January 26, 2016

Saint Symeon the Ancient

St. Symeon the Ancient (Feast Day - January 26)


You did away with the dirt Ancient Symeon,
The head of the ancient enemy you reduced to the dirt.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus in Syria

If one were deliberately to omit Symeon the Ancient* and consign the memory of his philosophy to oblivion, one would doubtless not escape a charge of injustice and malice, as neither being willing to praise what is worthy of praise nor offering what is worthy of love for imitation to those wishing to benefit; I myself not from fear of accusation but through desire to praise shall make the narration of this man's way of life. He persevered for the greatest possible length of time in embracing the eremetical life and dwelling in a tiny cave; he enjoyed no solace from men, for he chose to live alone, but discoursed persistently with the God of the universe. It was edible plants that he made his food. This toil won him also the gift of rich grace from above, even to the extent of exercising authority over the most bold and fearsome of wild animals. And this was manifest not only to the pious but also to unbelieving Jews.

Because of some need they were journeying to one of the forts that lie outside our own inhabited region. There came torrential rain, a fierce storm beat down, and they lost their way, being unable to see ahead; they wandered in the desert, finding neither village nor cave nor traveler. Storm-tossed on mid-continent like those on board a ship, they came upon, as on some harbor, the cave of the godly Symeon and caught sight of a man dirty and filthy and wearing on his shoulders a ragged goat's hair cloak. As soon as he saw them, he greeted them - for he was courteous - and asked the cause of their visit. They recounted everything and asked to be told the road leading to the fort. 'Wait,' he said, 'and I shall give you guides immediately to show you the road you want.' They did as he bid and took a rest. While they were sitting down, there arrived two lions, not looking ferocious but as if fawning on a master and intimating their servitude; with a gesture he ordered them to escort the men and lead them to the road which they had left when they lost their way.

Let no one think this story a myth, for I have as witnesses to its truth the common enemies of the truth - for it is those who benefited from this good deed who persisted in celebrating it. This was recounted to me by the great James, who said he had been present when they recounted the miracle to the inspired Maron. If someone disbelieved Jews witnessing to a Christian miracle, how would he not be called with good reason more unbelieving than Jews - if, while those who are even hostile are worsted none the less and yield to the rays of the truth, those who are thought to be well-disposed and to share the faith do not even believe their enemies when they testify to the power of grace? As a result of such miracles this man of God became famous and attracted many of the neighboring barbarians - this desert is inhabited by those who boast of Ishmael as their ancestor.

In his desire for quiet he was compelled to leave his cave. At the end of a long journey he reached the mountain called Amanus; this mountain, previously burdened with much polytheist madness, he cultivated with many miracles of every kind and planted the piety that is now practiced on it. But to recount them all would be extremely laborious and for me perhaps impossible. I shall mention just one, offering it as an image of the way he worked miracles like the Apostles and Prophets, and leave it to my readers to form a notion therefrom of the strength of the grace he had received.

It was summer and harvest-time, and the sheaves were being carried to the threshing-floor. A certain man, dissatisfied with the lawful fruits of his toil and coveting those of another, stole from the sheaves of his neighbor and tried with these to increase his own heap. But immediately the Godhead declared sentence against the theft: lightning struck and the threshing-floor went up in flames. This wretch repaired to the man of God, who dwelt not far from the village, and recounted the disaster, while trying to hide the theft. But when ordered to tell the truth, he confessed the theft -for the misfortune compelled him to accuse himself - and this man of God commanded him to end the punishment by ending the injustice. 'For if,' he said, 'you repay those sheaves, this fire sent by God will be extinguished'. And so you could see the man running and presenting the stolen ears to the man he had wronged, and the fire being quenched without water by the prayer and intercession of the godly old man.6 This event not only filled the local inhabitants with awe, but also made the whole city hasten there - I mean Antioch, for to this city the place is subject - as one person begged to be freed from demonic fury, another for an end to a fever, another for a cure to some other trouble. Without stinting he applied the streams of the grace that dwelt in him.

Longing for quiet yet again, however, he conceived the desire to withdraw to Mount Sinai. On learning this, many excellent men who pursued the same philosophy assembled together in their desire to share the journey with him. After traveling for many days, when they reached the desert of Sodom, they saw from a distance the hands of a man stretching upwards out of the depths, and at first they suspected a demonic deception; but when after earnest prayer they still saw the same thing, they set off to the spot, and observed a tiny hole such as foxes are wont to make when they contrive dens for themselves. But they saw no one appear there. Hearing the sound of feet, the man who had his hands stretched out had hidden away within the den. The old man leaned down and besought him at length to let himself be seen, if he had a human nature and it was not some deceptive demon who contrived this appearance. 'For we,' he said, 'in our pursuit of the ascetic life and longing for quiet are wandering in this desert, wishing to adore the God of all things on Mount Sinai, on which he made his own epiphany to give the tablets of the Law to his servant Moses - not that we think that the Godhead has been circumscribed in place (for we hear him saying, "I fill heaven and earth, says the Lord," and "he contains the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants in it as grasshoppers") - but since to those who love fervently not only is their beloved thrice desired, but lovable too are the places that have been graced by their presence and frequenting.'

While the old man spoke to this effect, the man who had hidden raised himself from the den. He was wild to look at, with unkempt hair, shriveled face, the limbs of his body reduced to a skeleton, dressed in some dirty rags sewn together with palm shoots. After having welcomed them and given the greeting of peace, he asked who they were, where they had come from and where they were going. The old man replied to his questioning and asked in turn where he had come from and why he had chosen this way of life. 'I too had the same longing,' he said, 'that makes you depart. I had made a friend share this journey who was like-minded and had the same goal as I did; we had bound each other with an oath to let not even death break up our fellowship. Now it happened that he came to the end of life on the journey, in this place. Bound by the oath, I dug as well as I could, and committed his body to burial; by this grave I dug another tomb for myself, and here I await the end of life and offer to the Master the customary liturgy. I have as food the dates which a certain brother was detailed to bring to me by my Protector.' While this was being said, there appeared at a distance a lion. Those with the old man were filled with alarm; but when the man sitting on the den saw it, he stood up and gestured to the lion to go across to the other side. It immediately obeyed and came up carrying the bunch of dates. It then turned and went back again and at a distance from the men lay down and went to sleep. So he distributed the dates among all of them, and joined with them in prayer and psalmody; at the end of the liturgy at break of day he took leave of them, and sent them on their way awe-struck at this novel spectacle.

If anyone does not believe what I have said, let him remember the life of the great Elijah, and the ministering of the ravens who were regular in bringing him bread in the morning and meat in the evening. It is easy for the Creator of the universe to contrive all kinds of ways to look after his own: so he protected Jonah for three nights and days in the belly of the whale, rendered the lions in the pit awe-struck at Daniel, and made the lifeless fire act rationally in illuminating those within while burning those without. But I am doing something superfluous in offering proofs of God's power.

It is related that, when they reached the mountain they desired, this wonderful old man, on the very spot where Moses was counted worthy to see God and beheld him as far as was possible for human nature, knelt down and did not get up until he heard a divine voice announcing to him the Master's favor. He had spent the whole cycle of a week bent double in this way and taking not a scrap of food when the voice sounded and bade him take what was offered him and eat it willingly. Stretching out his hand he found three apples; and on taking his fill of them, as their giver had enjoined, he recovered all his strength and, naturally enough, greeted his companions with gladness of heart. So he returned home rejoicing and exulting at having heard a divine voice and enjoyed food that was likewise a gift from God.

On his return he built two philosophic retreats: one on the ridge of the mountain we mentioned above, the other on the very skirts of the mountain-foot beneath. He assembled athletes of virtue in each, and was the gymnastic trainer of both groups - teaching the assaults of the adversary and enemy, promising the favor of the Umpire, urging them to be confident, filling them with spirit, and telling them to be modest towards their fellow-men, while bidding them show self-assurance towards the enemy. Such were his teaching and life, and such the miracles he wrought, as he emitted effulgence of every kind, when he came to the end of his life of labor and migrated to the life without old age or sorrow, leaving behind unquenchable glory and a memory lasting for ever. His blessing, while he was still alive, was enjoyed by my blessed and thrice-blessed mother, who often related to me many of the stories about him. And I myself now beg to gain his powerful intercession, and know that I shall gain it; for he will assuredly grant my request, in imitation of the Master's love for men.


* Symeon the Elder was at first a hermit in the desert to the east of Cyrus, and then moved to Mt Amanus (just north of Antioch), which he converted to Christianity, and where he eventually founded two monasteries. Towards the end of his life he used to bless Theodoret's mother, but apparently died before he could do the same to the infant Theodoret. This establishes c. 390 as his date of death. Since witnesses to a miracle he performed before moving to Mt Amanus were still alive and active in the 390s, his move to this district would have occurred around 370. He is listed in Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. IV.28(25) as among the holy men of the Antiochene region in the time of the emperor Valens (364-378).

From the A History of the Monks of Syria.