Symeon the New Theologian: On Faith
Brethren and fathers, it is good that we make God's mercy known to all and speak to those close to us of the compassion and inexpressible bounty He has shown us. For as you know I neither fasted, nor kept vigils, nor slept on bare ground, but - to borrow the Psalmist's words - '1 humbled myself and, in short, 'the Lord saved me'.
Or, to put it even more briefly, I did no more than believe and the Lord accepted me (cf. Ps. 116:6, 10; 27:10. LXX). Many things stand in the way of our acquiring humility, but there is nothing that prevents us from having faith. For if we want it with all our heart, it will immediately become active in us, since it is God's gift to us and a pre-eminent characteristic of our nature, even though it is also subject to our individual power of free will. That is why even Scythians and other outlandish peoples have faith in each other's words. Yet to demonstrate through actual facts the effect of our deeply rooted faith and to confirm what I have just said, I will tell you a story related to me by someone who was entirely trustworthy.
A man by the name of George, young in age - he was about twenty - was living in Constantinople during our own times. He was good-looking, and so studied in dress, manners and gait, that some of those who take note only of outer appearances and harshly judge the behavior of others began to harbor malicious suspicions about him. This young man, then, made the acquaintance of a holy monk who lived in one of the monasteries in the city; and to him he opened his soul and from him he received a short rule which he had to keep in mind. He also asked him for a book giving an account of the ways of monks and their ascetic practices; so the elder gave him the work of Mark the Monk, On the Spiritual Law. This the young man accepted as though it had been sent by God Himself, and in the expectation that he would reap richly from it he read it from end to end with eagerness and attention. And though he benefited from the whole work, there were three passages only which he fixed in his heart.
The first of these three passages read as follows: 'If you desire spiritual health, listen to your conscience, do all it tells you, and you will benefit.' The second passage read: 'He who seeks the energies of the Holy Spirit before he has actively observed the commandments is like someone who sells himself into slavery and who, as soon as he is bought, asks to be given his freedom while still keeping his purchase -money.' And the third passage said the following: 'Blind is the man crying out and saying: 'Son of David, have mercy upon me' (Luke 18:38). He prays with his body alone, and not yet with spiritual knowledge. But when the man once blind received his sight and saw the Lord, he acknowledged Him no longer as the Son of David but as the Son of God, and worshipped Him' (cf. John 9:38).
On reading these three passages the young man was struck with awe and fully believed that if he examined his conscience he would benefit, that if he practiced the commandments he would experience the energy of the Holy Spirit, and that through the grace of the Holy Spirit he would recover his spiritual vision and would see the Lord. Wounded thus with love and desire for the Lord, he expectantly sought His primal beauty, however hidden it might be. And, he assured me, he did nothing else except carry out every evening, before he went to bed, the short rule given to him by the holy elder. When his conscience told him, 'Make more prostrations, recite additional psalms, and repeat 'Lord, have mercy' more often, for you can do so', he readily and unhesitatingly obeyed, and did everything as though asked to do it by God Himself. And from that time on he never went to bed with his conscience reproaching him and saying, 'Why have you not done this?' Thus, as he followed it scrupulously, and as daily it increased its demands, in a few days he had greatly added to his evening office.
During the day he was in charge of a patrician's household and each day he went to the palace, engaging in the tasks demanded by such a life, so that no one was aware of his other pursuits. Every evening tears flowed from his eyes, he multiplied the prostrations he made with his face to the ground, his feet together and rooted to the spot on which he stood. He prayed assiduously to the Mother of God with sighs and tears, and as though the Lord was physically present he fell at His most pure feet, while like the blind man he besought mercy and asked that the eyes of his soul should be opened. As his prayers lasted longer every evening, he continued in this way until midnight, never growing slack or indolent during this period, his whole body under control, not moving his eyes or looking up. He stood still as a statue or a bodiless spirit.
One day, as he stood repeating more in his intellect than with his mouth the words, 'God, have mercy upon me, a sinner' (Luke 18:13), suddenly a profuse flood of divine light appeared above him and filled the whole room. As this happened the young man lost his bearings, forgetting whether he was in a house or under a roof; for he saw nothing but light around him and did not even know that he stood upon the earth. He had no fear of falling, or awareness of the world, nor did any of those things that beset men and bodily beings enter his mind. Instead he was wholly united to non-material light, so much so that it seemed to him that he himself had been transformed into light. Oblivious of all else, he was filled with tears and with inexpressible joy and gladness. Then his intellect ascended to heaven and beheld another light, more lucid than the first. Miraculously there appeared to him, standing close to that light, the holy, angelic elder of whom we have spoken and who had given him the short rule and the book.
When I heard this story, I thought how greatly the intercession of this saint had helped the young man, and how God had chosen to show him to what heights of virtue the holy man had attained.
When this vision was over and the young man, as he told me, had come back to himself, he was struck with joy and amazement. He wept with all his heart, and sweetness mingled with his tears. Finally he fell on his bed, and at that moment the cock crowed, announcing the middle of the night. Shortly after the church bells rang for matins and he got up as usual to chant the office, not having had a thought of sleep during the whole night.
As God knows - for He brings things about according to decisions of which He alone is aware - all this happened without the young man having done anything more than you have heard. But what he did he did with true faith and unhesitating expectation. And let it not be said that he did these things by way of an experiment, for he had never spoken or thought of acting in such a spirit. Indeed, to make experiments and to try things out is evidence of a lack of faith. On the contrary, after rejecting every passion- charged and self-indulgent thought this young man, as he himself assured me, paid such attention to what his conscience said that he regarded all material things of life with indifference, and did not even find pleasure in food and drink, or want to partake of them frequently.
You have heard, my brethren, what great things faith in God can bring about when it is confirmed by actions. You will have realized that youth is not to be despised and that without understanding and fear of God old age is useless. You have learnt that the heart of a city cannot prevent us from practicing God's commandments so long as we are diligent and watchful, nor can stillness or withdrawal from the world be of any benefit if we are lazy and negligent. We have certainly all heard of David, and we admire him and say that he is unique and there cannot be another like him. Yet here, lo and behold, is something more than David. For David was specially chosen by God: he was anointed to be prophet and king; he was inspired by the Holy Spirit; and he was granted many revelations concerning God. Thus when he sinned and was deprived of the grace of the Spirit and of his gift of prophecy, and was estranged from his usual communion with God, is there anything astonishing in the fact that he should recall the state of grace from which he had fallen and should ask to enjoy those privileges once more (cf Ps. 51:11-12)? But our young man had never even conceived of any of these things. He was devoted only to what is transient and worldly, and he could imagine nothing superior to such things. Yet - how unpredictable are Thy ways. Lord - he had only to hear of these divine realities and he believed in them immediately; indeed, he believed so surely that he implemented his faith in corresponding action. It was thanks to this action that his mind took wing and rose to heaven, drawing to it the compassion of Christ's Mother. Through her intercession God was appeased and bestowed on him the grace of the Spirit. This gave him the strength to rise to heaven and to behold the light that everyone longs for but very few attain.
This young man had not observed long fasts or slept on the ground, worn a hair shirt or shaved his head, nor had he shunned the world physically, though he had in spirit, by keeping a few vigils; yet he appeared to be superior to Lot, so renowned in Sodom (cf. Gen. 19). Or, rather, although in a body, he was an angel, constrained yet unconstrained, visible but transcending physicality, human in appearance but immaterial when perceived spiritually, outwardly all things to all men (cf. I Cor. 9:22) but inwardly solely present to God alone, the knower of all things. Thus when the visible sun set, he found that its place was taken by the tender light of spiritual luminosity, which is the pledge and foretaste of the unceasing light that is to succeed it. And this was as it should be; for the love of that for which he was searching took him out of the world, beyond nature and all material things, filling him wholly with the Spirit and transforming him into light. And all this happened to him while he was living in the middle of the city, and was steward of a house, having in his charge slaves and free men and carrying out all the tasks incumbent on such a life.
Enough has been said in praise of this young man and to stimulate you to a similar longing, in imitation of him. Or would you still like me to speak of other things, greater than these - things which perhaps you might not be able to take in? Yet what can be greater or more perfect than the fear of God? Indeed, nothing is greater than this. It is as St Gregory of Nazianzos has written: 'Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' (Prov. I :7). For where there is fear, there the commandments are kept, and where the commandments are kept the flesh is purified, together with the cloud that envelops the soul and prevents it from clearly seeing the divine radiance. Where there is this purification there is illumination, and illumination is the fulfillment of the longing of those who desire the greatest of all supernal things or even that which is above all greatness.' With these words he showed that illumination by the Spirit is the endless end of every virtue, and that whoever attains it has finished with everything sensory and has begun to experience the knowledge of spiritual realities.
Such, my brethren, are the wonders of God. And God reveals His hidden saints so that some may emulate them and others have no excuse for not doing so. Provided they live a worthy life, both those who choose to dwell in the midst of noise and hubbub and those who dwell in monasteries, mountains and caves can achieve salvation. Solely because of their faith in Him God bestows great blessings on them. Hence those who because of their laziness have failed to attain salvation will have no excuse to offer on the day of judgment. For He who promised to grant us salvation simply on account of our faith in Him is not a liar. So show mercy to yourselves and to us who love you and often grieve and shed tears far you - for this is what the merciful and compassionate God has asked us to do. Trust in the Lord with all your soul. Leave the world and everything that passes away, and draw close to God and cleave to Him; for in a little while 'heaven and earth will pass away' (Matt. 24:35), and apart from Him there will be no firm ground on which to stand, no limit, nothing to check the fall of sinners. God is infinite and cannot be grasped. Tell me, then, if you can, what place there will be for those who fall away from His kingdom?
I grieve, I exhaust my heart, I pine for you when I bring to mind that we have a Lord so bountiful and compassionate that simply if we have faith in Him He grants us gifts beyond our imagination - gifts we have never heard or thought of and that 'man's heart has not grasped' (1 Cor. 2:9). Yet we, like beasts, prefer the earth and the things of the earth that through His great mercy it yields in order to supply our bodily needs; and if we use these things modestly, then our soul may ascend unhampered towards divine realities, nourished spiritually by the Holy Spirit according to the degree of our purification and to the level to which we have ascended.
This is our purpose, for this we were created and brought forth: that after having received lesser blessings in this world we may through our gratitude to God and our love for Him enjoy great and eternal blessings in the life to come. But, alas, far from having any concern for the blessings in store, we are even ungrateful for those at hand, and we are like the demons, or - if trath be told - even worse. Thus we deserve greater punishment than they, for we have been given greater blessings. For we know that God became for our sakes like us in everything except sin, so that He might deliver us from delusion and free us from sin. But what is the use of saying this? The truth is that we believe in all these things only as words, while we deny them where our acts are concerned. Is not Christ's name uttered everywhere, in towns and villages, in monasteries and on mountains? Search diligently, if you will, and find out whether anyone keeps His commandments. Among thousands and myriads you will scarcely find one who is a Christian both in word and in act. Did not our Lord and God say in the Gospel, 'He that believes in Me will also do what I do - indeed, he will do greater things' (John 14:12)? But which of us dares to say, 'I do Christ's work and I truly believe in Christ?' Do you not see, brethren, that on the day of judgment we risk being classed among the unbelievers and will be chastised more severely even than those ignorant of Christ? Inevitably either we must be chastised as unbelievers or Christ is a liar - and that, my brethren, is impossible.
I have written this not to dissuade you from withdrawing from the world or to encourage you to live in the midst of it. Rather I have written it so that all who happen to read it may be assured that whoever wants to act rightly will receive from God the power so to do, wherever he may be. In fact, the tale I have told actually encourages withdrawal. For if the young man in question, who lived in the world and never had a thought of renouncing it, or of shedding his possessions, or of submitting to the rule of obedience, received such mercy from God simply because he trusted in Him and called on Him with his whole soul, how much greater blessings should those hope to attain who have abandoned all worldly things and all worldly relationships and who as God commanded have for His sake surrendered their very souls to death (cf Luke 14:26)? Moreover, if, unhesitating in your faith and wholehearted in your determination, you do begin to act rightly and to experience the blessing that comes from so doing, you will of your own accord realize that worldly cares and living in the world are a great obstacle to those who wish to live in conformity with God. What we have related about this young man is amazing and unexpected, and we have never heard of anything like it happening to anyone else. Even though it may have happened to others or may happen in the future, they should realize that they will lose the blessing they have received unless they do promptly abandon the world. This is exactly what I learnt from that young man.
I subsequently met him after he had become a monk, in the third or fourth year of his monastic life. He was then thirty -two. I knew him very well: we had been friends from childhood and had been brought up together. On account of this he also told me the following: 'A few days after that incredible change in my life and the more than human help I received, I was continually attacked by the temptations of my worldly life - temptations that thwarted my secret activities and that little by little deprived me of the blessings I had been given. As a result I longed to get completely away from the world and in solitude to seek out Him who had appeared to me. For, brother, I was convinced that He had appeared to me solely in order to draw me, unworthy as I was, to Himself and to separate me entirely from the world. Yet lacking the strength to respond straight away I gradually forgot everything I have told you about and fell into utter darkness, to such an extent that I no longer remembered or even thought of anything, major or minor, connected with those experiences. Rather, I plunged into evil ways more deeply than ever before and ended up in such a state that it was as if I had never understood or heard Christ's holy words. Even the saint who had once shown me such mercy and who had given me that short rule and had sent me that book became for me merely someone I had happened to meet, and I gave no thought to the things I had seen because of him. I am telling you this,' he continued, 'so you can see quite clearly the pit of perdition into which I fell, contemptible as I was, because of my sloth and negligence, and so you will be filled with amazement at the inexpressible blessings that God subsequently bestowed on me.
'For - though I do not know how to explain it - unknown to myself love and trust toward that saintly elder had remained in my unhappy heart; and it was I think for this reason that, as a result of his prayers, after many years God in His compassion had mercy on me. Through him God again dragged me out of my chronic state of delusion and rescued me from the pit of evil. In spite of my unworthmess I had not completely broken with the elder, but when I was in the city I often visited him in his cell and confessed to him what had happened to me, although, without conscience as I was, I did not carry out any of his instructions. But now, as you see, the merciful God has forgiven my many sins, and through that same saintly elder has granted me the grace to become a monk and - in spite of my being truly unworthy of it - has permitted me to be constantly with him. After .great labors and many tears, combined with strict solitude, total obedience, the complete elimination of my own will and many other rigorous practices and actions, I have been going forward resolutely and unremittingly along my path, and have again been granted a vision, faint as it is, of a small ray of that most gentle divine light, although up to now I have not been privileged to see it as I saw it on that original occasion.'
This and many other things he told me with tears. And I, hapless that I am, as I listened to his holy words realized that he was entirely filled with divine grace and was truly wise, despite his lack of worldly wisdom. Moreover, since he had acquired his unerring knowledge of spiritual realities through actual experience, I asked him to tell me how faith could bring about such miracles and to instruct me by setting it down in writing. He began to speak to me about these matters and was quite ready to write down his observations. Not to lengthen this present text, I have set forth what he said elsewhere for the delight of those who seek with Faith to learn from such writings.
Thus I beg you, brethren in Christ, let us also diligently follow the path of Christ's commandments, so that our faces are not covered in shame (cf Ps. 34:5). To everyone who knocks resolutely He opens the gates of His kingdom, and on him who asks He at once bestows the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 11:13). Nor is it possible for the person who seeks with all his soul not to find (cf. Matt. 7:7-8) and not to be enriched with the richness of His gifts. Thus you, too, will be nourished by the inexpressible blessings that He has prepared for those who love Him (cf. I Cor. 2:9). Here, in this present life, you will enjoy them in part, in accordance with His supernal wisdom; while in the life to come you will enjoy them fully, in company with the saints of all time, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory throughout the ages. Amen.