The Teaching of St. Symeon the New Theologian
BY FR. SERAPHIM ROSE OF PLATINA
ONE OF THE MOST beloved Holy Fathers today among Orthodox Christians, certainly in the Russian Church, is St. Symeon the New Theologian, one of the only three great Fathers whom the Church has granted the title of "Theologians" or speakers about God par excellence. St. John the Evangelist is the paramount Theologian of apostolic times; St. Gregory of Nazianzus (+390) is the most exalted Theologian of the golden age of Patristic literature; and St. Symeon (+1022) is the great Theologian of later times - the second Christian millennium.
Although separated from us now by nearly a thousand years, St. Symeon's Christian world was not so different from ours as might appear from the difference of epoch. By his time Orthodox Christianity had become well established; outwardly it has scarcely changed at all in the centuries since then. But therefore it was the more easily taken for granted, and St. Symeon might well be speaking to our own times when he emphasizes the need to return to the freshness of authentic Christian experience and not merely depend on the outward forms of church life, which are not soul-saving in themselves, but require conscious appropriation by believers. Unfortnately, this spiritual emphasis of his is often misused in our own day to defend a false "mysticism" and false "gifts of the Holy Spirit" which are emotional (at best) rather than spiritual and would only have evoked his righteous wrath. The more ecstatically "mystical" of St. Symeon's writings (his "Hymns"), as recent Fathers have warned us, are better left untouched by us Christians of the latter times who are too immersed in our own passions and filth of this most debased and evil of epochs.
But there are many writings of St. Symeon which are accessible to and appropriate for us, the last Christians - and particularly those which arouse and inspire us to conscious and fervent awareness of the basic dogmas of our Faith. Among these writings are the Saint's Homilies on Adam, the first-created world, and the future age.
Orthodox Christians today all too often have rather vague notions of the future age of blessedness which is the goal of our Christian life on earth; various chiliastic heresies and ideas, promising some kind of "paradise on earth," are very much in the air today and exert much influence, often unconsciously, on Christians who are not fully aware of their Faith and its goal. Bound up with this, and often largely to blame for it, is a poor knowledge of the beginnings of man and the universe - the creation, the first-created world, Adam and his fall; the agnostic and atheistic philosophies of beginnings so common today have done much to confuse in this regard even well-meaning Orthodox Christians.
The authentic Orthodox Patristic view of man's beginning and end is thus sorely needed to put in order the disarray of private opinions about these matters. St. Symeon's Homilies are one of the primary sources of this view.
And yet, St. Symeon speaks with such boldness and assurance on these subjects that one may stop and ask: how does he know all this? We have become used to a "knowledge" based on speculation and guesses, particularly on subjects as remote from ordinary experience as the first-created world and the future age. Today's scientists make their speculations on the beginnings of man and the universe based on uniformitarian projections from their present fragmentary discoveries and imperfect knowledge; today's "theologians" (even many who are Orthodox) usually make just as speculative projections based on their imperfect reading of the book of Genesis and perhaps some Holy Fathers or some poorly assimilated scientific information. But this is all the sphere of imperfect human wisdom, a mixture of knowledge and ignorance; how, then, does St. Symeon give us the teaching which is authentically Christian, and not a mere result of speculation and guessing?
St. Symeon speaks from divine revelation. First, his basis is always scriptural - but we are astonished to see a depth of meaning in his use of scriptural quotations which we would never have seen by ourselves. And this is because, second, he speaks from personal experience.
St. Gregory the Sinaite (+1346), another saint of more recent times who attained the heights of spiritual life and thus spoke with certainty of matters which the rest of us see only dimly, describes in one passage of his writings the "eight primary visions" of the state of perfect prayer. These visions are: God, the Angelic powers, the composition of visible things, the condescension of the Word (the Incarnation), the general resurrection, the Second Coming of Christ, eternal torments, the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. The objects of these visions, St. Gregory teaches, "are clearly beheld and known by those who have attained by grace complete purity of mind" ("Chapters on Commandments and Dogmas," 130, in the Russian / hilokalia). Thus he, and other saints who have attained to this state, can speak at first hand of the mysteries of our Faith which they have beheld in divine vision - even though they can say rather little of them to us who have no direct experience of them, even as St. Paul, after being raised in vision to the third heaven, had chiefly to emphasize how unutterable was what he heard there (II Cor. 12:4), and how far above ordinary human experience are those things that await the Christian in the coming age (I Cor. 2:9).
Among these "primary visions" which the greatest saints behold on earth are, not only the future age of torments (hell) and blessedness (heaven), but even "the composition of visible things" (obviously a mystical vision and not a scientific measurement of them!). Another saint of the most exalted spiritual life, St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century), in one passage of his Homilies, gives us a hint of his own experience of this. In describing how the soul is enraptured at the thought of the future age of incorruption, St. Isaac writes: "And from this, one is already exalted in one's mind to that which preceded the composition of the world, when there was no creature, nor heaven, nor earth, nor Angels, nothing of that which was brought into being, and to how God, solely by His good will, suddenly brought everything from non-being into being, and everything stood before Him in perfection" (Homily 21, Russian edition; Homily 85, Greek edition).
And thus we see to whom we should turn for a true interpretation of the first and last things: the surest interpreters of Genesis and the Apocalypse are those Holy Fathers who, like Moses and St. John the Evangelist themselves, beheld the beginning and the end in the state of divine vision. St. Isaac the Syrian describes in another Homily how this knowledge based on faith and vision surpasses ordinary human knowledge. "Knowledge preserves the bounds of nature, but faith goes above nature - The capabilities of knowledge for 5000 years, or a little more or less than this (i.e., the time from the creation to the Incarnation of Christ, which differs somewhat in the Greek and Hebrew Old Testament chronologies), governed the world, and man in no way could raise his head from the earth and acknowledge his Creator, until our Faith shone forth and delivered us from the darkness of earthly doing and vain submission to the empty soaring of the mind. And even now when we have found an imperturbable sea and an inexhaustible treasure, again we desire to turn away toward tiny springs. There is no knowledge that would not be poor, no matter how much it might be enriched; but the treasures of faith can be contained neither by the heaven nor by the earth" (Homily 25, Russian edition; Homily 62, Greek edition).
St. Symeon is one of the Church's great seers of these treasures of faith; he speaks of them with such certainty precisely because he has seen them. His profound homilies on Adam and the future age are of special value to Orthodox Christians because they give the theological foundation of the Christian life of struggle: the original state of man from which Adam fell tells us of our deepest nature, of which our present fallen nature is a corruption that is to be overcome; and the future state of blessedness is the goal to which our Christian struggle is aimed, and to which we can attain, by God's grace, even despite our fallen state.
The following translation of St. Symeon's celebrated Homilies where these matters are most clearly discussed, has been made from the Russian translation of Bishop Theophan the Recluse (Moscow, 1892). This great Father of the 19th century made it a principle to publish only what is of practical value for Orthodox Christian strugglers; thus, in his translations of St. Symeon we have an additional guarantee of the authenticity and value of the teaching which is to be found there. May it serve now to inspire - in a sober-minded way - the Christians of these last times in the narrow path that leads to salvation and deification.