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Basil Tatakis

Mystical Theology

From: "Byzantine Philosophy". Translated, with Introduction, by Nicholas J. Moutafakis - Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/ Cambridge

Part 1

The current of speculative mysticism created by Pseudo-Dionysios and Maximos the Confessor continued uninterrupted during the entire span of the Byzantine period until the fall of Constantinople. It was the most precious fruit of monastic spirituality and constituted a living tradition that clearly revealed the intellectual, spiritual, and religious efforts of the Byzantine soul to comprehend through contemplation the divine in all of its purity. This attitude, though profoundly Christian, is intimately tied to Neoplatonism, to which it owes its method of understanding and its unquenchable thirst for contemplating the unity of the universe. Relegating to asceticism the task of examining the outward obligations of the Christian life, mystical theology is exclusively preoccupied with the inner life of the Christian in his immediate and spiritual relation to God. Controversies involving dogma and the proper interpretation of Scripture had left the field open to speculation, which explains in large part the predilection of Byzantine thought for mystical theology. Another characteristic of Byzantine mysticism is its attachment to ritual ceremonies not for their own sake but for the depth of their hidden meaning and symbolism. In discovering their meanings Byzantine mystics were able to develop their own meditations further. To understand the depth of mystical theology, we must remember that according to its principal founder, Dionysios, it can only be a negative theology. Man cannot bestow any positive definitions upon God, and all paths which reason offers must be rejected; for knowing God, who is inexpressible, discursive reasoning is more harmful than useless. One can reach God only by means of contemplation. Monks increasingly adopted this view because of their pressing need to sense and see suprasensible and supernatural realities. In this way, Platonic reflection is finally transformed into a personal mystical experience. Paul of Latros (circa 956) and Symeon the Stoudite, also called the Eulabes [the Reverent] (circa 986), had already described the vision of the uncreated light. Symeon the New Theologian, or Symeon the Younger (949/50-1022), spiritual follower of Symeon Eulabes simply followed the path traced by these two predecessors and earlier ascetic monasticism.

Symeon the New Theologian was more captivated than the others by the desire to sense and see, and thereby to achieve the mystical experience. As a forerunner of Kabasilas and of Palamas--opponents of Palamas such as Demetrios Kydones view Symeon as the spiritual head of Hesychasm (4) - and a more profound thinker than the former two, Symeon is considered the most original theologian of Byzantium. Early on he had realized that mystical intuition was both incompatible with worldly life and achievable only by monks. For this reason, as soon as he had completed his elementary education, he refused to study philosophy. Believing that human sciences and the companionship of fellow students were harmful to his soul (5), he went to Stoudios' monastery and placed his heart and soul in the care of the famous ascetic Symeon Eulabes, who exercised exclusive influence over his spiritual son. Svmeon later went to the monastery of Saint Mamas outside Constantinople, where he served as its head for a very long time. Among the works that made a special impression on him were the works of Saint Mark the Ascetic and Saint John Klimax. According to his student and biographer Stethatos, it was a revelation for him to read Saint Mark's statement, "Pay attention to your conscience, and do all that it says” (6) -this served as a guiding principle throughout his life, both in theory and in practice. John Klimax's definition of impassivity- the deadening of both the soul and intelligence prior to the body's death- was also a revelation. Symeon's mystical nature is clearly illustrated by his preference for books on asceticisrn, which from his earliest years accompany him in his quest for the divine light. Stethatos assures us that Symeon was totally ignorant of the natural sciences (7). In spite of this, he says, divine grace had enabled him to theologize in a remarkable way On the one hand, Symeon knew patristic literature -apart from the mystic and ascetic writers- only in a summary fashion. On the other hand, he had a profound knowledge of the Scriptures. It is astonishing to see with what ease and freedom he moves within the depth of biblical thought. His is not an external understanding but rather awareness whose source is internal, attained spontaneously. This mastery impels him to be an interpreter of the divine word and thus to outline the life of the Christian and understand the nature of the union between man and God in a spontaneous and original manner. Symeon was a true seer, and his excessively mystical thought defies all attempts at systematization. If we also add that one of his original writings, Hymns of Divine Love, is in large part composed in verse --Symeon is an original poet as well as a profound theologian (8) - we begin to understand the difficulty and delicacy required for analyzing this mystical thought, bathed as it is in exquisite sensibility. Basically, his was not a work of pure reflection; rather it was a way of life and a disposition of the heart.

Following Maximos, from whom he derives a great deal of his thinking, Symeon maintains that man was never free except before the presence of sin; after his fall man lost his free will and became a slave to sin. The sole remnant of independence which has remained with this slave is his desire to be free, and the only way to succeed is constantly to have one's mind directed to God, the source of salvation (9). Only faith, and not works, can save man. Faith in God sanctifies and liberates man by divine grace; it is the sole remedy for the simple soul, which it sustains and vivifies with its divine power. Faith is the soul of the soul, and it guides her, her conceptions, and her reflections toward divine consent, which is truth. The soul thus sanctified in turn sanctifies the body, for she guides the body and permeates all of its parts. Thus, human nature and habits are alterable. For this reason, each believer who receives divine grace undergoes a magnificent transformation, becoming godlike through grace, like Christ himself, who initiated the alteration. It is precisely for this reason that God conferred upon human nature the power of love (αγαπητική) so as to assist reason, ultimately enabling man to use his voluntary love of which God's commandment speaks (10). Life has no meaning or content except within divine grace. Therefore, before singing hymns or prayers to God we must reconcile ourselves with him by faith. This reconciliation with God, a sign that we have been visited by divine grace, fills the human soul with divine light and makes it progressively more divine.Then, and only then, prayer, which is nothing else than a conversation with God, becomes possible. We no longer need to study prayer. Whoever prefers such study to prayer itself deludes him and actually distances himself from his own salvation. Such a person is totally insensitive (11).For he who welcomes divine grace is counted among the friends of Jesus, and peace and happiness reign in his heart. In this union he becomes Jesus, totally and fully. Only then can he say that though he moves his hand, it is Christ himself who moves it (12). Though human by nature, man is God by grace. This ability to feel the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is common to all Christians. Jesus became man so that humanity would be able to see him and join in union with him. Since God is everywhere at all times, he does not distance himself from us, but rather it is we who separate ourselves from him. Thus Symeon argues as a tireless and ardent advocate of the possibility of union with God, which he believes to be common to all Christians. The Christian achieves this union in his own way; it is a matter of personal experience. On the one hand, each must recognize the signs of sanctity through the intimate examination of psychological awareness. On the other hand, the ascension to God is not accomplished by degrees. For as soon as one welcomes the visitation of the Holy Spirit, at that very moment the alteration has taken place; one's original human nature is restored, man becomes free, and through grace he becomes God. This position, inspired by the ancient Platonic doctrine of purification, leads to the interiorization of the content of faith and dogma. It is good, says Symeon (13), for one to be baptized, but mystical life, which is to say the spiritual light, can be sensed only by spiritual means. The place of Plato's contemplative intelligence is now taken over by the contemplative spirit, in the Christian sense of the term as we will see further on. In the traditional manner of Byzantine spirituality, Symeon identifies purification with the abandonment of the world, the death of the senses, the forsaking of the self, and the death of one's own intelligence. In asceticism, everything is governed by the renunciation of all intellectual understanding of God, even that of revelation. Perfection lies in one's becoming a blank tablet, ready to receive the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. For asceticism alone, however continuous, vigilant, and harsh, is not sufficient to lead us to truth. We need, says Symeon following John Klimax, a guide, a saintly man, a spiritual father (14), in whom we can have absolute trust. Our absolute confidence in a spiritual father is the proof that we are on the right track that we have mastered the high art of self-abandonment, and that we are prepared to receive naked truth. This truth will not be the result of a long chain of reasoning, but neither will it be subject to conceptualization.

The mortification of the body and the death of the soul through asceticism
lead to the true birth of the soul; in place of the individual soul there is now a soul infused with spiritual awareness, one that is no longer capable of reasoning but of "seeing" the higher causes of things, i.e., supernatural realities,the divine. We are able to know and see precisely because we can no longer understand and see in merely human ways. This is the great experience,the personal experience, during which-without our losing the sense of self-we see the divine light, which surrounds us so as to implant itself immediately within us (15), plunging us into an atmosphere of serenity and peace, one of sweet happiness, making the soul fly even farther into divine love. All that we are able to see and sense during these moments of blissful experience is ineffable "because," Symeon expressly states,the mind which unites with God ... is light and sees the light of all things, which is the knowing of God, and the light which it sees is life and gives life to him who sees it. The intelligence, seeing itself entirely united with this light, instantly recoils, and man remains as he was before the seeing of the light. He sees the light which dwells within the soul and thus becomes ecstatic, and in this ecstatic state sees the light outside himself. And when he comes to himself, he finds himself within this light, and thus cannot find words or thoughts with which to describe the light which he sees (16).

The person who has united himself with God does not return to his ordinary state after the mystical experience has ended; rather he continually senses that he has been sanctified, that he is indeed deified. This means that his life has achieved its total fulfilment, as long as he no longer separates himself from God. It follows then that only the person who has enjoyed the vision of the divine light is capable of theologizing, since he alone has seen with the spiritual eyes of his soul the supernatural realities, and only he who has seen God can speak of him. Thus "to theologize" means to describe what one has seen by the help of the divine light, which joins us with God. Reading Symeon's writings give one the vivid impression that all he has said is the result of a continuous vision. Reason and intelligence themselves are replaced by spiritual sight, which divine light has purified and opened. It should be noted here that this state of beatitude is achieved through a persistent and personal effort and that the consciousness of God is a result of union which is love. God unifies us with himself because he is both light and love. Divine love is ecstatic, which is to say that it permits the giving of the self, i.e., self-abandonment. God is no longer, as was the case for the Greeks and Pseudo-Dionysios, only an amiable object, for now he is also a loving subject. When the monk follows the path leading to illumination, God embraces him mystically and showers him with affection (17).But what is God's immense love for us? According to Symeon, "It is nothing other than light, inaccessible light, the light which energizes all things"(18). The most encouraging sign for the believer in the quest for spiritual perfection is the gift of tears; tears of joy or of compunction, for oneself or for another -Symeon assumes the responsibility of crying and suffering for the sins of others, since he sees himself as their cause- must constantly accompany the life of the monk. These tears spring from the soul. They are spiritual and they speak of the profound intimacy between the soul and God, which allows man to understand on the one hand the grandeur of God and God's love for him, and on the other, the evil which man does to himself when he sins. Assiduous tears constitute the most fruitful prayer, for where one bathes in abundance of these tears, they become equivalent to a baptismal fountain (19).

It is important to note that though this union with God is the result of self abandonment, in Symeon's view it does not mean the absence of the self, as was the case with Plotinus and Saint Augustine; rather union with God remains an experience during which empirical awareness is present. "Upon my seeing that light," says Symeon, "the ceiling of my cell and the world itself slipped away before it, and only Ι remained to commune with it "(20). The similarity between this phrase and Plotinus' φυγή μόνου πρoς μόνον is coincidental; Plotinian communion with the One is ecstatic in nature, whereas according to Symeon, man, once he receives the gift of seeing the divine light, lives his whole life in uninterrupted communion with Jesus and breathes God himself. On the other hand, the divine light can also be viewed spiritually, in the form of intelligible light (21). "The spiritual soul receives the spiritual experience (22).The intellect attaches itself to this inconceivable and ineffable miracle and is carried completely beyond the world, not with the body but with all of its sensations, since they too accompany the intellect toward him whom we contemplate in the soul. ..."(23) Ecstasy, if we can still use this word, manifests itself within the soul. The soul joins with God as light blends with light and fire with fire (24). We find therefore in Symeon, in addition to the mystical phenomena of union or fusion with the divine, other, more external, forms of communion with God, such as sensations of presences, visions, and voices. Above all, however, with Symeon we are dealing with a union, which transforms and deifies a true spiritual marriage of soul with the divine. Divine grace allows him to proceed further than Plato. Symeon, like all mystics after Maximos, seeks the union of man and the divine, i.e., man's deification, whereas for Plato man can only resemble, but not unite with, the divine.


4. Ibid. vol. 154, col. 180.

5. Codex, Paris, supl.Gr. f 103, 1v. (In the Modern Greek text, this note is given as PG, vol. 138, and col. 93. Recent study suggests that Saint Symeon may not have entered Stoudios Monastery until the age of twenty-seven, and that he may have served as a diplomat and senator.See Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, C. J. de Catanzaro, trans., Paulist Press, 1980, p. 6.-Trans.]

6. See Markos the Erimite, De lège spirituali, no. 69, in PG, vol. 65, col. 913C.

7. Irénée Hausherr, ed., Un grand mystique byzantin: Vie de Siméon le Nouveau Théologien (949-1022) par Nicetas Stethatos, Gabriel Horn, trans., Pontificale Institutum Orientalium Studorium, Rome, 1928, p. 48.

8. O.P Maas said at the Byzantine Congress in Belgrade (1927) that Saint Symeon possessed "one of the most vigorous poetic temperaments in all of Eastern Christendom." See EOR 27, 1928, p. 87.

9. Dionysios of Zagora, ed., lst ed., trans., Venice, 1790, p.48, A; also in PG, vol. 120, discourse V [The original manuscript translated into Modern Greek and edited by D. Zagora, and referred to by Tatakis, is found in the Hilander Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece. It is currently designated as No.293, and its shelf designation is 307. It has been reproduced on microfilm as part of the Hilander Project of the Ohio State University, 1971, on one microfilm reel, 35 mm. In this footnote there is a change in the way Tatakis presents his references. In the French text the page number occurs after the column letter. In the Modern Greek text this practice is reversed. The latter convention will be followed in presenting all the notes on Zagora for this chapter. For a recent reprint of this source, see Slova prepodobnago Simona novago bogoslova/v pezevodie na russik ii iazyk s novogrecheskago Episkopa Feofana, reprinted by JUH (i.e., G.Harastej), Rome, 198?.-Trans.]

10. Dionysios of Zagora, p. 113, A.

11. Ibid., 58 A.

12. [This sentence is added in the Modern Greek text by Tatakis.-Trans.]

13. PG, vol. 120, col. 327ΑΒ.

14. Dionysios of Zagora, pp. 68-9, Α.

15. PG, vol. 120, col. 537CD; Codex Μonac. 526 (s.XV), f. 64; Dionysios of Zagora, p.19, Β. (Dr. Linos Benakis has suggested the correction to Tatakis's original citation, "Cod. Μon., p. 64,"to read: Codex Μonac. 526 (s.XV), f. 64.This citation is corrected in the second French edition as well as in the Modern Greek edition.-Trans.]

16. Dionysios of Zagora, p.107, Α; p.57, Β; p.106, Β.

17. Ibid., p. 308, Α.

18. Ibid., p. 80, Β.

19. Ι. Hausherr, op. cit., pp. 121-52.

20. Codex Parisinus Coisl., 291, f. 252 r.

21. Dionysios of Zagora, p. 108, Α.

22. Ibid., p. 147, Α.

23. Ibid., p. 307, Α.

24. Ibid., p. 27, Α.[In the following sentence there is a subtle change in the Modern Greek text that puts it at variance with the French and Spanish editions. The French and Spanish refer to "God," whereas the Modern Greek refers to "the divine". Since the reference is in the context of Plato's thought, the Modern Greek edition seems truer to the Platonic meaning.-Trans.]

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