When I first encountered this book, I was an American Anglican, raised a southern Baptist. As such, I did not begin to appreciate Symeon's Discourses until well into this book. By the time I finished it, I was talking to other people about how much contemporary American Christians have to learn from this dedicated abbot from tenth and early eleventh century Constantinople. The Discourses are valuable reading for American Christians who want to deepen their concept of discipleship.
Symeon the New Theologian is highly respected in the Orthodox Church. However, his name will be unfamiliar to many western Christians. Only in the past decades, translators and publishers have made his writings accessible to the English speaing public. In 1980, Paulist Press published this English translation from Symeon's Greek, together with an extensive introduction by George Maloney S.J. and preface by Basile Krivocheine. The translation by C.J. deCatanzaro is in eloquent, fiery English that is a pleasure to read.
What initially bothered me about Symeon is the same thing that I eventually realized makes his work beneficial. He seemed to have read only that part of the Bible that contemporary American Christians avoid. Specifically, he wrote extensively on the subject of repentence. If there is a passage anywhere in the Bible about repentance, Symeon found it. He was also zealous about the Holy Spirit. However, he did not write much about grace.
It finally occurred to me that Symeon was writing from an extreme in the theological spectrum from the past 2,000 years of church history, while contemporary Americans are living at the opposite end of that spectrum. There is much that we can learn from Symeon to balance our all too extremist "easy believism."
The importance of the Discourses began to sink in while I read Discourse Number IX "On Works of Mercy." I thought about my own financial excesses while reading that God counts our possessions as our own , "entrusted to us by God for the benefit of our fellow servants" so that we are "scattering them abroad generously with joy and magnanimity, not reluctantly or under compulsion." (Section 7). This is followed by typically eloquent writing of this deeply zealous man in Section 10, illustrative of his lessons on repentence: "Repentance gives rise to the tear from the depths of the soul; the tear cleanses the heart and wipes away great sins. When these have been blotted out through tears the soul finds itself in the comfort of the Spirit of God and is watered by streams of sweetest compunction. By these it is spiritually fructified day by day so that it produces the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22f.) and in due time yields them like an abundant harvest of grain as an unfailing supply of food for the incorruptible and eternal life of the soul." (Section 10). The day after I read that, I listened as a well known Evangelical radio minister spoke about the loss of emphasis on repentance in the contemporary church. I then began to appreciate Symeon on a new level.
I highly recommend that readers unfamiliar with Symeon read the introduction and preface before venturing into his text. His life is a wonderful lesson on leadership and perseverance.
As a young man, Symeon worked in Constantinople, managing the household of a patrician and possibly even working as a diplomat, perhaps serving in the palaces of the wealthy eastern city. He was the son of provincial nobility, described as a physically beautiful man. His familiarity with the splendid wealth of the culture are evident in some of his writing, such as Discourse XI, section 6. There, he compares feasting on the Word of God with attending a "sumptuous banquet" where the guests were encouraged to eat their fill from " and to take food home to share with their friends or the poor the following day.
While working in the secular world, he went home every evening and spent a long time in prayer. At the age of 27, after a 13 year wait, Symeon entered the Stoudion Monastery of Constantinople, a cooly formalistic intellectual community that he had wanted because his spiritual advisor was there. There was one major problem with that: Symeon's hot zeal did not fit in. His experience of Christianity was one of personal, intense worship. His faith was one drawn from the Bible and the early church fathers. It was not an intellectual endeavor. Symeon was immediately rejected. He was asked to leave after the first few months. Symeon spent most of his life reforming a decadent monastery and developing his discourses. A new generation of monks then rejected his asceticism. He spent the last years of his life editing his writings with the help of one of his disciples.
Despite the rejection, in retrospect, Symeon may have been the most important theologian of the tenth century whose writing still survives. Together with Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvest II) and St. Anselm in the west, his writing gives a rare glimpse into the spiritual and intellectual life of a few lights that shown at the turn of the last millineum. This author whose culture was so vastly different from our own, and whose church was far removed from the contemporary church, deserves a careful reading to balance what is missing from our faith.