Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Living in the Light of Christ: Lessons from Saint Simeon the New Theologian from his discourse on the Beatitudes

Saint Symeon the New Theologian offers us important lessons about how one can be united with Christ and have a life lived in His light. In my Lenten meditation on His Discourses, especially the one on the Beatitudes, there were three elements that moved my heart. They are: 1. Seek Christ unceasingly; 2. Develop poverty of Spirit; 3. Separate from attachment to things of this world. 

1.Seek Christ unceasingly
All spiritual life begins with faith and continually seeks to be united with Christ.  Instead of having our attention directed to earthly things and matters, “have one’s mind wholly set on Christ,” says Saint Symeon. 
“Think of the unutterably glory of the Godhead, which is beyond thought thought and understanding. Think of God’s unutterable power, His immeasurable mercy, His inconceivable riches, which He generously and bountifully gives to men. “
To seek union with God we must be able to change our life so it can become totally Christ centered. He says, 
“Flee from the deceit of life and it’s supposed happiness and run to Christ alone, who is the Savior of souls. ...who is everywhere present...let us hold Him fast and fall at His feet.” 
Just like the women who went to the tomb and fount it empty and then encountered the Risen Christ and “held Him by the feet and worshiped Him” (Mt 28:9).

To have this zeal that is essential to make changes in our life so we are able to continually seek God, we must be able to separate from attachment to all things of this world that are not essential for our living. This requires that we gain poverty of spirit. Let’s now examine this idea of spiritual poverty.

2. Develop poverty of Spirit
Spiritual poverty is the true meaning of humility. When we have tried to follow all of God’s commandments, we find that we cannot do this by our own will alone. We realize our efforts are insufficient and that we lack what is needed to become like Christ. When we realize that it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we will be able to carry out His commandments fully, and that we are not able to accomplish what we desire, to become one with Christ, we realize our poverty of Spirit. The lack we feel is what is meant by poverty of spirit. It is true humility where we realize our need of God’s help, our dependence on Him, and we become willing to give up our own idea of self-sufficiency.  

Saint Symeon says, 
“When the faithful man, who always pays strict attention to the commandment of God, performs all that the divine commandments enjoin...He will find he is weak and lacks power to attain to the height of the commandments, indeed that he is very poor, unworthy to receive God and give Him thanks an glory, since he has yet failed to attain any good on his own...he will mourn with that sorrow which is truly most blessed which  will receive comfort and make the soul meek.”
Note how poverty of spirit is a precondition for mourning, another Beattitude. When we find we are lacking what is needed for us to follow all His commandments we find ourselves mourning over our poor condition. We mourn as we begin to beg God to open our hearts to receive the Holy Spirit.

In the Psalm or repentance, one we read in most of our services, tells us that what is needed is, “a humble and contrite heart.” It reads: “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, A broken and humbled heart God will not despise.” (Ps 50:19 (51:19)) The greatest and most important sacrifice we can offer God is a contrite heart. In other words, to have the feeling of spiritual poverty.

Saint Symeon says, spiritual poverty “is the means of obtaining the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus puts it this way: 
“Do not worry about your life... But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mt 6:25ff) 
“The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God.” (Mt 5:3)
John in his epistle affirms the necessity to have the Spirit in us if we are to keep His commandments. He says, 
“Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.”  (1 John 3:24, 2:27)
Poverty of spirit is what is meant by humility. “With unfeigned humiliation there is depth of humility.” Saint Symeon says, 
“With humility there is enlightenment of the Spirit. With enlightenment of the Spirit there is the outpouring of the light of God. With the outpouring of the light of God there is the wisdom and knowledge of His mysteries. Where these mysteries are found there is the kingdom of heaven and experience of the kingdom and the hidden treasures of the knowledge of God  which is manifestation of the poverty of spirit.”
Poverty of spirit is like a necessary steppingstone that enables us to come closer to God and know His mysteries. Paul says, 
This is needed so “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3)
Saint Symeon says,
“Let us long with all our soul for the things God commands us to embrace: spiritual poverty, which the world calls humiliation; constant mourning by night and by day, from which there wells forth the joy of the soul and the hourly consolation for those who love God."

3.Separate from attachment to things of this world
The second attribute we need is possibly the most difficult for us who live a life immersed in the modern consumer driven way of life.  What is called for is detachment, to not be enslaved by our desires for the things of this world. Our sight must always be focused on His eternal kingdom. Our focus on our worldly desires detracts our attention away from God. Our attachment to worldly things separates us from God.

How do we know that we have gained this spiritual poverty and are in mourning over what we do not yet spiritually have? What actions demonstrate this?
Saint Symeon says, 
“They consist in not desiring anything that is visible and subject to corruption, by which I mean the affairs and pleasures of the world, wealth, fame, pleasure, or any other worldly or bodily enjoyment.”
Why is this so critical in our spiritual journey? He says that,
when we “have the world alive in us just as we are living in it," and have “our minds set on earthly things” we “no longer posses Christ in ourselves."
Paul also says something similar:
"For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.” (Phil 4:18-19)
“Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col 3:2)
Our enslavement to all the things of the world and our neglect of a desire for heavenly things, is to be hostile, to be an enemy of God. Symeon says,
 “Attachment to the world is “enmity toward God.” Do not love the world or the things in the world” Flee from the world and “the things that are in the world “
We find this instruction also in the epistle of James. He says,
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jas 4:4)
John also gives us the same direction. He says, 
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
Saint Symeon says
“There is nothing better in the world than to have nothing that belongs to the world and to desire nothing beyond the bare needs of the body.”
As Paul says, 
“If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Tim 6:8) ...since He gives things yet greater and “fills every living thing with plenteousness.” (Ps 145:16) 
Saint Symeon instructs,
"Let us forsake all the other things that belong to this transitory life, such as vain glory, envy, mutual strife, deceit, complaining, intrigue, all things that turn us away from God and imperil the soul.Flee from the deceit of life and it’s supposed happiness and run to Christ alone, who is the Savior of souls. ...who is everywhere present...let us hold Him fast and fall at His feet.”
We must develop a way of life where our focus is always on Christ and seeking heavenly rewards. Paul says,
"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col 3:1-2)
Jesus told us that you can’t love the world and God at the same time. Love for the world pushes out love for God, and love for God pushes out love for the world. He put it this way,
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt 6:24)

4. We will be united with His light
Saint Symeon writes,
“He however, who is united to God by faith and recognizes Him by action is indeed enabled to see him by contemplation. He sees things of which I am not able to write. His mind sees strange visions and is holy illuminated and becomes like light, yet he is unable to conceive of them or describe them. His mind is itself light and sees all things as light, and the light has life and imparts light to him who sees it. He sees himself all united to the light, and as he sees he concentrates on the vision and is as he was. He perceives the light in his soul and is in ecstasy. In his ecstasy he sees it from a far, but as he returns to himself he finds himself again in the midst of the light. He is thus altogether at a loss for words and concepts to describe what he has perceived in his vision.”
As Jesus says, 
“I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Or as we sing in our Paschal service, 
“Come, receive the light from the Unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, who has risen from the dead.”
Seeking Christ with our whole heart and mind, having true humility as shown by our feeling of spiritual poverty, mourning over our condition, and having overcome our passions, our attachments to the things of this world, we are able to gain true knowledge of God through our experience of His light. This is what we aim for, theosis. Knowing God in this way we can have confidence in the hope of the eternal life He promises.  

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses; Chapter 2: To Christ Through the Beatitudes, pp 47-59; Paulist Press, NY 1980

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