St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022 AD) was a Byzantine Christian monk and poet, and was canonized as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox church. He wrote much about Christian mysticism, including his own experiences.
I have written previously about his experiences of the Divine Light, and his writing in Hymns of Divine Love. Here I relate perhaps his very first “First Vision” experience of that Light which he wrote in a homily called On Faith, which he experienced prior to becoming a monk. He seems to have related this experience in the third person, under the name “George,” which may have been his own birth name.
Here are some passages from St. Symeon’s On Faith:
A man by the name of George, young in age – he was about twenty – was living in Constantinople during our own times… This young man, then, made the acquaintance of a holy monk who lived in one of the monasteries in the city… He also asked him for a book giving an account of the ways of monks and their ascetic practices; so the elder gave him the work of Mark the Monk, On the Spiritual Law… And though he benefited from the whole work, there were three passages only which he fixed in his heart…
On reading these three passages the young man was struck with awe and fully believed that if he examined his conscience he would benefit, that if he practiced the commandments he would experience the energy of the Holy Spirit, and that through the grace of the Holy Spirit he would recover his spiritual vision and would see the Lord. Wounded thus with love and desire for the Lord, he expectantly sought His primal beauty, however hidden it might be…
Every evening tears flowed from his eyes, he multiplied the prostrations he made with his face to the ground, his feet together and rooted to the spot on which he stood. He prayed assiduously to the Mother of God with sighs and tears, and as though the Lord was physically present he fell at His most pure feet, while like the blind man he besought mercy and asked that the eyes of his soul should be opened…
One day, as he stood repeating more in his intellect than with his mouth the words, ‘God, have mercy upon me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13), suddenly a profuse flood of divine light appeared above him and filled the whole room. As this happened the young man lost his bearings, forgetting whether he was in a house or under a roof; for he saw nothing but light around him and did not even know that he stood upon the earth. He had no fear of falling, or awareness of the world, nor did any of those things that beset men and bodily beings enter his mind. Instead he was wholly united to non-material light, so much so that it seemed to him that he himself had been transformed into light. Oblivious of all else, he was filled with tears and with inexpressible joy and gladness. Then his intellect ascended to heaven and beheld another light, more lucid than the first. Miraculously there appeared to him, standing close to that light, the holy, angelic elder of whom we have spoken and who had given him the short rule and the book…
When this vision was over and the young man, as he told me, had come back to himself, he was struck with joy and amazement. He wept with all his heart, and sweetness mingled with his tears.
Commenting on “George’s” experience, Symeon says:
Yet – how unpredictable are Thy ways. Lord – he had only to hear of these divine realities and he believed in them immediately; indeed, he believed so surely that he implemented his faith in corresponding action. It was thanks to this action that his mind took wing and rose to heaven, drawing to it the compassion of Christ’s Mother. Through her intercession God was appeased and bestowed on him the grace of the Spirit. This gave him the strength to rise to heaven and to behold the light that everyone longs for but very few attain… for the love of that for which he was searching took him out of the world, beyond nature and all material things, filling him wholly with the Spirit and transforming him into light.
Symeon returns to “George’s” words:
A few days after that incredible change in my life and the more than human help I received, I was continually attacked by the temptations of my worldly life – temptations that thwarted my secret activities and that little by little deprived me of the blessings I had been given. As a result I longed to get completely away from the world and in solitude to seek out Him who had appeared to me… I am telling you this,’ he continued, ‘so you can see quite clearly the pit of perdition into which I fell, contemptible as I was, because of my sloth and negligence, and so you will be filled with amazement at the inexpressible blessings that God subsequently bestowed on me…
After great labors and many tears, combined with strict solitude, total obedience, the complete elimination of my own will and many other rigorous practices and actions, I have been going forward resolutely and unremittingly along my path, and have again been granted a vision, faint as it is, of a small ray of that most gentle divine light, although up to now I have not been privileged to see it as I saw it on that original occasion.
Symeon’s experience seems to bear resemblance to Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and mystical experiences more generally, in at least these many ways:
- He was a young man seeking God.
- He read some passages in a holy book which deeply impressed him.
- He knew from that reading that he could approach God, and that God would reveal “His” will.
- He had tremendous faith.
- He spent time in intense prayer, pouring out his heart, believing he would receive.
- As he was praying, suddenly a divine light appeared above him.
- Eventually the light filled his surroundings.
- He seemed to ascend into a different space, apart from his natural surroundings.
- He entered a heavenly place apart from the Earth.
- He felt delivered from fear, anxiety, and all human problems (sins?) in his mind.
- He was united with the light; the light filled him.
- He felt filled with the Spirit.
- He was filled with “unspeakable”/”inexpressible” joy.
- He saw something in the light, perhaps a clearer Light of God.
- A person appeared standing next to that Light.
- This person was holy and angelic, a Divine figure, which he later recalled by the formal “Him.”
- When the vision ended, he felt he came back to himself.
- He was filled with joy and peace/sweetness/love afterwards.
- He felt that later he succumbed to temptations and many transgressions, falling from the divine heights he had received in his first vision.
- Through prayer, and seeking God again, he was privileged with further light and revelation.