Introduction

Everyone knows St. John the Theologian as the author of the Gospel of John, and most Orthodox Christians know of St. Gregory the Theologian as a member of the Cappadocian Fathers and the Three Holy Hierarchs, but very few are familiar with St. Symeon the Theologian, a 10th and 11th century Byzantine diplomat turned monastic. St. Symeon is one of only three saints to be universally given the title of “Theologian” by the Church. Who is this man that the Church so reveres, and why should we care about who he is and what he said?

Before we begin our discussion, let’s begin with 120 seconds of silence. It’s been a long day. 

Take this chance to come into the presence of God and his saints as a group. Sit still. Breathe slowly and deeply. Say the Jesus prayer.

Part I: Experience

Reflection

St. Symeon lived during a time when the great empires of the world had official court theologians to help them keep their doctrine straight, and the Byzantine Empire was no exception in this regard. As a highly educated member of the imperial nobility, Symeon could have easily become one of these court theologians while still enjoying nearly every material pleasure that could have been offered to him at the time – food, wealth, social status, comfort, etc. However, Symeon rejected all of these things because of a single encounter he had with a monk as a teenager. The monk was from the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople, and his name was also Symeon. 

Young Symeon the Theologian became convinced that this Studite monk was a saint due to the  direct experiences the monk had of God. He decided that the possibility of also having that direct experience was worth more than all of the wealth that his position among Byzantine nobility could afford him. By the time he reached his mid twenties, Symeon forfeited all of his wealth and property to also become a monk at the Stoudios Monastery and for the rest of his life he wrote prolifically about the importance of seeking a direct experience of God and learning to do so from those who have that direct experience. For example, in one of the saint’s beautiful poems, Symeon the Theologian says:

Listen only to the admonitions of your father,

give to him humble answers,

and tell him your thoughts as to God,

even mere temptations, and may you hide nothing from him,

nor do anything without his opinion…

Therefore do not be led astray, nor suppose that you have found,

before you have acquired spiritual eyes,

and before the ears of your heart have been cleansed

by your tears that wash out the filth,

before all your senses begin to be changed,

and you begin to see and to hear spiritually.

For you shall gaze upon many things beyond telling,

and you shall hear extraordinarily more things,

which you cannot express with your tongue. 

And so to hear spiritually is a spine-chilling wonder

Divine Eros: Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 4

St. Symeon’s words are reminiscent of St. Paul the Apostle who says, “though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15) and that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9). St. John the Theologian speaks similarly when he  writes of the day when we “shall see Him [Christ] as He is” (1 John 3:2). With these things in mind, Symeon sought out a relationship with a spiritual father and endeavored to become pure in heart, because he knew that the pure in heart will see God (cf. Matt. 5:8).

Discussion Questions

  • Christ often says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (cf. Matt. 11:15). How does one acquire “ears to hear,” or in the words of St. Symeon, how does one cleanse “the ears of your heart”?
  • If we are spiritually blind because of our sins, how do we learn to see?
  • Do you have a spiritual father? What role has your spiritual father played in your life?
  • St. Symeon says that to hear spiritually is “a spine-chilling wonder.” Would anyone be willing to share their own experience of God?

Part II: Love

Reflection

“The greatest of these is love.” -1 Corinthians 13:13

What St. Symeon saw in his direct experiences of God was the fire of God’s love for all humanity and the entire world. But beyond God’s general love for the world, Symeon knew deep in his bones that God loved him specifically, just as he loves and creates each human person distinctly. Symeon uses profound and (at times) shocking and embarrassing language to describe his thoughts and experiences about the union he shares with Christ:

For if you also wish, you shall become his member,

and thus every member of each one of us

shall become a member of Christ, and Christ our members,

and He shall make all shameful things decent

by the beauty of his divinity and by his glory He shall adorn them,

and when we are united to God we shall at the same time become gods,

not looking upon the indignity of the body at all,

but completely made like Christ in the whole body,

and each of our members shall be the whole Christ.

For while we become many members He remains one and indivisible,

and each part is the whole Christ himself.

And so thus you well know that both my finger and my penis are Christ.

Do you tremble or feel ashamed?

But God was not ashamed to become like you,

yet you are ashamed to become like Him?

“I am not ashamed to become like Him.

But in saying He is like a shameful member

I suspect that you speak blasphemy.”

So then, you suspected badly, for there are no shameful members!

They are hidden members of Christ, for they are covered,

and on account of this they are more revered than the rest, 

as hidden members of Him Who is hidden, they are unseen by all,

from Whom seed is given in divine communion, 

awesomely deified in the divine form,

from the whole divinity itself, for He is God entire…

Divine Eros: Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 15

Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), St. Symeon emphasizes that one must feel and experience God’s love to even begin to speak of God. Indeed, Symeon goes as far as to say that love is the divine essence itself, that by which everything else can be comprehended:

All that is incomprehensible [in God] ignites my love,

And all that is comprehensible is personified love,

For love is not a name, but the divine essence,

Both participable and yet incomprehensible, but totally divine

Divine Eros: Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 52

Having dedicated his life to repentance, St. Symeon experienced this love himself. Therefore he was truly able to say along with St. Paul that “Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8).

Discussion Questions:

  • Have you experienced God’s love? What is the best way you can describe that experience?
  • How can we learn to love ourselves in the same way that God loves us?
  • How can we learn to love others, even our enemies, in the same way that God loves them?
  • St. Symeon describes even his “shameful members” as Christ. What does this say about God’s love for us in the incarnation?
  • In what ways does learning to love God strengthen our ability to love others, and in what ways does learning to love others strengthen our ability to love God?

Closing Prayer

Conclude your meeting with this prayer by St. Symeon from his Hymns of Divine Love:

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,a
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Divine Eros: Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 15