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October 12, 2021

Words of Complete Immortality: Saint Symeon the New Theologian (Photios Kontoglou)

Sketch of St. Symeon the New Theologian by Photios Kontoglou
By Photios Kontoglou

I would have written today on another subject, which is not religious. But I received many letters and phone calls from readers of "Eleutheria" expressing their strong desire to read more about the Orthodox Fathers and their books, because they find no such spiritual food anywhere. Well, I changed my purpose and I will write about Saint Symeon the New Theologian.

Truly, unaware are those who have not tasted from this immortal fountain, I mean the words of the Holy Fathers, which many consider to be priestly chatter.

The discourses of Saint Symeon the New Theologian are read in Europe today more than any other patristic book, from what has been translated into foreign languages, as I wrote a few days ago. This saint has a certain grace to touch the most elusive and deepest mysteries of religion. It is as if he is pointing it out to you, the blessed one, with his finger, because he was found worthy to live in the inexpressible Light of Christ, being still in the body.

He was born in Paphlagonia, located in Asia Minor, in the area of the Black Sea, to parents who had their own way of doing things. Because one of his uncles held a high office in the palace, he was sent to the City to be near him, to learn letters and to take his place later. But Symeon did not want to learn many letters, because he thought they were useless, and he always hung out with monks and poor hermits, who went down to the City and wandered around like dervishes. In them he found what he longed for.

As he grew up a little, he went and became a monk in the Monastery of Stoudios, submissive to a holy elder, who was also called Symeon, and he governed him strictly. There, living like a fleshless angel, he reached great heights that revealed who he wanted to become in the end. He was accustomed to shutting himself in a small church that had a chest full of bones. There he said his prayers.

In the meantime, his father went to the monastery to retrieve him, and begged him with tears to come with him, but Symeon did not want to, and he wrote on paper for his father to distribute his inheritance to the poor, while he remained in the monastery, where he increased the toughening up of his body, and his obedience to his spiritual father, resulting in entirely not having his own will. And he was so devoted to his elder that there was nothing he could say that he would not do, even if he told him to fall into the sea. He revered his elder as a saint, as he was a saint, and after his death he wrote a service and hymns to him, and commissioned an iconographer to paint his icon, which he put in the church with a lamp, and celebrated on the day of his repose.

For this honor he gave to the elder Symeon, he endured many sufferings, exiles, torments and persecutions by some unbelieving and hypocritical bishops, who called him illiterate, they who were considered literate, like today some theologians educated in Europe despise the simple and illiterate monks.

In the meantime, his father did not rest, and made every effort to leave the monastic life and get him to marry. Seeing that his disciple could not find peace, the elder Symeon took him to another monastery, of Saint Mamantos, and handed him over to the abbot Anthony, famous for his virtue. There he became a model and example of the monastic state, and in time he was ordained a priest, and as soon as Anthony died, the brothers elected him abbot, who whenever he liturgized, they saw the Holy Spirit descending like fire on his head. They saw this awesome sign for forty-eight years.

However, with all his holiness, there were ungodly people who tortured him in every way, cursing him and saying that he was a hypocrite and accusing him of making his elder a saint and celebrating him. Blessed Symeon forgave them, fighting them with spiritual weapons.

His life was full of temptations and persecutions, and to report them all on this narrow strip of paper would not be sufficient, but I would need a whole book. So to summarize, I will put below only some great incidents that show his holiness that were written by his worthy disciple Niketas Stethatos.

Saint Symeon had a young monk named Nikephoros, and he had raised him himself. This Nikephoros told Niketas some miracles, with the simplicity he had in intellect and language. "My elder loved me," he says, "so much so that he would not let anyone else, other than me, stay with him in his cell. As I lay there, one night, in a corner of the cell, as if someone had woken me up, and I saw a terrible spectacle. Near the ceiling of the cell there hung an icon of the Theotokos which they call Deisis, before which there burned a lamp. Well, facing this icon, I saw four forearms above the ground, the Saint standing in the air, with his arms raised, praying, shining all over like light. I, out of fear, pulled myself under my covering and covered myself with a blanket. After dawn, I secretly told the Saint what I saw. And the Saint sighed and ordered me not to tell anyone."

Once again he saw the same miracle, just before the saint's death:

"As the time for his death approached, the blessed one had bad dysentery, and he was tormented for many days, unable to move on his own unless we turned him from one side to another. While he was in this state, he ordered me to remain alone with him.          

One night, as I was sleeping lying on a chest, it was as if someone had shaken me, and I woke up, and I see that blessed one, whom we had turned a little while ago, standing in the air four forearms above the ground praying. And remembering the first time I had seen him like this, I admired his holiness, thinking how he, who could not move, got up from the mattress, and while wearing a heavy body, stood in the air. So I fell asleep, woke up again, and saw him fall on his bed and cover himself.

As soon as it dawned I revealed it to him, and he bound me not to tell it to anyone before he died."

This Saint, who was fought against hard in his life by wicked people, and was despised as illiterate by the scholars of his time, was honored while alive, but more after his death, which he shined with his writings and illumined the souls of the people, and he was named "the New Theologian", according to the words of the prophet who says: "And in the time of their visitation they shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble."

And you, whoever you are, ponder the mysteries of God: That poor and despised monk, who lived in 1000 AD, that is, 900 years before us, after being read with thirst by myriads of people of his time, tore like a fiery meteor, through these nine centuries, which devoured and threw into the abyss of oblivion myriads of people, many of whom thought they would remain immortal, and reached our own time, radiant and indestructible like the sun, to give life and hope to today's people, who found him after looking for him, as if he was the most precious and immortal treasure.

Today, at a time when the sinful life that humans live has paralyzed almost all the spiritual powers that God has placed in man, and made him cling to bestial passions and surrender to Mammon, today a multitude of souls are running to drink from the inexhaustible and immortal water that gushes from the words of Saint Symeon, and which is very refreshing, even though the source from where it comes from is 1000 years away from us, in the darkness of time.

His sanctified books are read with thirst in every country, and will be read more and more, in languages in which we strive to translate our writings, which will be buried the day after tomorrow into oblivion, with all our innovations and difficult-to-understand and complex theories.

Because everything we write - philosophies, literatures, scientific theories - comes from our material mind, "the mind of our flesh", as the apostle Paul says, and that is why they have death in them, while everything Saint Symeon wrote is "complete immortality".

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.