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Symeon the New Theologian : biography

949 - 12 March 1022

Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022 AD) was a Byzantine Christian monk and poet who was the last of three saints canonized by the Eastern Orthodox church and given the title of "Theologian" (along with John the Apostle and Gregory of Nazianzus). "Theologian" was not applied to Symeon in the modern academic sense of theological study, but to recognize someone who spoke from personal experience of the vision of God. One of his principal teachings was that humans could and should experience theoria (literally "contemplation," or direct experience of God).

Symeon was born into the Byzantine nobility and given a traditional education. At age fourteen he met Symeon the Studite, a renowned monk of the Monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, who convinced him to give his own life to prayer and asceticism under the elder Symeon's guidance. By the time he was thirty, Symeon the New Theologian became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Mammas, a position he held for twenty-five years. He attracted many monks and clergy with his reputation for sanctity, though his teachings brought him into conflict with church authorities, who would eventually send him into exile. His most well known disciple was Nicetas Stethatos who wrote the Life of Symeon.

Symeon is recognized as the first Byzantine mystic to freely share his own mystical experiences. Some of his writings are included in the Philokalia, a collection of texts by early Christian mystics on contemplative prayer and hesychast teachings. Symeon wrote and spoke frequently about the importance of experiencing directly the grace of God, often talking about his own experiences of God as divine light. Another common subject in his writings was the need of putting oneself under the guidance of a spiritual father. The authority for many of his teachings derived from the traditions of the Desert Fathers, early Christian monks and ascetics. Symeon's writings include Hymns of Divine Love, Ethical Discourses, and The Catechetical Discourses.


After Symeon's death his writings were kept alive by small groups of followers, eventually becoming one of the central teachings of the hesychast movement. Many copies of his works were made in the following centuries, particularly around the 14th century, and among the Eastern Orthodox monasteries on Mt. Athos. His recognition has always been greater outside the official church, its calendar and liturgy. Historians credit this to his zealous personality, his criticism of the church hierarchy, his emphasis on direct experience of God, and some of his unorthodox teachings—including his belief that an unordained monk who had the direct experience of God was empowered to absolve others of their sins.Turner 1990, pp. 247–248.

Symeon wrote in a similar style and taught the traditional views of several early Christian fathers and hesychasts, including St. Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Mark the Hermit. Where Symeon differed from his predecessors was in his transparent and open sharing of his most interior experiences.deCatanzaro 1980, p. 13. deCatanzaro writes that Symeon is so open in his writings, compared to his predecessors, that "his writings become a mirror of the man in a greater sense than do most spiritual writings." Symeon was the first Byzantine mystic to freely share those experiences, which were given in the context of his teaching that the direct experience of God was something to which all Christians could aspire.deCatanzaro 1980, p. 2.

One of Symeon's catechesis, On Faith, along with a composite work titled One Hundred and Fifty-Three Practical and Theological Texts, are included in the Philokalia, a collection of texts by early Christian mystics.Palmer 1999, pp. 13–14. Another text in the Philokalia, titled The Three Methods of Prayer is also attributed to Symeon—it describes a method of practicing the Jesus Prayer that includes direction on correct posture and breathing while reciting the prayer. It is extremely unlikely that he wrote that text—some scholars attribute it to Nikiphoros the Monk, while others believe it was written by disciples of Symeon.Palmer 1999, pp. 64–65.

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