Share   Print
Related Content

On faith; and to those who say that those in the world cannot attain perfection virtues

To start with, a most profitable tale

by St. Simeon the New Theologian

It is good to preach God’s mercy before all men and to reveal to one’s brethren His great compassion and ineffable grace shed on us. I know a man who kept no long strict fasts, no vigils, did not sleep on bare earth, imposed on himself no other specially arduous tasks; but, recollecting in memory his sins, understood his worthlessness and, having judged himself, became humble—and for this alone the most compassionate Lord saved him; as the divine David says: ‘The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit’ (Ps. xxxiv. 18).* In short, he trusted the words of the Lord and for his faith the Lord received him. There are many obstacles obstructing the way to humility; but no obstacles bar the way to belief in the words of God. As soon, as we wish with all our heart, straightway we believe. For faith is a gift of the all-merciful God, which He gave us to possess by nature (infused in our nature), subjecting its use to the authority of our own will. Consequently, even the Scythians and barbarians have natural faith and believe one another’s words. But to show you an actual example of whole-hearted faith, listen to a tale, which will confirm this.

There lived in Constantinople a young man by the name of George, about twenty years old. All this happened in our lifetime**, in our own memory. He had a handsome face and in his walk, his bearing and his manner there was something ostentatious. Owing to this, people, who see only what is on the surface and, ignorant of what is hidden inside each man, come to mistaken conclusions about others, made various evil suppositions about the youth. He made the acquaintance of a certain monk, who lived in one of the monasteries in Constantinople, a man of holy life. Revealing to this monk the innermost secrets of his heart, he also told him of his ardent desire to save his soul. The good father, after some needful words of direction, gave him a small rule to follow and a book of St. Mark the Wrestler in which he writes on spiritual law. The young man accepted the book with as much love and reverence as if it had been sent to him by God Himself, and conceived a strong faith in it, hoping to gain from it great benefit and much fruit. He read it through with much zeal and attention and received great help from it all. But three paragraphs made a particularly deep impression on his heart. The first was: ‘If you seek to be healed, take care of your conscience (listen to it), and do what it tells you: this will profit you’ (Para. 69). The second: ‘He who seeks (hopes to receive) active grace of the Holy Spirit before practising the commandments, is like a slave bought for money who, the moment he is bought, expects his freedom to be signed, together with the payment of his purchase price’ (Para. 64). The third: ‘He who prays physically, without having yet acquired spiritual reason, is like the blind man who cried: “Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark x. 48). But another man who had been blind, when his eyes were opened and he saw the Lord, no longer called Him son of David, but worshipped Him as the Son of God (John ix. 35, 38)’ (Para. 13, 14 on spiritual law). These three paragraphs pleased him greatly and he believed that, as the first paragraph asserts, by attention to his conscience the ills of his soul would be cured; that he would be made active by the Holy Spirit through obedience to commandments, as the second paragraph teaches; and that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, his inner eyes would be opened and he would see the ineffable beauty of the Lord, as the third paragraph promises.—And so he became wounded by love for this beauty and, though as yet he did not see it, conceived a strong longing for it and sought it assiduously, in the hope of finding it in the end.

In spite of all this, he did nothing special (as he assured me on oath), except that every evening without fail he practised the small rule given him by his staretz, and never went to bed to sleep without performing it. But after some time his conscience began to urge him: Make a few more prostrations, recite a few extra psalms, repeat ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!’ as many more times as you can. He willingly obeyed his conscience and did all it suggested without thought, as though it were a command of God Himself. He never went to bed with his conscience reproaching him: why did you not do this or that? Thus he always listened to his conscience, never leaving undone whatever it suggested to him. And every day his conscience added more and more to his usual rule, and in a few days his evening prayers swelled to great proportions. His days were spent in the house of a certain Patriky, his work being to cater for the needs of all the people living there. But every evening he went away, and no one knew what he did at home. What he actually did was to shed copious tears, to make a great many genuflexions, prostrating himself with his face to the ground. When he stood at prayer he always kept his feet tightly pressed together and stood without moving; with a grieving heart, with sighing and tears he recited prayers to the Holy Virgin; addressing himself to our Lord Jesus Christ, he fell at His immaculate feet as if He had been there in the flesh, and implored Him to have mercy on him, as He once had on the blind man, and to open the eyes of his soul. Each evening his prayers grew longer and longer so that, at last, he stood at prayer till midnight. Yet he never permitted himself when at prayer, either slackness or negligence, or easy postures; never let his eyes turn to the right or left or upwards to look at something, but stood motionless, like a pillar or as though he had no body.

Once, when he was thus standing at prayer, saying more in his mind than with his lips: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ a brilliant Divine radiance descended on him from above and filled all the room. Thereupon the young man forgot that he was in a room, or beneath a roof, for on all sides he saw nothing but light; he was not even aware of standing on the ground. All worldly cares left him, and there came to his mind no thoughts common to men clothed with flesh. He became wholly dissolved in this transubstantial light and it seemed to him that he himself became light. So be forgot the whole world and was filled with tears and unspeakable joy. Thereupon his mind rose upwards to heaven and there he saw another light, brighter than the light which surrounded him. And to his surprise it seemed to him that on the edge of this light stood the holy and angelic staretz who had given him the small precept on prayer and the book of St. Mark the Wrestler.

On hearing this from the young man, I thought that he had been greatly helped by the prayers of his staretz, and that God had granted him this vision to show the high level of virtue on which this staretz stood. As the young man said later, when the vision vanished and he came to himself, he found himself filled with joy and wonder, shedding copious tears, his heart filled with great sweetness. Finally he went to bed, but immediately a cock began to crow, showing that it was already past midnight. A little later he heard the church bells ringing for matins; so the young man got up, according to his custom, to read the early morning service. Thus he never slept that night—the thought of sleep never entered his mind.

How all this came to pass, only the Lord knows, for it was all His inscrutable work. Yet this youth did nothing in particular, except always to adhere firmly to the rule given him by the staretz, and to follow the instructions contained in the little book, with unshakable faith and undaunted hope. Let no one say that he did all this as a test. Such a thing never even entered his mind. He who makes tests does not possess firm faith. But, brushing aside every passionate or self-indulgent thought, this youth was so anxious to perform exactly what his conscience suggested, that he no longer had any feeling for the things of this world, finding no pleasure even in eating and drinking his fill.

Have you heard, brethren, what faith in God can do, when it shows in right actions? Have you understood that youth does not hinder, nor old age help, if a man lacks reason and the fear of God? Have you realised that the world and worldly cares do not hinder in fulfilling God’s commandments, when there is zeal and attention? That silence and retirement from the world are useless, if laziness and negligence prevail? Hearing of David with wonder, we all say: there was only one David and there is no one else like him. But here you see that something greater than in David was manifested in this youth. David received testimony from God, was anointed king and prophet, received the Holy Spirit and had many assurances of God. Therefore, when he sinned and lost the grace of the Holy Spirit and his prophetic gift, and became cut off from his usual converse with God, is it surprising that, remembering the grace he had forsaken, he once more sought his lost blessings from God? But this youth had nothing of the kind; he was tied to worldly affairs, cared only for the temporal, had no time even to think of anything higher than earth, and yet—wonderful are the ways of the Lord!—as soon as he heard a few words from that holy staretz and read three paragraphs of St. Mark’s, he immediately believed what he heard and read and, without the shadow of doubt and with unshakable hope, put it into practice. Thus, through the little work he did, and by the intercession of the Holy Virgin, he was found worthy of raising his mind to heaven. With the help of Her prayers he gained God’s mercy and drew to himself the grace of the Holy Spirit, which pervaded him with such force that he was able to see that light to which many aspire, but which few are given to see. This youth kept no long fasts, did not sleep on bare earth, did not wear a hair shirt, had not left the world in body but only in spirit—by the disposition of his soul—kept only short vigils, and yet became higher than the wonderful Lot of Sodom, or rather became an angel in human flesh—externally a man, but inwardly an angel. Therefore he was given to see the most sweet light of the spiritual sun of truth, our Lord Jesus Christ, which light convinced him that he would be granted the light of the life to come. And so it was in truth, for love and the cleaving of his heart to God brought him into ecstasy, tore his spirit away from this world, out of his own self and all else, and transformed him wholly into the light of the Holy Spirit. Yet he lived in a city, was steward to a large house and looked after the needs of freemen and slaves, performing all that was due in this life.

Enough has been said in praise of the youth, and to stimulate you to similar love, in imitation of him. Or do you wish me to tell you something else, something much greater, which, maybe, your ear cannot hear? But, after all, what can be greater and more perfect than the fear of God? Nothing, of course. St. Gregory the Theologian said: ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. For where there is fear, there the commandments are kept; where the commandments are kept, there is the flesh purified—that cloud which envelops the soul and prevents it from seeing clearly the Divine ray; where the flesh is purified, there light springs forth, and the shining of the light fulfils desire above all desires.’ In these words, he showed that illumination by the Spirit is the endless end of every virtue and that whoever attains this illumination by the Spirit has finished with everything sensory and has begun to live with his consciousness in spiritual things alone. These, my brethren, are the wonders of God. And God leads out His secret slaves into the open, so that lovers of the good and the righteous should imitate them, while the evil-minded are left without excuse. For even those who move among crowds and spend their life in the vicissitudes of the world, gain salvation, if they lead their lives as is needful. For the sake of the faith they show in God, He endows them with great blessings, so that those who have failed to attain salvation, through their laziness and negligence, may have nothing to say in their own justification on the day of judgment. True is His word Who promised to grant us salvation for the sake of belief in Him! So, my beloved brethren, have concern for yourselves and for me, who love you and constantly shed tears for you. For the merciful and compassionate God commanded that we too should be merciful and compassionate and should have concern alike for ourselves and for each other. With your whole heart have faith in the Lord, hate this world as you should hate it and care not about its temporal and insecure blessings, but strive towards God and cleave to Him. For in a little while the end of the world and of this life will come, and woe to those who fall away from the kingdom of God. Tears suffocate me, I weep and grieve with my whole heart when I reflect that—though we have the bountiful and charitable Lord Who, merely for sincere faith in Him, grants us such great and wonderful blessings, exceeding all imagination, hearing or expectation—yet we are unthinking, like dumb animals, and prefer the earth and earthly things which, in God’s compassion, were given us for the use of our body in order that, while it is fed by them in moderation, the soul should pursue unhampered its ascent towards the primordial, fed by the mental food emanating from the grace of the Holy Spirit, according to the soul’s own measure of purification and regeneration. For God has created us intelligent beings so that we may glorify, thank and love Him for the lesser blessings given us for the needs of our present life, and become worthy to gain great and eternal blessings in the life to come. But woe to us, that we have no care whatever for the future, but remain ungrateful to God even for what we have, thus being like the demons, or, rather, worse. Therefore it is just that we should be subjected to greater torment than they. For we are more favoured than they: we have become Christians, we have had so many spiritual gifts, we believe in God Who became man for our sake, suffered such tortures and died on the Cross to free us from the errors of prelest and sin. But what can I say to all this? Woe to us! Only in words do we believe in God, but in our deeds we turn away from Him. Is not Christ’s name uttered everywhere—in towns and villages, in monasteries and on the mountains? Are there not Christians everywhere? But if you find it expedient, investigate and examine carefully whether they fulfil Christ’s commandments; and indeed among thousands and myriads you will with difficulty find one, who is a Christian both in word and in deed. Did not our Lord Jesus Christ say: ‘He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do’ (John xiv. 12)? But which of us will dare to say: ‘I do the works of Christ and truly believe in Christ’? See you not therefore, my brethren, how in the day of judgment we are in danger of being adjudged unfaithful and may be condemned to a worse torment than the unbelievers, that is, those who are altogether ignorant of Christ? One of two things is certain: either we must suffer a worse punishment than the unbelievers, or Christ must be false to His word—which is impossible.

I have written this, not to prevent anyone from renouncing the world and not to make anyone prefer life in the world to silence, but to assure all who read these writings that a man who wishes to act rightly receives from God the power to act, no matter where he is—whether in the world or in a silent retreat. On the contrary, the tale I have related should inspire an even greater desire for retiring from the world. But if a man living in the world and never thinking of renouncing the world or possessions, or of obedience, has received such mercy from God only because he believed and called to Him with his whole soul, then what blessings are in store for those who, renouncing the whole world and all men, give up their very life unto death for the sake of God’s commandment, as He has ordained? Moreover, if any man starts to act rightly with unshaken faith and great zeal, and begins to experience the profit which comes from it, he will by himself realise that worldly cares, and living and moving in the world, are a great obstacle to those who wish to live in God. As we have said, what happened to this youth is something marvellous and extraordinary; and we have heard of no other case like it. But if such a thing has happened or happens to anyone else, they should know that if they do not abandon the world, they will soon lose what they have received.

About this youth I later learned from him the following. I met him when he was already a monk, three or four years after he had taken monastic vows. He was then thirty-two. I knew him very well: we had been friends from childhood and were brought up together. So he told me the following. ‘A few days after this miraculous vision and the change that happened in me, I was assailed by many worldly temptations so that I saw myself gradually losing this blessing through them when performing my secret works of God. So I conceived a strong desire to abandon the world and in solitude to seek Christ Who had appeared to me. For I believe, brother, that He deigned to appear to me in order to take me to Himself, unworthy as I am, separating me from the whole world. But since I was unable to do this at once, I gradually forgot everything I told you about and fell into utter darkness and insensibility, no longer remembering anything I related to you, either big or small, remembering not even the slightest movement of thought or feeling. Upon which I was plunged into evils greater than before and ended in such a state, as if I had never heard the words of Christ, or understood them. Even the saint who had been so kind to me, and had given me that small rule and the book of St. Mark’s, became for me one of the people one has met accidentally, for I no longer thought of what I had seen concerning him.—I am telling you all this in detail,’ he continued, ‘so that you should realise the depths of perdition into which I, an impious wretch, fell, through my negligence, and that you should be filled with wonder at the ineffable mercy shown me later by God. I cannot tell you how it happened that, unknown to myself, love and belief in that saintly staretz had remained in my poor heart, but I think that, for the sake of this love and belief, God in His loving kindness listened to his prayers and, even after this long time, had mercy on me and, again through him, drew me out of prelest and dragged me up from the depths of evil. Unworthy as I am, I did not completely break with the staretz, but when in town, frequently called on him in his cell, and confessed to him all that was happening to me, although I shamelessly neglected to follow any of his precepts. But now, as you see, the merciful God has overlooked the multitude of my sins and, through this same staretz, has arranged for me to become a monk, allowing me to be constantly with him, truly unworthy as I am. After great labours and copious tears, with the strictest withdrawal and retirement from the world, total obedience and renunciation of my will, many other acts and methods of rigorous self-mortification and an irresistible yearning for all that is good, I was once more granted although somewhat darkly, the vision of a small ray of this most sweet Divine light. But even to this day I have never been given to see again the vision I had before.’

This and many other things he told me with tears. And I, poor man, while listening to these holy words thought that he was wholly filled with Divine grace and was wise, despite his not having studied external wisdom. Drawing his knowledge from practice and experience, he had acquired the most subtle understanding of spiritual things. Therefore I asked him to tell me what kind of faith it was that could produce such marvellous phenomena, and to expound it to me in writing, like a teacher. He immediately began to tell me of this, and readily wrote down what he said. Not to make the present chapter too long, I shall relate elsewhere what he said, for the enjoyment and delight of those who like to read such writings with faith.

So, I beg you, brethren, let us also proceed with zeal on the way of Christ’s commandments—and our faces will not be covered with shame. Let us be like those who knock patiently and to whom the Lord opens the doors of His kingdom, according to His promise, and like those who seek and are given the Holy Spirit. It is impossible for a man, who seeks with all his soul, not to find Him and be enriched by His gifts. So will you indubitably receive His Divine blessings, prepared by Him for those who love Him—partly here, as spiritual wisdom will show, and wholly in the life to come, in company with the saints of all ages, in Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

* The quotation in the Slavonic is not to be identified but has the same sense as the above quotations. (Translator’s note.)
** St. Symeon lived in the latter part of the 10th century. (Webmaster’s note.)

From Writings from the Philokalia: on Prayer of the Heart, trans. by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 1951), pp. 143-152.