Friday, May 21, 2010

Why is St Symeon called the “New Theologian”? (2 of 4)

Let us apply these two very different approaches to the question of St Symeon’s account of the luminous vision, with the corollary issues of the primacy of the spiritual father and the centrality of personal spiritual experience.

Archbishop Basil, in his chapter “The Vision of Light” [12] takes St Symeon’s several accounts at face value, simply collating the various accounts and offering some commentary. Hieromonk Alexander takes a similar approach, even writing a sub-chapter entitled “The Glory in the Tradition,” in which he seeks to ground St Symeon’s account of the experience of the glory of God in light within the Old and New Testaments and the writings of the Fathers. He concludes by stating that “Glory and light, and the possibility of experiencing these things in the grace of the Holy Spirit, are nothing new in Greek patristic literature. Symeon is entirely justified in his claim that he is no innovator.” [13] Bishop Hilarion goes somewheat further, arguing that the vision of the divine light was the common experience of holy monks from the beginning of monasticism: “From the fourth century onwards monastic sources provide us with many examples of such discussions [of the vision of light], clearly indicating that the vision of light was the common experience of many generations of monks and ascetics.” [14] Bishop Hilarion later concludes: “it can be stated that Symeon’s doctrine of the vision of light definitely had its prehistory in patristic literature, particularly in the writings of Evagrios, Makarios, Maximos, and Isaac the Syrian.” [15] According to Bishop Hilarion, St Symeon’s uniqueness in his writings on the vision of the divine light lies solely in their autobiographical nature and his emphasis on the importance of the vision.

Thus we see that for the three authors cited, St Symeon’s writings in general and his emphasis on the vision of the divine light in particular are thoroughly grounded in the Patristic Tradition. St Symeon’s novely lies only in the particularly personal accounts of the vision and n the centrality he ascribes to this experience. One notes, however, a certain defensiveness in their treatments: if St Symeon is as traditional a theologian as they claim he is, why the need for such insistence. It is here that Fr John Anthony McGuckin’s work comes in handy.

Fr McGuckin’s intention is not to doubt or denigrate the reality of St Symeon’s experience or doctrine, but rather to find the authentic life behind the Vita by correlating St Symeon’s career with the political upheavals in the Byzantine court and offering a historical contextualization of St Symeon’s accounts of his spiritual visions. Against the above-cited authors, Fr McGuckin argues against their tendency to typecast St Symeon in a golden chain beginning with the early desert Fathers and culminating in the Hesychast controversy of the fourteenth century. The proper hermeneutic for reading St Symeon, Fr McGuckin contends, “must surely begin in his own text, and there it becomes immediately clear that the major literary source which has influenced him (apart from his entirely ‘standard’ reproductions of monastic ascetic literature) is the all-pervasive web of biblicisms that lies under his writing, and is a testimony to the manner in which a deep biblical awareness could soon be introduced by monastic observance.” [16] The particular biblical paradigms that Fr McGuckin considers are what he defines as the “Sinai paradigm,” the “Pauline paradigm(s),” and the “Apocalyptic-Vision archetype.” [17] In al of these the central concerns are “(a) a major claim for authority, and (b) an explicit need to establish the basis of a radical preached programme of reform.” [18] According to Fr McGuckin, St Symeons’s accounts are concerned primarily with the Pauline and Apocalyptic paradigms. As such, Fr McGuckin argues, St Symeon’s concern in recounting his experiences is not so much to establish a doctrine of divine light so much as to establish his own authority over the monks at the Monastery of St Mamas.

Fr McGuckin argues, furthermore, that St Symeon did make significant original contributions to the Byzantine monastic world, namely in, first, “his desire to see monasticism move the category of the ecstatic and visionary to central stage’; second, in “his desire to propagate his teacher’s form of emotive psychical energy in the affective spiritual life”; and, finally, in “his attempt to redefine the power structure in aristocratic foundations.” [19]

[12] Krivocheine, 215-238.

[13] Golitzin, 105.

[14] Alfeyev, 226, emphasis mine.

[15] Ibid., 241, emphasis mine.

[16] McGuckin, “Luminous Vision,” 97-98.

[17] Ibid., 98-101.

[18] Ibid., 101-102

[19] McGuckin, “Byzantine Monasticism,” 34.


David.R said...

In his Hymns (Hymn 11), Symeon (the New Theologian) speaks of his vision of the Trinity, while recognizing that it is beyond human possibilities. Sometimes he sees the three Persons, but it is Christ who opens his mind by this vision in darkness; 'Even during the night, in the heart of darkness, I see Christ - O dread - opening the heavens for me. Christ Himself who condescends and reveals Himself to me with the Father and Spirit, light thrice holy, one in three, three in one (light). Certainly they are the light; the Three are the one light which, better than the sun, enlightens my soul and illumines my mind, that until then had been in darkness. This wonder perplexes me even more when Christ somehow opens the eye of my mind, which was clouded before. For He appears to the One who contemplates Him, and it is in the light of the Spirit that those who contemplate Him see Him, and those who see in this light contemplate the Son. But the one who has been deemed worthy of seeing the Son sees the Father; assuredly, he contemplates the Father and beholds Him with the Son. This, I repeat, is what is happening to me!" In the Light of Christ p.282
How is the above different from St Gregory's Oration 40 section 41? " No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light". I fail to see the discontinuity that Fr Anthony talks about.
To the Administrator:
What is your opinion on this? Do you agree with Fr Anthony McGuckin?

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