Symeon the New Theologian
SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN
SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN (949–1022) was a Christian mystic. Symeon is called "the New Theologian," first because, like John the Evangelist, he speaks of mystical union with the Trinity, and, second, because Gregory of Nazianzus, known as "the Theologian," had also written passionately on the Trinity. Symeon's personal life and his writings reflect a good deal of the polemical, because he considered himself a zealot battling the fossilized segments of the institutional church for a return to radical gospel Christianity. That he, as all mystics who articulated their experiences in writings, would be branded as a dangerous reformer walking the slender line between orthodoxy and heresy is not surprising. His ardent, passionate nature, plus the genuinely rare mystical graces that he had experienced, compounded to "force" him, as he confessed, to share his mystical experiences freely with others.
Symeon was born at Galatia in Paphlagonia (in Asia Minor) in 949. This was the time of the powerful Macedonian dynasty, which had given the Byzantine empire its greatest periods of peace and expanding prosperity. Symeon's parents, Basil and Theophano, belonged to the Byzantine provincial nobility, which had won favor with the administration and had acquired some modicum of wealth.
There are two main sources of knowledge about Symeon's life: the Life written by his disciple, Nicetas Stethatos, and the writings of Symeon himself. Symeon's uncle Basil brought him to the imperial court of Constantinople, where he continued his secondary education. Refusing to pursue higher studies, he was taken under direction by a holy monk of the Stoudion monastery in Constantinople, who allowed him to enter the monastery in his twenty-seventh year.
The fervent life of the novice under the guidance of his charismatic spiritual director caused jealousy among the monks, and Symeon transferred to the neighboring monastery of Saint Mamas. Here he made great progress in learning and in spiritual perfection, and within three years he was tonsured monk, ordained priest, and elected abbot. By his discourses (catecheses ) to his monks, he strove to lead them into a greater consciousness of God's presence indwelling them, but not without stirring up great opposition, especially from Stephen, archbishop of Nicomedia and chief adviser to the patriarch of Constantinople. Stephen emphasized reason, philosophy, and rhetoric in his theology; Symeon's theology was charismatic and apophatic, stressing a mystical and interior way of negation that doubts the capacity of reason to comprehend mystery.
Under attack, and desirous of more solitude for prayer and writing, Symeon resigned as abbot in 1005. Four years later, the official circle of theologians headed by Stephen succeeded in having Symeon exiled to a small town called Paloukiton, near Chrysopolis on the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus. There he passed thirteen years in the small monastery of Saint Marina in prayer and writing, dying in 1022.
Symeon, as one of the most "personal" writers in Byzantine spirituality, reveals himself in his writings in all his sinfulness and ecstatic joy in union with God. His central work can justly be considered his thirty-four discourses, Catecheses. As these were preached before a live audience of his fellow monks of Saint Mamas, usually during the morning office of matins, they represent a genre unique in Byzantine spirituality. Two characteristics shine forth in this writing. One sees a most traditional presentation of classical themes common to all the Greek fathers who wrote on the spiritual life of ascesis and contemplation. But on the other hand, one finds a new and insistent accent on the operations of the Holy Spirit to effect the end of the spiritual life and of all Christian ascesis and contemplation, namely, greater mystical union with the indwelling Trinity.
Other writings of Symeon developed around key theological issues as he engaged in controversy with Stephen and other official "scholastic" Byzantine theologians. In these writings Symeon is not exhorting monks but is struggling to combat the heavy rational theology that he felt was destroying true Christianity. His writings collected in Theological Treatises form an integrated series focusing on the unity of the Trinity.
The fifteen writings collected in Ethical Treatises are much more uneven. The first two treatises deal with the economy of God's salvation; the following nine (numbers 3–11) form a fairly unified presentation of Symeon's doctrine on mysticism; the last four (numbers 12–15) deal with a variety of subjects of a more practical nature concerning the way in which ordinary people in the world can attain salvation.
Symeon's Practical and Theological Chapters is a collection of ideas about a variety of topics, probably notes gathered by him on points touching the ascetical and contemplative life of Christians. But it is Symeon's Hymns of Divine Love, which he completed shortly before his death in 1022, that will place him in the ranks of the greatest mystics of all time. These are fifty-eight hymns without any unifying theme or system of mystical theology, but they show clearly Symeon's own mystical experiences through the power of poetic rhythm. His mystical experiences and personal love toward Jesus Christ are expressed in a language rarely surpassed by other mystics except those who, like Symeon, had to resort to poetry, as did John of the Cross, to convey the intensity of such ecstatic mystical union. Each hymn is a poetic composition of great power and beauty that can ignite in the reader a desire to strive to attain such "endless light" as Symeon must have enjoyed.
In Symeon were combined the two predominant currents within Eastern Christianity of the earlier centuries. One was the mystical school of the Desert Fathers, which stressed the Semitic concept of a total experience of God and humanity in the locus Dei, the place of God in the person called in biblical language the "heart." The second approach was the intellectual mysticism of the Alexandrian school of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Evagrios of Pontus. The accent here was on the human mind, which, when purified of the hold of the sensible world of passions, was able to "see" God in an interior light. In addition to producing this synthesis, Symeon was an innovator in writing candidly of his own mystical experiences and in presenting these as normative for all Christians.
Symeon may be judged in the light of his unique, powerful, and affective personality as against the formalism that had suffocated much of the charismatic and mystical elements in the church of Constantinople. His works were rooted in the great traditions of the Eastern Christian fathers, both dogmatically and mystically and, as such, present a balanced Christian mystical theology.
The critical Greek text with a French translation of Symeon's main works can be found in volumes 51, 96, 104, 113, 122, 129, 156, 174, and 196 of Sources chrétiennes (Paris, 1957–1973). An English translation of Catéchèses by C. J. de Catanzaro is available in Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses (New York, 1980) in "The Classics of Western Spirituality." My translation of Hymnes is in Hymns of Divine Love by St. Symeon the New Theologian (Penville, N.J., 1975). Discussion of Symeon's life and thought can be found in my The Mystic of Fire and Light: St. Symeon, the New Theologian (Penville, N.J., 1975).
George A. Maloney (1987)
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