Today we are going to look at one of the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022).
St. Symeon was a monk, abbot, mystic, and great proponent of spiritual fatherhood.
He was born in Galatia in Asia Minor and educated in Constantinople. We celebrate his feast day, the day of his death, during Great Lent on March 12. Some Orthodox transfer his feast to October 12.
St. Symeon is known as the “New Theologian,” which recognizes that he is the successor of the only other two saints in the Eastern tradition who have received this title: St. John the Evangelist and St. Gregory Nazianzus.
St. Symeon is known for his mystical writings and writings on Hesychasm, or Eastern Christian contemplative prayer.
If you read the Gospel and Apocalypse of St. John, the orations and poetry of St. Gregory, and St. Symeon’s hymns in particular, you find that all three have a mystical understanding of the Holy Trinity that transforms our hearts.
Pope Benedict XVI writes of St. Symeon in his Church Fathers and Teachers (Ignatius Press) that:
“The 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.”
Self-renunciation is part of the practice of the hesychast. The Jesus Prayer also is part of his practice, because the praying of Our Lord’s name can lead to prayer of the heart or unceasing prayer.
Through prayer of the heart one can attain inner stillness, or interior peace, which then can lead to the experience of the uncreated light of God.
The material we will look at today is included in The Philokalia: The Complete Text (volume four), a four-book collection of the writings of Eastern saints on the spiritual life compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, and translated and edited from the Greek by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.
If you have read The Way of the Pilgrim, you have heard of The Philokalia and have been exposed to one of the works included in this collection.
I am going to quote specifically from St. Symeon’s work included in a one-volume collection of writings from The Philokalia that was translated earlier from the Russian by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer: Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart.
The works included in The Philokalia are essential to understanding Eastern Christian spirituality and the contemplative life.
If you can, make the four-volume set central to your spiritual reading. If you cannot read the four volumes, read at least this one volume. Let me add that it is worth owning and reading both to give you a different view of the same material.
I am going to focus in particular on some of St. Symeon’s thoughts in the work “Practical and Theological Precepts,” which consists of 184 paragraphs, about 45 pages, directed to monks.
We too can benefit, however, from his advice, since all Christians, not just monks, should seek to pray always.
Faith (Paragraphs 1-3)
“To have faith is to die for Christ and for His commandments....”
“To have faith in Christ means not only to stand aloof from the delights of this life, but also to endure patiently every temptation and test that brings upon us distress, affliction and misfortune, for as long as God wishes and until He comes to us.”
“Those who in any way esteem their parents above the commandments of God do not possess faith in Christ....”
Are we willing to die for our faith in Jesus Christ?
When we read or hear this question we usually think of physical death, martyrdom. And we should.
But most of us will not be martyrs.
How many of us realize that having faith means dying for Christ through self-renunciation and for His commandments, which show us how to renounce our desires and conform our wills to God’s will for us?
Life tempts us with delights that lead us astray. The commandments teach us how “to endure patiently every temptation.”
Living the commandments will give us great freedom and happiness. But this does not mean that we will never experience temptations or distress.
Dying to Christ, willingly climbing up on the cross with him, and living the commandments, however, will help us to endure.
Renunciation of the world (Paragraphs 5-6, 9)
“Renunciation of the world and complete withdrawl from it—if it includes withdrawl from all worldly things, habits, opinion and people, and the disowning of the body and will—in a very short time bring great profit to a man who is fired with such zeal.”
Those of us who live in the world, who make our living in the world, who must work, who must raise families cannot completely withdraw from the world.
We have responsibilities to others and to ourselves that demand our attention.
Yet we can withdraw much more than we often think from things, habits, opinions, and people. We also can disown the body more than we think. And, even in our state of life, we must disown the will.
Things—How much do we really need? Have we convinced ourselves that we need the things we have? How often have you heard questions like this and ignored them?
Families once made do with much smaller and less expensive cars and houses. The more we focus on the cars we own, the houses we live in, the less we focus on Christ.
Jesus Christ usually is not even a flicker of a thought when we buy a car or a house. We think instead of how much pleasure the new car or house will bring us, or how much we need the new car or house.
We often define ourselves by the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear.
We often buy things to gain in some way the attention of others, even things that are good, and even when we convince ourselves that we have a good reason to buy something.
Habits—It is difficult to break bad habits. Eating poorly is a bad habit. Using crude language is a bad habit. Sexual sins often are bad habits. Our bad habits can lead to illness and death in this life and hell in the next.
Opinions—We often are very proud of our opinions. Our opinions often lead us to disagreements, arguments, false understandings and impressions, lies, gossip, and malice.
Will—As Christians, we must deny the will. We must become Christ in the world. This only can happen if we decrease so that he increases.
There is much we can withdraw from in our lives.
Renunciation of the pleasures of the body (Paragraphs 26-27)
“It is impossible to fill the body to satiety with food and at the same time have spiritual enjoyment of mental and Divine blessings. For inasmuch as a man panders to his belly, in the same measure he deprives himself of spiritual blessings....it is through the body that lusts are excited and brought into action....”
Most of us are deprived of spiritual blessings because we eat and drink too much and enjoy what we eat and drink far too much.
Most in our society today think primarily of pleasure, especially pleasures of the body.
We pay a high price for this physically and emotionally. Consider how many of the ills of the world today are related to pleasures of the body.
We pay an even higher price for this spiritually.
Those who lust for pleasures of the body have placed, to use an image from the poet William Blake, manacles on their own minds. They live in a prison of pleasure, which they believe is freedom.
Arguing (Paragraphs 29-30)
“A man given to arguing...destroys his soul, without knowing it....”
Our society tends to argument, often out of anger. We argue with our spouses, our friends, and those we think of as enemies. Arguments often lead to lies, malice, gossip, and grudges.
We must be careful. Even when we argue with someone because of an injustice, we can destroy the soul.
Cares of this life (Paragraph 54)
“A man whose thoughts are occupied with cares of this life is not free...whether he worries for himself or others.”
We are often tripped up by the cares of this life. We worry about those we love. We worry about money. We worry about clothes. We worry about what others think of us. We worry about the Church. These are some of the cares of life that enslave us.
If your thoughts are occupied with the cares of this life, you have let yourself be controlled by the passions.
Hesychasm teaches us to be dispassionate. If we are dispassionate, we have learned how to control our passions. We learn to handle the thoughts that can lead us away from Jesus Christ.
Keeping the commandments (Paragraph 95)
“A house is roof is held up by the foundations and the rest of the building....So it is with the soul: the grace of the Holy Spirit is preserved by keeping the commandments.”
We return to and end with the commandments. We have ten, which Our Lord summarized as two. He then gave us the Beatitudes as a way of showing us how to live the commandments in our daily lives.
Our Lord is our cornerstone. All we do as Christians must be built on his teachings, just as the Church is built on his teachings.
If you spend any time reflecting on the Psalms, you will notice that they often speak of the necessity of learning, knowing, and living the commandments. This is the core teaching of Psalm 118 (Septuagint numbering), but you will find it in many others.
Reflect on the commandments and the Beatitudes. But also reflect on Psalm 118 and the rest of the Psalms. This will help you preserve the grace of the Holy Spirit you have received and will receive.
[Notes from our April 21, 2018, talk.]