Faith does not
come from books but from spiritual life
At the General Audience
on Wednesday, 16 September , in the Paul VI Audience Hall, the
Holy Father commented on Symeon, an Eastern monk known as the "New
Theologian" who lived in the 10th century. The following is a
translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we pause to reflect
on an Eastern monk, Symeon the New Theologian, whose writings have had a
notable influence on the theology and spirituality of the East, in
particular with regard to the experience of mystical union with God.
Symeon the New Theologian was born in 949 in Galatai, Paphlagonia, in
Asia Minor, into a provincial noble family.
While he was still young he
moved to Constantinople to complete his education and enter the
Emperor's service. However, he did not feel attracted by the civil
career that awaited him. Under the influence of the inner illumination
he was experiencing, he set out in search of someone who would guide him
in the period of doubt and perplexity he was living through and help him
advance on the path of union with God.
He found this spiritual
guide in Symeon the Pious (Eulabes), a simple monk of the
Studios in Constantinople who advised him to read Mark the Monk's
treatise, The Spiritual Law. Symeon the New Theologian found in
this text a teaching that made a deep impression on him:
"If you seek spiritual
healing, be attentive to your conscience," he read in it. "Do all that
it tells you and you will find what serves you". From that very moment,
he himself says, he never went to sleep without first asking himself
whether his conscience had anything with which to reproach him. Symeon
entered the Studite monastery where, however, his mystical experiences
and extraordinary devotion to his spiritual father caused him some
He moved to the small
convent of St Mamas, also in Constantinople, of which three years later
he became abbot, hegumen. There he embarked on an intense quest
for spiritual union with Christ which gave him great authority. It is
interesting to note that he was given the title of the "New Theologian",
in spite of the tradition that reserved this title for two figures, John
the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzus.
misunderstandings and exile but was rehabilitated by Patriarch Sergius
II of Constantinople.
Symeon the New Theologian
spent the last stage of his life at the Monastery of St Marina where he
wrote a large part of his opus, becoming ever more famous for his
teaching and his miracles. He died on 12 March 1022.
The best known of his
disciples, Niceta Stethatos, who collected and copied Symeon's writings,
compiled a posthumous edition of them and subsequently wrote his
Symeon's opus consists of
nine volumes that are divided into theological, gnostic
and practical chapters, three books of catecheses
addressed to monks, two books of theological and ethical treatises
and one of hymns. Moreover, his numerous Letters
should not be forgotten. All these works have had an important place in
the Eastern monastic tradition to our day.
Symeon focused his
reflection on the Holy Spirit's presence in the baptized and on the
awareness they must have of this spiritual reality. "Christian life", he
emphasized, "is intimate, personal communion with God, divine grace
illumines the believer's heart and leads him to a mystical vision of the
Along these lines, Symeon
the New Theologian insisted that true knowledge of God does not come
from books but rather from spiritual experience, from spiritual life.
Knowledge of God is born from a process of inner purification that
begins with conversion of heart through the power of faith and love. It
passes through profound repentance and sincere sorrow for one's sins to
attain union with Christ, the source of joy and peace, suffused with the
light of his presence within us. For Symeon this experience of divine
grace did not constitute an exceptional gift for a few mystics but
rather was the fruit of Baptism in the life of every seriously committed
A point on which to
reflect, dear brothers and sisters! This holy Eastern monk calls us all
to pay attention to our spiritual life, to the hidden presence of God
within us, to the sincerity of the conscience and to purification, to
conversion of heart, so that the Holy Spirit may really become present
in us and guide us.
Indeed, if rightly we are
concerned to care for our physical, human and intellectual development,
it is even more important not to neglect our inner growth. This consists
in the knowledge of God, in true knowledge, not only learned from books
but from within and in communion with God, to experience his help at
every moment and in every circumstance. Basically it is this that Symeon
describes when he recounts his own mystical experience.
Already as a young man,
before entering the monastery, while at home one night immersed in
prayer and invoking God's help to fight temptations, he saw the room
fill with light. Later, when he entered the monastery, he was given
spiritual books for instruction but reading them did not procure for him
the peace that he sought.
He felt, he himself says,
as if he were a poor little bird without wings. He humbly accepted this
situation without rebelling and it was then that his visions of light
began once again to increase.
Wishing to assure himself
of their authenticity, Symeon asked Christ directly: "Lord, is it truly
you who are here?". He heard the affirmative answer resonating in his
heart and was supremely comforted.
"That, Lord", he was to
write later, "was the first time that you considered me, a prodigal son,
worthy of hearing your voice".
However, not even this
revelation left him entirely at peace. He wondered, rather, whether he
ought to consider that experience an illusion. At last, one day an event
occurred that was crucial to his mystical experience.
He began to feel like "a
poor man who loves his brethren" (ptochós
Around him he saw hordes of enemies bent on ensnaring him and doing
him harm, yet he felt within an intense surge of love for them.
How can this be explained?
Obviously, such great love could not come from within him but must well
up from another source. Symeon realized that it was coming from Christ
present within him and everything became clear: he had a sure proof that
the source of love in him was Christ's presence. He was certain that
having in ourselves a love that exceeds our personal intentions suggests
that the source of love is in us.
Thus we can say on the one
hand that if we are without a certain openness to love Christ does not
enter us, and on the other, that Christ becomes a source of love and
Dear friends, this
experience remains particularly important for us today if we are to find
the criteria that tell us whether we are truly close to God, whether God
exists and dwells in us. God's love develops in us if we stay united to
him with prayer and with listening to his word, with an open heart.
Divine love alone prompts us to open our hearts to others and makes us
sensitive to their needs, bringing us to consider everyone as brothers
and sisters and inviting us to respond to hatred with love and to
offence with forgiveness.
In thinking about this
figure of Symeon the New Theologian, we may note a further element of
his spirituality. On the path of ascetic life which he proposed and
took, the monk's intense attention and concentration on the inner
experience conferred an essential importance on the spiritual father of
the monastery. The same young Symeon, as has been said, had found a
spiritual director who gave him substantial help and whom he continued
to hold in the greatest esteem such as to profess veneration for him,
even in public, after his death.
And I would like to say
that the invitation to have recourse to a good spiritual father who can
guide every individual to profound knowledge of himself and lead him to
union with the Lord so that his life may be in ever closer conformity
with the Gospel still applies for all
priests, consecrated and lay people, and especially youth. To go towards
the Lord we always need a guide, a dialogue. We cannot do it with our
thoughts alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our
faith, of finding this guide.
To conclude, we may sum up
the teaching and mystical experience of Symeon the New Theologian in
these words: in his ceaseless quest for God, even amidst the
difficulties he encountered and the criticism of which he was the
object, in the end he let himself be guided by love. He himself was able
to live and teach his monks that for every disciple of Jesus the
essential is to grow in love; thus we grow in the knowledge of Christ
himself, to be able to say with St Paul: "It is no longer I who live,
but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).