spiritual experience, from spiritual life. Knowledge of God is born from a process of inner purification that begins with conversion of heart through the power of faith and love. It passes through profound repentance and sincere sorrow for one's sins to attain union with Christ, the source of joy and peace, suffused with the light of his presence within us. For Symeon this experience of divine grace did not constitute an exceptional gift for a few mystics but rather was the fruit of Baptism in the life of every seriously committed believer.

A point on which to reflect, dear brothers and sisters! This holy Eastern monk calls us all to pay attention to our spiritual life, to the hidden presence of God within us, to the sincerity of the conscience and to purification, to conversion of heart, so that the Holy Spirit may really become present in us and guide us. Indeed, if rightly we are concerned to care for our physical, human and intellectual development, it is even more important not to neglect our inner growth. This consists in the knowledge of God, in true knowledge, not only learned from books but from within and in communion with God, to experience his help at every moment and in every circumstance. Basically it is this that Symeon describes when he recounts his own mystical experience. Already as a young man, before entering the monastery, while at home one night immersed in prayer and invoking God's help to fight temptations, he saw the room fill with light. Later, when he entered the monastery, he was given spiritual books for instruction but reading them did not procure for him the peace that he sought. He felt, he himself says, as if he were a poor little bird without wings. He humbly accepted this situation without rebelling and it was then that his visions of light began once again to increase. Wishing to assure himself of their authenticity, Symeon asked Christ directly: "Lord, is it truly you who are here?" He heard the affirmative answer resonating in his heart and was supremely comforted. "That, Lord," he was to write later, "was the first time that you considered me, a prodigal son, worthy of hearing your voice." However, not even this revelation left him entirely at peace. He wondered, rather, whether he ought to consider that experience an illusion. At last, one day an event occurred that was crucial to his mystical experience. He began to feel like "a poor man who loves his brethren" (ptochós philádelphos). Around him he saw hordes of enemies bent on ensnaring him and doing him harm, yet he felt within an intense surge of love for them. How can this be explained? Obviously, such great love could not come from within him but must well up from another source. Symeon realized that it was coming from Christ present within him and everything became clear: he had a sure proof that the source of love in him was Christ's presence. He was certain that having in ourselves a love that exceeds our personal intentions suggests that the source of love is in us. Thus we can say on the one hand that if we are without a certain openness to love Christ does not enter us, and on the other, that Christ becomes a source of love and transforms us. Dear friends, this experience remains particularly important for us today if we are to find the criteria that tell us whether we are truly close to God, whether God exists and dwells in us. God's love develops in us if we stay united to him with prayer and with listening to his word, with an open heart. Divine love alone prompts us to open our hearts to others and makes us sensitive to their needs, bringing us to consider everyone as brothers and sisters and inviting us to respond to hatred with love and to offence with forgiveness.

In thinking about this figure of Symeon the New Theologian, we may note a further element of his spirituality. On the path of ascetic life which he proposed and took, the monk's intense attention and concentration on the inner experience conferred an essential importance on the spiritual father of the monastery. The same young Symeon, as has been said, had found a spiritual director who gave him substantial help and whom he continued to hold in the greatest esteem such as to profess veneration for him, even in public, after his death. And I would like to say that the invitation to have recourse to a good spiritual father who can guide every individual to profound knowledge of himself and lead him to union with the Lord so that his life may be in ever closer conformity with the Gospel still applies for all priests, consecrated and lay people, and especially youth. To go towards the Lord we always need a guide, a dialogue. We cannot do it with our thoughts alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.

To conclude, 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. He himself was able to live and teach his monks that for every disciple of Jesus the essential is to grow in love; thus we grow in the knowledge of Christ himself, to be able to say with St Paul: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2: 20).""

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 16 September 2009 - © Copyright 2009 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Symeon the New Theologian's Catechesis, 33 ; SC 113

What is the key to knowledge if not the grace of the Holy Spirit conferred by faith? Its illumination truly gives knowledge, divine knowledge, and opens our closed and veiled minds, as we frequently experience with regard to many parables and figures, to say nothing of clearer demonstrations. Pay careful attention, therefore, to the spiritual meaning of the word. If the key does not open the door - for Scripture says, to him the doorkeeper opens - it remains unopened; and if the door is not opened, no one enters the Father's house. As Christ says: "No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14,6).

Now the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who first opens our minds and teaches us about the Father and the Son is again stated by Christ himself: "When the Spirit of truth comes, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me and he will lead you to the whole truth" (Jn 15,26; 16,13). Do you not see how through the Spirit, or rather in the Spirit, the Father and the Son come to be known inseparably?...

The Holy Spirit is called the key because it is through him and in him that we first receive spiritual illumination, and being purified, are enlightened with the light of knowledge, and baptized from above, and born again, and called children of God. As Paul says: "The Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groans" (Rm 8,26); and again, "God has given his Spirit to our hearts and he cries out, 'Abba, Father' " (Gal 4,6). It is the Spirit, therefore, who shows us the door which is light, and the door teaches us that he who inhabits the dwelling is himself also light inaccessible.

Symeon the New Theologian: Ethics 5

My friend, you have learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, if that is what you want, and that every blessing of eternity lies within your hands. So make haste to see, grasp, and win these blessings stored up for you... Call to God; bow down before him.

Like the blind man of old you, too, should say: “Have pity on me, Son of God, and open the eyes of my soul that I may see that Light of the world which you are, O my God, and may become, likewise, a child of that divine light. O good and generous One: send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, even on me to teach me all about you, all about what is yours, God of the universe. Dwell also in me as you have said that I, in my turn, may become worthy of dwelling in you. Make me know how to enter into you and know that I possess you within me. O thou, Invisible One, deign to take shape in me that, seeing your inaccessible beauty, I may bear your image, O you who dwell in the heavens, and may I forget all visible things. Grant to me the glory the Father has given to you, O merciful One, so that, resembling you as all your servants do, I may share in your divine life by grace and may constantly remain with you now and always, for ever and ever.”