Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saints Symeon “the fool for Christ” and John the hermit

Saints Symeon, John and Parthenios,
celebrated on July 21
 The lives of the Monks John and Symeon, born in Edessa, are interesting examples of how a monk can understand his relationship with God and with the neighbors. The tradition situates the existence of the two saints at the ending of the 6th century.
The “specific” of these saints is the fact that the love for God can reach the madness, and that is literally meant. There are a lot of “fools for Christ”. Even in the Desert of Egypt, at the end of the 4th century there is reported a saint nun called Isidora in a monastery near Tabenna, who “faked” madness in order to humble herself. The modern world knows better the popular Vassili Blazhennyi, the patron saint of the beautiful cathedral in the centre of Moscow. This saint was mocking the terrible Tsar Ivan IV of Russia without being harmed. But the “classic” fool for Christ, the one who despised his human honor in order to save other Christians, is St. Symeon, usually associated with his friend, John the hermit.
Although there are many „lives” of these saints, written shortly after their death, the most comprising biographical source is The life and behavior of Symeon the one called crazy for Christ, written by the very pious bishop Leontios of Neapolis in island of Cyprus. Leontios wrote about in 641 a Life of St. John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria and the scholars believe that he has written the Life of Symeon later, but not after 649, when an Arab invasion occurred in Cyprus.
The work of Leontios combines a classical biography of a monk with a collection of anecdotes, similar to the ones from the older story regarding the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, also known for his “foolish” or at least surprising sayings.
Bishop Leontios,
the author of the saint's biography

The young Symeon and his friend John

Even from the beginning of the biography, Leontios  try to explain to his readers how a life of a „fool for Christ” may be an exemplary life for a Christian, making an allusion of the Pauline understanding of the Christian mission (1 Corinthians 4,10). Only after this argumentation, he starts speaking about the young Symeon from Edessa (Syria), who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem together with his friend John. Along the way, passing near the monastery of Saint Gerasimos, they decide to stay there for a while, listening to teachings of abba Nikon. Soon after, they decide to become monks, but after only one week, they leave the convent and start a life in the wilderness of the desert, with the consent of the abbot, who had a vision and understood their special situation.
In the desert lands somewhere Jerusalem, „because of devilish temptations”, the two feel certain sadness to those left behind: Symeon had left home his old mother who was widow and had no other children, and John even more scandalous, left home in Edessa his young wife. Strangely the two pray God to take those women to Him. This happens after a while, and the two monks continue their solitary life for another 29 years. Here Leontios ends the first part of his story, which presents a classic biography of holy hermits.

The foolishness for Christ

The second part of this story consists in 39 “anecdotes”. After a long period of working on their own “angelic life”, Symeon suggested  one day to John that they should go together in the world, in order to save other souls, citing the example of 1 Corinthians 10,24, “each shall think not only about himself but also for the other”. But John, being afraid to return to the world, tries to persuade Symeon about the danger of living in the city. Finally, realizing that his friend is strengthened by God, he agrees with Symeon’s decision, though John remains further into the wilderness, feeling himself still not strong enough in his faith.
Shortly after, Symeon went first to Jerusalem, where he remained for three days, then went to Emessa, an important city not far away from Antioch. In a so-called “Christian city”, he starts life acting as a crazy, entering the town carrying a corpse of a dog, tied to a rope he used as a belt for the ascetic clothing. Even the “innocent” kids, running after him, make a big fuss, beat him and call him salos, which means, “crazy”.
The next day being a Sunday, Symeon goes to the church and starts provoking the pious Christians gathered at worship, throwing with nuts to them and quenching the candles. He is thrown away quickly and beaten again, this time by the adults. Symeon is saying to himself, that if he continues like that, he will be dead in a week. But he doesn’t stop. Further, a trader hires him to sell vegetables in the market. Symeon is acting strangely, eating beans and provoking a pestilential smell around. Instead of selling, he gives all the products to the poor and the passersby, he even spreads the money and for these things, of course, he is beaten again and chased. Other time he starts to undress himself on the road and enters naked in the public bath reserved to the women, defying decency. Meanwhile he does miracles or prophecies and casts away a devil from a young who committed adultery. He predicts an earthquake playing strangely: by beating with a stick some columns of the school-building, saying “you will fall”, and to others: “you will stay”. Moreover, he kisses the kids coming from the school: not all of them, but the ones who will die shortly because of the plague. Symeon makes secretly acts of charity and refuse any form of self-glory, making mute those who recognize the truth.
In order not to scandalize his readers too much, the biographer is combining the foolish stories with the miracles and mentions the fact that the foolishness of Symeon was just a fake. In reality, the saint acted like that in order to shock the ones too conformist, and to show them that their piety is just a fake piety and the profound Christian sense is far away to be realized. Some other times, after a miracle or a healing, Symeon makes quickly something so stupid, so that the seers don’t realize the truth and look upon him further as to a lunatic and not as to a saint.
Symeon is not only a wondermaker and a saint disguised in a harlequin, but also a fighter for the faith. Two monks from a monastery near Emessa, who wanted to settle a theological dispute, go into the wilderness to find John and Symeon. They reach John who guides them to the city, to Symeon, but he explains the orthodox position against the origenist one in a clever way, hitting and insulting one of them. Later he dances with the prostitutes, showing that he is passionless. He even gives money to some of them, trying to persuade them to abandon their practices. He often called the prostitutes his “girlfriends”, provoking the indignation to the townspeople.
Under the guise of his insanity,  he stops people on the street, slaps some of them, throws with stones to them, insults the religious precepts (e.g., the fasting times), all in order to save the souls of the neighbor, without being glorified by the others. After he miraculously saves the deacon John, who was almost killed because of some false accusations of murder, this deacon becomes his only confidant, the only one who knows the wisdom hidden under the mask of foolishness.
Symeon later finds the money stolen by some thieves, heals some possessed, discovers the lies of some perjurers, and deprives a woman of her witchcraft power. In order to include in the stories also the others “unbelievers”, Leontios mentions also the Jew who was the glazier of the town. Symeon goes to him and starts to break his bottles by word. Finally, he tells to this Jew that all bottles made will break, until it decides to Christianize. That, of course, happens.
The days of Symeon in the city of Emessa are’t too many. His way of living, on the streets, with the prostitutes and the homeless surely made him sick. Anyway, while living on the streets during the days, he spent the nights in his hut, which was rather a bundle of sticks, situated in the garbage zone of the town, praying incessantly with tears. In his last days he rarely speaks with the deacon John but finally he tells his whole life, just before he dies.
Feeling his end near, Symeon remains hidden in his hut, where he dies in his sleep. The poor people (who were checking through the garbage) find him and remember about the “fool of the town”. They take and bury him in the cemetery for foreigners, without ceremony. But along the way, passing by the house of the converted Jew, this hears the voices of angels singing hymns of praise for Symeon’s funeral. The deacon John knows very late about what happened and go to the cemetery, trying to make a decent funeral sermon for Symeon, but when his hired men dig for the body, they find the tomb empty: God have taken him. This is a topos presented in many lives of the saints “fools for Christ”, but not only. We may compare it with the story about the funeral of Our Lady Mother of Our Lord.
At the end of the biography, Leontios concludes by stating that these mentioned were just some of the works of Symeon, who lived like an unknown. His life was told to him only by chance by John, the deacon from Emessa. Leontios urges his readers to take the example of Symeon and stop judging the neighbor, because the real deeds are known only by God.
Saint Symeon is celebrated in the calendar of the Western Church on July 1, during the Eastern Church marked his feast on July 21 (August 3 according to the Old Calendar), the day of his death. He is jointly celebrated with John, his friend who remained in the wilderness of the desert.

The deeds of Symeon, according to other sources

The way how Leontios explains the lifestyle of Symeon differ from the interpretations of this biography during the centuries. The later paraphrases, the short hagiographies, but especially the texts for the liturgical services have “soften” the language about the “madness” of Symeon. In an anonymous Byzantine Menologion from the 10th century, the compiler reduces the life of Symeon about to one sixth of the original, especially for practical reasons. There is renounced especially to some formulas of Leontios who appear to be too colloquial. The second part of the life of the saint is merely a listing of the wonders. The omissions of that paraphrase are instructive: explicitly scandalous episodes are not mentioned, such as Symeons defecation in public, or his tangle with prostitutes. Instead of this, the compiler simply says that Symeon has converted many prostitutes. The Armenian text renounces also to some of these episodes.
The later compilers have a tendency to “theologize” and “moralize” the text. There is known that the liturgical texts were made for the daily service in the church, so their moralizing content was very important. A saint having a scandalous life could hardly be honored in the official calendar.
The Synaxarion of Constantinople, also from the 10th century, covers the lives of Symeon”tou dia Hriston salou” and his friend John to only 47 lines, and that is how they appear in the modern menologies, such as the Romanian, in use today.  Focusing on how the martyrs and saints died, the author states only that Symeon pretended to be crazy, and mentions that the truth about his life came miraculously to light only after his death.
It is difficult to say that the Byzantine liturgists would be truncated only the life of Symeon. Rather we might say that the text has been reduced so much for practical reasons and only secondly for moral purposes. But whatever it may be, these later texts miss the lack of shame of Symeon and the shock capability of the story.
The author of the later life of Andrew Salos, the most popular Greek “fool for Christ”, who lived in 10th century in Constantinople, borrows many elements from the biography written by Leontios. Later, the Russian biographers of the new saints “fools for Christ” (called here jurodivyi, that meaning “aborted fetus”) make use of the biography of St. Symeon too.

Hymn (troparion) of St. Symeon

“Having heard the voice of Your Apostle Paul: “We are fools for Christ's sake!”, your servant Symeon, O Christ God, lived the life of a fool here on earth for Your sake. Therefore as we venerate his memory, we entreat You, O Lord, to save our souls!”

Another hymn (kontakion) of both Sts. Symeon and John

“Let us praise with fervent love, this man who lived in the flesh as an angel, adorning his soul with the most radiant virtues! Symeon, the equal to the Apostles and the Bearer of God. Together with him, let us honor his companion John, for they both ever stand before God, interceding for us all!”

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