One of those who passed with surprising speed from the secular sphere to the monastic life was Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022)… He describes himself in his writings as having led a dissolute life, but having been guided by a wise old monk, named Symeon Eulabes from the Stoudite monastery in Constantinople.
The old man advised him to say some prayers regularly each night, and in the course of saying them he described how a remarkable visionary experience happened to him, such that he only came back to his senses as day dawned, and he realized he had spent the entire night in ecstasy. He described how he had seen a radiant light suffuse his room as he prayed.
As his eyes grew accustomed to it, he realized that this great light was his spiritual father Symeon, who was engaged in the act of interceding for him before an even greater light (Christ), whom he had not been able to see at ﬁrst. Through this experience he came to understand that he stood within a great chain of God’s mercy, wrapped in the light of the divine presence which dissolved all sin, but was mediated only to open and repentant hearts, and normally only through the mediation of one disciple to another…
Symeon adopted the same monastic name as his spiritual father, and within three years was head of his own monastery. His spiritual doctrine stressed elements of the old Syrian tradition of Isaac of Nineveh, and he preached it to many of his community who had been monks for many years before him. His whole life and doctrine proved immensely controversial, and in the end he was exiled from Constantinople by the emperor and the patriarchal court.
Even from exile he continued to write poems and discourses on the spiritual life. One collection of hymns, which he wrote for his new monastic foundation in exile (The Hymns of Divine Love), is among the most remarkable examples of all mystical literature. It celebrates Christ the Light in the style of love poetry. There is a most personal sense of the presence of God, quite different from all that is found in antique literature.
In many respects, Symeon anticipates the new sense of mystical closeness with Jesus that is seen more and more in the Middle Ages. All his writing denies that mystical union with God is exclusively reserved for the canonized saint of the hagiography, or reserved to the unusual times of life, but is rather like air and water for a living creature, the substantial meaning of all existence. For Symeon, the highest degree of mystical union comes about when the soul is deeply conscious of its sinfulness and its need.
His writings were kept in manuscripts on Mount Athos and became the favored reading of many monks there. The passionate Jesus-centered devotion of Symeon made it seem to many Athonite monks in the fourteenth century that they, in their turn, had found a spiritual guide who had anticipated their Hesychastic revival, and anticipated them in stressing the elements of light-ﬁlled transﬁguration and deeply personal affectivity as keys to spiritual renewal.
From A. Holder (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, here edited by ELLOPOS.