Bishop Kallistos Ware


The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn, Wainwright, Yarnold
(Oxford University Press, 1986) pp. 235-242.

§1. Introduction: Byzantine Theology §4. The Power to Absolve Sins
§2. Biography of Symeon §5. Vision of the Divine Light
§3. Awareness of Divine Indwelling §6. Sacramental Theology and the Body
  §7. Conclusion: Hymnody and Poetry


§ 1. Introduction: Byzantine Theology

§ 1. Introduction: Byzantine Theology


‘He became man that we might be made god’; he became ‘incarnate’ that we might be ‘ingodded’. So St Athanasius of Alexandria sums up the message of salvation in Christ (De Incarnatione, 54). The Eastern Orthodox tradition has sought to give full emphasis to both parts of his statement. ‘He became man’: the implications of this were explored more especially by the Greek Fathers from the fourth to the seventh centuries. What does it mean to affirm that Jesus Christ is fully God, truly human, and yet a single undivided person? It was in response to this three-sided question that the first six Ecumenical Councils, from Nicaea I (325) to Constantinople III (680), developed the classic expression of Trinitarian theology and Christology. In the centuries that followed, the main focus of attention shifted from the first to the second part of Athanasius’ dictum: ‘. . . that we might be made god’. What are the effects of the divine incarnation in the life of the Christian? What is signified by the fulness of ‘ingodding’ or ‘deification’ (theōsis)? How is it possible for the human person, without ceasing to be authentically human, to enjoy direct and transforming union with God in his glory? These are the master themes of later Byzantine theology and spirituality.

Two writers in this period stand out with particular prominence: in the eleventh century, St Symeon the New Theologian, and in the fourteenth, St Gregory Palamas. Each is rooted in the past, but both are at the same time explorers, developing the earlier tradition in fresh ways.

From the ninth century onwards Greek Christianity tended to be strongly conservative, and all too often its spokesmen remained content with a barren ‘theology of repetition’. Typical of this outlook is the somewhat discouraging comment of the Byzantine scholar Theodore Metochites (d. 1332), ‘The great men of the past have expressed everything so perfectly that they have left nothing more for us to say’ (Miscellanea, preface: cited in S. Runciman, The Last Byzantine Renaissance. CUP, 1970, p. 94). There was in the Greek East nothing equivalent to the startling rediscovery of Aristotle and the dynamic evolution of scholasticism in the West during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; in the East the patristic period of theology continued uninterrupted until 1453, and indeed beyond. But, throughout the twelve hundred years of Byzantium, alongside continuity there is also change; and the finest representatives of later Byzantine thought, such as Symeon and Palamas, succeed in combining loyalty to the past with creative originality. Later Byzantine spirituality is marked above all by three features:

1. A strong insistence upon the divine mystery and so upon the apophatic approach to God; he is utterly transcendent, beyond all concepts and images, beyond all human understanding.

2. A balancing sense of the nearness as well as the otherness of the Eternal; not only transcendent but immanent, God can be known here and now, in this present life, through direct personal experience.

3. A preference for the symbolism of light rather than darkness; mystical union with God takes above all the form of a vision of divine radiance, the dominant ‘model’ being Christ transfigured upon Mount Tabor.

§ 1.5.Biography of Symeon

§ 2. Biography of Symeon


St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) exemplifies all three of these features, but more particularly the second. In a manner altogether exceptional in the Christian East -- for there is in Greek patristic literature no autobiographical work equivalent to the Confessions of St Augustine -Symeon refers explicitly to his own personal experiences. Enthusiastic, unsystematic, he is a ‘theologian’, not in the modern academic sense, but rather according to the older understanding of the term: a man of prayer, of personal vision, who speaks about the divine realm, not in a theoretical fashion, but on the basis of what he has himself seen and tasted. The designation ‘new’ in his title, according to the most persuasive interpretation, implies a comparison first of all with St John the Evangelist or the Divine (in Greek, theologos, ‘the Theologian’), and then with St Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘ Gregory the Theologian’ as he is known in the Christian East. The name ‘New Theologian’ means, then, that St Symeon in the eleventh century renewed the tradition of mystical prayer to which St John bore witness in the first century and St Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth.

Destined originally for a political career, at the age of fourteen Symeon the New Theologian passed under the influence of a monk at the monastery of Studios in Constantinople, also named Symeon, known as Eulabes, ‘the devout’. Profoundly marked by the example of his own spiritual father, in his teaching the younger Symeon stresses the vital need for living, personal direction in the spiritual life. He would have agreed with the Hasidic master Rabbi Jacob Yitzhak that ‘the way cannot be learned out of a book, or from hearsay, but can only be communicated from person to person’ (M. Buber, [ET] The Tales of the Hasidim [ New York, Shocken Books, 1947], vol. i, p. 286). The importance of the spiritual father is, indeed, a recurrent theme throughout later Byzantine spirituality: ‘Above all else’, say Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos (fourteenth century), ‘search diligently for an unerring guide and teacher’ (On the Life of Stillness, § 14).

When Symeon was aged about twenty and still a layman, he received the first in a series of visions of divine light. Seven years later he became a monk. For a quarter of a century he was abbot of the monastery of St Mamas in Constantinople; his last thirteen years were passed outside the city, in a small hermitage on the opposite shore of the Bosphorus. Thus the central and most creative period of his life was spent, not in seclusion, but as superior of a busy community in the heart of the imperial capital; he is an ‘urban Hesychast’, a mystical theologian who combines inner prayer with pastoral and administrative work. In his understanding of monastic life he blends the cenobitic approach of St Basil the Great and St Theodore the Studite with the more solitary, eremitic spirit of St John Climacus. During his life and after his death he aroused sharp controversy -- in particular, because of the cult that he rendered to his spiritual father as a saint, without waiting for official approval, and because of his views on priesthood and confession -- but the Byzantine Church ended by canonizing him.

§ 2. Awareness of Divine Indwelling

§ 3. Awareness of Divine Indwelling


Symeon displays an especially close affinity with the Spiritual Homilies attributed to Macarius. Whatever the truth about the supposed Messalian character of the Homilies (cf. p. 160), there is no good reason to attribute to the New Theologian the kind of Messalianism that might be suspected of heresy. What Symeon shares with the Homilies is above all an emphasis upon conscious, personal awareness of Christ and the Spirit. Christianity, so he is passionately convinced, involves much more than a formal, dogmatic orthodoxy, than an outward observance of moral rules. No one can be a Christian at second hand; the tradition has to be relived by each one of us without exception, and each should feel the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in a conscious, palpable manner:

Do not say, It is impossible to receive the Holy Spirit;

Do not say, It is possible to be saved without him.

Do not say, then, that one can possess him without knowing it.

Do not say, God does not appear to men,

Do not say, Men do not see the divine light,

Or else, It is impossible in these present times.

This is a thing never impossible, my friends,

But on the contrary altogether possible for those who so wish

(Hymn XXVII, 125-32).

μ λέγετε δύνατον λαβεν τ θεον πνεμα·

μ λέγετε χωρς ατο δυνατν τ σωθναι· (125)

μ ον γνώστως τούτου λέγετέ τινα μετέχειν

μ λέγετε, τι θες οχ ρται νθρώποις·

μ λέγετε, ο νθρωποι φς θεον οχ ρσιν,

τι κα δύνατον ν τος παροσι χρόνοις·

οδέποτε δύνατον τοτο τυγχάνει, φίλοι, (130)

λλ κα λίαν δυνατν τος θέλουσιν πάρχει·

If in this passage and elsewhere Symeon comes close to identifying the reality of grace with the conscious feeling of grace, as the Messalians were accused of doing, he does sometimes allow for a real yet hidden activity of the Spirit on an unconscious level (see, for example, Chapters, III, 76). The aim, however, is always to advance beyond this unconscious grace to the point of explicit awareness, at which we experience the Spirit ‘in a conscious and perceptible way’, with what he calls the ‘sensation of the heart’. In the passage quoted above, it is significant that Symeon vehemently repudiates any suggestion that the charismata granted to holy men and women in the past are no longer accessible to Christians in the present time. For him this was the worst of all heresies, implying as it does that the Spirit has somehow been withdrawn from the Church. We are in exactly the same situation as the first Christians, he protests; if grace is not as apparent among us today as it was once among them, the sole reason is the weakness of our faith.

§ 3. The Power to Absolve Sins

§ 4. The Power to Absolve Sins


Symeon applies this teaching about direct experience more especially to confession and absolution. Who, he asks in his letter On Confession, is entitled to ‘bind and loose’? The answer is surprising. There is one essential qualification, and one only, which enables a person to act as confessor and spiritual father, and that is a conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit:

Do not try to be a mediator on behalf of others until you have yourself been filled with the Holy Spirit, until you have come to know and to win the friendship of the King of all with conscious awareness in your soul (Letter i, 10: Holl, p. 119).

From this Symeon draws a double conclusion: negatively, that anyone who lacks this conscious awareness -- even though he may be bishop or patriarch -- should not, and indeed cannot, exercise the ministry of confession; positively, that lay monks who possess such awareness, even though not in holy orders, may be called to exercise this ministry.

Most Orthodox would hesitate to go the whole way here with Symeon. It is true that in the Christian East, from the fourth century up to the present, there have been many instances of lay monks acting as spiritual fathers. Symeon’s own ‘elder’, Symeon the Studite, was not a priest -although the New Theologian himself was -- and many of the leading spiritual fathers on the Holy Mountain of Athos today are likewise lay monks; within Orthodoxy the ministry of eldership is at times exercised equally by nuns who act as spiritual mothers. But is this ministry of eldership or spiritual direction identical with the sacrament of confession, strictly defined? Although Symeon makes no distinction between the two, many other Orthodox would wish to do so. One point, however, emerges unambiguously from Symeon’s answer about confession: the high significance that he attaches to direct personal experience of God.

§ 4. Vision of the Divine Light

§ 5. Vision of the Divine Light


This direct experience takes the form, in Symeon’s teaching, more especially of the vision of divine light. Here Symeon, speaking of himself in the third person, describes the first such vision that he received:

WHILE he was standing one day and saying the prayer God be merciful to me a sinner (Luke 18:13), more with his intellect than with his mouth, a divine radiance suddenly appeared in abundance from above and filled the whole room.

¨Ισταμένου οὖν αὐτοῦ ἐν μιᾷ καὶ τὸ « ̈̔Ο Θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ» λαλοῦντος τῷ νοῒ μᾶλλον ἢ τῷ στόματι, ἔλλαμψις θεία πλουσίως αἴφνης ἐπέφανεν ἄνωθεν (90) καὶ πάντα τὸν τόπον ἐπλήρωσε.

When this happened, the young man lost all awareness of his surroundings and forgot whether he was in a house or under a roof. He saw nothing but light on every side, and did not even know if he was standing on the ground [...]

Τούτου δὲ γεγονότος ἠγνόησεν ὁ νεανίας καὶ ἐπελάθετο εἰ ἐν οἴκῳ ἦν ἢ ὅτι ὑπὸ στέγην ὑπῆρχε. Φῶς γὰρ μόνον ἔβλεπε πάντοθεν καὶ οὐδὲ εἰ ἐπὶ γῆς ἐπάτει ἐγίνωσκεν.

He was wholly united to non material light and, so it seemed, he had himself been turned into light. Oblivious of all the world, he was overwhelmed with tears and with inexpressible joy and exultation

(95) [...] ἀλλ’ ὅλως φωτὶ ἀΰλῳ συνὼν καὶ τῷ δοκεῖν αὐτὸς φῶς γενόμενος καὶ παντὸς τοῦ κόσμου ἐπιλαθόμενος, δακρύων καὶ χαρᾶς ἀνεκφράστου καὶ ἀγαλλιάσεως ἔμπλεως ἐγένετο. |.. (100)

Greek Text: B. Krivochéine and J. Paramelle, Syméon le Nouveau Théologien, Catéchèses [Sources Chrétiennes 96,  Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1963]  

(Catechesis XXII, lines 88-100).

Note how Symeon’s experience combines sorrow with joy. Before the vision he prays for mercy, and when the vision comes he sheds tears; yet they are tears not of penitence only but of rejoicing. The light that enfolds him is evidently far more than a metaphorical ‘light of the understanding’. It is an existent reality, and yet at the same time it is not a physical and created light, but spiritual and divine; as he affirms throughout his writings, the light is God himself. This divine light has upon Symeon a transforming effect; he is taken up into that which he contemplates, and is himself ‘turned into light’. Yet, though transfigured, he does not lose his personal identity, but is never so truly himself as when within the light. If the account of Symeon’s first vision might seem to suggest that the light is impersonal, elsewhere he insists upon the personal presence of Jesus within the divine radiance: the Lord speaks to him from the light, and the vision involves a dialogue of love between them. Symeon’s light mysticism is not just ‘photocentric’ but Christocentric.

Although Symeon almost always describes the mystical union in terms of light, not of darkness, he is at the same time an apophatic theologian, frequently applying negative language to God; the first of the three features mentioned above is present as well as the second and the third. ‘You are higher than all essence,’ he says to the Creator, ‘than the very nature of nature, higher than all ages, than all light . . . You are none of the things that are, but above them all’ (Hymn XV, 67-71). Yet, while ‘invisible, unapproachable, beyond our understanding and our grasp’ (XV, 75), God has at the same time become truly human and is known by the saints in a vision face to face. To express this double truth that God is at once transcendent and immanent, unknown yet well known, the fourteenth-century Hesychasts make use of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies: although beyond all understanding in his essence, God reveals himself and enters into personal communion with us through his energies. Sometimes Symeon likewise employs this distinction (e.g. Hymn XXIV, 11; XXXI, 6-7), but elsewhere he ignores it, stating that humans can partake even in the very essence of God (e.g. Hymn VII, 25-29). His usage is not consistent, and it would be misleading here to read back into his thought the more developed position of the later period. In general, however, he exercised an important influence on the fourteenth-century Hesychasts.

§ 5. Sacramental Theology and the Body

§ 6. Sacramental Theology and the Body


Three other points call for mention:

First, an absence: there is no reference in Symeon’s authentic writings to the Jesus Prayer. Here again a difference should be noted between Symeon and the later Hesychasts.

Secondly, Symeon’s vision of the spiritual way, as well as being Christocentric, is also deeply sacramental. In particular, he refers to the Eucharist in strongly realistic terms: [But the metrical prayer commencing From polluted lips. . ., used by Orthodox before communion and commonly attributed to Symeon the New Theologian, is almost certainly not his work but that of his contemporary St Symeon Metaphrastes (‘the Translator’)]

My blood has been mingled with your Blood,

And I know that I have been united also to your Godhead.

I have become your most pure Body,

καὶ μιγὲν τὸ αἷμά μου τῷ αἵματί σου

ἡνώθην, οἶδα, καὶ τῇ θεότητί σου

καὶ γέγονα σὸν καθαρώτατον σῶμα, (15)

A member dazzling, a member truly sanctified,

A member glorious, transparent, luminous ...

What was I once, what have I now become!...

μέλος ἐκλάμπον, μέλος ἅγιον ὄντως,

μέλος τηλαυγὲς καὶ διαυγὲς καὶ λάμπον [...]

ἐκ ποίου οἷος ἐγενόμην [...]

Where shall I sit, what shall I touch,

Where shall I rest these limbs that have become your own,

In what works or actions shall I employ

These members that are terrible and divine?

 (Hymn II, 13-29).

(25)τὸ ποῦ καθίσω καὶ τίνι προσεγγίσω

καὶ ποῦ τὰ μέλη τὰ σὰ προσανακλίνω,

εἰς ποῖα ἔργα, εἰς ποίας ταῦτα πράξεις

ὅλως χρήσομαι τὰ φρικτά τε καὶ θεῖα·

 Thirdly, Symeon displays a profound reverence for the body, which he sees in Hebraic, biblical terms as an integral part of the human person -- to be sanctified, not hated and repressed. This was something that he had learnt from his spiritual father Symeon the Studite, of whom he says:

He was not ashamed of the limbs of anyone,

Or to see others naked and to be seen naked himself.

For he possessed the whole Christ and was himself wholly Christ;

And always he regarded all his own limbs and the limbs of everyone else,

Individually and together, as being Christ himself .                (Hymn XV, 207-11)

οὗτος οὐκ ἐπῃσχύνετο μέλη παντὸς ἀνθρώπου

οὐδὲ γυμνοὺς τινὰς ὁρᾶν οὐδὲ γυμνὸς ὁρᾶσθαι·

εἶχε γὰρ ὅλον τὸν Χριστόν· ὅλος αὐτὸς Χριστὸς ἦν, (210)

καὶ μέλη ἅπαντα αὐτοῦ καὶ παντὸς ἄλλου μέλη

καθ’ ἓν καὶ πάντα ὡς Χριστὸν οὗτος ἀεὶ ἑώρα

Here, as in the account of his first vision of the divine light and in his words of thanksgiving after Holy Communion, we see how for Symeon the total person, body and soul together, is hallowed and permeated by grace and glory. A monk and an ascetic, he yet has no sympathy for the platonizing or Gnostic outlook that depreciates the body, excluding it from the process of salvation. In Symeon’s eyes ascetic self-denial is a battle not against but for the body.

§ 6. Conclusion: Hymnody and Poetry

§ 7. Conclusion: Hymnody and Poetry


Vivid, full of personal warmth, St Symeon the New Theologian is an unusually attractive writer. His spirituality is perhaps expressed most eloquently in the fifty-six Hymns of Divine Love written towards the end of his life, from which we have quoted more than once. A theologian poet, in the long line extending from St Ephrem the Syrian, through Dante, St John of the Cross, Milton and Blake, up to T. S. Eliot and Edwin Muir in our own century, he exemplifies the close link existing between theology and poetry. Often it is the poets who are the best theologians of all. It would be good for the Church if we paid them greater heed.


There is a critical Greek text, with French tr., in SC (9 vols. so far; one to follow); the main writings exist also in ET.

i. Chapters [Theological, Gnostic and Practical Chapters], ed. J. Darrouzès and L. Neyrand, SC 51 (2nd edn, 1980); ET P. McGuckin, Cistercian Studies Series 41 (Kalamazoo, 1982).

ii. Catecheses or Discourses, ed. B. Krivochéine and J. Paramelle, SC 96, 104, 113 (1963-5); ET C. J. de Catanzaro, CWS XXI.

iii. Theological Treatises, ed. J. Darrouzès, SC 122 (1966); ET McGuckin (see i above).

iv.  Ethical Treatises, ed. J. Durrouzès, SC 122, 129 (1966-7).

v.  Hymns, ed. J. Koder and J. Paramelle, SC 156, 174, 196 (1969-73); also ed. A. Kambylis (Berlin, 1976); ET G. A. Maloney (Denville, N.J., Dimension Books, no date).

vi.  Letters: to appear in SC. For Letter 1 (On Confession), see K. Holl, Enthusiasmus und Bussgewalt beim griechischen Mönchtum: Eine Studie zu Symeon dem neuen Theologen (Leipzig, Hinrichs, 1898), pp. 110-27 (Greek text only).

vii.  Life of St Symeon by Nicetas Stethatos: Greek text and French tr. I. Hausherr and G. Horn, Orientalia Christiana 12 (45) (Rome, 1928).


Krivochéine B., Dans la lumière du Christ. Saint Syméon le Nouveau Théologien 949-1022, Vie -- Spiritualité -- Doctrine. Chevtogne, 1980.

Maloney G. A., The Mystic of Fire and Light: St. Symeon the New Theologian. Denville, N.J., Dimension Books, 1975.

Völker W., Praxis und Theoria bei Symeon dem neuen Theologen. Wiesbaden, Steiner, 1974.

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