I have not read much of St. Symeon until my recent trip to the Monastery of St. John, a visit I blogged about here, here and here. While on retreat I started reading The Discourses. The Discourses is a collection of his catechetical sermons. I have always shied away from reading him wrongly believing that he was not going to be understandable. This is most certainly not the case. However, I do think that one comes to read St. Symeon when the time is right. This experience is akin to my stumbling on the jazz recording, “A Kind of Blue” by the great Miles Davis. I bought it for no good reason about 12 years ago and have never quite stopped listening to it. The day after I bought it I called my friend, Tobin, who had studied and played jazz. I asked Tobin, “How could you have known about a “Kind of Blue” and never said anything to me?” He said, “I didn’t know if you were ready. When you are ready you find Miles.” I want to share some of this great saint, his writings and what I am learning with you. Below is his “life.” In subsequent entries I will be sharing what I find in his Discourses. And, if you are ready, maybe it is time to personally get to know St. Symeon the New Theologian.
St. Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022 AD) was an Orthodox Christian monk and poet who was the last of three saints canonized by the Eastern Orthodox church and given the title of “Theologian” (along with John the Apostle and Gregory of Nazianzus).
“Theologian” was not applied to Symeon in the modern academic sense of theological study, but to recognize someone who speaks from personal experience of the vision of God. One of his principle teachings was that humans could and should experience theoria (literally “contemplation”, or direct experience of God).
Symeon was born into Byzantine nobility and given a traditional education. At age fourteen he met Symeon the Studite, a renowned monk of the monastery of Constantinople, which convinced him to give his own life to prayer and asceticism under the elder Symeon’s guidance. By the time he was thirty, Symeon the New Theologian became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Mammas, a position he held for twenty-five years. While he attracted many monks and clergy with his reputation for sanctity, his teachings brought him into conflict with church authorities, who would eventually send him into exile. His most well known disciple was Nicetas Stethatos who wrote the Life of Symeon.
Symeon is recognized as the first Byzantine mystic to freely share his own mystical experiences. Some of his writings are included in the Philokalia, a collection of texts by early Christian mystics on contemplative prayer and hesychast teachings. Symeon wrote and spoke frequently about the importance of experiencing directly the grace of God, often talking about his own experiences of God as divine light. Another common subject in his writings was the need of putting oneself under the guidance of a spiritual father. The authority for many of his teachings derived from the traditions of the Desert Fathers, early Christian monks and ascetics. Symeon’s writings include Hymns of Divine Love, Ethical Discourses, and The Catechetical Discourses. *