[The following was presented at the House of St Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference in January of 2013]
This Conference: Symeon the New Theologian and the Holy Spirit
In addition to saying welcome, and that I am glad that each of you are here, I would also like to pose a few questions for us to consider.
What exactly does a person do at a conference whose explicit purpose is devotion to the Holy Spirit? What activities are had, what sort of an attitude is appropriate? What should one expect, or dare to dream for? How might our devotion continue beyond these fleeting hours? And IF a conference claiming that it is devoted to the Holy Spirit actually met this glorious one…what might happen?
Some might expect to hear the gift of tongues, or to witness powerful healings. Others might anticipate visions or even exorcisms. And I certainly would not rule any of these things out. Last year’s conference, Devotion to the Name of Jesus, left a number of people with the grace of ecstatic experiences, visions, dreams, even the miracle of repentance. But, there is one here tonight that has offered to orient us to our task. There is one who is willing to place our worship, our prayers, our readings, our quiet moments, and even our distractions and fatigue into perspective, that we would be prepared to meet the all-Holy Spirit. This one knows more than any of us, at least for now, about devotion, for he offered not only a weekend, but an entire life to God, and he will urge us to do the same.
Let me tell you a little about him before he speaks. This fellow grew up in a wealthy family, enjoying the benefits that come along with that kind of life. He was well educated, and it wasn’t too long before his family noticed that he was pretty bright, and sent him on to higher schools. Sometime in his early teens, though, he met a man who would change the course of his life forever. This man was a monk. Now, this monk so captivated him (maybe it would be better to say that the Holy Spirit captivated him through this monk) that he knew he would forsake all worldly privilege and give himself entirely to the Lord through the monastic life the remainder of his days. He was totally committed.
This older monk soon became his spiritual father, meaning, in part, that he set a regular schedule of prayer, Scripture, and vigil keeping for him to follow. He even assigned him a few of the church fathers to read (Diadochos of Photiki and Mark the Monk, being two of them). It was during this early period of devotion that he experienced the first of many visions. In these visions, he saw, with his eyes, the light of God.
When he entered the monastery, this fellow was given a new name, as was customary. It is the name that we know him by today. His name is Symeon, and they call him the New Theologian. This Symeon, the one who can say to God, “…seeing you I am wounded in my heart, and I cannot look at You, and I cannot bear not to look. Your beauty is unapproachable, your appearance is inimitable, your glory is incomparable, and who has ever seen You, or who is able to see You fully, You my God….NEVERTHELESS I SEE YOU, as a sun and like a star… guided by the light of your Spirit.” This Symeon, would take up a pen and write some of the most beautiful words about God that anyone has ever written, and they have graced the Church for a thousand years. And we read them tonight.
And so Symeon is here this evening, and he desires to take us somewhere. You will hear him speaking, in these readings, and through the lips of Matt and Lauren and Caroline and Nick and Jeff (readers during the conference)…and maybe even through the Holy Spirit.
What Might Symeon Dare to Say?
Well, this raises an even larger question: what does Symeon say? What could someone like this possibly say? You have already received a taste in the first reading, and it is clear that Symeon doesn’t pull up short. He doesn’t talk about how to improve the present state of our lives. He doesn’t tell us how to vote, or where to shop, or when to change jobs, or how to reconcile our collective pasts. These are important questions, in their own right, but they all pull up short. Symeon does not.
He takes us beyond these things, into the very essence of Truth that will allow all these questions and all others to find their rightful place. He takes us into the very mysteries of God’s presence and power, mercy and grace and love. Symeon wants to tell us what it means to be a Christian.
In order to do this, he tells us about his own life, his visions of God’s light, captivating moments of deep intimacy with God. He speaks of a great longing for God, borne of the Holy Spirit, the one who always drives a person into the open arms of Christ. Symeon desires to make us instruments of the Holy Spirit, so that the melody of our lives, like his, would open the door into another world, revealing Paradise all around us. Like he says, “Seeing you [God] is the zenith of glory.” He beckons us to see these same things, leads us into them, all the while fueled by the one we offer ourselves to this weekend: the Holy Spirit.
So, as we prepare ourselves to receive Symeon’s testimony, we pause: maybe we can go all the way with him, or maybe we can only go so far. But either way, however far the Lord should allow us to go, we will be the better for it, because we will become more like him.
No Accident: the Testimony of the Church & the Mind of a Saint
I said earlier that Symeon would want to take us somewhere. That “somewhere” is into himself. Step with me into Symeon’s mind…look around. What do you see? What kinds of thoughts might contribute to what Symeon is speaking of? What does he think he is doing in this world; in what sort of world does he think he lives? What do you see?
I’ll tell you what I see. I see the words of the Scriptures everywhere. And these Scriptures tell him that he can see God. And they tell him what his life is about in this world. He thinks that he is being purified, so that Jesus may live more fully in him. They tell him where he lives. He believes that he lives in heaven; he thinks that he lives by faith in an age that has not been fully consummated yet. And he believes that as Jesus lives more and more in him, that he serves as one who is able to uncover the reality of that heaven coming into our world even now.
Symeon even thinks that we should think the same things. He says, “…and just as He already granted you to see the world, and the sun, and the light of day, so also shall He deign to illuminate things of the present day and to show you the spiritual world, and to enlighten you by light, by the Triple Sun, Whom if you will see, then you shall know what I say, then you shall know the grace of the Spirit…because even when he is absent, He is present by his power…”
Here’s a tough question: do you believe any of that? Do you believe that you could see God? Do you believe that you could see yourself die…every day, and at the same time see Jesus, God of all that is and ever will be, come to life in you…every day? Do you believe that you could live in heaven and still walk the earth? Symeon invites us to believe nothing less than this.
The truth is that Symeon didn’t believe he experienced the light of God by accident. It wasn’t as if he was stumbling through life, eating cheeseburgers and watching Jersey Shore, and suddenly fell into the light of God. No, there is an inner logic to what Symeon offers us…and its foundation is God’s Word. Symeon had been reading his Scriptures. And he took them seriously.
He knew what had happened to Paul on the Damascus road. He’d read the Sermon on the Mount and he knew that Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” He believed the Gospels when they recalled the experiences of Peter, and James, and John atop the Mount, when they saw, with their very eyes, Jesus transfigured, now a dazzling white, like lightning. He knew that 2 Peter recounts this experience, and that the author places great stock in Peter having been an eyewitness of these things. He knew that Psalm 104 said, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment…”
And so Symeon stands nowhere, if not in the great Tradition of the Church, as she has received the teaching and even the very life of Jesus through the apostles, and prophets, and saints, joined as they are to Christ in the Holy Spirit. If you want your mind to look like Symeon’s, then you must read your Bible.
But Symeon wasn’t content to stop with his mind. He wanted to offer everything he had to God. One way he did this was by praying the Jesus prayer, in the hope that his mind would descend into his heart and that he might cry out for God’s mercy with his entire being. In older days, the heart was seen as the very center of a person. Symeon wanted Jesus to come, not just into his mind, but into his heart.
So we might ask, what sort of heart does Symeon have?
It’s a humble one. He knows he can’t ‘see’ God on his own. And it’s a repentant one. He knows of his weaknesses. And he continually offers them to God in repentance. Symeon’s life has become a conversion, every day a little more of himself given over to God. His heart is one that longs to see his soul purified. It wants Jesus more than anything: more than money or power or fame or fortune, more than he wants to be liked, more than love or lust or even life itself. Symeon’s heart longs for Jesus.
He writes, “…the repentant, seeing their soul purified, receives the fire of desire and the fire of yearning, of a longing to look upon the soul thoroughly purified… [and] purification is endless for such as these. For the more I shall be purified and illumined, I the wretched one, the more also shall be seen the Spirit Who purifies me.”
Complete devotion, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, begins with repentance. It’s result is a burning fire of desire, and of yearning…not the out-of-control yearning that feeds the passions and seeks to destroy, but the laser-focused, long-burning intensity of one who craves to see their soul completely purified. Symeon says that this yearning is the Holy Spirit. And when you discover this desire in YOUR heart, it is the Spirit working in you. If you don’t experience this great yearning, don’t worry, only repent, and you will receive it soon enough.
Now, I don’t know how far Symeon’s soul has been purified, but I know that it has been purified a lot. I know this because he prays so differently than I do. His capacity to commune with God is enormous. Let me share with you a prayer of Symeon’s, to the God who both made and purified his soul. Listen to what he says about the Holy Spirit, and feel free to wonder at the kind of soul God desires to give you.
“Give to me a word, my God who gave to me a soul. The divine Spirit, being God, whomsoever he may find within himself, He reforms them completely. He renews them, and paradoxically makes them something new. How, and in what way does the Spirit not in the least partake of their filth? Just as the fire does not partake of the blackness of iron, yet it gives to iron a share of all its properties. So also, the Divine Spirit, being incorruptible, gives incorruptibility, and being immortal, He gives immortality, and being never-setting light, He turns everyone into light in which He shall [dwell], and being life to everyone, He provides life for them. And as He is the same nature as Christ, likewise the same essence, and [the] same glory, and being united with Christ, He renders them absolutely like Christ himself. For the Master is not jealous that mortals should be seen equal to Himself by divine grace. And He does not deem his servants unworthy to be like Him, but He is delighted and rejoices seeing us transformed from human beings into such divine beings, according to grace…”
Symeon believes that the Spirit, as God, is sent by God to make us like Jesus. God is not jealous to make us just as he is by grace.
Ultimately, when we journey into Symeon, who has become a Temple of the Holy Spirit, we cannot help but to see the work of the Spirit, giving incorruptibility, immortality, even a share in the divine nature; we see him filling Symeon with total joy and total peace, the ability to be light and life for other people, all because of God’s love for us.
And it is impossible not to stand in awe of the Spirit, I think.
We all know that the Bible begins with an account of God’s creation. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.’” And there it is. The Spirit of God moved to bring order from chaos, elegance from emptiness, making beautiful in its own way each creature he touched…it’s what he does to each of us. Job says, “By his breath (ruach or spirit) the skies became fair,” but, “these are but the outer fringe of his works,” which speak only, “the whisper we hear of him” in full glory (Job 26:13-14).
The Power of the Spirit
The Spirit is incredibly powerful. He makes things, and makes them beautiful. The Holy Spirit works through all history, visible, in the days of old, for instance, in the lives of the judges, kings, and prophets of the Old Testament. One church father wrote, “Patriarchs, prophets, priests, and all before and after them who sought the way of holiness were being quickened by the same Spirit. The Spirit came upon…Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses…Deborah, Job…Samuel, David, and the prophets.”
But to the Son, as John reminds us, the Father has given the Spirit without limit (John 3:34). Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit fueled his growth, descended upon him at his baptism, drove him into the wilderness to be tempted, but guided and strengthened him to withstand it. He empowered Jesus in his proclamation, in his ministry of mercy and healing. Jesus said, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” The Spirit was with him on the cross, raised him from the dead, and empowered his ascension.
And Romans says that if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you (8:11).” It was in this way that the Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, fulfilling the prophecy of Joel, making them Christ’s body, the Church, and empowering them to carry out Christ’s mission here on the earth, until he returns again. The Spirit gives us Jesus and gives us his power.
To whom shall we turn?
If we want to see the power of the Spirit, who gives everything good that we have and produces in us every good that we are; if we want to see these things, and see what we are to become, look at the prophets. Dare to ask, who is Elijah, that he could speak God’s word to his world, exhaust himself completely to the point of death, and then be found by a still, small voice in the wind. Dare to ask, who are the apostles? Who are these men, out catching fish, who upon seeing Jesus cast down everything they have and everything that they are, nets and all, and follow him. Who are these fishermen who turn the world on its head, healing the sick and the lame, converting an entire empire by their capacity to love Jesus, who gives them the strength to love everyone else?
If you want to see the power of the Spirit, look at Jesus, our Lord, whose every moment was a demonstration of the Spirit’s power in his life, whose living, and dying, whose words and actions all perfectly reflected the Spirit that enlivened his body.
And maybe even look at Symeon, our New Theologian, who like Elijah says that he endured all that he could: nakedness, detachment, separation from the world, poverty, humility, and then received as a faint and tiny ray, love snatching him into ecstasy. Look at Symeon, who like the apostles, set down his nets, forsaking all the world could offer him, and received the world in return, living only for Jesus, and therefore giving Jesus to everyone else. Look at Symeon, who believes that the Spirit is turning him into Jesus, by grace.
As we close, here, perhaps you have seen a problem. Perhaps you have realized that, well, Symeon was called to be a monk, and I’m called to be a veterinarian, or a firefighter, or a teacher, or a baker, or a candlestick maker. So Symeon’s life couldn’t be for me. To that I would reply: Yes it is. You are a Christian, a Christ-bearer. You bear Christ in your body.
Symeon was not called the “New Mystic.” He was called the “New Theologian.” This was a title given him by the Church because the Church understood his writings not to be an obscure witness to the monastic life. But she named him theologian because his writings were for the whole Church; they typified the Christian life.
Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church, one plagued with an abundance of sin, refused to call them anything but saints. You, in Jesus Christ, should refuse to see yourself as anything but a saint too.
You are Symeon…or, you are Mother Teresa, and you will impact the world no less. Or, you are St. Augustine, St. Patrick, St. John. You are the unknown saint, too humble to be named. You…I…just haven’t realized it yet, but nothing is impossible with God. And because you are the Church, you are even Mary, if you prefer to think of it that way, because the Holy Spirit has come upon YOU, and now you bear the Son of God in your body. And there is only one thing left to do: give birth to him!
So what are you going to do at this conference, filled, like it is, with a room full of saints? I hope that you will listen to St. Symeon, listen to St. John. Make their prayers your own; allow their lives to call you to something previously unimaginable. Risk devoting yourself to the Holy Spirit this weekend. Approach him with humility, in repentance, and see if you don’t receive a longing beyond measure. Risk asking him to purify your soul, even if this means that you must die. Because in your dying, you will discover that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
If you devote yourself to the Holy Spirit, its safe to say that you are going to meet Jesus. And you may even become him, by grace.
May all glory, honor, power, and might, be to you Almighty God, both now and forever. Do with us as you will, O Spirit. We love you. We are yours. For who is like God? Amen.