Spiritus Magazine. Vol. 5. 2005 182-202.
A Neglected Masterpiece of the Christian Mystical Tradition :
The ‘Hymns of Divine Eros’
by Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)
The Byzantine saint and poet Symeon the New Theologian1 is one of the Christian world’s greatest mystics, if such a term can properly be used of ancient writers. It is here applied for the sake of convenience 2, and in order to unveil the author, as it were, who is not only a visionary of the highest order within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but equally one of the Christian world’s most lyrical and rhapsodic writers. It is a startling fact that it is only in recent years that his works have become available in English translation, and a sadder one that his name is still largely unknown to a wider public who would otherwise undoubtedly be interested in a spirituality suffused with light and hope and one of the most profound senses of the mercy and compassion of God. The situation of neglect is comparable to finding something of the quality of the works of san Juan de la Cruz 3 still awaiting an edition. The commentator is torn between excitement at the possibility of revealing ‘new’ literary and theological treasures, and wonder at how large the task is to contextualize the deep traditions of medieval Greek (Byzantine) spirituality in an environment of western Church history and theology within which spirituality at large has frequently been marginalised or exiled, and from which even a rudimentary awareness of Greek medieval literature has customarily been missing. It is partly to fulfil that task of reintroduction that the present essay sets out to give a brief background history of this medieval poet, monk, and controversialist, and then to introduce aspects of one of his most extraordinary works, the Hymns of Divine Eros 4. In this extraordinary figure we find combined the vocations of radical prophet and ecstatic visionary: of poet and soul-friend. His work brings to the fore the pressing need for the Christian Church to theologize primarily from its living experience of God: the need for each believer to accept the highest vocation as ‘friend of God’, and prophet of the presence of God.
Symeon the New Theologian
: Life And Times.5
Symeon was born in 949 to a wealthy family of provincial aristocrats in Asia Minor. It is possible that, in accordance with the customs of the day, he was castrated as an infant for future service in the imperial palace at Constantinople, where many of the higher offices were reserved for noble eunuchs6. As an adult he laments how he never found in his family the ‘tenderness that nature should have provided’.7 In places he calls his flight from them into the monastic state as a veritable exodus from Pharaoh’s Egypt 8. In 960 his father brought him to Constantinople to settle him in his uncle’s care, so that the child could be educated and ‘placed’ for a court career. This was at a time of great political instability and only three years after the young Symeon began his studies a major coup overthrew the government and the general Nicephoros Phocas seized the throne. Symeon’s uncle was assassinated during the coup9 and the child’s life was briefly thrown in turmoil. Soon after this setback Symeon resurfaced once more in an elevated social setting. An unknown Senator took him onto his household staff. We are told that Symeon attended the Emperor’s palace daily, and soon rose through the civil service to the rank of senator himself.
In his twenties he described
himself as a rather rakish youth10,
travelling to and from court on business. He first encountered the
monk Symeon Eulabes 11
at this time, who was an unusual character attached to the great
Stoudium monastery near the walls of Constantinople, and he seems to
have joined in the wider group of aristocrats who formed the circle
of this odd but generously charismatic figure, who functioned as
their father-confessor. Symeon 12
visited Eulabes whenever he was in the city, and the monk gave him
spiritual books to read, but clearly there was little more to the
connection until the occasion, around 969, when he had an experience
that he described (much later) as highly significant for him.
He tells us of a vision of lights one evening as he was saying his night prayers in his chambers: a radiance that filled the room, taking away his sense of space and time, and eventually resolving as one powerful light in the presence of another even brighter radiance. He interpreted the event as his consciousness of his spiritual father interceding for him before Christ 13. From that time on the notion of mediation – how the saints can carry others into the presence of God - is central to his thought. It comes out in a variety of images, such as the notion of the Church as a golden chain, whose links are the saints in each generation 14, those spirit-bearers (pneumatophoroi) who pass on the kerygma of salvation to each generation, not merely as a preached message, but as the only form in which God transmits charism from one soul to another, that is as the lived experience of love, and the ‘sensible’15 awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the course of his writings there are several other accounts of luminous visions over the course of his life, each of them in their own way remarkable, and little studied. They have in common the sense of a geographical and temporal transcendence, the enfolding in luminous grace, and the feeling of ‘sweet peacefulness’ in the presence of God. Symeon’s disciples16 later spoke of him being accustomed to seeing the light of the Spirit descend on the Eucharistic gifts during the divine liturgy17, and even of emitting light himself during his priestly service.
After his first vision of light18 as a layman, however, nothing much seems to have changed in the outward circumstances of his life but it would certainly be a decisive event in retrospect; after he left the political service to enter a second life as a monastic. Seven years after his vision, in 976, when he was 27 years of age, another palace coup initiated a sequence of events that changed his life permanently. The imperial Chief Administrator Basil seized the throne on behalf of the young prince (Basil II) who was then in his minority, and Symeon’s family seem to have been clearly marked out by the new administration as a hostile element. His political career was definitively terminated at this point, and he seems to have taken temporary refuge with his spiritual father at the Stoudite monastery. At this juncture he tells us that once again that he experienced an overwhelming vision of light 19. This time we are meant to understand that he saw the radiance of Christ directly, and this became for him a definitive conversion point. It marked his permanent entrance into the monastic state. In another place 20 I have drawn the connection between the visions of light, the timing of the political crises of his era, and the notion of repentance and ‘change of lifestyle’ (from lay aristocrat to monastic leader) which to the medieval Byzantines would have been seen as a naturally interconnected nexus. In some senses, Symeon is like a Francis of Assisi, or Ignatius Loyola after him: his metanoia is preceded by traumatic events, and his entrance into the monastic world (where he soon rose to prominence, and exercised a powerful leadership comparable to his status in imperial service) was one where he came into the Church with little theological or ecclesiastical ‘preparation’. It is precisely this fresh start that allows his religious voice, when it begins to be heard through his writings as an abbot, to be so distinctive and remarkable 21. His theology was also apologetic and controversial from the beginning. The more the religious establishment tried to dismiss him as a crank, and as an inexperienced and uneducated man, the more strongly he took his stand on the two principles that shine through all his work: the primacy of direct spiritual experience over book-learning, and the inalienable right of the Spirit-filled to speak with authority to the Church at large, regardless of social or ecclesiastical rank. This of course would make him many enemies, and cause him endless trouble.
In a very short time after his entrance to the Stoudium, Symeon was moved out to the small adjacent St. Mamas monastery. His hagiographer, Stethatos, and those following him too trustingly ( for the Vita is tendentious and sometime confused over details22), have seen this as an ‘expulsion’ caused by jealousy over his zeal. It ought to be read, rather, as his promotion and his permanent protection by sympathetic patrons outside the court, once his family realized that they could not persuade him to resume political life.23 At St. Mamas he found a safe shelter, and was soon to rise even higher. Within three years, in 979-80, Symeon was elected abbot (higoumen) of the same household, and ordained priest. This rapid promotion indicated the significant patronage he could still bring to bear as a powerful aristocratic leader, even though now a monk.
Symeon substantially refurbished the site of St. Mamas, presumably from his own fortune acting as a renovating Ktitor, or founder, a role he assumed which also allowed him extensive rights to reorder the monastic typikon 24. At this time he began to deliver the traditional morning instructions, or Catecheses, to the monks of the community, which have survived as the central body of his work 25. Much of his approach in the Catecheses, where he explains the monastic lifestyle to his community, is a simple re-statement of standard and traditional Stoudite lore (as might be expected from someone who has only been a monk for three years himself), but he has his own style and emphases, and so he places a particularly strong stress on the dedicated obedience which he expects should be given to the spiritual father by all monks. He stressed the necessity for direct personal experience in the life of the Spirit; underlining the need for regular tears as a sign of the action of the Spirit within the heart of a true believer; even insisting that without tears a monk should never approach the sacrament of the Eucharist. His highly ‘emotive’ approach ( his keyword in his spiritual doctrine is the adverb aisthetos – ‘sensibly’ or ‘with feeling’) and his telescoping of the roles of spiritual father-counsellor and authoritative Higoumen26, and perhaps also his introduction of a vegetarian regime 27 along with other quirky ideas for inculcating humility in the monks 28 seems to have caused no little conflict among his subordinates.
Sometime around 986-7 Symeon Eulabes died at the Stoudium monastery leaving Symeon as the new head and leader of his school of disciples, a circle that included both monastics and lay aristocrats 29. A few years later, between 995 and 998, the growing opposition to Symeon’s discipline and teaching at St. Mamas broke out in the form of a revolt by ‘thirty or so of his monks’. The biographer 30 tries to pass this off as a small number of discontented malingerers, but thirty was a sizeable body of monks anywhere for that period, and it must have represented the majority of his community. They threatened him at morning service and lodged an official complaint against him at the patriarchal court, a plea which was dismissed in the abbot’s favour31. Although the Vita attempts to minimise the whole affair, its usual procedure when dealing with any aspect of the (large) degree of controversy that attended Symeon’s life 32, nevertheless the uprising possibly coincided with the death of Patriarch Nicholas Chrysoberges and the installation of the first patriarchal appointment of Emperor Basil II ruling in his own right, Patriarch Sisinnios II (995-998) 33. Sisinnios was succeeded by Sergios II Manuelites (999-1019) and the latter’s court also instituted legal proceedings against Symeon. These processes were more vigorously pursued and eventually would result in his exile. The first formal arraignment turned around the issue of the unofficial cult of the master which Symeon had instituted in memory of his teacher. The elder’s reputation was attacked, in an attempt to discredit the younger Symeon, and after 995 the cult of Symeon Eulabes (consisting in the veneration of his icon, which was more or less a declaration of canonisation independently made from the Patriarchal synod) was forbidden at St. Mamas. The Emperor thus began to move against the younger Symeon by means of the ecclesiastical court process, chiefly employing his long-time confidant Bishop Stephen of Alexina, the patriarchal Chancellor, who from this time onwards became Symeon’s relentless opponent. In 1003 an attempt was made to entangle Symeon in a more formal theological debate concerning his Trinitarian orthodoxy34. He returned a satisfactory answer to the charges but also took the opportunity to lambaste Stephen 35 (whom he always refers to as a simple monk 36) for attempting to theologise without first having experienced the stature of ‘living saint’ which the ancient theologians 37 had taught was necessary before one could legitimately theologise. For Symeon this did not just mean a bourgeois piety, but rather the achievement of the highest virtues of sanctity: the acquisition of impassibility (apatheia) and the vision of the divine light. It was tantamount to a declaration of war, as everyone recognised in Stephen of Alexina a model of a courtly (and portly) bishop, not an ascetic hero. The war of attrition carried on for six years in all, mainly by means of letters and treatises and hymns (at this period he began his Hymns of Divine Eros) and it culminated in the ecclesiastical sentence of deposition issued against him in 1005, one that was endorsed by the imperial palace which placed him under house arrest, as a prelude to life-long exile.
On January 3rd, 1009 Symeon’s property was confiscated and he was forcibly exiled to Paloukiton, near Chrysopolis. It was not far away from the capital but far enough over the Bosphorus straits to matter, and allowed no hope of ever returning to the city. His circle of lay supporters 38 soon supplied the money ( whether consisting of new funds or old ones recycled it is not known) to buy the oratory of St. Marina39 at Paloukiton, and some nearby lands. And so, re-established in another monastery of his own, Symeon continued to write, and was joined there by a close and loyal band of followers. It was a period that saw the production of some of his most beautiful works, including the majority of the exquisite Hymns of Divine Eros, which are a classic of Byzantine religious writing. In 1022, coming back home from a long journey, he contracted dysentery and died at the age of seventy three. More than thirty years after his death, the Stoudite Abbot Niketas Stethatos 40 was involved in developing a popular city pilgrimage to Symeon’s tomb at Chrysopolis, and composing a new ‘office’ for the occasion, and writing the Vita to prepare for the reception of Symeon’s relics back into Constantinople. He had to smooth down a lot of controversy still attendant on Symeon’s memory. To this end he prepared a Vita celebrating the life and miracles of the saint, collated the writings,41 including a collection of 58 Hymns 42, and disseminated icons suitable for a public cult.
In the years afterwards Symeon
remained a relatively obscure Byzantine saint; though his memory was
kept alive by those who valued teachers of the mystical life, and
above all on Mount Athos where, with his stress on the need to see
the divine light, and feel the action of the Holy Spirit in the heart
with perceptible sensations, he was regarded as a kind of
fore-runner of the 14th century Hesychast movement. A
treatise attributed to Symeon in later years, which outlined a method
of prayer posture, and described the correct control of breathing
while reciting the Jesus Prayer, made his name especially popular on
It is really only in the 20th century that his name and
teachings have become more widely available 44
to a larger readership, and it can be increasingly seen just how
remarkable and original his vision was 45.
His combination of a stress on the light-filled radiance of the
divine vision, with a need for the conscious awareness of the Holy
Spirit, marks him out as a synthesis of two great currents of
spiritual thought that were then current in 11th century
Byzantium: the spirituality of light that flowed through the
Origenian school as interpreted by Gregory of Nazianzus, Diadochus of
Photike, and other ‘Philokalic’ authors, and secondly the
Syrian school which emphasised the sensibility (aisthesis) of
the Spirit in the heart, a school that had many exponents, notably
Pseudo-Macarius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Niniveh. In his Hymns
of Divine Eros Symeon is one of the first successfully to
synthesise the two great eastern traditions of prayer, and in so
doing he prepares the way for the later Byzantine Hesychast movement
that would come after him. He is not merely a footstool for others,
however, and his Hymns in particular, offer many aspects of
robust and original insight which surpass his teachers and his
sources, as only a man who speaks directly from experience can manage
to do. The level and the passion of the direct ‘encounter’
with Christ in the Hymns is unparalleled. Not least among
Symeon’s achievements is the immense stress he lays on the
primacy of the experience of repentance (metanoia ) in the
highest levels of spiritual insight. For many of his predecessors
penitence had been regarded as a preparatory step, a lowly stage of
pro-paideusis on the way to mystical insight. For Symeon it is
a spiritually advanced state that is the sole gateway of all human
experience of God: and in this he is profoundly faithful to the
Gospel tradition. He has been called ‘The Mystic of Fire and
but it would not be amiss to call him also: ‘The Mystic of
Conversion and Love.’ Much of this doctrine is encapsulated in
the Hymns, and it is to these we can now turn, so as to give
of their spirit and teaching.
The Hymns of Divine Eros
There are a total of 58 Hymns in the authentic corpus, amounting almost to 11,000 verses. They are all written in liturgical style 48 ( probably with performance in mind not merely private reading) in a strongly pulsed rhythm that uses the metrical devices of either eight 49, twelve 50, or fifteen51 syllables to the line. Sometimes end rhymes and half-rhyme are used. Several have the poetic pulse that is comparable to Longfellow’s epic Hiawatha, and they run into similar problems (for most are long) in sustaining the drive of the sense over against the soporific beat of the line: though in some cases the juxtaposition of the startling contents ( visions, revelations, denunciations of enemies, and lurid confessions of sins), are exactly balanced by the mantra-like beat. No existing translation has attempted to render this either exactly or impressionistically so far 52. Several of them are in the form of dramatic dialogue53 which advances the conception of the soul addressing the bridegroom as the beloved (a theme taken from the Canticle of Canticles, especially as that foundational text had been interpreted by the Greek Fathers such as Origenes, and Gregory Nyssa). Previous editions of the Hymns, such as those by Pontanus 54 and Zagoraios55 include several apocrypha, among them the famous Hymn before Communion which is attributed to Symeon in the Orthodox prayer book 56. Of the corpus in the Koder critical edition Hymn 5 is not exactly a hymn at all, but an ‘alphabet for monks’, a mnemonic device to remind them of appropriate virtues, which has also been interleaved on alternate lines by Niketas himself, adding his own parallel reflections on top of Symeon’s 57.
The corpus of the Hymns opens with a marvellous and para-liturgical Epiclesis, or invocation, of the Holy Spirit, to inspire and energize the poems. It rolls off in 27 repetitions of the invocation Elthe, ‘Come!’ and after that blossoms out into the significant liturgical phrase ‘Eucharisto soi’ 58. The hymns are thus meant as a priestly eucharistic celebration, and thus the mystic starts even at the outset to celebrate the soul’s unitive mystery, its access to the divine presence by the grace of the Spirit:
light / Come eternal life / Come hidden mystery / Come nameless
Come ineffable deed, /Come inconceivable person/ Come endless bliss,/ Come un-setting sun/ ….
Come untarnishing crown/ Come purple of our great King and God/
Come crystal belt studded with gems/ Come unapproachable sandal/
Come royal purple and right hand of the King/
Come you whom my poor soul has longed for, and longs for still……
I give you thanks that you have become one single spirit with me. 59
While it is true that the hymns are not liturgical compositions in the standard sense, they celebrate a para-liturgy of the ascent of the soul. And the beginning of the ascent, as Symeon emphasises in this opening Epiclesis, is the descending gift of the Divine Spirit that consecrates the ‘mysteries’ of the inner life of the disciple. It is this simple, but fundamental, principle that characterises the authentic channels of Christian spirituality and mysticism: that there is no path to God other than the path God has beaten towards us: through the economy of the revelation of the Trinity (and its high point of the encounter between flesh and spirit in the incarnation 60), and through the purifying and consecratory action of the Spirit of God in the innermost recesses of human lives. 61
In the Hymns Symeon is
writing, generally, at a level of the most profound first-person
intimacy. Even those several hymns which are clearly meant to be
given to his disciples (where he speaks of the monastic virtues, and
warns about the dangers of neglecting the spiritual elder’s
counsels) are couched in language that refers constantly to his own
experience. This is ‘personal experience’ taken to a
pitch, and quite unlike anything that had yet appeared in Byzantine
spiritual writing. It is the visions he has had of Christ’s
light, shining on his mind and casting him into ecstasy; visions that
have changed his soul and filled him with a burning desire to
communicate this ‘theology’ as a confession of praise,
that drive on his poetry. Some of the hymns are apologetic attacks
on his enemies whom he knew were orchestrating his exile, but even
these are turned into a discourse on the generic theme: that theology
can only be experienced, not learned from hearsay (even from the
most authoritative sources). Those sources themselves, the writings
of the saints, only have authority because their authors had once
experienced as true what they subsequently write about. In his day
and age, as he never ceases to complain, it has become so standard a
cry that the ‘time of experience’ lies in the past of the
Church, and will not return, that the false conclusion is even
propounded as fact: men and women today can only imagine what the
acts of God were like by reference to history and tradition 62.
For Symeon this is the great heresy of his age. He shouts out in the
Hymns that unless one has experienced directly, personally, in
a ‘sensible’ or perceived manner, the working of the Holy
Spirit and, what’s more, perceived it in a manner that leaves
not the slightest doubt in the heart that it was the Holy Spirit of
God who seized and changed the soul, then there can be no basis for
claiming to be a Christian.
If you have not discerned that the eye of your mind has
And that it has seen the light;
If you have not perceived the sweetness of the Godhead;
If you have not been personally enlightened by the Holy Spirit…
If you have not sensed that your heart has been cleansed
And has shone with luminous reflections;
If, contrary to all expectation, you have not discovered the Christ within yourself;
If you have not been stupefied, at your vision of the divine beauty;
And have not become oblivious of human nature
When you saw yourself so totally transfigured…..
Then tell me – how is it that you dare to make any statement at all about God? 63
This, of course was fighting talk: as much then as it would be now. He immediately raised the hackles of many in the clergy who preached the virtue of a sober faith that avoided the ‘highs and lows’ of felt experience. Some of them took such exception to Symeon that they mounted an argument against him on the grounds that if he kept on claiming to have ‘really experienced’ God directly, then he was guilty of heresy, in so far as he had contradicted a basic element of Christian revelation, namely that God was unapproachable by essence and infinitely transcendent.
It was to counter this argument that Symeon returns, throughout so many of his Hymns, to the central importance for the Christian life, of the concept of the ‘Economy of Salvation’ (Oikonomia tes Soterias). The term in Patristic Greek meant the way God had worked so that human experience could be caught up in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation ( the apparently ‘contradictory’ joining together of godhead and humanity in the seamless unity of the Christ). For Symeon the ‘Hypostatic Union’ is the paradigm of how the soul can be authentically caught up in rapture, and experience God directly. To justify this, especially since it was highly controverted in his time by those who wanted to protect the transcendent ‘unknowability’ of the divine, over and against claims of mystics they regarded as cranks, Symeon tries to elaborate, from his experience of the encounter, just how it is that his soul entered into communion with the divine. These are passages of ‘stammering theology’ as he tries to express the experience in convincing metaphors. Time and again he ends by saying that the task is hopeless. Unless one has experienced it oneself the words will sound confused and meaningless: although those who have known it themselves will recognise immediately that this is the heart of the experience of all the saints. The feeble experience of the little soul that senses God’s light, however, is not to be despised: a sensation of the fraction of the divine light is nonetheless an experience of the entire and luminous divinity – and in that paradoxical meeting God is known perfectly to the creature even if He cannot be comprehended 64:
What is this awesome mystery that is taking place within
I can find no words to express it:
My poor hand is unable to capture it,
In describing the praise and glory that belong
To the One who is above all praise,
And who transcends every word…
My intellect sees what has happened,
But it cannot explain it;
It can see, and wishes to explain,
But can find no word that suffices,
For what it sees is invisible and entirely formless,
Simple, completely uncompounded,
Unbounded in its awesome greatness.
What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as One,
Received not in essence but by participation.
It is just as if you lit a flame from a live flame:
It is the entire flame you receive . 65
Symeon’s form of ‘apophaticism’ (the doctrine that the ways of God cannot be spoken of in the words of earth) is not so much a formal doctrine, as a rhetorically crafted ‘stuttering’ to articulate an experience he cannot describe. At times he almost gives up on his readers :
is there in trying to explain all of this to you,
Or trying to make you understand it all?
If you yourself have not felt it by personal experience,
You will be unable to know it.66
And yet it is clear that Symeon, throughout the Hymns, is calling to all his readers to experience the mystical presence, not merely to an élite. The experience of the divine is initiated by a wholehearted response to God. It does not require great intelligence, or years of asceticism. It requires only readiness. The distinctive element in Symeon’s spiritual initiation, therefore, is the great stress he places on the position of repentance as a gateway of mystical vision 67. In many spiritual systems of the previous (and later) teachers, the ascent of the soul was envisaged as a three-fold progress: first one repents and begins the painful purification process where the soul withdraws from a crass and external life, to a more disciplined ethical and studious condition; secondly one learns to pray more and with greater attention and devotion, often sensing the growing the warmth of the Love of God encircling the soul and a deepening understanding of God; thirdly, after years of faithful attachment to the spiritual paths and their deepening mysteries, one finally attains to the highest ‘stage’ of the spiritual life, the ‘Unitive’. It is at this third level alone that the word ‘mystical’ properly applies. The threefold ascent was given various labels: Praxis, Theoria, Gnosis, or in the West : Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive, more or less based on the taxonomy established by the great 4th century spiritual writer Evagrius of Pontus, and underlined by the 6th century theologian Dionysius the Areopagite. Symeon knows their writings, and their theory, but himself sings a different song. As far as he knows, the great wonder of the mystical illumination is that it is given by Christ to chosen disciples to call them out of darkness and into the fire of love. For him the great illumination was first given when he was in the depths of sin, and wandering in error. Not given as a reward to a soul that had shown itself ready and faithful, but given to one that was evidently unworthy, it served as the great spur of conversion of life (Metanoia). It was given without preceding merit, and continued on the grounds of love alone. Symeon’s great contribution to Christian spirituality, therefore, is how the incomprehensibility of God is defended not by insisting on God’s inscrutable absence from the earthly creation, but by celebrating the manner in which an incomprehensibly deep mercy reaches into the heart of alienation and returns the human soul to its correct purposes: the vision of the Creator. For Symeon, the sinner becomes at the moment of conversion, the recipient of God’s deifying mercy:
I was in
the world like a blind man,
Like an atheist ignorant of my God,
But you yourself had pity on me
And turned me back to yourself.
You caused your light to shine
So brightly in my darkness
And summoned me back to you my Maker. 68
This is not merely a topos that God will always seek to convert us, but a specific sense that God raptured him, from sinner to saint, in the act of making his divine light radiate through the soul of the mystic. At that eschatological moment, the chasm between God and creature, between flesh and spirit, was abolished even in this present Kairos, and that ecstatic moment is extended in the sacramental life of the Church, where eucharistic communion celebrates the same mystery of the metaphysical transfiguration which is the communion of love :
boundless mercy, my Savior,
Have you allowed me to become a member of your body?
Me, the unclean, the defiled, the prodigal.
How is it that you have clothed me
With the brilliant garment,
Radiant with the splendor of immortality,
That turns all my members into light ?
Your body, immaculate and divine,
Is all radiant with the fire of your divinity,
With which it is ineffably joined and combined.
This is the gift you have given me, my God:
That this mortal and shabby frame
Has become One with your immaculate body
And that my blood has been mingled with your blood.
I sense too that here I have been made one with your divinity,
And have even become your own most pure body:
A brilliant member lucidly transparent,
Luminous and holy.
I see the beauty of it all, I can gaze upon your radiance.
I have become a reflection of the light of your grace. 69
Only in such an intense union,
Symeon argues, as people have often dreamed of but usually set into
future horizons or ascribed as something ‘for others’ or
‘for saints long ago’, will the meaning of each human
life be revealed and given. Symeon constantly refutes the deadening
notion that spiritual union with God is not for every Christian, and
not for the here-and-now:
Do not say
that without His presence it is possible to be saved.
Do not say that one can possess the Spirit
Even if one is not consciously aware of it.
Do not say that God cannot be seen by human beings.
Do not say that humans may never see the light of God;
Or at least that it is not possible for this generation.
My friends this is never impossible.
It is more than possible – for those who desire it. 70
The love of God, in the hands of this extraordinary teacher, is meant to be ecstatically known in the life of each and every soul making the earthly pilgrimage. For Symeon that entire pilgrimage is only rendered meaningful if we understand that human beings are in process of a radical spiritualization, where their faculties are constantly refined (such as happens in our educational processes) and from being predominantly material beings, wrapped up in the instincts and aspirations of an animal existence, we progress to become the sacramentally embodied visionaries of God, destined to live predominantly in the radiant luminosity of the Next Age were we shall finally be made ‘like gods’ in glory. Symeon here develops the tradition Greek patristic teaching on the Economy of salvation considered as the Deification (Theosis) of the human race71. It is, as Symeon implies, possible for a human consciousness to enter into the authentic presence of the deity on earth, in so far as that condition, and possibility, has first been demonstrated and presented to the church in the mystery of the incarnate economy of the God-Man. Theosis, however, is not a ‘Next Age’ phenomenon, but the essence of the spiritual life on earth as it ought to be lived. The ineffable knowledge of the illumined mystic is thus at one with the abiding presence of the deity within:
And from unimaginable heights he stooped down
And looked upon me.
Once more he had pity on me and allowed me to see
The One who was invisible to all,
A much as human kind can bear.
Seeing him I was astounded,
Me who was locked up in my tiny house of bone,
All surrounded by darkness…
I saw him in the midst of my tiny house,
So quickly had he entered in, complete,
Uniting himself to me inexpressibly
Joining himself to me inexpressibly
Suffusing himself in me unconfusedly,
Just as fire can permeate iron,
Or light shine through crystal.
So it was he made me become like fire itself;
Revealing himself to me as Light. 72
Like many Christian spiritual masters Symeon is greatly influenced by the imagery of the Canticle of Canticles, especially as that book had been given a macro exegesis by Origen in his Commentary on Canticles. There, Origen had interpreted the image of the lovers running through the garden at night, seeking one another in the perfumed orchard, as a symbolic narrative of the soul in its driven quest for the love of the divine Logos. Symeon takes the ‘intimacy’ of the encounter to new heights. The passion of the meeting is so often linked to his experience of the forgiveness of God, and the sensation of the luminous mercy, that the dazzling encounter with God’s light is even described as something that startles the soul and makes it wish to run away from the divine presence and lose itself in the familiarities of the flesh:
I see the
That unapproachable light, that unbearable glory.
My mind is completely astounded.
I tremble with fear…
I found Him whom I had seen from afar,
The One Stephen saw when the heavens opened,
And later whose vision blinded Paul.
Indeed he was a fire in the center of my heart.
I was outside myself. I broke down, lost to myself,
And unable to bear the unendurable brightness of that glory.
And so, I turned,
And fled into the night of the senses. 73
Love came down, as is its way,
In the appearance of a luminous cloud.
I saw it fasten on me and settle on my head.
And it made me cry out, for I was so afraid;
Thus it flew away, and left me alone.
Then how ardently I searched after it;
And suddenly, completely,
I was conscious of it present in my heart,
Like a heavenly body.
I saw it like the disc of the sun …
It closed me off from the visible,
And joined me to invisible things.
It gave me the grace to see the Uncreated. 74
Symeon’s choice of hymnic genre to express this mystery of union, is not the liturgical Kontakia of the previous writers such as John Damascene and Romanos Melodos, rather the strikingly secular concept of Erotikai, or ‘Love Songs.’ The equivalent today for a theologian would be to compose explicit rap lyrics about the nature of divine love; and many in his time found this highly objectionable.
Part of his intent was to speak about the ‘impassibility’ (Apatheia) that is the state of soul of the saint who arrives at such a degree of love for God that earthly affairs and sensual distractions can no longer affect him. This was an old and traditional doctrine among the eastern monks, mainly sustaining the point that ascetical discipline and long training in prayer and fasting, can make the Christian disciple less vulnerable to temptations that would be significant for a beginner; simply because their fire of love and faithfulness renders such old temptations (sensuality, or decadence, or self-seeking) no longer attractive to them in any way. Symeon is quite unique, however, in pressing the notion of apatheia, so as to express it in terms of erotic passion. He tells his reader a few times not to understand him in a salacious sense 75, but it is clear that his intent is to shock (a deliberate rhetorical juxtaposition of apparent opposites), for he speaks lovingly of the manner in which all the saint’s bodily members are transfigured in the light of Christ’s glory: fingers, eyes face all become luminous; and as he makes his list we come to the end : ‘Even this penis becomes like Christ.’ 76 The next half-line, of course, gives his (rhetorical) game away: ‘And you, reader – are you shocked at this?’ On many occasions in the Hymns, Symeon speaks of the soul in vox feminina, as raptured and ravished by the love of its beloved. His imagery presses the erotics of the ancient theme of ‘Christ’s bridal chamber’ to the limit. It will not be a theme that is common among the Christians until the female mystics of the Medieval West take up the idea several centuries after him. Perhaps it was something related to Symeon’s unique familial and psychological make-up as a Byzantine eunuch, and his relatively late and ‘emergency’ entry into monastic discipline that allowed this rhapsodic theme to emerge so early, and so passionately, in his works?
Symeon was a unique and forceful character; and few have ever written in comparable ways about the love of God. Similarly, few theologians have ever called out to the ordinary Christian to embrace the heights of union with God in a deifying light. His uniqueness as a theologian has often been described in terms of his unusual visions, and ecstatic experiences. For me, however, his real uniqueness is the manner in which he juxtaposes the infinite pity and condescension of God with the plight of the sinful creature. The heights of the spiritual life, as Symeon envisages them, are the very inner workings of the path of salvation. Our salvation is synonymous with our Theosis, or deification in light, even as we live here on earth. Deification is not, therefore, a prize for the righteous, once they have been purified, but is rather the fundamental grace of the Holy Spirit which is offered to all, to effect their mystical transfiguration into Christ’s very members.
His challenge is that if we have
not achieved this exalted state as yet, it is not for want of God’s
trying to communicate it to us. If we have not yet entered into the
light: only the heart on our side can be wanting, since the divine
gift and promise ( the Holy Spirit) is already there. The ‘sting
in the tale’ in his message, is that if we have not yet
experienced the heights of the glory, then we have not yet even
started. It was radical doctrine like this, put across so
rhapsodically in his genre of popular verse (the love song), that
got Symeon into such levels of trouble in his own day with the
religious bourgeoisie. It is a message That is still dramatically
shocking over a millennium later.
Symeon’s legacy ran on into the later 13th and 14th centuries on Mount Athos, where he seemed like an early champion for the Hesychast movement. When that spiritual tradition (with its distinctive themes of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer 77, the emphasis on the vision of the divine light of Thabor, and the veracity of mystical claims to have experienced God ‘in the earthly condition’) encountered Symeon’s writings it thought it recognised itself in the songs of the earlier writer. So it was, before too long, that Symeon became the pseudonymous ‘father’ of the short, but very famous, Athonite tract describing how the Jesus Prayer ought to be conducted. The treatise On the Three Methods of Prayer kept his name and memory alive on Mount Athos, but fundamentally subjected his impact to that of the more famous Hesychast theologians such as Gregory Palamas of Gregory of Sinai, and that anachronistic reading of his work obscured no small part of Symeon’s own theology, not least his extraordinary stress on repentance and the possibility of the sinner to be lifted up into intimacy of God, as a dramatic demonstration that mystical perception was not earned by fidelity ( though it ought to be prepared for by discipline) but was rather an entirely graceful gift from the God of all grace.
In many respects Symeon was authentically a fore-father of the Hesychast movement, but more so than they, was inspired by deeper and older traditions he had learned from the Syrians, especially Pseudo Macarius, Mar Isaac, and Pseudo Dionysius, that the heart of the disciple was the preferred dwelling place of the Spirit of God, who would constantly seek to make the divine temple radiant with the ineffable presence. In short, for Symeon, the so-called secular life, or even the life of sin that closed the eye of spiritual awareness, was an unnatural contradiction of the inner and essential nature of a Christian. Deification, on the other hand, was the natural condition for such a soul, caught up into the great mystery of the incarnation of the Logos. To that extent, the irradiated mind and the luminous heart, were not extraordinary things: rather it was extraordinary that they had been so forgotten and were so rarely manifested among the body of disciples. Symeon’s rapturous song in the Hymns of Divine Eros about the glories of mystical perception, for all its own extraordinary character, is fundamentally trying to remind his readers of that startling yet simple truth: that the deified soul is to the present world like a fiery Sun, whose radiance cannot be contained. Truth will out, one way or another. The disciple is either illumined or not illumined. The difference is one between darkness and daytime; and the rebuttal of our own illusions about our spiritual status is the necessary first step to the divine encounter. And yet the systemic change Symeon is calling for here is profoundly difficult to negotiate, given our own addictions to techniques of avoidance (our convenient deafness and blindness when it comes to issues of metanoia) as well as the ever-present support that so many societal and ecclesial structures of delusionality can give to the state of quiescence. Symeon shouts out for the need to change; yet he also prioritizes for his readers the joys of this journey that will become a pilgrimage into communion. Sensitive of the need for an ‘elder’, and a guide, to help the believer stand up and move, Symeon sings a song that is predominantly one of encouragement, despite all his warnings and exhortations. Even to his contemporary readers he serves as a ‘spiritual father’. His message, at once deeply embedded within the structures of the Church, yet simultaneously on the prophetic margins, has much to teach us, especially in a day when living elders seem so few and far between.
Columbia University. New York.
1 Active mainly in Constantinople, he was called the ‘new’ theologian derisively by his enemies, to
suggest that he was an innovator, but it was taken up by his supporters as an affirmation that he
was a new ‘Theologian’ par excellence, like John The Theologian ( the 4th Evangelist) or Gregory
The Theologian ( St. Gregory of Nazianzus) two of the greatest theologians of the Eastern
2 The word mystikos was actually the designation of ‘private secretary’ in early Byzantine times,
though it grew in significance among the 11th century theological writers to describe the innermost
secrets of the heart in prayer before God. It’s English equivalent ‘Mystic’ and ‘mysticism’,
however, is an early modern term that has exploded in its significance in modern times, to the
point of losing some of its precision and its capacity to describe the historical record accurately.
3 Who bears several points of resemblance to Symeon, not least his imprisonment by the religious
authorities, and the impassioned tone of his writing.
4 More literally the ‘Erotics of Divine Hymns’ or ‘Impassioned Love Songs for God’. The title is
often woodenly translated as ‘Hymns of Divine Love’, presumably to avoid the ‘scandal’ (which
Symeon definitely intended) of attributing the notion of erotic desire to the monk’s relation to the
deity. The title is meant to evoke the Erotikoi Hymnoi of Hierotheos, whom Dionysius speaks of
as his mystical teacher in Divine Names 3.2. In the same book, 4. 15-17, Dionysius purports to
give citations of the (possibly non-existent) hymns of his master. Symeon often uses Dionysian
language, but it was probably Niketas Stethatos who wanted to draw the connection more tightly,
presenting Symeon’s Hymns as the fitting representation of the ‘lost’ hymns of the master
Hierotheos. Koder describes in more detail the literary connections Niketas makes between
Symeon and Dionysius in the Preface he composed for his edition of Symeon’s Hymns. cf.
Sources Chretiennes. Vol. 156. Paris. 1969, pp. 53-64. There is one English version: G Maloney.
St. Symeon the New Theologian: Hymns of Divine Love. Denville Books. NJ. 1975, 1999.
(Hereafter cited as Maloney).
5 His own writings give several autobiographical reminiscences, which are supplemented by a Vita
composed by the Abbot of Stoudium monastery, Niketas Stethatos, about thirty years after
Symeon’s death. C.f. I Hausherr (ed) & PG Horn ( tr). Un grand mystique byzantin: Vie de
Syméon le Nouveau Théologien par Nicetas Stethatos. Orientalia Christiana vol. 12. no. 45.
Rome.1928. (Hereafter cited as Vita).
6 His eventual rank of Spathocubiculary (Gentleman Sword-Bearer of the Imperial Bedchamber)
was originally a position reserved for eunuchs, though by Symeon’s day such offices were
merely ceremonial, and did not have the same requirements. Nevertheless, the ranks of eunuchs
still commanded certain positions in the administration, and there were eunuchs in Symeon’s close
ring of disciples. He has several instructions to his monks about the problems of chastity, though
this does not illuminate us one way or another (as his words are echoing Galen, and common
monastic lore). The main support for his eunuch status comes from the account of a ‘vision’
which his biographer Niketas Stethatos tells that the ascetic Pilotheos had of him more than a generation after his death). Here Symeon is described as coming in a dream to bless and confirm a new recluse: ‘He saw a man with white hair, a eunuch of venerable and distinguished features, and an angelic countenance.’ Vita. 147. p. 218. Stethatos, however, had contact with the original disciples of Symeon, several of whom he used as sources in his Vita, especially the monk Theodoulos who was Symeon’s original copyist as a young boy. Vita. 130-131. p. 189.
7 Hymn. 20. 98. Maloney. p. 91.
8 Hymn. 56. 9. Maloney p. 285.
9 Niketas, the biographer, says elliptically that: ‘he was ushered out of life in no ordinary manner’.
10 He often hints, throughout his writings, at a somewhat dissolute life ( younger Byzantine eunuchs
were often regarded askance by the general populace, and later in his Hymns he confesses to
having committed all manner of sins (enumerating them in a lurid list and insisting he is being
serious – Hymns 24-25 ). Commentators have often taken this as a topos, a sign of humility,
accusing himself of every sexual license possible, but Symeon himself seems to have no illusions
about his earlier life, and places such emphasis on the virtue of repentance that we should take
him more seriously than presuming he was the innocent youth of the pious biography.
11 Known as Symeon the Elder, or Symeon the Pious ( Eulabes).
12 Or ‘the youth George’ as he was called before his monastic profession.
13 In the Vita 23. p. 32. we are told how, in a vision of light, he heard Christ himself describe
Symeon Eulabes as : ‘Apostle and disciple of Christ, mediator and an ambassador [for the people]
14 C.f. Symeon the New Theologian: Theological and Practical Chapters 3.4. (tr). P McGuckin.
Cistercian Pub. Kalamazoo. 1982. p. 73. (henceforth cited as TPC).
15 In the sense of ‘perceived’ or ‘felt’ ( aisthetos), a concept which is basic to his understanding of
true Christianity as distinct from ‘wishful’ or theoretical Christianity. In PTC 3.47. p. 85.
Symeon argues that if the Christian has not already ‘felt’ the abiding grace of the Spirit in one’s
lifetime, one has little ground to hope in the vision of God after death.
16 Namely, Symeon of Ephesus, and Meletios. Vita. 33. p. 44.
17 Vita. 30. p. 42. PG 120. 685-688.
18 There would be several more: some are listed in Hymn 55, enumerating their increasing brilliance:
what begins as a ‘glimpse of a ray of light’, becomes a ‘flashing brightness’, then a ‘cloud of fire’.
Other descriptions of seemingly different occasions of luminous vision are found throughout his
19 Vita. 19. p. 28. For a fuller discussion of the visions of light and the role they play in his
autobiographic accounts, his biography, and in his theology, see: J.A. McGuckin. ‘The Notion of
Luminous Vision in 11th Century Byzantium : Interpreting the Biblical and Theological Paradigms of St. Symeon the New Theologian.’ in: Work & Worship at the Theotokos Evergetis. [Acts of the Belfast Byzantine Colloquium. Portaferry 1995 ] Ed. M Mullett. Queens University Press. Belfast, 1997. 90-123.
20 ‘St. Symeon the New Theologian and Byzantine Monasticism.’ in : Mount Athos & Byzantine
Monasticism. Ed. A. Bryer. Variorum Press, Aldershot, 1996. 17-35.
21 Contrary to the general tenor of the work by H Alfeyev, Symeon The New Theologian and
Orthodox Tradition Oxford 2000, which does not sufficiently distinguish topoi which Symeon
reproduces, from sources which really affected him. His heavy reliance on Gregory Nazianzen
and Theodore Studite suggests he went late to primary schoolroom sources ( such as these were in
the 10th century). But his knowledge of the Macarian tradition (with its emphasis on the felt
experience of spiritual charism) was indeed an electrifying ‘new’ element in his work. This Syrian
strand of spirituality had recently come back into Byzantine thought with a renewed emphasis
after the 9th century translations of Syrian thinkers such as Mar Isaac of Niniveh, a movement
inaugurated at the monastery of Mar Saba.
22 It is written 30 years after the death of the saint, based on several ‘presuppositions’ of his own,
as well as on personal reminiscences from Symeon’s disciples Arsenios ( Vita. 45. p. 58f),
Symeon of Ephesus and Meletios (Vita. 33. p. 44)
23 Vita. 22-23, p. 32.
24 The ‘rule’ observed at the St. Mamas monastery.
25 C De Cantazaro (tr.) St. Symeon The New Theologian : The Catechetical Discourses. Paulist Press
New York. 1980.
26 Sometimes separated out, giving the role of spiritual counselor to an older and experienced monk.
Symeon clearly introduced to St. Mamas ( which was not used to it) the custom of long addresses
after Matins each morning – the result is his Catecheses. We today may be glad to have them, but
it seems his first listeners took it rather hard that a novice was so sternly teaching them the right
way to be a monk, and hard feelings resulted.
27 This was not necessarily observed in all Byzantine monasteries, especially in the smaller
independent houses such as St. Mamas. Symeon seems to have introduced this observance as part
of a tightening-up of discipline in line with that of the Stoudium whose rule he emulated. Vita. 35.
28 His disciple Arsenios, as an old man, ‘fondly’ recalls how Symeon once threw a roasted pigeon
down the refectory to hit him, in order to show up the secret feelings of ‘superiority’ Arsenios was
nurturing about his own strict observance of the vegetarian rule (Vita. 50. p. 66); and in order to
rebuke the former bishop Hierotheos, for waste ( he was now Symeon’s Cellarer), he had him driven about town in a donkey cart with the drayman shouting out what an idiot he was to all and sundry (Vita.56. pp. 74-75). Such ‘happy memories’ of the good old days might also have been the cause of why other monks at St. Mamas, who were less personally bonded to Symeon, might have rebelled against him.
29 Powerful and rich men such as the Patrician Genesios Vita. 54-55. pp. 70-71.
30 Vita. 38-39, pp. 50-52.
31 The Vita describes how the monks were expelled from St. Mamas by the Patriarch, though several
were readmitted after Symeon sought them out, and apologised ‘to them’ for his behaviour.
Niketas (Vita.41. p. 54) thinks this was merely a ploy of humility, but it could also read as a
genuine realization, by an inexperienced leader, that his treatment of people needed to be
humanised. Niketas says that all the dissidents finally came back and lived in peace ( ‘like gentle
lambs’) with the new Higoumen.
32 The whole Vita was designed as a plea for the canonisation of Symeon, and to allow his relics to
be brought back to the capital, from which , when alive, he had been ecclesiastically censured and
exiled. This why it constantly explains any problem Symeon caused as being the result of his
spiritual fervour being hated by the lukewarm. The cause of his synodical condemnation is given
in the Vita as his innocent desire to have an icon of his teacher Symeon Eulabes placed in his
church, which is exegeted by Niketas as showing that he was really an Iconodule, fighting once
more against the iconoclast barbarians of the court. Thus, the history and the hagiographer need to
be distinguished on these points. It seems abundantly clear that Symeon was censured and exiled
for doctrinal reasons, as well as because he opposed the Emperor.
33 Niketas’ list of Patriarchs is not too sure: the issues of the chronology have been discussed,
illuminatingly, by Hausherr in his introduction to the Vita., and by V Grumel: ‘Nicholas II
Chrysoberges et la chronologie de la vie de S. Syméon le Nouveau Théologien.’ In: Revue des
études byzantines. 22. 1964. pp. 253f.
34 He was asked the seemingly ‘innocent’ question : were the trinitarian hypostases to be ‘really’ or
simply ‘notionally’ distinguished. It would be possible ( for a hostile inquisitor) to lay heresy
charges for a reply asserting either position.
35 Especially in Hymns 21,52, and 58.
36 On the grounds that if this bishop had renounced his own see, in order to pursue a brighter career
at the court, he was no longer a bishop at all but reverted back to being a monk. Stephen’s role as
‘chaplain’ to the patriarch, from which he applied the pressure of authority on Symeon is thus
reversed: and Symeon claims higher status, both as an independent abbot, and as a God-Seer.
37 See especially St. Gregory of Nazianzen (Oration 27) whose thought Symeon often reproduces.
38 The aristocrat Christopher Phagouras provided funds, along with the Senator Genesios and several
other wealthy Constantinopolitans who remained loyal to Symeon’s cause, and circle. See Vita.
102. p.140; 104. p.142; 109. p. 152.
39 Marinos /Marina was a young woman who had spent all her life as a monk in a male
monastery, and was then made to do penance for illegitimately fathering a child. On the deathbed
‘he’ was found to have been female all along, and to have suffered the calumny for so many years
in silence. The hagiography was popular in the later Byzantine Church.
40 One of the theologians heavily involved in the affair of the ‘great schism’ between the papacy and
patriarchate in 1054, that would have a longer life than anyone then expected – enduring into the
continuing separation of Orthodoxy and the Western churches.
41 The first collection had been prepared by Symeon himself in his late old age. Vita. 131. p.188.
42 Including small additions of his own, and some ‘commentary’. The titles for each Hymn (often not
helpful) were supplied by one Alexis the Philosopher, possibly a collaborator of Niketas. c.f. J.
Koder. Syméon le Nouveau Théologien: Hymnes. Sources Chrétiennes ( SC). Vol. 156. Paris.
1969. p. 22. The critical edition of the Hymns, with French translation, is the three-volume version
by Koder in: SC. vols. 156 (Paris, 1969), 174 (paris, 1971) and 196 (Paris, 1973).
43 Though, ironically, it was not written by him at all. The text entitled: The Three Methods of
Prayer, can be found in: Philokalia, vol. 4. (tr. G Palmer, P Sherrard, & K Ware) Faber. London.
1995. pp. 64-75.
44 The primary texts now available in English are as follows: CJ de Catanzaro (tr.). Symeon the
New Theologian : The Discourses. [Catecheses.] Classics of W. Spirituality. Paulist Press.
NY. 1980; A Golitzin. St. Symeon the New Theologian ( tr. of ‘The Ethical Discourses’). 3
vols. SVS Press. NY. 1995-1997.[ vol. 3 is Biographical] ; P (=JA) McGuckin. Symeon the
New Theologian. Chapters and Discourses. Cistercian Publications. Kalamazoo. 1982. (repr.
1994); G Maloney. The Hymns of Divine Love. (Dimension Pr.) NJ. 1975 & 1999 ; G Palmer,
P. Sherrard, & K Ware. Philokalia. vol. 4. Faber & Faber, London. 1995.pp. 11-75.
45 Recent scholarly studies include: H Alfeyev. St. Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox
Tradition. Oxford. 2000; B Krivocheine. In the Light of Christ. SVS Press. NY. 1987;
JA McGuckin. ‘St. Symeon the New Theologian and Byzantine Monasticism.’ In: Mount Athos
and Byzantine Monasticism. (ed) A Bryer, Variorum Press, London. 1996. pp.17-35;
Idem. ‘St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) : Byzantine theological renewal in search of a
precedent.’ In: Studies in Church History vol. 33. The Church Retrospective. Oxford. 1996;
Idem. ‘The Notion of Luminous Vision in 11th C Byzantium: Interpreting the Biblical and
Theological Paradigms of St. Symeon the New Theologian.’ Acts of the Belfast Byzantine
Colloquium - Portaferry 1995. (The Evergetis Project). Queens University Press. Belfast. 1997;
G.A Maloney. The Mystic of Fire and Light. Denville. NJ. 1975; J Pelikan. ‘The Last Flowering
of Byzantium : The Mystic as New Theologian’. chapter 6 of : The Spirit of Eastern Christendom.
Univ. of Chicago Presss, Chicago &London. 1974, 1977; HJM Turner. St. Symeon the New
Theologian and Spiritual Fatherhood. Leiden. 1990; W Völker. Praxis und Theoria bei Symeon
dem Neuen Theologen: Ein Beitrag zur byzantinischen Mystik. Wiesbaden. 1974.
46 By Niketas Stethatos, in the Vita. 27. p. 38.
47 They constitute 300 pages in a modern English edition, so the essay here will be, of necessity,
partial and introductory.
48 He is aware of the great Byzantine liturgical poets before him, Gregory of Nazianzus, Romanos
the Melodist, John Damascene, and Joseph the Hymnographer.
49 8 hymns out of the 58, several of which are irregular. Viz. 6,17,23,29,30,35, 44 & 53.
50 14 hymns: 2-5, 9-10, 20-21, 24, 37, 39, 50, 57-58.
51 The so-called ‘political’ verse of Byzantium. It is Symeon’s preferred metre used in 36 hymns :
1,7-8, 11-16, 18-19, 22, 25-28, 31-34, 36, 38, 40-43, 45-49, 51-52, 54-56.
52 Although there is a good attempt in the Holy Transfiguration press version of the (apocryphal)
Hymn before Communion (see fn.56 below) which adopts a seven syllabic line. A few verses will
give the effect: ‘I have sinned more than the harlot/Who on learning of thy lodging/Went and
purchased myrrh most precious/And with boldness she approached Thee/To anoint Thy feet and
lave them…’ Service of Preparation for Holy Communion. Holy Transfiguration Orthodox
Monastery. Boston. 1986. p.58. ( No author/editor cited).
53 See Hymns 15,17,18,22, 23, 53, 58.
54 Ingolstatd. 1603. This is the (bowdlerized) edition used by JP Migne in the Patrologia Graeca.
Vol. 120. cols. 321-668.
55 Venice. 1790.
56 The incipit is: ‘Apo ruparon cheileon.’ It is a much later poem found in the 16th century Ms.
Lavra. Ω. 1400, and its vastly expands about ten original lines from various Hymns of Symeon
into a separate composition. (Elements are taken from Hymns. 13,17,19 & 41).
57 Koder also regards Hymn 21 (Symeon’s attack on bishop Stephen of Alexina) as not a real hymn
either,calling it a ‘letter’, but it is much more than poetic prose, and starting from an apologetic
standpoint, becomes a lyrical celebration of the difference between genuine ‘experience’ of the
Spirit, and formalist religion, rising on many occasions to heights of rhapsody, comparable to the
best of his hymns.
58 The Eucharistic preface: ‘We give you thanks, we give you praise’. Symeon deliberately sets his
hymns in a eucharistic context, in which the praise of the mystic is comparable to the liturgical
offering of mysteries, rendered sacred by the operation and descent of the Holy Spirit at the
59Preface to the Hymns: ‘The Mystical Prayer of Our Father Saint Symeon.’ (tr) J.Koder. SC. Vol.
156. pp. 150, 152.
60 See especially Hymns 20, 32, and 36.
61 See, for example, Hymn 15.
62 Such as Hymns 1, or 21.
63 Hymn 21. 160f. SC. Vol. 174. p. 143.
64 God is known in the soul’s aisthesis (sensibility and love) if not comprehended by its Nous
(spiritual intellect). As the medieval writer of the Cloud of Unknowing put it ( also following Ps.
Dionysios): ‘By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought – never.’
65 Hymn. 1 Koder. SC. Vol. 156. pp. 157-158.
66 Hymn. 23. Koder. SC. Vol. 174. p. 223.
67 Such as Hymns 1,7,11,13,14, 17, 24, 37, and 41 as chief among many others.
68 Hymn. 37. 16-22. Koder. SC. Vol. 174. p. 460.
69 Hymn. 2. Koder. SC. Vol. 156 p. 178.
70 Hymn 27. Koder. SC vol. 174. p. 288.
71 Further on this theme c.f. J.A. McGuckin. Deification in Greek Patristic Thought: The
Cappadocian Fathers’ Strategic Adaptation of a Tradition. Appearing in: J Wittung (ed).
Theosis. (Papers from the Academic Conference at Drew University. Summer 2004). Madison.
NJ. 2006. See also: J Gross. The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers.
A&C Press. Anaheim Ca. 2002.
72 Hymn 34. Koder. SC. Vol.174. p. 366-370.
73 Hymn 11. Koder. SC. Vol. 156. p. 238.
74 Hymn 17. Koder. SC. Vol. 174. p. 41.
75 There are many ‘erotic’ images conveying the relation of the soul and the Logos Spouse in the
Hymns, such as 15.220f. ‘Christ gives his servant-saints impassibility and makes them his
spouses. Can you understand this ? He makes such every single day; spouses are those souls
whom the Creator unites to himself, and who in turn unite themselves to him. O what spiritual
marriage ! Consummation of such a marriage in wholly god-befitting manner !’
76 ‘All our members become Christ himself – Can you not see Christ even this penis?’– Hymn 15. v.
161. Koder. SC. Vol. 156. p. 290. A eunuch rhetorician could, of course, discourse on the notions
of apatheia demonstrated in the sexual organs, in a way others could not so readily accomplish,
and yet still move on from that point, to his central argument that love of God is the passion that
apatheia seeks to stimulate
77 Not explicitly to the fore in Symeon but alluded to in his constant personal petitions for the mercy