This is my report of the second conference from the colloquium on the Syrian Fathers in Ghent last weekend. Please see my earlier disclaimer regarding the accuracy of my reporting and translations!
Dom André Louf, ocso is abbot emeritus of the abbey of Mont des Cats in France and author of several books, including Teach us to Pray, The Cistercian Way and Grace can do more. He is now a hermit and translates Syrian texts. He was responsible for the French translation of the second series of St Isaac’s homilies.
Our information concerning the life of Simeon comes from two Syrian chroniclers who lived several centuries later: Bar Hebraeus (+1286) and Abdisho Bar Brika (+1318). From these we learn that he had been a doctor before becoming a monk, that he lived during the episcopacy of Catholicus Henanisho (685-699), and that he wrote works on medicine, on monastic life and on the mystery of the cell. From these works we can also gather that he lived in the southeast of what is now Iraq, a region that at that time was undergoing a monastic growth and which was home to well known spiritual writers such as Dadisho Qatraya and Isaac of Nineveh. The latter was somewhat older than Simeon.
The designation “of Taibouthèh” refers not to a place, but means “of grace” and refers to one of his writings. Many manuscripts contain such a “Book of Grace” which had previously been ascribed to Isaac of Nineveh, but which recent critical scholarship believes to originate with Simeon. Simeon also refers to the crucial role of grace in his other works and is particularly concerned with the relationship between asceticism and grace.
Most of Simeon’s works are to be found in a manuscript that dates from 1298 and which was found in a Mosul in 1908. It has been partially published in English and wholly in Italian. His work also received serious attention in Fr R Beulay’s work La Lumière sans forme on East Syriac writings published by Chevetogne.
Until now only a short work of his has been published in French (translated by Dom André and published in Collectanea Cisterciensa if I understood correctly, but I haven’t been able to locate the details yet). This is a manuscript dating from 1289 and is found in the Vatican library. Its title reads “A helpful address spoken on the day of the consecration of a cell, on the occasion of the departure of a brother from the cenobium, written by Mar Simeon of Taibouthèh, also called Luke, disciple of Rabban Shabur.” The name Luke is an allusion to Simeon’s identity as a doctor. Rabban Shabur was the founder of the monastery of Bet Huzaye in the middle of the seventh century; it was to this monastery that Saint Isaac retired when he became blind. The text is thus a homily that was preached to mark the transition of a monk from the cenobium to the hermitage, a frequent occurrence in a monastic tradition that viewed the eremitical life as the crowning of the cenobitical. It was preached during an all night vigil in which the entire community gathered to encourage the new hermit. Towards dawn Simeon began to speak of what was expected of the hermit monk. He speaks of the hermit being consecrated as the vessels of the altar.
Simeon advises the new hermit not to discard the observances of the cenobitic life too quickly, especially the Office and spiritual reading and he emphasises the importance of alternating these and finding a balance. This was probably a reference to the Messalians who taught that interior prayer freed one from the obligations of the Office.
Simeon is particularly concerned with the transition from the asceticism proper to the cenobitical life to the asceticism of the cell, which is at the service of the hidden prayer which the monk will offer in the “cell of the heart”. It is in this cell, which is a replica of the cell that he will literally inhabit, that the monk will celebrate the mysteries of the Holy Spirit and in which he will regain the integrity of his original nature. The asceticism proper to the cell consists principally in keeping guard over one’s thoughts and desires, and particularly in noting the changes and variations in these and in paying attention to how one falls and gets up again.
The task of the hermit is to patiently persevere in his cell, despite the subtle efforts of the devil to persuade him to leave it, “until the cell feels compassion for him and draws him to itself.” For Simeon there are two clear signs that the hermit is on the right track. These are that he avoids all exaggerated asceticism and that he radiates a humble love for all people without distinction, so much so indeed that he is no longer able to see any evil in others.
Much of the advice given in this work is also to be found in the form of short sayings found in the Centuries of Grace (and this is where the quotes below are taken from).
Simeon is particularly concerned with the relationship between asceticism and grace in the life of the hermit. Ascetical effort will always remain necessary.
Without ascetical effort one cannot be healed from the passions. Nothing is written in the book of the heart without great ardour, and without the exertion of strict and hard practices one does not bear the fruits of the Spirit which Paul speaks of.
Nevertheless, grace is equally necessary:
One does not receive the divine influence if one is not brought to rest on the way through the flowing love that is poured out by the Spirit.
But even with this action of the Spirit, ascetical effort remains necessary:
The passionlessness of the soul requires an unshakeable, exceptional virtue and the keeping of the commandments. The commandments are kept with the help of God and through much effort, and when the blood of the soul flows as sweat flows over the body.
Yet, despite this vigilant asceticism, grace continues to have the upper hand:
The until then unknown peace of the soul, which is accompanied by rest, love and calmness, is thanks to the grace of God, even if there is also voluntary asceticism involved; when these are brought about by the Holy Spirit then they are no longer natural or voluntary, nor subject to nature or the will. Without grace, their truth is not realised and it is impossible to appreciate them.
Simeon speaks of the slavery of virtue, which needs to be transcended:
Exertion, hardness of heart, bitterness and the schemes with which virtue is practiced and the passions and the devil are conquered; as long as these are still needed our soul is not truly free but is still on the way of the slavery of the virtues and not yet in the freedom of its nature. For where strenuous exertion is still needed there is no freedom; where one still needs to exercise cunning there is no purity; where the natural tendencies still dominate there is no clarity; where bitterness dominates there is no calm; where one desires to conquer at all costs there is no love, and where there is no spiritual love there is no light of passionlessness and no light of grace; where there are encounters, the one useful and the other damaging, there is neither peace nor truth nor the freedom to treat all alike, and where there is no freedom to treat all alike the conscience is injured.
Simeon quotes Abba Isaiah:
As long as one’s conscience accuses one there is no freedom. We only become true sons and we can only climb to the holy rest that God longs to give us when our conscience no longer accuses us during prayer concerning purity or concerning memories or strange thoughts; we can only climb to this holy rest when our senses and our emotions come to rest and when our struggle with the demons is ended, thanks to the mercy of Christ.
Now all asceticism has become superfluous and we suddenly find ourselves without power to exercise such asceticism.
Grace retains the upper hand:
Patience and perseverance are the daughters of the exertion; a soul that is at rest and the absence of work are the daughters of freedom. Thanks to fiery prayers, tears and sighs; thanks to intercession, incessant persistence; thanks to the strong desire of our heart that has been painfully touched by God; thanks to a heart that mourning has made humble and contrite and that hopes each moment and awaits the coming of grace; (thanks to all this) this takes place in us while we sit in rest under the protection of the Most High, as a result of this grace, this peace and this comfort which no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, and which has never before arisen in the human heart.
Simeon distinguishes between a virtue that comes from ascetic exertion and a virtue that is given by grace:
In order to turn us away from evil, a virtue based on justice and that is reached by human effort will suffice; but in order to reach the perfection of the good the Gospel tells us that we need a new attitude. This unfolds itself spontaneously in the freedom of the sons that unites us with the Holy Spirit, makes our soul holy and fills it with peace, comfort and joy. In the virtue that is the fruit of exertion for exertion’s sake rather than for the sake of the future hope, we find neither joy, nor truth, nor spiritual love that is content with everything and puts up with everything, but we find only the justice that does violence out of fear of judgement and the torments of hell. But in the virtue that is spontaneously exercised out of love for God and hope for the future, our soul is filled with the joy of the Spirit.
Simeon shows his insight into the psychology of the hermits and into the tactics of the demons who would tempt them which adapt themselves to the spiritual qualities of those whom they attempt to bring down.
The demons who fight with novices are harsh: they fight hard in an incorporeal way. Those who fight with the “psychiki” are more subtle in their tactics. With the perfect they are very calm and convinced, they scrutinise all their steps and pretend to help them; they are not fiery but calm; they are able to persevere without discouragement for forty six years as it is written in the Sayings of the Fathers; those who intervene in the moment of great change and great ardour are harsh and without mercy.
The work of the demons thus accompanies the work of God, making discernment difficult.
As often as grace begins to work in the heart so the demons begin their scheming in all aspects of our desires. Just as scent comprises a mixture of good and impure fragrances, so the soul is at the same time filled with peace and turmoil, with love and fear; the intellect is confused and is no longer able to distinguish truth, appearance and error, while the members are resting and “workless”; this is worse than anything else for Satan often entices the impure passions through all sorts of fragrances and in a very cunning way is able to make an impure and bad odour appear as a sweet and pleasant one…
The most subtle of Satan’s schemes is to inspire strictness and austerity that the ascetic is not able to fulfil.
Some of the Fathers of old had conquered their bodies by all sorts of bodily and spiritual asceticism; the asceticism had made them humble due to their falling and getting up again in the midst of the passions; they had advanced through the fire of temptations and of misery, and had endured both the cold and the heat of the midday sun in the regular asceticism which they had learnt from the Fathers; their spiritual senses had matured, but in their fiery emotion they had overestimated themselves where they had no right to do so, thinking that they had perfectly received the practicing of thoughts as one reads of in the texts of the spiritual Fathers; alas! They thought that they were exercising spiritual freedom when this was simply the imagination of their intellect … when the ardour stopped the passion were once more aroused and they found themselves totally robbed of their monastic life.
There is only one weapon that can save us from such a fate, namely humility.
The hermit who is found worthy of compassion must never let go of his weapons: humility, rest, submission, bearing the weakness of his neighbour, patience, long-sufferingness, self-contempt that means that means that he is never proud of his own victories which is the root of all evil; self love is the mother of all passion. In order to remain free from the demons he continually searches his thoughts, his intentions and his desires, using an intellect that is enlightened to distinguish which of these are bound up with the passions, or which are used by them, in order to secretly conquer his soul under the appearance of virtue.
This struggle with temptation does not necessarily end in a definite victory, but is rather a continual process of “falling and getting up again.” This requires continued vigilance, the assistance of grace and the guidance of a spiritual father “… so that he is able, even when he is exhausted by the desert of mourning, to recognise the traps of the demons.”
Just as with all sinners, the monk is exposed to both grace and the demons and needs to be able to freely choose between these.
We are not able to remain totally free of the traces of the passions, but thanks to the asceticism and the healing remedies that the Lord in his mercy has given to his holy Church, our free desires can heal us and cleanse us from the traces of the passions.
For Simeon the heart of the hermit is the place where this struggle and choice take place. The heart is by nature pure, full of light and transparent, even if it still needs to be purified by asceticism. He is concerned with what has been given to us in advance in baptism, or the seed planted in us at creation that needs to germinate and grow so that the heart can see itself “in the glory of its original nature in grace … thanks to the passionless light” which is able to distinguish between truth and appearance.
Simeon compares the heart to a mirror in which the soul can see itself, but it must first be purified from the rust of the passions. The heart is the “inner cell” which is of another nature than the “external monastery” of the senses. It is on this “book of the heart” that the words of prayer will be written. Simeon also compares the heart as a “spiritual bridal chamber” and to the good earth which contains both good seed and bad and in which the farmer must give the good seed the chance to grow:
Just as the earth never ceases to allow the good and the bad seed to grow, so the earth of the heart must allow the good and the bad seed to grow; for it is the farmer’s task to get rid of the weeds. He will cultivate the earth of his heart with the Lord’s commandments and with irreproachable practice so that the weeds of the passions do not grow. The hermit must show the same care for the earth of his heart which the farmer shows for his land.
One finds in the heart the secret source of pain which gives rise to the tears of all the emotions. But the heart is above all a sanctuary, the “Holy of Holies” where the hermit celebrates as a priest and offers a spiritual offering.
When, thanks to the voluntary asceticism of the discernment of spirits, the priest in the Church of your inmost being has adorned this inner temple through an irreproachable conduct and you now desire to know whether you have received mercy; or if the inner door of the Holy of Holies has been opened; or if the inner intellect may enter for the mysterious celebration in order to continually offer the incense of prayer, then you will understand all this from the sweet incense of the peace, the love and the spiritual joy that constantly arise in your inmost being, thanks to the memory of the steady rumination of your reflections on the divine love, and thanks to the joy and the comfort that inexplicably arise in your soul.
Simeon’s emphasis on the repetition prayer formulas may be an illusion to the Jesus prayer. He says:
One makes a fire by rubbing wood against wood, and the fire of love catches on in the heart that bursts into fire through the tender love for Christ through continually repeating the words of the prayer.
The hermit’s prayer consists in the first place of intercession for others. To pray for oneself means to humbly entrust oneself to the prayer of others.
The righteous one praises God at the beginning of his prayer and accuses himself; when he begins he prays for the peace of the world, for kings and rulers; he prays ardently for the peace of the Holy Church, for her children and her governors; he prays for sinners, for the weak who fall; he weeps and mourns for penitents, as ascetics, for those in difficulties and those who weep; and only then does he seek refuge in their prayers and he asks for mercy and forgiveness.
The true sign that the hermit has reached the summit of spiritual experience is not to be found in the subtle enlightenments that he receives, but rather in the compassion with which he greets sinners, without ever judging them.
When the spring of the heart, purified through the pain of prayer, and overwhelmed by peace and light, remembers the weakness of others it proclaims no judgement; when it meets sinners it does not become angry or seek to exercise its zeal, nor does it reproach them inwardly…
Love is born in the soul and grows so that you do not see the weakness of your neighbour, so that you do not remember them and do not judge them. Peace and rest inhabit the thoughts so that you are able to defeat the evil of your neighbour with good…
When, you are found worthy through pure mercy so that the behaviour of all people appears the same to you and noble, know then that the mirror of your conscience is pure and clear; that, thanks to grace, it no longer contains bad passions; that this excellence is not your work but must be ascribed to God’s help, praise God then that your soul is beginning to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit because the pure eye of your conscience does not see the evil of your neighbour…
It is only the humble prayer of the sinner that is able to justify us in God’s eyes.
The prayer of the sinner with a contrite heart, whose conscience humbles him when he considers his mistakes and weaknesses, is better than the prayer of a conceited righteous person who is puffed up when he thinks of himself, haughty and pompous because he considers himself to have reached a spiritual level. When a sinner becomes conscious of his weakness and begins to mourn he becomes righteous, but when a righteous person is convinced in his conscience of his righteousness, he is a sinner.