A saint in context

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 28 October 1989

I confess to have developed a kind of love-hate relationship with mystics. I am fascinated by their familiarity with God, because, deep down, I too hunger for such a closeness. But I have also grown to be highly suspicious of their easy claims and their apparent alienation from real life. St. Symeon the New Theologian (949 – 1022), abbot of the monastery of St. Mamas until his exile from Constantinople in 1009, is a case in point. His spiritual teaching provokes, annoys, perplexes, exarcerbates and attracts me all at once.

I confronted him again when, during preparations for Christmas, I came across a quote that struck me as highly significant if true. Symeon was commenting on John 1,12-14: “The Word became flesh . . . To all who accept him he gave power to become children of God” If the Incarnation, Symeon argues, was a conscious act on God’s part, how could we be true Christians without being consciously aware of our new status as God’s children? Christmas, in other words, is all about celebrating our getting to know God in a deep, personal, conscious way. His reasoning seems persuasive.

“The Word became human in taking on flesh . . . and made me really god. For through baptism I have put on Christ.. And how could I be made god by grace and by adoption and not be god in awareness and experience and contemplation, I who have put on the Son of God?” Surely, he goes on, God knew what he was doing. God’s becoming human in Jesus Christ was a conscious, deliberate and knowing act. And so is God’s acceptance of me as a son or a daughter. God is not like a rich sponsor in a western country who adopts orphans in the Sahel, sponsoring children who will never know their benefactor. God adopted us by drawing us into friendship and love. And can friendship and love exist without personal knowledge, on both sides?

Now I do believe that if Incarnation means anything at all, it must entail a deliberate act of reaching out to us on the part of God, an approach, an offer of friendship, an ‘appearance’, a ‘self-revelation’, epiphaneia to use the ancient Greek name for Christmas. It is God’s way of establishing contact. But then, as Symeon points out, God fails in his purpose if we, on our part, are not aware of God’s closeness to us.

While reserving judgment on its practicality, I can see the logic of Symeon’s position. In his view, we are only truly Christian if we know God in a personal way. Faith does not mean accepting intellectual doctrines, but being grasped by Christ and holding on to him, vibrating with the Holy Spirit, glowing with fire through contact with the Father. And is this not, he says, what the Gospels teach? In his high-priestly prayer Jesus asked the Father: “May they be in us just as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17,21). But surely, Symeon argued, the Father and the Son know each other intimately and love each other deeply. Christians share in the intimate knowledge Father and Son have of one another. Every Christian should enjoy a conscious, personal, experiential knowledge of God. “If you are known by God, you know that you are known and know that you see God.” “The greatest misfortune that can befall you as a Christian is not to know consciously that God lives within you.” These are strong claims, but are they realistic? How many of us would dare to say that we know God consciously, intimately, personally? Who was Symeon talking to?

Opening the eyes of the blind

A thousand years ago life in Constantinople resembled life as it is for many of us today. The economy boomed. Trade brought in goods on the backs of camels from the East and on ships from the West. Markets and shops overflowed with meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, wines and spices in colourful varieties. People could afford to decorate their homes with precious carpets and ornate sofas. Symeon had known luxury himself, as court official in the Emperor’s palace, a hotbed of intrigue, ambition, even debauchery. He dismissed it all as “human theatre without the Holy Spirit”.

It was not as if on feast days rich and poor would not throng Hagia Sophia and the other basilicas in town. Divine worship flourished. While bishops, priests and deacons chanted the solemn litanies, mostly behind the sacred screen that hid the sanctuary from view, people in the body of the church would echo the responses, bow down from time to time, cover their breasts with signs of the cross and drift from one icon to the next throughout the holy building, hoping to obtain the blessing of as many saints as possible. Symeon recognised their devotion and yet he described people’s worship as ritual without encounter and their daily activities as stumblings of the blind. He meant that people could not see God and that sacramental practice did not lead to meeting God face to face.

Theologians will point out, as they did in Symeon’s day, that God works in the background. Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, but we only see bread and wine. After confessing our sins, we hear the words of absolution by the priest, though God’s inner act of forgiveness escapes our observation. We see water flowing at baptism, we cannot see the new life poured into the newly baptised. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace. Symeon did not agree. He declared that such talk sanctioned rituals without meaning.

Sacraments convey God’s inner action, yes, an action we cannot see directly. But they do not fully achieve their purpose if they do not bring us to a conscious awareness of God. When a child is baptised, grace is given and the Blessed Trinity make their indwelling. Yet for full Christian maturity this is not enough. As the child grows up, he or she should become more and more aware of how the Three Persons are acting within. Becoming consciously aware of this divine action is another kind of baptism, a “baptism in the Holy Spirit”. Symeon points out that Scripture too distinguishes such a baptism of the Spirit from sacramental baptism. Cornelius and his family were baptised in the Holy Spirit even before they were baptised with water (Acts 10, 44-48). Baptism in the Holy Spirit can and should be experienced by every Christian. It is the natural purpose and outcome of the sacrament. “Be fully assured that even here below the sealing by the Holy Spirit will be given to us in a conscious manner. If the Holy Spirit is in you, you cannot fail to notice his action within you.”

Like myself most people, I am sure, tend to be turned off by Symeon’s ‘holy talk’. In our secular and down-to-earth world we find it hard to give tangible value to expressions such as ‘the sealing by the Spirit’, ‘the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in us’ and even ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ — surely not a happy-clappy charismatic trance, I hear someone groan. But could Symeon’s language hide realities that we know, or are at least vaguely aware of, but cannot name? Like visitors to an Antiques Road Show who admire a piece of porcelain but cannot date it, assess it or put a price on it?

When we analyse Symeon’s writings, we find that he speaks of two forms of awareness. There are moments of ecstasy which occur rarely; there is also an abiding state of awareness that remains with us all the time. The abiding state can be recognised by feelings of peace and joy, by surrendering to the gentle inspirations of the Holy Spirit, by a subtle persuasion of God’s all-pervasive presence. This state of general awareness is strengthened and clarified by the peak experiences we have during ecstatic prayer.

Symeon has left us clear descriptions of what happened to him during such peak experiences. He called them visions of light because in them he perceived God as a light, not an external and visible light, but a light that illumined his mind and set fire to his heart. And once we have met Christ, we continue to “walk in the light” (Jn 8,12). Symeon says that he is convinced many Christians are granted the vision of this light and the touch of God’s love, but they lose sight of them by not remaining sensitive.

God’s Spirit stirs us in a palpable way when we are filled with a sense of wonder, or when we long to be held in God’s love, when we feel close to Christ in the Eucharist, when we decide to forgive others or make sacrifices for them, when we repent for our sins or when we feel deeply happy and at peace. Though these are human feelings, we see and touch God in them if we are aware of God’s dimension. Symeon tells us to make space for that dimension. But did he not go too far by implying we can ‘see God’ all the time?

Surely Symeon must have realised that experiential religion is full of pitfalls too. Emotions can be illusions. The quest for peak experiences can lead to what St. John of the Cross called “spiritual gluttony”. It often ends in disappointment and depression. After a high, we need to be sustained through the nitty-gritty of life by faith, “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11,1). Moreover, not feeling God’s affirming touch does not indicate God’s absence. Jesus felt deserted by his Father when hanging on the cross. Mystics speak of the night of the soul when God does not seem to care and does not appear to respond to our cries. But do such reflections disprove our need of striving to know God directly?

The dark world ‘out there’

Symeon’s focus on mystical experience would also gain in credibility if it went hand in hand with concern about the plight of the poor and the oppressed. Little about this can be found in his work. And yet, first as an official of the imperial court and later as an inhabitant of Constantinople, he must have been acutely aware of the hardships inflicted on millions by the constant wars fought by Emperor Basil II (976-1025) who stopped at nothing to consolidate and expand his rule. Vicious civil wars devastated the provinces for almost ten years. The Armenians and Georgians were subdued in the West. The Muslims were driven from Syria. Often the fighting spilt over in cruelty. In 1014 Basil II defeated the Bulgars at Kleidon, capturing 14,000 men. To teach them a lesson, Basil II ordered all to be blinded — with one eye spared in each 100th man so that these could guide others back to their homes. It earned Basil the honorary title of ‘Bulgar-Slayer’. The colonial wealth of Constantinople came at a cost.

Symeon preached charity and forgiveness, but, as a monk, he also explicitly refused to take on any social or political responsibilities. It was not his job, he said. Like Jesus himself, religious leaders should focus on God and spiritual reform. In his eyes he was doing the right thing. But if Symeon failed to criticise the political powers of his day, it was not for lack of courage. For Symeon’s teaching had brought him in conflict with the religious establishment.

Symeon maintained that theologians who are not filled with the Holy Spirit cannot understand the true message of Scripture. A preacher who does not know God personally, deceives his congregation. And he came close to asserting that bishops and priests who are not deeply spiritual have lost their authority. His chief opponent was Archbishop Stephen, court theologian of the Emperor and the Patriarch. Stephen may well have felt personally attacked in a hymn in which Symeon makes Christ deplore career bishops “who store up wealth, run farms and businesses, relish sumptuous dinners and seek worldly honour and glory”. And Stephen enjoyed support from the Emperor.

Basil II considered politics and religion as two sides of the same coin; literally, for he had coins struck with an image of himself on one face and the Virgin Mary on the reverse. He endowed churches and monasteries, commissioned religious art, and published a calendar of feasts. He promoted the conversion of Russia by persuading Vladimir of Kiev to become a Christian, and supported a Greek candidate for the papacy in Rome. Maintaining ecclesiastical discipline featured as prominently as military control.

Symeon was examined in a number of trials. He was condemned for having made an icon of his spiritual teacher, Symeon the Studite, without authorisation. Exiled from Constantinople in 1009, he was set ashore in a deserted spot near Chrysopolis on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus, with one day’s ration of food. He survived, founded another monastery and was exonerated before his death.

I do not know what to make of St. Symeon. He may have overstated his case. He may have been a one-issue prophet. He may not have sufficiently acknowledged God’s presence to us through others, in the support of community, the intimacy of family life. But his message still haunts me. Could he be right in saying that knowing God personally is a priority for me too? Should I try this Christmas to concentrate on rediscovering God’s light in the core of my being? Listening to God in silence, as I have tried to do before but this time more inwardly, succeeding to make space for ‘just being with God’ within the din of parties and presents? To enjoy, what Symeon called, “a radiant encounter”?