Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius are honored by Eastern and Western Christians alike, and the importance of their work in preaching and worshipping in the language of the people is recognized on all sides.

Cyril (originally Constantine) and Methodius were brothers, from a noble family in Thessalonika, a district in northeastern Greece. Constantine was the younger, born in about 827, and his brother Methodius in about 825. They both entered the priesthood. Constantine undertook a mission to the Arabs, and then became a professor of philosophy at the imperial school in Constantinople and librarian at the cathedral of Santa Sophia. Methodius became governor of a district that had been settled by Slavs. Both brothers then retired to monastic life. In about 861, the Emperor Michel III sent them to work with the Khazars northeast of the Black Sea in the Dnieper-Volga region of what was later Russia. They learned the Khazar language and made many converts, and discovered what were believed to be relics of Clement, an early Bishop of Rome.

In about 863, Prince Rotislav, the ruler of Great Moravia (an area including much of what was later Czecko-Slovakia), asked the emperor for missionaries, specifying that he wanted someone who would teach his people in their own language (he had western missionaries, but they used only Latin). The emperor and the Patriarch Photius sent Methodius and his brother Constantine, who translated the Liturgy and much of the Scriptures into Slavonic.
Since Slavonic had no written form, they invented an alphabet for it, the Glagolitic alphabet, which gave rise to the Cyrillic alphabet (named for Constantine aka Cyril), which is used to write Russian and (with modifications) several related languages today. They used the Greek alphabet as their basis, writing a letter in two forms when two similar sounds in Slavonic each needed a letter (hence, in modern Russian, we have “plain a” written “A” and “fancy a” written like a backward “R” representing the sounds of hard and soft (or unpalatalized and palatalized) a, represented approximately in English by “ah” and “yah”). When no Greek letter was close, then they borrowed from Hebrew (the letter Tzaddi for the sound “ts” as in “tsar”, and the letter Shin for the sound “sh”, and a variant on it for the sound “shch” as in “Khrushchev”, and so on). The resulting alphabet had 43 letters. It has since undergone development, chiefly simplification and the omission of letters.

Thus, the modern Russian alphabet has only 32 letters. The Cyrillic alphabet with minor variations is used today for Russian, Ukrainian, and other languages of the former Ussr, and also for Bulgarian and Serbian and formerly for Rumanian. (Serbs and Croats both speak Serbo-Croatian, but the Serbs, who are traditionally East Orthodox, write it with the Cyrillic alphabet, while the Croats, who are traditionally Roman Catholic, write it with the Latin alphabet. Before the first World War, there were many muslims (regarded as Turks) living in Greece, and many Christians (regarded as Greeks) living in western Turkey. Each group spoke the language of the country in which it lived, but the Greek-speaking Turks in Greece wrote Greek using the Arabic script that was then standard for writing Turkish, and the Turkish-speaking Greeks in Turkey wrote Turkish in the Greek alphabet. For some reason, the alphabet matters to rival religious groups.)

Thus the brothers were the first to produce written material in the Slavic languages, and are regarded as the founders of Slavic literature.

The brothers encountered missionaries from Germany, representing the western or Latin branch of the Church, and more particularly representing the Holy Roman Empire as founded by Charlemagne, and committed to linguistic, and cultural uniformity. They insisted on the use of the Latin liturgy, and they regarded Moravia and the Slavic peoples as their rightful mission field. When friction developed, the brothers, unwilling to be a cause of dissension among Christians, went south toward Venice, and then from Venice to Rome to see the Pope, hoping to reach an agreement that would avoid quarreling between missionaries in the field. They brought with them the above-mentioned relics of Clement, third bishop of Rome after the Apostles (see 23 November). They arrived in Rome in 868 and were received with honor. Constantine entered a monastery there, taking the name Cyril, by which he is now remembered. However, he died only a few weeks thereafter. He is buried in Rome in the Church of San Clemente.

The Pope (Adrian II) gave Methodius the title of Archbishop of Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica in Yugoslavia) and sent him back in 869, with jurisdiction over all of Moravia and Pannonia, and authorization to use the Slavonic Liturgy. Soon, however, Prince Rotislav, who had originally invited the brothers to Moravia, died, and his successor did not support Methodius. In 870 the Frankish king Louis and his bishops deposed Methodius at a synod at Ratisbon, and imprisoned him for a little over two years. The pope (John VIII) secured his release, but told him not to use the Slavonic Liturgy any more. In 878 he was summoned to Rome on charges of heresy and using Slavonic. This time Pope John was convinced by his arguments and sent him back cleared of all charges, and with permission to use Slavonic. He died 6 April 885 in Velehrad, the old capitol of Moravia. The Carolingian bishop who succeeded him, Wiching, suppressed the Slavonic Liturgy and forced the followers of Methodius into exile. Many found refuge with King Boris of Bulgaria (852-889), under whom they reorganized a Slavic-speaking Church. Meanwhile, Pope John’s successors adopted a Latin-only policy which lasted for centuries.

-James E. Kiefer


John of Damascus

John of Damascus is generally accounted “the last of the Fathers”. He was the son of a Christian official at the court of the muslim khalif Abdul Malek, and succeeded to his father’s office.

In his time there was a dispute among Christians between the Iconoclasts (image-breakers) and the Iconodules (image-venerators or image-respectors). The Emperor, Leo III, was a vigorous upholder of the Iconoclast position. John wrote in favor of the Iconodules with great effectiveness. Ironically, he was able to do this chiefly because he had the protection of the muslim khalif (ironic because the Muslims have a strong prohibition against the religious use of pictures or images).

John is also known as a hymn-writer. Two of his hymns are sung in English at Easter (“Come ye faithful, raise the strain” and “The Day of Resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad!”). Many more are sung in the Eastern Church.

His major writing is The Fount of Knowledge, of which the third part, “The Orthodox Faith,” is a summary of Christian doctrine as expounded by the Greek Fathers.

The dispute about icons was not a dispute between East and West as such. Both the Greek and the Latin churches accepted the final decision.

The Iconoclasts maintained that the use of religious images was a violation of the Second Commandment (“Thou shalt not make a graven image… thou shalt not bow down to them”).

The Iconodules replied that the coming of Christ had radically changed the situation, and that the commandment must now be understood in a new way, just as the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath Day” must be understood in a new way since the Resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week.

Before the Incarnation, it had indeed been improper to portray the invisible God in visible form; but God, by taking fleshly form in the person of Jesus Christ, had blessed the whole realm of matter and made it a fit instrument for manifesting the Divine Splendor. He had reclaimed everything in heaven and earth for His service, and had made water and oil, bread and wine, means of conveying His grace to men. He had made painting and sculpture and music and the spoken word, and indeed all our daily tasks and pleasures, the common round of everyday life, a means whereby man might glorify God and be made aware of Him. (Note: I always use “man” in the gender-inclusive sense unless the context plainly indicates otherwise.)

Obviously, the use of images and pictures in a religious context is open to abuse, and in the sixteenth century abuses had become so prevalent that some (not all) of the early Protestants reacted by denouncing the use of images altogether. Many years ago, I heard a sermon in my home parish (All Saints’ Church, East Lansing, Michigan) on the Commandment, “Thou shalt not make a graven image, nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, nor in the earth beneath, nor in the waters under the earth — thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them.” (Exodus 20:4-5 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9) The preacher (Gordon Jones) pointed out that, even if we refrain completely from the use of statues and paintings in representing God, we will certainly use mental or verbal images, will think of God in terms of concepts that the human mind can grasp, since the alternative is not to think of Him at all. (Here I digress to note that, if we reject the images offered in Holy Scripture of God as Father, Shepherd, King, Judge, on the grounds that they are not literally accurate, we will end up substituting other images — an endless, silent sea, a dome of white radiance, an infinitely attenuated ether permeating all space, an electromagnetic force field, or whatever, which is no more literally true than the image it replaces, and which leaves out the truths that the Scriptural images convey.

(One of the best books I know on this subject is Edwyn Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief, Beacon Press, originally a Gifford Lectures series.) C. S. Lewis repeats what a woman of his acquaintance told him: that as a child she was taught to think of God as an infinite “perfect substance,” with the result that for years she envisioned Him as a kind of enormous tapioca pudding. To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca. Back to the sermon.)

The sin of idolatry consists of giving to the image the devotion that properly belongs to God. No educated man today is in danger of confusing God with a painting or statue, but we may give to a particular concept of God the unconditional allegiance that properly belongs to God Himself. This does not, of course, mean that one concept of God is as good as another, or that it may not be our duty to reject something said about God as simply false. Images, concepts, of God matter, because it matters how we think about God. The danger is one of intellectual pride, of forgetting that the Good News is, not that we know God, but that He knows us (1 Corinthians 8:3), not that we love Him, but that He loves us (1 John 4:10).
(Incidentally, it was customary in my parish in those days for the preacher to preach a short “Children’s Sermon,” after which the children were dismissed for Sunday School, and the regular sermon and the rest of the service followed. What I have described above was the Children’s Sermon. I remained for the regular sermon, but found it a bit over my head — a salutary correction to my intellectual snobbery.)

In the East Orthodox tradition, three-dimensional representations are seldom used. The standard icon is a painting, highly stylized, and thought of as a window through which the worshipper is looking into Heaven. (Hence, the background of the picture is almost always gold leaf.) In an Eastern church, an iconostasis (icon screen) flanks the altar on each side, with images of angels and saints (including Old Testament persons) as a sign that the whole church in Heaven and earth is one body in Christ, and unites in one voice of praise and thanksgiving in the Holy Liturgy. At one point in the service, the minister takes a censer and goes to each icon in turn, bows and swings the censer at the icon. He then does the same thing to the congregation — ideally, if time permits, to each worshiper separately, as a sign that every Christian is an icon, made in the image and likeness of God, an organ in the body of Christ, a window through whom the splendor of Heaven shines forth.

-James E. Kiefer

Symeon the New Theologian


St. Symeon (c. 949-1022) is called a theologian because of the importance of prayer in his life. The scion of a wealthy family in the provinces, Symeon was, at 11, sent to Constantinople to live with an uncle and to study. Symeon entered imperial service but resigned to enter the monastery at Studios under the direction of Symeon Eulabes, also called St. Symeon of Studios. Sent by his spiritual father to the monastery of St. Mamas, Symeon ecambe the igumen (abbot) and gained a reputation as a compassionate leader. His rule was strict, and the monks rebelled against it and their abbot 996-998. A dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople led to Symeon’s trial and exile in 1009. When he was exonerated, he chose to remain at Palonkiton with his disciples; here he established the monastery of St. Marina.Symeon believes that each person can receive and perceive the divine light through the practice of mental prayer; the vision is, nonetheless, a gift from God. St. John Climacus was an influence on Symeon, and Symeon’s writings were an influence on the hesychastic writers of the XIV Century.
-Karen Rae KeckCopyright © 1998, Karen Rae Keck. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright remain intact. 

Symeon the New Theologian: Vision of Divine Light

by Matthew C. Steenberg

I was nine years old when, full of enthusiasm and excitement, I approached my Church School teacher and exclaimed, “I have seen Jesus!’  Receiving an understandably surprised look from the man, I repeated again, “I have seen Jesus!’  ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
At this point I removed a copy of “The Bible with Illustrations for Children’ from my bag, opened it to a page at the beginning of the New Testament, and showed him the painting which was clearly           captioned, ‘Jesus Christ of Nazareth.’  My teacher smiled.  Then, crouching down to my level, said, ‘I see’ but you have only seen a picture of Jesus.  But you haven’t really seen Him.’

St Symeon the New Theologian would have agreed with my Church School teacher in stating that my vision of a painting of Christ was quite different from actually seeing Christ Himself.  Yet where he and my teacher would have departed would have been on the possibility of such a vision; for while my teacher seemed to believe such things to be confined only to the dreams of children, Symeon fervently       believed that God Himself was visible to the human person, not only in the representative form of a painting or even a holy icon, but by a direct, immanent, and personal encounter with the divinity

This short paper will examine St Symeon’s understanding of the nature of the Divine Light.  We will begin with a look at how Symeon saw the vision of this Light as relating to the whole of the spiritual life, and will then proceed to examine in more detail his views on its particular characteristics.

Vision of the Divine Light as Man’s Created Purpose.

To say that Symeon saw the vision of the Divine Light and personal union with God as the goal and end of human existence, the very thing for which humanity was created, would be to do nothing more than quote the Saint himself, who was to say this very thing several times in his writings.[1]  Yet before we may fully understand the character of this claim and appreciate the significance of divine
vision in his understanding of human spirituality, we must first explore Symeon’s overall understanding of human spiritual growth and progression.

Symeon clearly understood the true Christian life as beginning with the sacrament of baptism.[2]  There is no departure here from the standard patristic synthesis of which he considered himself a
follower.  In this sacramental act, the human person is regenerated into the new life of Christ, is restored to the divine mode of existence that is rightfully his as a human person, but which has been lost through the influence and predominance of sin.  Humanity is grafted into Christ, that the life which he has lost may be once again his possession.

It is only through this regeneration of the fallen person into the new life of Christ that any salvific activity can occur.  Symeon’s relative lack of written attention paid to sacramental baptism, when   coupled with the few statements he does make on it, suggests that he took it as an unstated assumption that this was to be the beginning of any true Christian spirituality.  Baptised and chrismated, the Christian person possesses within himself the Spirit, the indwelling of God, and thus contains in his being the seed which he must then tend and nourish in order to bring the grace of baptism to fruition through a life of sanctification.  Each Christian possesses this divine spark, Symeon notes, yet not every Christian makes the effort to sow it.  He writes, “There is one out of a thousand, or better ” out of 10,000 who has arrived at mystical contemplation.'[3]  While we may all possess the divine spark within us, it is only the few who take the action necessary to fan it into a flame.

Yet it is this very few who are engaging upon life as Symeon understood that it was created and intended to be lived.  To live a fully spiritual existence requires action; and this necessary action
is, for Symeon, a life of ascesis.  The divine presence within each person is a reality, yet the self-centred mind and life enslaved to the passions dims his view of this presence, may even keep it from his sight  altogether.  It is necessary, in order to regain that    vision, that the human person willingly and energetically battle the reigns of self-conceit and worldly ties, simplifying his mind and focusing his whole being on his attempt to grow closer to God.  We find here the echoes of a common theme in eastern patristic thought: that engagement is not intended to turn man into something supra- or extra-human, but only to return him to his true self.[4]

When this begins to occur, when the ascetic individual makes his body and mind into fertile soil receptive to the actions of God’s grace, God begins to make Himself more visibly manifest to man.  Symeon recalls this process through a recounting of his own experiences.  At first, struggling to know God whilst still in the world, he was rewarded by a vision of Christ as light ‘afar off’, in a vision of short duration.  This encouraged and inspired him to  further his efforts; and then, as he was purified further by a more strict ascesis and simplified life, the visions became more frequent and more personal, as Symeon’s vision became ever more clear.  He  uses more than once the imagery of a blind man slowly regaining his sight, emphasising not only the gradual nature of this growth, but his underlying idea that this spiritual sight, like physical sight, is an aspect of life that humanity is supposed to possess.[5]

We will not dwell too long on Symeon’s account of his own spiritual growth and the experiences it entailed, as interesting as it is; for       our main interest here is in his understanding of the Light which he saw, and such shall be the subject of our next section.  Yet it is important to note the place this vision held in his own spiritual progression.  Growing out of baptism, Symeon’s desire to be closer to God urged him into the practise of asceticism, at first slight.
This was rewarded by God’s gift of vision of His presence as light, which in turn inspired Symeon with an ardent desire to further increase his devotion to God, leading to more extended and personal         visions, and these once again to an even deeper desire for growth.
We note here the striking similarity to St Gregory of Nyssa’s famous concept of eternal growth: that no matter how high we ascend on the spiritual mountain, we are always at the beginning of our journey, and always possess the desire to go further.[6]  We must also take note of the fact that this desire and its ‘motivational satisfaction’ in the divine vision, are both the gifts of God and are not directly the results of man’s own human efforts.  Man’s activities are important, for they prepare the person for the conscious reception of the Divinity; but, as Krivochéine writes,

La simple observation des commandements, les vertus ascétiques ne sont pas en elles-mêmes la lumière, mais des charbons éteints que la grâce allume.[7]

It is God’s grace that fuels man’s desire, and brings him into the vision of His presence as Light.  And it is when this occurs, when this holy desire leads us to a truly sanctified life in which we freely see God as Light in our own lives, that Symeon believes we begin to actually live life as Christ intends it to be lived, in constant and personal communion with God.  The vision of the Divine Light, then, is not something extraneous to Christianity; for Symeon it is at the very heart of a true Christian faith.  It is that for which man was created, and that after which he must wholly strive if he is to know God in this life, and thereby in the next.[8]

Having thus made a cursory examination of the place of the vision of the Divine Light in Symeon’s overall view of spirituality, we will now look at his understanding of the nature of that Light.

The Nature of the Divine Light.

We might begin with a quotation from the end of Archbishop Basil Krivochéine’s chapter on the vision of the Light:

La lumière, c’est avant tou Dieu, la Sainte Trinité, lumière simple et indicible.  Dieu est même supra-lumière, comme surpassant toute lumière.  C’est ensuite le Christ et l’Esprit Saint.  Ici son
expérience personelle correspond exactement aux données de ‘Écriture et s’appuie sur elle.  C’est aussi la gloire et les « énergies » de Dieu ou du Verbe et de l’Esprit, la grâce, indentifiée  quelquefois avec le Saint-Esprit.  C’est aussi toutes les manifestations de Dieu, tous ses dons charismatiques et la vie charismatique elle-même qu’Il accorde à tous ceux qui observent ses commandements.[9]

Krivochéine here provides an outline of Symeon’s understanding of the nature of the Divine light, upon which we shall elaborate in this section.

(1) – The character of the Light as personal.

A notion which Symeon goes to great lengths to clarify in his writings, is that of the Divine Light as personal.  It is not simply a sensible radiance, an inanimate luminosity such as one might receive from a lamp, or from the sun.  Rather the Divine Light is  the very ‘person’ of the Divinity Himself: it is not simply a product of God, it is God.  ‘Your light, O my God, is You,’ he writes,[10] and to this point of emphasis he often returns.

Yet understanding the light as God leaves one with driving questions: by ‘God’, does Symeon mean that the Light is the Father?  Or the Son?  Or might the Light in fact be the whole Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Our author himself seems to have struggled with this question when his visions first began.  Speaking of his first vision of the Light after taking the monastic profession, and speaking of himself ‘as he often did’ in the third-person, Symeon writes:

He contented himself to look [at the Light] with great fear and trembling, (?) knowing simply that it was someone who had appeared before him.[11]

At this point in his spiritual growth, Symeon’s vision was still much dimmed by his passions, he notes, and it lacked the clarity to know fully the character of the light before him.  Yet as he grew in   his efforts, and as God’s grace grew within him, he came to know more fully its nature.  He would come to identify the Light at times with the Holy Spirit,[12] at times with the full Godhead in Trinity,[13] but most often and most readily with the Son.  At the end of the above-mentioned vision, when Symeon dared to verbally question the Light as to its character, he heard in response the divine voice: ‘It is me, God, Who became man for you; and behold that I have made you, as you see, and shall make you god.'[14]  The Light as Christ is Symeon’s favoured and oft-quoted understanding of its nature, perhaps because it was Christ Himself who affirmed,  during His incarnate life, that He was the light (Jn 8.12, 9.5); and perhaps because, during the moments of vision in which Symeon experienced and saw this Light, he felt himself personally in the presence of Jesus his Lord.

Yet it would be an overstatement to say that Symeon is perfectly clear on his understanding of the ‘personality’ of the Light; for though he regards it as Christ in the great majority of his addresses, the above has already shown that he was far from  exclusive in this view.  We might rather say that Symeon is slightly unclear in his understanding of the personal nature of the Light, and perhaps even deliberately so.  He knows beyond any personal doubt that the Light is God, and that he experiences God as Light, sometimes as Father, Son, Spirit, and sometimes as unified Trinity. Yet as to the precise ‘personhood’ of the Light, he is content to relegate such a knowledge to the divine mystery of the Divinity.[15]

(2) – The Light as Form or Luminosity, and What of ‘Energies’?

Our lengthy quote from Krivochéine’s conclusion also brings out a certain transcendental nature to Symeon’s understanding of the Divine Light: it is God’s grace, all the manifestations of His
goodness, the workings of His Spirit, and even His energies.  These might lead one again to consider his perception of the Light as an a personal, inanimate luminosity; yet our discussion above shows that         Symeon clearly did not see it as such.  We might then ask, just what did he actually see and what does he suggest that each of us can see when experiencing the Divine Light?

Symeon records a whole host of forms which he ascribes to his visions of the Light.  It is spherical,[16] as a sun shining above the clouds,[17] similar to a pearl or a star,[18] as a blinding ray or a flow of luminous waters,[19] and a heavenly beam which encloses all of creation.[20]  On one occasion he even makes the bold claim of actually seeing Christ’s face (prw/sopon) in the Light.[21]  All  these examples might lead one to ascribe to Symeon a rather definitive, corporeal nature to the Divine Light.  However, we cannot fail to take note of the fact that Symeon always carefully counters these statements of form with equally potent statements of formlessness, or perhaps more properly, transcendence of form.
Symeon writes:

It [the Light] suddenly shows itself completely within me, a spherical light, gentle and divine, with form, with shape, in a formless form.[22]

Here Symeon’s unique paradox is clearly seen: the Light has form, and this form he often attempts to describe; yet it is a form without form, beyond form, completely transcending form itself.  His ascription of certain forms to the Light seems to be an effort to emphasis the immanent reality of the full and real presence of God:
this Light is not simply some ‘side-effect’ of God’s presence; it is the ‘form’ of God Himself.  Yet to truly ascribe a physical form to God would be to diminish the transcendent character of His being, and thus the ‘form’ attributed to the Light must in reality be formless, admitting the supra-sensory nature of the Divine Being.[23]  In this light (no pun intended), we are led to read Symeon’s comments on seeing Christ’s ‘face’ in a different way: to suppose that he actually saw the physical features of a man’s visage goes against the formless nature of the Light that Symeon goes to great lengths to expound in other areas.  Perhaps by prw/sopon, he refers instead to the full, real, immanent presence of Christ in the luminous manifestation of His being: ‘You showed me Your face’ reads not as a scientific account of seeing Christ’s form, but rather of witnessing the reality of His presence in the personal  experience of the Light.

The notion of the Divine Light as the energies of God is also present in Symeon’s understandings, and for this reason his theology is often compared with that of St Gregory Palamas of the 13th/14th       centuries.  However, the importance which Palamas attaches to the essence/energies distinction in the Uncreated Light is dramatically greater than that which Symeon places upon the character of the          Light as God’s energies.  For Symeon, this statement seems to be purposed by the same intent as his explanation of the ‘formless form’: he wishes to affirm the actual reality of God’s presence as the light, but not to circumscribe Him wholly to the confines of the light, nor to proclaim that man can behold the complete fullness of God.  He is thus far less precise than Palamas about just what it means for the Light to be the ‘energies’ of God? and indeed he doesn’t spend a great deal of time trying to expound the idea beyond its simple use to help further clarify the mysterious nature of the vision.

(3) – External or Internal Vision?

We must not leave our discussion of Symeon’s understanding of the nature of the Divine Light, without addressing the idea of its          relationship and proximity to the human person.  Is the Light something which the ascetic individual sees outside of himself, or is it something which he discovers within his own person?

Symeon’s answer depends largely on the ‘when’ which must clarify the question.  The Divine Light, he explains, is experienced in different ways at different times during the progression of the             individual’s spiritual growth.  At first God comes, not as Light at all, but still in a real and active way to ‘lift one up’ into the path of contemplation.[24]  Then, as the individual continues along this path, he begins to see the Light as a vision from afar off; as a star or a sun, beaming down from above.  As the process of purification continues, the Light becomes more immanent, nearer to the person, and is seen more clearly by illumined eyes.  It is here that Symeon speaks of the Light as ‘luminous waters’ that wash away the impurities from the seeking soul.[25]  Here the person is driven to simplify his mind and heart, devoting his full energy to contemplating God, knowing the ‘simple character of the Light,'[26] and that God as Light wants to be seen.[27]  When the heart is thus simplified, the Divine Light begins to grow within it, little by little, and the ascetic begins to see the light no longer as an external vision, but a radiance from within his own person.[28]
Eventually the Light wholly transfigures the human heart, transforming it into light,[29] and now it is God Himself who radiates from within the transfigured person, and the person himself            who ‘perhaps for the first time’ truly knows God.  Symeon writes:

In effect, there is no other way to know God, than by the vision (qewri/aj) of the Light which comes from Him.[30]

Concluding Thoughts.

We have seen then, albeit briefly, just how important the vision of the Divine Light was to the theology and spirituality of St Symeon the New Theologian.  Not only does it represent the culmination and goal of the spiritual life and indeed, the created intent and purpose of humankind, but it represents as well the direct and personal encounter of the individual with the intimate Being of God.
Such vision is not for Symeon a mere exercise in ecstatic joy (though he does speak of it in terms of ecstasy and a departure outside oneself’ [31]); it is rather the very source and fountainhead of human transfiguration.  The fallen, sinful person is met by the divine presence of God as Light, and purified until that very light shines from within his own heart like the sun.  Symeon recounts the great joy that is this union with God, as he warmly remembers being borne up in the Light and drawn into his Saviour.

I cried and lived in an ineffable joy, to have seen You, You the Creator of the universe.[32]

You judged me, the prodigal, worthy to hear Your voice.  (?)  And now I converse with You, the Master, as a friend to a friend.[33]

This is the heart of Symeon’s theology of Light: the restoration of man to knowledge of and communion with his Saviour; that the two             which have unnaturally become strangers might once again exist in union as friends.


Commentary & Critique:

Hussey, J. M.  ‘Symeon the New Theologian and Nicolas Cabasilas’, in Eastern Churches Review IV (1972), pp. 131-140.

Krivochéine, Basil.  Dans la lumière du Christ : St Syméon le nouveau Théologien.  Paris: Éditions de Chevetogne, 1980.

Maloney, George A.  The Mystic of Fire and Light: St. Symeon the New Theologian.  New Jersey: Denville Books, 1975.

Ware, Kallistos.  ‘Tradition and Personal Experience in Later Byzantine Theology’, in Eastern Churches Review III (1970), pp. 131-141.


Syméon le Nouveau Théologien : Catéchèses (tomes ii, iii).  Sources Chrétiennes 104, 113.  Notes B. Krivochéine; trad. J. Paramelle.  Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1964-65.  {Text in Greek and French}.

Hymns of Divine Love.  Trans. G. A. Maloney.  New Jersey: Dimension Books, c.1975.  {Text in English}.

Hymnes : Syméon le Nouveau Theologien (tomes i, ii).  Sources Chrétiennes 156, 174.  Notes J. Koder; trans. J. Paramelle & L.Neyrand.  Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1969-1971.  {Text in Greek and French}.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K.  The Philokalia: the Complete Text, vol. iv.  London: Faber & Faber, 1995.  pp. 11-75. {Text in English}.

La Vie de Syméon by Nicetas Stethatos.  In Orientalia Christiana, vol. xii.  Notes I. Hausherr; French trans. G. Horn.  Rome: Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies, 1928.  {Text in Greek and        French}.
[1] Cp., e.g., Hymn 53.206-207; Hymn 44.30-62.
[2] Cp. Maloney, pp. 85-86.
[3] Hymn 50.152-254; p. 253, Maloney ed.
[4] Symeon is fond of terms such as ‘restoration’ and ‘revivification’ (or simply ‘vivification’) in reference to the effects of the Incarnation and spiritual progression.  Cp. 2nd            Thanksgiving (Cat. 36) 10-14.
[5] 2nd Thanksgiving, 108-109, 208-212; Hymn 51.18-19.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, Sermon 8; PG 940C-941C.
[7] Krivochéine, p. 254.
[8] 2nd Thanksgiving, 245-247.  {NOTE: It would be interesting to discuss Symeon’s apparent view here: that if we do not see the Light in this life (‘ici en-bàs’), we will not see Him in the next.}
[9] Krivochéine, p. 254.
[10] Hymn 45.6 (emphasis mine).  Cp. also Ethics 5.276-277: ‘God is light, and is seen as a great light.’
[11] Ethics 5.287-316 for full reference; emphasis mine.
[12] Hymn 55.126-129.
[13] Ethics 10.518-526: ‘The Light is the Father, the Light is the Son, the Light is the Holy Spirit’.  Also Cat. 33.194-195: ‘Each of [the Divine Persons] is on His own count light, and all three are   only one light’.
[14] Ethics 5.310-316.
[15] Symeon’s general views on the ineffability of this mystery are well expressed in Hymn 50.13-15: ‘Where and what and how?  I do not know! / For the how is absolutely inexpressible. / The where appears to me as both known and unknown.’
[16] 1st Thanksgiving, 1.180; Hymn 50.44.
[17] Cat. 16.108-110; 1st Thanksgiving 1.179-180.
[18] Cat. 16.108-122; 127-136.
[19] 2nd Thanksgiving, 132-137; 150-155.
[20] Cat. 16.127-136; cp. Krivochéine, pp. 232-233, who brings out this ‘cosmic character’ to the Light.
[21] 2nd Thanksgiving 175-177;
[22] Hymn 50.43-45 (emphasis mine).
[23] Cp. Ethics 1.3.99-103.  ‘Supra-sensory’ here does not imply that God lies outside the realm of our sense-perceptions, for that is precisely the claim Symeon makes as to the Light.  But it is to       admit that our senses can never fully grasp the completeness of the Divinity.
[24] 2nd Thanksgiving, 55-65.
[25] 2nd Thanksgiving, 140-148.
[26] Hymn 33.1-8; cp. Maloney, pp. 94-95 for comments on the
importance of ‘silencing the heart.’
[27] Hymn 32.84-85.
[28] Hymn 50.35: ‘[The Light] shines brilliantly within me like a lamp’; 43: ‘It shows itself completely within me’.  Hymn 51 clearly shows the progression from the Light as external and enveloping to internal and transfiguring.
[29] 2nd Thanksgiving 265-269.
[30] Ethics 5.263-269.
[31] Cp. Hymn 13.70; 25.18; 40.16; 49.72, etc.
[32] 2nd Thanksgiving 262-263.
[33] 2nd Thanksgiving, 226-227; 237-242.
This page Copyright © 2000-3,, M. Steenberg


John Climacus

St. John of the Ladder (c. 570/579-649) became a monk at Sinai when he was 16. He became a solitary and remained a hermit for many years. Many monks wanted him as their spiritual father, and St. Gregory the Great requested his prayers. To fullfill the wish of Abbot John of Raithu, St. John wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent (also called The Ladder to Paradise) to describe the way to apatheia, or passionlessness. Based on Jacob’s dream, the book uses aphorisms and anecdotes to illustrate the vices to be overcome and the virtues to be cultivated as one ascends the ladder to perfection. St. John was 70 or 75 when he became abbot of St. Catherine’s on Sinai. He resigned the post after four years and died, as he had lived, a hermit. -Karen Rae Keck

Copyright & copy 1996, Karen Rae Keck. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.



Ephraim the Syrian

Ephrem of Edessa

Deacon and Hymn-Writer

10 June 373

Ephrem (or Ephren or Ephraim or Ephrain) of Edessa was a teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the Faith. (To English-speakers, the most familiar form of his name will be “Ephraim.” It is the name of the younger son of Joseph, son of Jacob (see Genesis 41:52), and is thus the name of one of the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel.) Edessa (now Urfa), a city in modern Turkey about 100 kilometers from Antioch (now Antakya), was a an early center for the spread of Christian teaching in the East. It is said that in 325 he accompanied his bishop, James of Nisibis, to the Council of Nicea. Certainly his writings are an eloquent defense of the Nicene faith in the Deity of Jesus Christ. He countered the Gnostics’ practice of spreading their message through popular songs by composing Christian songs and hymns of his own, with great effect. He is known to the Syrian church as “the harp of the Holy Spirit.” Ephrem retired to a cave outside Edessa, where he lived in great simplicity and devoted himself to writing. He frequently went into the city to preach. During a
famine in 372-3 he worked distributing food to the hungry, and organizing a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He worked long hours at this, and became exhausted and sick, and so died.

Of his writings there remain 72 hymns, commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and numerous sermons. One of his hymns follows:

 From God Christ’s deity came forth,
   his manhood from humanity;
 his priesthood from Melchizedek,
   his royalty from David’s tree:
 praised be his Oneness.
 He joined with guests at wedding feast,
   yet in the wilderness did fast;
 he taught within the temple’s gates;
   his people saw him die at last:
 praised be his teaching.
 The dissolute he did not scorn,
   nor turn from those who were in sin;
 he for the righteous did rejoice
   but bade the fallen to come in:
 praised be his mercy.
 He did not disregard the sick;
   to simple ones his word was given;
 and he descended to the earth
   and, his work done, went up to heaven:
 praised be his coming.
 Who then, my Lord, compares to you?
   The Watcher slept, the Great was small,
 the Pure baptized, the Life who died,
   the King abased to honor all:
 praised be your glory.

(translated by John Howard Rhys, adapted and altered by Fr Bland Tucker, (Episcopal) Hymnbook 1982)

 Select verses from Christ on the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments

1. Lord, you have had it written:
‘Open your mouth and I will fill it’
See, Lord, your servant’s mouth and his mind are open to you!
Fill it, O Lord, with your gift,
that I may sing your praise according to your will.
Refrain: Make me worthy to approach your Gift with awe!

3. Though your nature is one, its expressions are many;
they find three levels, high, middle, and lowly.
Make me worthy of the lowly part,
of picking up crumbs from the table of your wisdom.

4. Your highest expression is hidden with your Father,
your middle riches are the wonder of the Watchers [i.e. angels]
A tiny stream from your teaching, Lord,
for us below makes a flood of interpretations.

8. In your Bread is hidden a Spirit not to be eaten,
in your Wine dwells a Fire not to be drunk.
Spirit in your Bread, Fire in your Wine,
a wonder set apart, [yet] received by our lips!

17. See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you!
See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized!
Fire and Spirit in our Baptism;
in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit!

18. Your Bread kills the Devourer [death] who had made us his bread,
your Cup destroys death which was swallowing us up.
We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you,
not to exhaust you, but to live by you.

22. See, Lord, my arms are filled with the crumbs from your table;
there is not room left in my lap.
As I kneel before you, hold back your Gift;
Keep it in your storehouse to give us again!

[translation by R Murray, Eastern Churches Review 3 (1970), copied from
T.M.Finn, “Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria”,
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1992]

Other hymns are available here.

Among Orthodox he is best known for a fasting prayer:

O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk. Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love. Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
[Translation by Fr James Silver, Drew University]

     Pour out upon us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which thy deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to thee alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


Mar Narsai

Mar Narsai (+502)

By Alan Aldawood
Mar Narsai was one of the greatest of the Assyrian (Nestorian*) writers, He was born about the beginning of the 5th century. He went to Edessa where, after completing his studies in Greek and in Biblical and theological subjects, he became the rector of the Edessan school (437-459). In the controversy between the Nestorians and the Monophysites, he sided with the Nestorians who enjoyed the patronage of Ibas, bishop of Edessa. After the death of Ibas, Narsai and his Nestorians colleagues were expelled from Edessa. They went to Nisibis. With the support of Barsauma, bishop of Nisibis, Narsai founded the Nestorian school of Nisibis. He was its rector for about 50 years. He died in 502 A.D.
Mar Narsai was a copious writer, both in prose and verse. He dealt with Biblical, theological, liturgical and moral subjects. His works comprise commentaries on the Bible, explanation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and Baptism, a book on the corruption of morals, a number of consolatory  poems, expositions, canticles, hymns,sermons, and instructions. His style is polished, elegant, rich in elaborate similes, and occasionally decked with rhymes, either in the beginning or at the end of the verses.
Many of his works perished. No complete edition of his extant works has been made. Different works were edited by different scholars. The biggest edition is that of Dr. Mingana (“Narsai, homiliae et Carmina”, 2 Vols. Mosul 1905).

An Exposition of The Mysteries
He was laid in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes, as Man;
and the watchers extolled Him with their praises, as God.
He offered sacrifices according to the Law, as Man;
and He received worship from the Persians, as God.
Simeon bore Him upon his arms, as Man;
and he named Him ‘the Mercy’ who showth mercy to all, as God.
He kept the Law completely, as Man;
and He gave His own new Law, as God.
He was baptized in Jordan by John, as Man;
and the heaven was opened in honour of His baptism, as God.
He went in to the marriage-feast of the city of Cana, as Man;
and He changed the water that it became wine, as God.
He fasted in the wilderness forty days, as Man;
and watchers descended to minister unto Him, as God.
He slept in the boat with His disciples, as Man;
and He rebuked the wind and calmed the sea, as God.
He set out and departed to a desert place, as Man;
and He multiplied the bread and satisfied thousands, as God.
He ate and drank and walked and was weary, as Man;
and He put devils to flight by the word of His mouth, as God.
He prayed and watched and gave thanks and worshipped, as Man;
and He forgave debts and pardoned sins, as God.
He asked water of the Samaritan woman, as Man;
and He revealed and declared her secrets, as God.
He sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, as Man;
and He forgave the sinful woman her sins, as God.
He went up into the mountain of Tabor with His disciples, as Man;
and He revealed His glory in their sight, as God.
He shed tears and wept over Lazarus, as Man;
and He called him that he came forth by His mighty power, as God.
He rode upon a colt and entered Jerusalem, as Man;
and the boys applauded Him with their Hosannas, as God.
He drew nigh to the fig-tree and shewed that He was hungered, as Man;
and His mighty power caused it to wither on a sudden, as God.
He washed the feet of His twelve, as Man;
and He called Himself Lord and Master, as God.
He ate the legal passover, as Man;
and He exposed the treachery of Iscariot, as God.
He prayed and sweated at the time of His passion, as Man;
and He scared and terrified them that took Him, as God.
the attendants seized Him and bound His hands, as Man;
and He healed the ear that Simon cut off, as God.
He stood in the place of judgement and bore insult, as Man;
and He declared that He is about to come in glory, as God.
He bore His Cross upon His shoulder, as Man;
and He revealed and announced the destruction of Zion, as God.
He was hanged upon the wood and endured the passion, as Man;
and He shook the earth and darkened the sun, as God.
Nails were driven into His body, as Man;
and He opened the graves and quickened the dead, as God.
He cried out upon the Cross ‘My God, My God,’ as Man;
and promised Paradise to the thief, as God.
His side was pierced with a spear, as Man;
and His nod rent the temple veil, as God.
They embalmed His body and He was buried in the earth, as Man;
and He raised up His temple by His mighty power, as God.
He remained in the tomb three days, as Man;
and the watchers glorified Him with their praises, as God.
He said that He had received all authority, as Man;
and He promised to be with us for ever, as God.
He commanded Thomas to feel His side, as Man;
and He gave them the Spirit for an earnest, as God.
He ate and drank after His resurrection, as Man;
and He ascended to the height and sent the Spirit, as God.

 *Nestorian can be a misnomer imposed by the Western Church on the Church of the East.