Religious but lost—that’s what some of the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day. They observed all the outward rules and regulations of their religion, but missed the very heart of the Mosaic Law. They meticulously went through all their rituals, but had no real relationship with God. There was outward obedience to rules, but all the time they were internally rebellious against the Lord. There was no love in their hearts. They were religious, but lost. In Matthew 23, Jesus described the religious experts of his day in this way:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
These are frightening words for religious professionals like me to hear today. Theologians, scholars, as well as monks, priests, and bishops who hear these words of Jesus can’t help but put ourselves under the microscope. Jesus exposes us to the light. We’re forced to ask ourselves, “Am I simply fulfilling religious obligations apart from a conscious experience of God in my heart? Am I more concerned with obeying liturgical rules and regulations of Orthodox Canon Law? Or is my heart filled with justice, mercy, and faithfulness to God as I fulfill my duties?”
Isn’t it enough, you may think, that I go to church, pay my dues, say my prayers, venerate the icons, serve in the altar, make the Sign of the Cross, sing in the choir, or chant in the chanter’s box? Or is there something bigger than all that? Something which gives all that its proper focus and meaning?
St. Symeon the New Theologian has an answer for us. He’s one of the greatest Fathers of the Church. He closely followed Jesus and told the folks of his day that the most important thing in their lives was that their hearts needed to be right with God. That was first and foremost in the midst of fulfilling their religious obligations.
Now that was a long time ago. He lived in the years 949 to 1022. But back then, things in Symeon’s day were very much like they were in the days of Jesus, except this time it wasn’t the Jews Symeon was addressing, it was his fellow Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire. So what was the Orthodox Church like back in Symeon’s day? How healthy was it spiritually speaking?
Well around the year 1000, the Byzantine Empire had reached the peak of its secular power. Political expansion was far and wide. Constantinople, its capital, became very rich. The Byzantines formed a political alliance with Russia, so its borders became increasingly secure. Moreover, the Byzantines were very proud of their language and heritage.
Their Greek language kept them connected with the ancient world of Plato, Aristotle, and the great philosophers of antiquity. So a vigorous educational revival of Hellenistic learning occurred in those days, because of their connections with the classics of pagan antiquity.
In addition to political and cultural developments at that time, the Orthodox Church itself underwent a noticeable change in its spiritual ethos. A general attitude of self-assuredness prevailed in the Church after the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. Churchmen felt securely Orthodox in their religion. They felt self-satisfied about the Orthodoxy of their faith. And with both thumbs, confidently cocked under their armpits, they rested on their laurels, because they convinced themselves that spiritually speaking, they had it all.
Now it’s easy to see why they felt this way. The Orthodox Church had previously gone through the great theological debates of the preceding eight centuries and emerged from them as triumphant. The Trinitarian, Christological, and Iconoclastic debates shook the Church down to its very being, but the Church emerged triumphant in these important areas of theology.
But now the days of these great debates were over; heresy was defeated, and Orthodoxy had won. Theologians and churchmen therefore began to speak more often about the accomplishments of the great Church Fathers and Councils than they did speaking about Jesus and the Apostles.
The late Fr. John Meyendorff tells us that, “A theology of repetition characterized the day.” Church leaders of various kinds engaged in routine repetitions of the Church’s faith. A scholastic-like recitation of the past became theologically virtuous.
This attitude also extended to the Church’s liturgical life. By this time, the worship services had reached their final form for the most part. And it seemed like everyone in the Church was reducing the faith to a litany of external behaviors – much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Church became institutionalized. Monks, bishops, and laity were content simply with being baptized, going to church, taking Communion, and fulfilling their religious obligations.
In short, theology was being divorced from personal life. Doctrine was more important than life. It was enough just to belong to the Orthodox Church without examining one’s heart before God. Outward religion replaced the living relationship with Jesus Christ. So this is the world into which St. Symeon was born.
Now we can’t go into the fascinating features of his biography or explain all the ins and outs of his doctrine of Sacraments and mystical experience. To be sure, he was no modern charismatic, but there are points of correspondence with which we cannot explore. But what we can do, in these few short minutes, is to simply go to the heart of St. Symeon’s concerns, and here it is in his own words from The Discourses Book IV Paragraph V.
A monk thinks that it’s enough for him that he merely does not miss the compulsory Offices – that is Orthros and Vespers and the Hours that are sung in common – and that by simply doing this, he will attain to perfect virtue. But this is not so. God does not look on the appearance. He looks on the contrite and humbled in heart.
It’s important to note here that St. Symeon was not an anti-Sacramentalist or anti-Church theologian. In fact, Baptism and Eucharist played a vital role in his mystical theology. Here however, St. Symeon is drawing out the implications of these Sacraments for true Christian living. For him, there is only one essential need for every baptized Eucharised Christian to experience in this life, and that need is for what he calls a “conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit in their lives.”
But the monks under his care in St. Mamas Monastery that he was addressing would have none of that. For those monks, it was impossible to have a conscious experience of God’s grace in the heart. That’s ridiculous! They claimed that only the great Church Fathers of Christian antiquity could have that experience.
The average church-going Orthodox Christian certainly wasn’t worthy of it. To say otherwise, as Symeon was doing, could only be heresy. And so, to these monks, St. Symeon replied the following in The Discourses Book XXIX Hymn XXVII:
Here are those whom I call heretics: Those who say that there is no one in our time; in our midst who would observe the commandments of the Gospel and become like the Holy Fathers and those who pretend that it is impossible. These people have not fallen into some particular heresy, but into all the heresies at once, since this one is worse than all in its impiety. Whoever speaks this way destroys all the divine Scriptures. These antichrists confirm, “This is impossible.” Do not say then that one can possess Christ without knowing it. This is a thing never impossible my friends, but on the contrary, all together possible for those who so wish.
Well these are penetrating words, wouldn’t you agree? Because of this and other things Symeon was saying, his bishop, Stephen of Nicomedia, got offended and accused him of heresy. He jealously charged Symeon of elevating his personal experience over the administrative hierarchy of the Church. So Symeon got exiled for several years.
The Patriarch, not Bishop Stephen, finally lifted the sentence and restored him to his rightful place in the Church for the last thirteen years of his life. During that time, St. Symeon did as he had always done. The older he got, the bolder he became. He preached the Gospel more forcefully than ever before.
In one of his final messages, he concluded that anyone in the Church – be it layman, monk, priest, bishop, or patriarch – who lacks this conscious awareness of God in their heart is unfit for Christian service. They are simply false Christians, false monks, false priests, and false bishops, even if they have been baptized and ordained.
So the question is, “How can we acquire this conscious experience of God in the heart?” St. Symeon tells us, “It only comes through the tears of repentance.” That’s the answer, plain and simple. Repent! Turn from self-reliance to God-reliance. We can only experience God by getting our faith in proper focus. And we can get our faith in proper focus by confessing our sins of religious formalism and barren ritualism.
We must ask God to forgive us for our excessive reliance on the externals of the Orthodox faith or boasting in the great heritage of our Church Fathers. Even the Sacraments, in and of themselves, won’t get us to where God wants us to go. Being baptized as a baby won’t get us to Heaven unless it is accompanied by a sincere repentance that leads to a conscious experience of God in our lives. Only then can we truly be ready to lead others. In the words of St. Symeon:
Do not try to be a mediator on behalf of others until you yourself have been filled with the Holy Spirit; until you have come to know and to win the friendship of the King of all with conscious awareness in your soul. Without tears, our dried heart can never be softened, nor our soul acquire spiritual humility.