St Symeon the New Theologian sees God

st-symeon-the-new-theologianOften when one thinks of the essence/energies distinction in God, one thinks primarily of St Gregory Palamas, since the issue rose to the level of controversy during his days. However, the distinction, and the vision of the uncreated light, have been discussed and addressed by many Fathers since at least the 4th century.

In this venerable line of tradition, we find very moving passages in the writings of St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). We commemorate his Feast day this Sunday, Oct. 12. Here’s an excerpt of his writings On the Mystical Life, where he gives a very vivid account of encountering God.

Here St Symeon describes his experience in the context of relating it to his monastic elder. It is almost as though what was prefigured in faint shadows in the life of the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1-10) comes to fulfillment in a face to face, as it were, vision of God. And that does not leave him unchanged.

This, invariably, is just what occurs concerning the invisible God. Whenever someone sees Him revealed, he sees light. While on the one hand he is amazed at what he has seen, on the other he does not know immediately who it is who has appeared, yet he dares not ask Him. And how could he? He is unable even to lift up his eyes and look on that grandeur. With fear and trembling he looks instead, as it were, at his own feet, knowing fully only that it is Someone Who has appeared before his face.

And if there happens to be some other man who has told him beforehand about such things, as having known God from before, he goes to this man [St Symeon’s elder] and says: “I have seen.” And the other says: “What did you see, child?” “Light, O my father, so sweet, sweet! So much so, father, that my reason has not the strength to tell you.”

And, while he is saying this, his heart leaps and pounds, and catches on fire with longing for what he has seen. Then, with many warm tears, he begins to say again: “That light, father, appeared to me. The walls of my cell immediately vanished and the world disappeared, fleeing I think from before His face, and I remained alone in the presence alone of the light. And I do not know, father, if this my body was there, too. I do not know if I was outside of it. For a while I did not know that I carry and am clothed with a body. And such great joy was in me and is with me now, great love and longing both, that I was moved to streams of tears like rivers, just like now as you see.”

The other then answers and says: “It is He, child.” And, at this word, he sees Him again and, little by little, comes to be completely purified and, purified, grows bold and asks that One Himself, and says: “My God, is it You?”

And He answers and says: “Yes, I am He, God, Who for your sake became man; and behold, I have made you, as you see, and shall make you, god.”

– St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), On the Mystical Life (Vol. 2), pp. 53-54

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One comment on “St Symeon the New Theologian sees God

  1. Alan Orsborn says:

    This beautiful reflection reminds me of your post of the vision of the Uncreated Light of St. Seraphim of Sarov, which I was surprised to see was not listed as a related post. 😉 It is also very timely for me. I have been told in a general way that the idea of God’s essence and energies appeared early in the thinking of the Fathers, but I had also seen that these ideas are most often associated with St. Gregory Palamas (14th century) as you mentioned. It’s important to me because I recently came across Philip Sherrard’s perspective that as the Western Church gradually abandoned the idea of Christ working in His Church through His divine energies, and more and more perceived God only through His transcendent essence, it created a kind of vacuum that eventually made an opening for papal infallibility and the papal magisterium (Great Schism, 1054), innovations in Church thinking. Further innovations occurred in the West when the Reformers replaced papal teaching authority with the abstraction sola scriptura, inaugurating the long, sad process of Protestant fission, but unfortunately not returning Christ as ruling head of His Church through His divine energies. St. Symeon (949-1022) and your mention of discussion of God’s essence and energies as far back as the 4th century would I think support Sherrard’s view. So thank you, now I have a more specific historical answer if I am ever interrogated by the questioning ones.

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