Symeon1Some extracts from Pope Benedict XVI’s address on September 16th 2009 on Symeon the New Theologian (Translation by ZENIT).

Symeon the New Theologian was born in 949 in Galatia, in Paphlagonia (Asia Minor), of a noble provincial family…

…Symeon focuses his reflection on the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who are baptized and on the awareness they must have of this spiritual reality. Christian life — he stresses — is intimate and personal communion with God; divine grace illumines the believer’s heart and leads him to the mystical vision of the Lord.

In this line, Symeon the New Theologian insists on the fact that true knowledge of God stems from a journey of interior purification, which begins with conversion of heart, thanks to the strength of faith and love; passes through profound repentance and sincere sorrow for one’s sins; and arrives at union with Christ, source of joy and peace, invaded by the light of his presence in us.

For Symeon, such an experience of divine grace is not an exceptional gift for some mystics, but the fruit of baptism in the life of every seriously committed faithful — a point on which to reflect, dear brothers and sisters!

This holy Eastern monk calls us all to attention to the spiritual life, to the hidden presence of God in us, to honesty of conscience and purification, to conversion of heart, so that the Holy Spirit will be present in us and guide us.

If in fact we are justly preoccupied about taking care of our physical growth, it is even more important not to neglect our interior growth, which consists in knowledge of God, in true knowledge, not only taken from books, but interior, and in communion with God, to experience his help at all times and in every circumstance.

Basically, this is what Symeon describes when he recounts his own mystical experience. Already as a youth, before entering the monastery, while prolonging his prayer at home one night, invoking God’s help to struggle against temptations, he saw the room filled with light.

When he later entered the monastery, he was given spiritual books to instruct himself, but the readings did not give him the peace he was looking for. He felt — he recounts — like a poor little bird without wings.

Symeon2He accepted this situation with humility, did not rebel, and then the visions of light began to multiply again. Wishing to be certain of their authenticity, Symeon asked Christ directly: “Lord, are you yourself really here?” He felt resonate in his heart an affirmative answer and was greatly consoled.

“That was, Lord,” he wrote later, “the first time you judged me, prodigal son, worthy to hear your voice.” However, this revelation did not leave him totally at peace either. He even wondered if that experience should not be considered an illusion.

Finally, one day an essential event occurred for his mystical experience. He began to feel like “a poor man who loves his brothers” (ptochos philadelphos). He saw around him many enemies that wanted to set snares for him and harm him but despite this he felt in himself an intense movement of love for them. How to explain this? Obviously, such love could not come from himself, but must spring from another source.

Symeon understood that it came from Christ present in him and all was clarified for him: He had the sure proof that the source of love in him was the presence of Christ and that to have in oneself a love that goes beyond one’s personal intentions indicates that the source of love is within. Thus, on one hand, we can say that, without a certain openness to love, Christ does not enter in us, but, on the other, Christ becomes the source of love and transforms us…

Symeon3…We can summarize the teaching and mystical experience of Symeon the New Theologian: In his incessant search for God, even in the difficulties he met and the criticism made of him, he, in a word, allowed himself to be guided by love. He was able to live personally and to teach his monks that what is essential for every disciple of Jesus is to grow in love and so we grow in knowledge of Christ himself, to be able to say with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Symeon the New Theologian spent the last phase of his life in the monastery of St. Macrina, where he wrote the greater part of his works, becoming ever more famous for his teachings and miracles. He died on March 12, 1022.

A translation of one of Symeon’s poems

An essay on Symeon’s theology


st-cuthbert-1-sizedToday (September 4th) is the feast of the Translation of St Cuthbert (born c. 635; died 20 March, 687). Probably born near Melrose in the Scottish/Northumbrian borders, Cuthbert was inspired from an early age by the monks of the local monastery where St Eata was abbot and St Boisil prior.

In 651 he experienced a vision in which angels bore up to heaven the soul of St. Aidan, and as a result of this he decided to become a monk at Melrose, though his entry seems to have been delayed by the requirement of military service – a consequence of the threat posed to the Kingdom of Northumbria by Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, who had already been responsible for the martyring of two Northumbrian kings, St Edwin and St Oswald.

Once peace had been restored, Cuthbert returned to Melrose, where he soon became known for his learning, holiness and miracles. He spent some time in the monastery of Ripon, but, along with other Ripon monks who felt a loyalty to the Celtic style of monasticism, left when St Wilfrid decided to enforce a stricter adherence to the Roman usage.

Back at Melrose he replaced St Boisil as prior, but, after the decision by the Synod of Whitby in 664 to accept Roman usage throughout the Anglo-Saxon church (most especially with regard to the date of Easter), St Eata sent Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior with a view to introducing Roman customs into what was by tradition a Celtic monastery.

Cuthbert’s success in this regard was due in large part to his own personal sanctity, and in the process he demonstrated that fidelity to all that was best in Celtic monasticism and commitment St Wilfrid’s program of bringing English Christianity more into line with continental Christianity were by no means incompatible with each other.

After a period devoted to evangelizing the people of Northumbria, Cuthbert retired (in 676) to lead the life of a hermit, finally settling on Farne Island off the Northumbrian coast. However, in 685 his life of prayer and asceticism was interrupted St Theodore of Canterbury insisted that Cuthbert be ordained Bishop of Lindisfarne, and for nearly two years Cuthbert devoted himself to preaching and pastoral work before returning to his cell on Farne Island to await his approaching death.

His tomb in the monastery at Lindisfarne was immediately associated with numerous miracles, giving rise to Cuthbert’s title of “Wonder-worker of England”.

During the Danish invasion of 875, Bishop Eardulf and the monks took Cuthbert’s body with them during a seven-year period of wandering around Cumberland and Galloway before returning to Northumbria where a converted Danish ruler who had a personal devotion to St Cuthbert gave the monks a church at Chester-le-Street a few miles to the north of Durham.

As the end of the first millennium approached, the fear of further Danish incursions resulted in the temporary transference of the shrine to Ripon. En route back to Chester-le Street (the threat of invasion having receded) the monks were persuaded by a sign from God to build a new shrine in Durham, which became the site for the original Durham Cathedral (completed in around 998/999).

After a brief sojourn on Lindisfarne (where he was removed for safety while William the Conqueror was ravaging the north in1969), Cuthbert’s shrine (containing his incorrupt body together with the head of St Oswald) was restored to the present Norman Cathedral in 1104.

Throughout the Middle Ages St Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham was one of England’s greatest centres of pilgrimage and devotion, but in 1542 the iconoclasm of the Reformers resulted in its despoliation. Happily, a group of Durham monks had the foresight to hide Cuthbert’s body in a secret location, which, according to tradition, is known to selected Benedictines who pass the knowledge on from one generation to the next.

For more information on St Cuthbert, the Haliwerfolc blog is heartily recommended.

428px-Saint_AidanYesterday (August 31st) was the memoria of St Aidan and the Saints of Lindisfarne, who have a special significance for the Church here in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.

The kingdom of Northumbria first embraced Christianity under St Edwin (d. 632/3) and his Kentish wife Æthelburga, but the conversion never went far beyond the royal household and the nobility, and, after Edwin’s death at the hands of Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, Northumbria reverted to paganism.

In 634, Oswald became King of Northumbria. From 616 he had lived in exile among the Irish of Dál Riata in Scotland, where he had converted to Christianity.

On becoming king, Oswald invited the monastery at Iona (founded by St Columba) to send missionaries for the purpose of converting the Northumbrian people.

(Oswald’s decision to Iona was not in any way a snub to the Rome-backed mission whose center of operations was based in Kent, but reflected his own personal connections with Irish Christians in Scotland.)

Iona initially sent a bishop named Cormán, whose methods proved harsh and ineffective. Irish/Celtic monasticism tended to be severe in its rigour and asceticism – more so even than continental monasticism – and Cormán’s approach appears to have been ill-suited to the task of evangelizing the Northumbrians.

He returned to Iona and was replaced by Aidan (together with twelve other monks) who settled on the island of Lindisfarne, which was close to Oswald’s fortress at Bamburgh on the North-East coast.

Here Aidan constructed an Irish-style monastery consisting of circular huts gathered around a small chapel and other communal buildings where he and his monks prayed, studied and gave themselves over to lives of austerity and asceticism, and from which they journeyed on foot in order to preach the gospel.

In the early stages of the mission, Aidan was actively assisted by Oswald, who functioned as an interpreter for Aidan who was unfamiliar with the local language.

Aidan also took care to provide for the education of future generations of monks and missionary bishops, and, initially bringing twelve boys to live in the monastery, turned Lindisfarne into the forerunner of a mediaeval monastic school.

Aidan, the “Apostle of Northumbria”, died at Bamburgh in 651, having assisted first Oswald (who, like Edwin before him, was martyred at the hands of the pagan King Penda) and later Oswin in evangelizing the Northumbrian people and in planting the structural, intellectual and spiritual seed which would flower most spectacularly in the age of Cuthbert and Bede.

The Orthodox Church had produced some very fine prayers for The Commemoration of Our Father among the Saints Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, Enlightener of Northumbria.

Image from the website of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, http://www.rcdhn.org.uk/about_the_diocese/saints/oswald.php

August 3rd is the feast of St Oswald, King of Northumbria. Oswald was born around 604, and was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death. Oswald’s father Æthelfrith ruled over Bernicia, and later over Deira, thus becoming the first to rule the two constituent kingdoms of Northumbria (Bernicia in the north, Deira to the south).

Æthelfrith was killed in battle around 616 by Raedwald, King of East Anglia, with the result that Oswald and his brothers were forced to flee to the north. Oswald himself grew up in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata in northern Britain, where he was converted to Christianity.

Æthelfrith had been succeeded as King of Northumbria by St Edwin, but, after Edwin had been defeated and killed by Cadwallon ap Cadfan (King of Gwynedd) and the pagan Penda (King of Mercia) in the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 632/633, Northumbria was once again divided between its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

Oswald’s brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he too was slain by Cadwallon, whom Oswald confronted in 634 at Heavenfield near Hexham. Before the commencement of battle, inspired by a vision of St Columba the previous night (as recounted by Adomnán in his Life of St Columba), Oswald knelt before a large wooden Cross, commanding his army to join him in earnest prayer.

His council agreed that they would be baptised and accept Christianity after the battle, and, in spite of their greater numbers, the pagan British were heavily defeated by the soon-to-be-baptised Northumbrian.

As a result of his victory at Heavenfield, Oswald reigned over a united Northumbria, and was established as the most powerful king in the British Isles – Adomnán describes him as “ordained by God as Emperor of all Britain”), while Bede states that he “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain”.

Edwin had converted to Christianity in 627, but Christianity had never really taken hold in the region. Oswald invited the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop – St Aidan – to help convert his subjects, and Oswald furnished Aidan with the  island of Lindisfarne to Aidan as his center of operations and episcopal see, often acting as his interpreter when he was preaching, as Aidan’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was initially poor, whereas Oswald was a good Irish-speaker.

In 642 Oswald was killed in battle (probably at Oswestry) and dismembered at the hands of the pagan King Penda of Mercia. According to Bede he final act in the face of imminent death was to pray for the souls of his own soldiers.

The site of Oswald’s death soon came to be associated with miracles. Many regarded his death as a martyrdom, though Bede sees his sanctity as consisting more in his great personal holiness, and, in particular, in his love and compassion towards the poor.

Image from the website of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle

EanswytheThe baptism of St Æthelberht King of Kent by St Augustine of Canterbury in 601 was in many ways the beginning of the conversion of England. Æthelberht’s son, Eadbald was a pagan, but his sister St Æthelburga was a Christian, as was his wife who ensured that her daughter Eanswythe was baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. After the death of Æthelberht in 616 (or 618) Eadbald openly embraced pagan idolatry, as did the three sons of the recently deceased King Saebert of the East Saxons (a convert to Christianity).

St. Laurence of Canterbury, St. Mellitus of London, and St. Justus of Rochester decided to abandon the Kentish mission, and Mellitus and Justus duly returned to Gaul. However, St Peter appeared in a vision to Laurence and admonished him for considering abandoning his flock, and, with the result that Laurence remained in Kent and succeeded in converting Eadbald.

The young Eanswythe possessed the same spirit as her aunt Æthelburga, and was drawn to a life of virginity and monastic seclusion. Eadbald wanted her to marry for dynastic reasons (just as Æthelburga had married King Edwin of Northumbria), but Eanswythe was adamant, and Eadbald relented and built her a monastery in Folkestone – the first women’s monastery in England.

Eanswythe was just sixteen years of age, so it is possible that experienced nuns were brought in from Europe until such time as Eanswythe was old enough to take on the role of abbess. Eanswythe was known as a miracle-worker, an enthusiastic reader of spiritual books, and a diligent worker in the monastery.

She died at around the age of twenty-five in August of 640 (the year of her father King Eadbald’s death) – not, perhaps, a spectacular saint by the standards of Anglo-Saxon England, but an example of great single-mindedness in her devotion to Christ and in her steadfast (even stubborn) commitment to a totally new kind of vocation (totally new in the context of English society, that is) which represented a radical rejection of contemporary political and social values.

AlphegeÆlfheah, or Alphege (954 –1012), was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred. He became a monk at Deerhurst at a young age, and then moved to Bath where he embraced the solitary life of an anchorite. His holiness and asceticism resulted in his election as Abbot of Bath Abbey, and he came to the attention of St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental in the election of Ælfheah as Bishop of Winchester in 984.

While at Winchester he devoted his energies to the construction of a gigantic organ, which reported requiredly upwards of twenty-four men for its operation, and which could be heard from over a mile away. Ælfheah was a builder and restorer of churches, and was also assiduous in the promotion of the cult of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially those of two bishops of Winchester, St Swithun and St Æthelwold.

He was actively involved in the conversion to Christianity of Olaf Tryggvason, one of the leaders of a series of Viking raids in 994, who agreed to desist from further attacks in return for danegeld. In 1006 he succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, bringing the head of St Swithun with him in a gesture which reflected his policy of promoting devotion to the saints of Anglo-Saxon England.

Once in office he pursued this policy still further, advancing the cult of St Dunstan – his former mentor and a predecessor at Canterbury – and commissioning Adelard to write Dunstan’s Life. He also helped secure the acknowledgment of the saintly status of St Wulfsige of Sherborne by the Witenagemot.

The year 1011 witnessed further Viking invasions, and in September the Danes laid siege to Canterbury. Together with the Bishop of Rochester (Godwine) and the Abbess of St Mildrith’s (Leofrun), Ælfheah was captured and held in prison for seven months.

Refusing to permit the payment of a ransom in exchange for his liberty, Ælfheah was killed by a mob of drunken Viking soldiers, though whether he was a martyr in the strictest sense of the term is questionable inasmuch as the immediate motive for his murder was his refusal to allow himself to be ransomed rather than his Christian faith per se.

He was initially laid to rest at St Paul’s Cathedral, but in 1023 King Canute (a Dane) arranged for the translation of his body to Canterbury. After the Conquest in 1066, Norman bishops, including Lanfranc (the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury) were somewhat antipathetic to Anglo-Saxon saints, including those venerated at Canterbury (not least because the cult of pre-Conquest saints could be seen as a political statement).

However, after Pope Gregory VII had canonized Ælfheah in 1078, Lanfranc enthusiastically recognized him as a saint (even going so far as to commission a monk to write a Vita), and Ælfheah (under the Norman rendering of his name, Alphege) became the only pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury (not counting Augustine, who was in any case a Roman) whose name was retained in Canterbury’s calendar of saints.

His remains were placed around the high altar of Canterbury together with those of St Dunstan, and St Thomas Becket is said to have prayed there to St Ælfheah before his own martyrdom.

Had the feast of SS Peter and Paul not been transferred from tomorrow, last Sunday would have been the memoria of St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 135-200)

Irenaeus was confronted by the challenge of Gnosticism – a highly sophisticated form of syncretistic esotericism which had latched onto Christianity and in which guru-like teachers initiated their followers into complex and symbolic belief-systems filled with cosmic mediator-figures and organized around the dualistic idea that salvation consisted in the liberation of the soul from the prison of the body.

Irenaeus opposed the Gnostic emphasis on private revelation to inspired teachers who then passed on their esoteric teaching to the enlightened by developing more explicitly than anyone before him the ideas of (i) the unity of the Church, (ii) the unity of the Faith (determined by the “rule of faith”), (iii) the identity of the Church as the locus of faith and grace and true teaching, and (iv) the apostolicity of the Church (for Irenaeus, the only valid teaching was that which could be traced back to one of the apostolic sees and especially the see of Rome).

Against the Gnostic teaching that the Christian life was about the liberation of the soul from the flesh, Irenaeus proclaimed the salvation of the whole human being – the healing, integration, perfection and (to use Patristic terminology) deification of body and soul, flesh and spirit. God created human beings to be in the image of God, to be filled with divine grace, and, ultimately, to behold the vision of God. Humanity is perfected in the person of Christ, who assumes human nature with all its materiality and fleshliness.

Irenaeus emphasizes (like Cyril of Alexandria) the personal unity of Christ, who is the divine person of the Son/Word who becomes fully human (without detriment to his divinity) – a true God-man, and not a human being existing in moral union with God or (at the other extreme) a divine person masquerading as a human being.

As perfect man, the incarnate Son fulfils in himself mankind’s destiny to be in the image of God, to be grace-filled, and to behold the glory of the Father. He “recapitulates” in himself the whole of mankind, passing through the various phases of birth, infancy, childhood, human suffering, etc, living the perfect human life in each of its successive stages.

He gathers up into his own person the story of Adam, the history of mankind, and the entirety of God’s plan for the redemption and perfection of everything, and becomes both the climax of human history up to that point and also the inauguration of the new creation (this is very much a development of the theology of Ephesians 1:3-10 and Colossians 1:10-20).

The God-man’s perfect obedience to the Father reveals the new covenant, makes atonement for the sins of mankind, undoes the damage caused by Adam’s fall, and creates a new kind of human existence which is characterized by a fully redeemed flesh, a healed will, a capacity for that “grace-fulness” which the Church Fathers call “deification”, and an orientation to behold the vision of God.

Christians share in this redemption through the Eucharist and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus understands Christ’s presence in the Eucharist very literally and realistically. The bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of the God-man, and through them the God-man incorporates us into himself (recapitulatio also denotes the idea of bringing everyone and everything under the headship of Christ as in Eph. 1:10), communicating to us his new kind of human existence, his redeemed flesh and healed will, his grace-fulness – in short, giving us a share in his deified humanity.