Archive for September, 2009

St Symeon the New Theologian

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


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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.

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St Aidan of Lindisfarne

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.

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