Symeon the New Theologian's Hymns of Divine Eros: A Neglected Masterpiece of the Christian Mystical Tradition

McGuckin, John A.

The Byzantine saint and poet Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) is one of the Christian world's greatest mystics, if such a term can properly be used of ancient writers. It is here applied for the sake of convenience, and for the purpose of unveiling the author, as it were, who is not only a visionary of the highest order within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but equally one of the Christian world's most lyrical and rhapsodic writers. It is a startling fact that it is only in recent years that his works have become available in English translation, and a sadder one that his name is still largely unknown to a wider public who would otherwise undoubtedly be interested in a spirituality suffused with light and hope and one of the most profound senses of the mercy and compassion of God. The situation of neglect is comparable to finding something of the quality of the works of San Juan de la Cruz still awaiting an edition. The commentator is torn between excitement at the possibility of revealing "new" literary and theological treasures, and wonder at how large the task is to contextualize the deep traditions of medieval Greek (Byzantine) spirituality in an environment of western Church history and theology within which spirituality at large has frequently been marginalised or exiled, and from which even a rudimentary awareness of Greek medieval literature has customarily been missing. It is partly to fulfill that task of reintroduction that the present essay sets out to give a brief background history of this medieval poet, monk, and controversialist, and then to introduce aspects of one of his most extraordinary works, the Hymns of Divine Eros. In this remarkable figure we find combined the vocations of radical prophet and ecstatic visionary: of poet and soul-friend. His work brings to the fore the pressing need for the Christian Church to theologize primarily from its living experience of God: the need for each believer to accept the highest vocation as "friend of God," and prophet of the presence of God.

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Union Theological Seminary
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April 16, 2012