EXPAND YOUR READING!!

"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Google+ Badge

Monday, 27 April 2009

Coming to Know God (St Symeon the New Theologian)




Symeon the New Theologian: On the divine light


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 Himself.

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.

Symeon the New Theologian: On the divine light


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 Himself.

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 relatively 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 the ascetical 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 l’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.

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 (John 8.12, John 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


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 Himself.

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 relatively 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 the ascetical 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 l’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.

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 (John 8.12, John 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

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 apersonal, 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
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.

Symeon the New Theologian: On the divine light


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 Himself.

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 relatively 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 the ascetical 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 l’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.

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 (John 8.12, John 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

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 apersonal, 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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Hymns of Divine Love, tr. 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; tr. 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; tr. G. Horn (Rome: Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies, 1928). Text in Greek and French.



1. Cf., e.g., Hymn 53.206-207; Hymn 44.30-62. [back]
2. Cf. Maloney, pp. 85-86. [back]
3. Hymn 50.152-254; p. 253, Maloney ed. [back]
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. Cf. 2nd Thanksgiving (Cat. 36) 10-14. [back]
5. 2nd Thanksgiving, 108-109, 208-212; Hymn 51.18-19. [back]
6. Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, Sermon 8; PG 940C-941C. [back]
7. Krivochéine, p. 254. [back]
8. 2nd Thanksgiving, 245-247. [back]
9. Krivochéine, p. 254. [back]
10. Hymn 45.6 (emphasis mine). Cf. also Ethics 5.276-277: ‘God is light, and is seen as a great light.’ [back]
11. Ethics 5.287-316 for full reference; emphasis mine. [back]
12. Hymn 55.126-129. [back]
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’. [back]
14. Ethics 5.310-316. [back]
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.’ [back]
16. 1st Thanksgiving, 1.180; Hymn 50.44. [back]
17. Cat. 16.108-110; 1st Thanksgiving 1.179-180. [back]
18. Cat. 16.108-122; 127-136. [back]
19. 2nd Thanksgiving, 132-137; 150-155. [back]
20. Cat. 16.127-136; cf. Krivochéine, pp. 232-233, who brings out this ‘cosmic character’ to the Light. [back]
21. 2nd Thanksgiving 175-177. [back]
22. Hymn 50.43-45 (emphasis mine). [back]
23. Cf. 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. [back]
24. 2nd Thanksgiving, 55-65. [back]
25. 2nd Thanksgiving, 140-148. [back]
26. Hymn 33.1-8; cf. Maloney, pp. 94-95 for comments on the importance of ‘silencing the heart.’ [back]
27. Hymn 32.84-85. [back]
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. [back]
29. 2nd Thanksgiving 265-269. [back]
30. Ethics 5.263-269. [back]
31. Cf. Hymn 13.70; 25.18; 40.16; 49.72, etc. [back]
32. 2nd Thanksgiving 262-263. [back]
33. 2nd Thanksgiving, 226-227; 237-242. [back]

ON THE BEATINGS OF OUR LORD AND GOD
On The Beatings of Our Lord and God, albeit entirely blameless, condescended to beatings so that the sinners who would emulate Him would not only receive absolution of their sins, but would also become communicants in His divinity, through their obedience. He was God, and for our sake became a man. He was beaten, spat on and crucified, and with everything that the (divinely) Impassionate One underwent, it is as though He is teaching us, and saying to each one of us:

If you wish to become God, to gain eternal life and live with Me—something that your forefather did not achieve, because he strove to do it in the wrong manner—then humble yourself, just as I had humbled Myself for you; avoid the arrogance and pride befitting the demonic mentality; accept beatings, spittings, slappings; persevere throughout them all to the death, and do not be ashamed.

But, should you feel too ashamed to suffer something for the sake of My commandments, the way that I, your God, suffered for your sake, then I too shall consider it shameful, for you to be with Me during My glorious Coming and I shall say to My angels:

“This one here was ashamed to confess Me during My humiliation and he did not condescend to abandon the world and be alike to Me. Thus, now that he has been stripped of the perishable glory that my Father had given him (after the death of his flesh), I consider it shameful to even look upon him. Therefore cast him out, ...take away the impious, so that he may not see the glory of the Lord. (Is 26:10).”

Shudder, all you people, and be afraid, and show joyful patience with all the hubris, which God had likewise suffered for our salvation… God was beaten by a worthless servant, and yet, you do not condescend to suffer the same by your fellow-man? Are you ashamed of emulating God? How, then, will you reign alongside Him and be glorified along with Him in His Heavenly kingdom, if you will not suffer your brother patiently? If He had not condescended to becoming a man for your sake, and instead had left you lying there, in your fallen state of transgression to this day, wouldn’t you now be in the deepest part of Hades, you wretch, along with the impious and the irreverent?

But what do we say to those who have actually abandoned everything and became poor, supposedly for the sake of the Heavenly kingdom?

So, my brother, you have become poor and you have thus far emulated Christ the Master and your God. You can see Him, Who resides above all the Heavens, now living and associating with you. See, you are now walking alongside each other. Then someone comes along on your life’s path and first slaps your Master, then slaps you. The Master Himself does not react against him, and yet you do? “Yes”, says the brother, “because the Master Himself had said to the one who struck Him: if I have spoken wrongly, tell me what it was; but if I have spoken correctly, why do you strike me? (Jn 18:23)

But the Lord did not say these words as though talking back at the servant, as you may have imagined; it was because He had committed no sin, nor was any guile found in the words of His mouth. He uttered those words, so that it may not be imagined that - because He had supposedly sinned - the servant had justly struck Him, saying is this how you reply to the high priest? (Jn 18:22).

But we are not like Him—we, who are responsible for so many sins. Not to mention that, despite having suffered something far worse than a beating, He did not utter a word; instead,

He prayed for those who crucified Him.

He, even when mocked, displayed no indignation, and you grumble?

He tolerated their spitting, slapping and whippings, and you can’t tolerate a single harsh word?

He accepted a Cross and the torture of the nails and a disgraceful death, and you do not condescend to perform the lowliest of ministries?

How, then, will you become a communicant in glory, if you do not condescend to becoming a communicant in His dishonorable death? Indeed, you have abandoned your wealth in vain, if you have not agreed to also lift up a Cross; in other words, to patiently suffer the onslaught of all tribulations; therefore, my brother, you are left all alone on the path of life, and you have unfortunately separated yourself from your sweetest Master and God!

By St. Symeon the New Theologian, from the book «Stavroanastasima», published by the Holy Monastery of Saint Symeon the New Theologian.)

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Peace at the heart of the troubled history of the Maronites



The Consecration in the Aramaic Mass of the Maronites.

From Times Online
April 17, 2009
Peace at the heart of the troubled history of the Maronites
The oldest printing press in the Middle East is hidden in a monastery in the Qadisha Valley
undefined
David Helsten

The earliest reported printing press in the Middle East is hidden within the stone walls of a museum in the valley of Mount Lebanon.

The monastery of St Anthony is also the cradle of Lebanese Maronite Christianity: a branch of Maronite Catholicism that emerged in this rugged terrain of the Zghorta district of Mount Lebanon in the early 5th century.

At that time paganism was rife in the mountainous regions of Lebanon, where Christianity had been introduced by Ibrahim El Kawrachi and St Simeon Stylites, followers of St Maron of Syria, who is considered the founder of Maronite Christianity.

Of the pair, Simeon is the better known and indeed was infamous for living on a platform on top of a pillar (style in Greek). The idea was that this emulated Christ crucified between the heavens and the earth. Simeon and his followers, the Stylites, converted the Becharre region — the birthplace of the poet Khalil Gibran in 1883 — and then the remainder of the Qadisha Valley, site of St Anthony’s.

The monastery took the name of St Anthony of Egypt, the 4th-century Egyptian regarded as the founder of desert monasticism. Hearing one day the Gospel injunction “to sell all thou hast” (Matthew xix, 21), Anthony abandoned his family wealth and ease for a life of asceticism in the desert.

The archives of St Anthony’s contain title deeds for the purchase of land that dates back to AD1179. A papal bull from Pope Innocent III in the year 1215 addressed to Patriarch Jeremiah (Ermiya) al-Amshiti (1199-1230) states that the monastery constituted the first Maronite episcopal see.

The grounds surrounding the monastery are carved with terraced slopes hewn into solid rock. For as far as the eye can see, the once arid ground lies rich with cedar, oak and pine, thanks to centuries of hard work by cave-dwelling hermits and congregations of monks. This ordered scenery, an apparent model of agricultural sustainability, forms the vast Qadisha Valley. Its cultivation reflects Lebanon’s quest for holiness.

For how the monks found eventual prosperity in this secluded spot in the Lebanese mountains does not merely reflect this country’s record for offering sanctuary to persecuted minorities and communities. It is also the story of the emergence and survival of Maronite Christianity.

A key moment was in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, a place that today lies within the Kadiköy district on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. This groundbreaking council clarified the nature of Christ as being both human and divine.

The Maronites strongly supported the council’s decision, a factor which made them bitter enemes of the Monophysites, who held that Christ had only one nature, which was divine.

To reward the Maronites, Pope Leo I ordered a monastery to be built for the disciples of St Maron on the banks of the Orontes River in Syria. In 452, on the orders of the Byzantine emperor Marcian, the Bet Moroon monastery was duly built there. However, it proved short-lived. In 514, conflicts between Maronites and Monophysites led to the monastery’s destruction. More than 350 monks were killed and the rest were dispersed.

The surviving Maronites informed Pope Hormisdas once more about their struggles, and he described them, in a letter of support, as “martyred soldiers of Jesus Christ”. Next, the Maronites fled the Orontes Valley and Monophysite persecution, taking sanctuary in the Qadisha Valley, where they led ascetic lives, dwelling primarily in the caves. Over the following centuries, further conflicts and persecution followed: at the hands of Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottoman soldiers The Maronites of the Qadisha Valley remained mountain dwellers, and thus became part of a Syro-Aramaic culture that was quite distinct from that of urban Christians shaped by a Graeco-Roman Byzantine civilisation. The deprivation, isolation and seclusion they endured marked the lives and personalities of the first Maronites. In The Qadisha Valley, from the Depths to the Peaks, George Hayek writes: “This valley would not have been called holy if this particular community had not chosen it, during many eras, to be its stronghold and sanctuary against religious persecution and political neglect.”

In the 16th century the first printing press reported in the Middle East was brought to St Anthony’s from Germany by two monks. Today it is preserved in the stone-walled museum on the monastery ground floor and bears an intriguing signature: Thos Long & Co. Engineer Edinburgh.

The printing press has Syriac characters, and the earliest text known to survive from this period is the Book of Psalms, printed in 1610. The text is preserved at the University of the Holy Spirit at Kaslik, outside Beirut.

Other liturgical and religious books printed over the centuries in the monastery include the liturgy, the Epistles, the Breviary and the Martyrology, printed both in Syriac and Karchouni, (Arabic written with the Syriac alphabet). Copies can also be viewed in the monastery museum.

In 1998 the monastery and the Qadisha Valley were inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List as one of the oldest monastic foundations in the world.

“This land and our monastery is the identity of the Lebanese people. Without them there is no identity,” says Father Antoine Tahan, the abbot of St Anthony’s and a teacher of music at the University of the Holy Spirit, Kaslik, on Mount Lebanon.

For him, the relevance of the monastic lifestyle and the values of the Maronites remain the same as they have always been: “Common to us all is the love of family and the need of respect toward other people’s faiths,” he explains.

Do the Maronites still have a mission today? “To encourage similarities rather then differences of peoples diverse or conflicting beliefs,” Father Tahan says.

Educated in Montreal, Father Tahan believes in open communication with the various, often conflicting sects of Lebanese society. He has opened the monastery doors to a diversity of political and religious groups including Sunni and Shia Muslims. He says: “We are all brothers. This is a safe place where all are welcome, those who seek refuge from an often troubling and confusing world. It’s a place for reflection, meditation and peace. Where you leave the troubles of the world behind . . . if only for a time.”

Friday, 17 April 2009

Easter in Bulgaria

(Courtesy of Associated Press) Ceremony of the Holy Easter Fire at Christ's Tomb, Easter Night (Orthodox)

For many these days, the celebration of Easter is centred only around midnight and the ritual lighting of candles from "holy fire" at churches throughout Bulgaria’s cities, towns and villages.

In recent years, there have been live television broadcasts of Bulgarian Orthodox Church senior clergy arriving by special aircraft from Jerusalem, bearing in a special lantern holy fire from the Holy Land.

For those somewhat more devout than those who have only a last-minute engagement with Easter, the run-up to Orthodox Christianity’s holiest day would have begun some time before.

In Bulgarian Orthodox Church tradition, the fast at this time of year begins on Zagovezni, the Sunday six weeks before Easter.
For these 46 days, tradition calls for abstention from all animal products.

Even during this period, there are Bulgarian traditions which owe more to paganism than to any conventional Christian theology; for instance, the belief that if you hear a cuckoo midway through the time of fasting, spring is coming. If you have money in your pocket, you will be rich in the coming year, but if you have no money, or are hungry, then you are set for a year of bad fortune.

On the Sunday before Easter, known as Tsvetnitsa (Palm Sunday) it is allowed for the faithful to eat fish. In villages where such observances remain possible, the day is traditionally celebrated with young girls weaving crowns from willow branches, which they throw into a stream, where further down boys are waiting.

In Sofia and other larger cities, churches open their doors early in the morning on Palm Sunday and willow branches are distributed.
The symbolism of Palm Sunday can easily be linked not just to the resurrection of Jesus, but to that of all of nature.

In Bulgaria, Palm Sunday is often referred to as Vrubnitsa, as a symbol of nature’s resurrection.
Vrubnitsa marks the start of Holy Week, which precedes the great festival of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and which consequently is used to commemorate Jesus’s Passion, and the events that immediately led up to it.

Vrubnitsa, which in translation could be termed Flower Day is one of the biggest name days as there are a lot of Bulgarian names derived from flowers, for example: Violeta, Tsvetelina, Lillia, Yavor, Yassen, Roza, Iglika, Latinka, Temenuga, Karamfila, Zdravko, Kameila. Hence the flowers given as Name Day gifts. The branches, traditionally willow, are distributed by churches and are carried, or worn as crowns by girls and women.
Holy Thursday

Those who have missed the egg-painting tradition in the early hours of Holy Thursday, can still do so on Saturday, but not earlier, according to Bulgarian tradition.
Friday in Holy Week is the anniversary of the Crucifixion, the day that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.
In Bulgarian tradition, the "coffin of Christ" –in reality, generally meaning a table set up in the church – stays for a week in the church and people crawl underneath for health and fertility.

Easter is characterised by certain food and rituals. In Orthodox tradition, these are the sweet bread and dyed eggs. In Bulgaria, Kozunak, the traditional, braided, sweet bread, symbolising the body of Christ, is a necessary item on the Easter table everywhere.

Kozunak is a city culture item, which was introduced to the villages later on. The decorations on top of the bread represent solar symbols and commemorate Christ’s birth.

Easter candles are another symbol of Easter. These are sometimes lit in churches on the eve of Easter Sunday. Some commentators believe that these can be directly linked to the Pagan customs of lighting bonfires at this time of year to welcome the rebirth/resurrection of the sun god.
Many people named after flowers or plants celebrate their name days on Palm Sunday and others called Velichka, Velina, Velika and Veichko have their Name Days on Easter day.

An hour before midnight on Saturday, all churches begin the Easter liturgy. Families and friends go together to church, carrying the coloured eggs with them. When the clock strikes midnight, they greet each other with the words "Hristos vozkrese" ("Christ has risen"). The answer is "Voistina vozkrese" ("He has risen indeed").

They then walk around the church three times with candles in hand, led by the priest. The candles are carried back home.
While still at the church, though, the ever-important egg "fight" (in Bulgarian, "choukane s yaitsa") begins. Similar to the British game of conkers, opponents smash their eggs onto one another. The player whose egg remains intact is proclaimed the winner, or Borak. The winning egg is kept until Easter the following year.

On Sunday, because Lent is over, the tradition is to have a table laden with food, the most important of which is lamb. In Eastern Europe, this is particularly important, as Orthodox believers relate it to the death of Jesus Christ, because a lamb is believed to have been sacrificed in the name of Christ on Resurrection day.
While many Bulgarians will relate the tradition to you in this way, it might also be pointed out that at Passover, Jewish observance included the sacrificial consumption of lamb.

Search This Blog

La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Virgen de Guadalupe

Followers

My Blog List

Fr David Bird

Fr David Bird
Me on a good day

Blog Archive