Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Saint Symeon the New Theologian

Saint Symeon “the New Theologian” is one of the only three saints bearing the title of „theologian”, together with St. John the Apostle and Evangelist and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. In fact, the title of „new Theologian” given to St. Symeon was at the beginning just a mockery of some contemporaries, who despised the mysticism of this unusual monk of the 10th-11th century Constantinople.
In the research of his biography I have asked for the help of a my friend, the theologian Alexandru Rosu, who has just finished his PhD thesis about St. Symeon, which I am sure will lead to many debates among the theologians from Bucharest and not only.
The timeline of the life of St. Symeon is quite unclear. In any case the few biographical dates were analyzed by the church historian IrénéeHausherr in the first critical edition of the Life of St. Symeon (written by the apprentice of the saint, St. Nicethas Stethatos). In fact, it was rebuilt reverse after the date of passing into eternity of St. Symeon, on 12 March, and the bringing of his relics to Constantinople, thirty years after his death, "the end of the 5th year of indiction in the year 6560 [= 1052], "as noted by the vita of the saint.
St. Symeon was born in Galata, a town in Paphlagonia (a province in the northern Asia Minor), most likely in the second half of 949. It is possible that his baptism name was George. His parents, Basil and Teofana were members of the small aristocracy of the region. At an early age, perhaps 10 years, the parents brought the child to Constantinople, in the so-called grammar school, where he learnt tachigraphy, some .concepts of rhetoric and secular culture. Later he is taken under the protection of his paternal uncle, a member of the court (koitonites, camerier), and so he begins a career in the imperial palace. Being 20 he becomes spatharokoubikoularion or „bearer of sword in the imperial bedroom", being a member of the king's bodyguards, charged with preserving and guarding the imperial insignia. Some are byzantinologists believe that this function was usually reserved for eunuchs, so that Symeon, or George at this time, was eunuch, which is in any case not very clear.
Sts. Symeon the New Theologian
 and Symeon Eulabes
The career in the imperial court dies suddenly – maybe during the political turmoil around the death of the emperor Romanos II (15 March 963) and the removal of the Prime Minister, the, eunuch Joseph Bringas, also a paphlagonian. Hausherr hypothesized that Bringas might have been the uncle, who appointed the young child as senator even at theage of 14.
In any case, after this episode, the young George went to Stoudion monastery, a centre of culture and theology in the byzantine capital, being attracted by the charismatic person of  the elder Symeon the "pious" or  Eulabes,( c 917-987), who was already his confessor and spiritual teacher. The old Symeon refuses entrance of George to the monastery,because he was too young: 14 years, according to the vita or 20, according to an autobiographical testimony in his Catechesis no. 22. George enters the service of a patrician, but still remains under the spiritual guidance of Symeon the Pious, who urges him to pray and give it to reading the mystical works of Mark the Ascetic, and Diadochos of Photice. Following these recommendations and the prayer, George gets his first mystical experience at the age of 20 (in 969/970), experience described in the same Catechesis and in the fifth chapter of his vita. Even trying once more to become a monk, he is refused for the same reason and so he continues living in the capital for six more years.
After 6 years he is sent with a commission in Paphlagonia and lives in the parental home for a while, where he reads the Ladder of Saint John. Back in Constantinople, George abandons the administrative career and goes to Stoudion. This time the Abbot Peter accepts him and leaves him in the charge of his spiritual father Symeon, by whom he lives (976 or 977).
The novice George successively defeats the demons of akedia and adultery and banishes through prayer the frightening demonic appearances. But his asceticism and the strange attachment to his spiritual father outrages the monks of Stoudion who try to make him change his behavior, but without success. Meanwhile he acquires the second vision, the sight of the divine light (vita, 19), increases in his humility and becomes to be famous for his wisdom. His behavior remains in any case outrageous and Abbot Peter casts him from Stoudion. Elder Symeon leads to the near monastery „of Saint Mamas”, entrusting him to the abbot Antony. Here he writes a farewell letter to his family, which corresponds to a third mystical experiences and is tonsured into monasticism under the name to Symeon, after his spiritual father (probably in 977)  Symeon deepens in prayer and stillness (hesychia). His vita sketches his daily program focused on extended prayer in the night, crying repentance, communion with the sacraments, fasting and silence, and working – that is copying of manuscripts.
Two years later Patriarch Nicholas II Chrysoverghis (980-992) ordains him as priest and no later Symeon becomes abbot of the monastery at the age of about 30. The abbot imposes a strict program for the monastic recovery both in material and spiritual way. The hagiographer notes that Symeon was living quite often the vision of the Holy Spirit descending in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In this period he starts developing his Hymns of Divine Love (also called Hymns of Divine Eros), his exegetical speeches and the Catechetical Discourses and has a rich spiritual correspondence.
The strict program has a reaction: once between 995-998 it happens a spontaneous uprising of about 30 monks against him. But they are intimidated by his peace and flee in the city, causing disorder. Patriarch Sisinios II (996-998) was in in favor of the abbot who interceded that the rebels not to be punished, moreover they return to the monastery.
In 986 or 987 Symeon the Pious dies. His apprentice Symeon gives him an honor as to a saint: he writes his biography, composes his liturgical services and hymns, paints his icon and celebrates his passing into eternity, which is indirectly agreed by Patriarch Sisinios  participates at the „canonization” feast. In the next 16 years the feast of the Elder Symeon is held as a normal feast.
About in 1003, St. Symeon starts a theological dispute with Stephen, a court theologian and former metropolitan of Nicomedia, who renounced his service for that as private secretary or Synkellos of the patriarch and who probably was engaged in composing the well-known inventory of the saints - The Menologion of Constantinople . The Hymn 21 reveals the substance of the dispute:  the saint is asked if the Son is only mental or really separated from the Father. Abbot Symeon warns about introducing such distinctions in the trinitarian theology, and provides a text of St. Gregory the Theologian, concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. He denounces the false theological spirit who may start this type of pseudo-theological disputes. Other scholars believe that the disputes were caused by the unusual canonization of Symeon the Elder, without a patriarchal decision, which could have imposed new rules, a new decisions structure, in the Church. In any case, the fight makes Stephen very hostile and, influencing the new patriarch Sergius II (1001-1019), he starts an investigation in the monastery of St. Mamas. Stehpen gathers the testimonies of the monks about the strong rigorism and about the worship that St. Symeon brough to his spiritual father. The scandal ended with the banning of the cult for Symeon Eulabes. The Patriarch decides the destruction of his icon. Amid these difficulties, probably in 1005, Symeon gives up his function and places as abbot his disciple Arsenios. The resignation is not sufficient for Stephen. After a new trial,  on 3 January 1009, Symeon is exiled to Palukiton, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, where he revives the ruined skete of St. Marina. Symeon's influential friends supported his cause to the patriarch who rehabilitated him in 1010 or 1011, allowing him to return to St. Mamas, with the promise that he will not expand anymore the cult of his spiritual father outside the monastery.  The patriarch proposed him even the ordination as bishop, but Symeon preferred to remain in the hermitage of St. Marina, where he continued to lead a hesychastic life.
After doing a number of miracles, including healings, exorcisms, prophecies and levitation during prayer, Symeon gets sick from a serious disease of the womb, probably dysentery. He foretells his death and even the future displacement of his own relics and dies during his own’s requiem that himself blessed. It happened on 12 March 1022. The 129th chapter of his life relates his death and the bringing of his relics in Constantinople 30 years later, in 1052, the same day that had gone into exile on January 3.
The veneration of the Saint
St. Symeon was venerated already during his life, as the written vita shows. His apprentice Nicetas Stethatos is one of his most closed collaborators. We may say that the mystic movement of St. Symeon is nothing than the following of the spiritual movement started about two hundred years before in Stoudion by St. Theodore the Studite and others, at the beginning a struggle against the rationalism of the iconoclasts.
Symeon wrote in a the style of the traditional early Church Fathers and hesychasts, including St. Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Mark the Hermit. The”speciality” of St. Symeon consists in his transparent and open sharing of his most interior experiences. In his teaching he speaks about his direct experience of God, as something to which all Christians could and should aspire.
In any case, the common memory has “forgot” St. Symeon for a while. He was brought “back to the light” by St. Nicodemus Agiorites, a monk from Mt. Athos who compiled the Eastern florilegium of ascetical works known as “Philokalia”, printed in 1792 in Venice. Some writings of St. Symeon are included here, such as “The Three Methods of Prayer” which describes a method of practicing the Jesus Prayer, including the direction on correct posture and breathing while reciting the prayer. The same Nicodemus composed the liturgical service of St. Symeon and imposed another day of celebration than the date of his death, March 12. That happened because of the Great Lent period, so that for some centuries St. Symeon was celebrated instead on October 12. Today the both feasts are commemorated.
In 1964 the Russian theologian Vassili Krivoshein tried to identify the ruins of St. Mamas monastery, the place where the relics of St. Symeon were kept starting 30 years after his death. The identification was almost impossible. Only a wall of the former monastery of Stoudion still stands, during about St. Mamas there is known only that it was located in the southwestern part of Constantinople. Consequently there are no information about the relics of the Saint.
The mystical writings of St. Symeon influenced the further theological literature concerning the vision of the divine light and the possibility of human divinization by the common work of the divine grace and the human struggle to perfection, having St. Gregory Palamas Metropolitan of Thesalonica (1296-1359) as its principal promoter. This way of understanding theology was strongly contested especially in the West and conducted to a strong difference of approaching the divine mysteries between the East and West until today.

Troparion (hymn) of Saint Symeon
O holy father Symeon, you received divine illumination in your soul! You were shown forth to the world as a most radiant light dispelling all darkness. You call all men to seek the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which they had lost. O righteous father! Pray unto Christ, our God, the He may grant us great mercy!

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