As well as the liturgy and other services, Fr. Symeon also held ‘silent’ assemblies. No-one spoke. Or rather, no-one heard because everybody was speaking mystically to God, using a prayer-rope and saying the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me’. The church of Saint Athanasios was completely full. Everyone seated, heads bowed, holding a prayer-rope and seeking God’s mercy. These assemblies also lasted an hour. [Ed. In this, Elder Sophrony’s influence, fruit of Elder Symeon’s frequent visits to Essex Monastery and meetings with its abbot, cannot be exaggerated.]
Fr. Symeon laid great stress on sermons. He considered it as importance as a service, as indeed it is. The Word of God must first be received through the hearing, as the proclamation of the Gospel, so that people will believe and then receive Him as Holy Communion. The Elder spoke not only at the liturgy but on many other occasions as well. His discourse was always original. I asked him once: ‘How do you manage it? You’ve spoken for so many years and yet you don’t repeat yourself’. He laughed and I don’t remember his reply, but Fr. Symeon certainly spoke from his overflowing heart. His heart must have been overflowing, because he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to say new things all the time or he’d have addressed the brain rather than the heart. The Elder’s heart was always filled to overflowing because he nourished it continually with study, prayer and spiritual experiences. He told me once that, in confession, he heard problems that bothered a lot of people, but he didn’t have time to go into them in detail with each person. He spoke about them in his sermons. In the end, however, he always left the final word with God. ‘Let’s see what God will enlighten us to say today’, careful always that what he said was not his own words, but those of God.
Fr. Symeon’s sermons weren’t oratory. There were no well-turned phrases, rhetorical figures, great eloquence or any of the things that people admire in a fine speaker. His manner was simple, though he could be intense when the subject moved him to be. Fr. Symeon loved preaching. He went to great effort to get across to his audience not ideas but his very soul. A profound anatomist of the human soul, he analyzed issues clearly, as if he were holding a scalpel, cutting to the bone. He helped his listeners to understand the depths of their soul and brought them from there to repentance. Under his stole, they felt the love of God. And these souls multiplied when, on the initiative of the nuns of the monastery of The Birth of the Mother of God, in collaboration with other spiritual children of Fr. Symeon’s, his sermons began to be circulated more widely, first as recordings and then as a long series of volumes.
After services and preaching, the third main thrust of Fr. Symeon’s work was confession. What started with a few, later became a great number. How many days, and how many hours a day, do you need to confess a thousand, a thousand five hundred people? Where would they even have room to wait? The Elder found a solution. He gave out numbers. He reckoned on seeing fifty a day. So, depending on the number they were given, each person knew which day, and roughly what time, the Elder would see them. Fr Symeon, closed all day within the confessional, would forget to eat, listening to the pain and shouldering the burden of the penitents. He gave remission, advice, directions, courage for the struggle and strength so that people could, by God’s grace, kill off their old self, so that new person could arise, walking in ‘the newness of life’.
In confession, he wasn’t a harsh judge. Nor was he a chastiser or punisher. You weren’t afraid, you didn’t despair. You felt he put himself in your position and understood you completely, was deeply empathetic and suffered with you. He was the doctor who cured you, the father who loved you, the friend who accompanied you. Confession wasn’t depressing, formal or legalistic. It happened once that we were together at a conference for confessors in the Monastery of the Comforter in Attica. Most of the time he listened without speaking. One spiritual guide asked him: ‘How is it, Father Symeon, that you have such success at confession?’. ‘I try to make sure’, he replied, ‘to be as low as possible, so that, however low people fall, I’ll be even lower and I’ll be there to catch them’. Wise words which embrace the whole meaning, the whole practice of the sacrament.
The Myrrhbearing Women approach the Lord with the logic of the heart
The Myrrhbearing women, despite knowing they were unable to roll the stone from the tomb, they decided to. And as a result of this, they were first both to see and to learn of the Resurrection of the Lord. Moved by love (the logic of the heart, as Pascal says) they desired with great boldness to go again to the tomb, to anoint Christ’s lifeless body with myrrh. And just like that, they neither thought of what would happen next, nor whether they’d be able to enter or not. Along the way, they said only this: “Who will roll away the stone for us?” Despite all this, they did not stop, nor did they turn back, but instead kept going. This wealth of the emotional world, the all-consuming love belonging to the female nature, is a good characteristic. However, one must not rely on this alone.
It is not enough for the inside of an automobile to have only the steering wheel: what is needed is the driving force. It is necessary, therefore, for man to reach that point where the world of his heart, that sentimental treasure, becomes one with his nous. And this, as the Fathers say, is something achieved by the Jesus prayer.With the Jesus prayer, the nous descends into the heart and man’s powers are made one (just as sin has brought the division of his powers). For this reason, a saint moves simply, as he has only a conscious mind –not a subconscious nor an unconscious.
Therefore, the Myrrhbearing Women were animated by a simple, humble method. Putting their nous in their hearts –burning with the love of God– they succeeded in approaching the Risen Christ, and naturally were made holy.
The three levels of the soul
Conscious, subconscious, unconscious
According to what the expert scientists, the psychologists, say, our soul is divided into three levels. It is somewhat like an edifice which is filled with much unknown material.
The topmost part of the mind is the conscious, namely the part with which we understand ourselves. This is where we become aware of our thoughts, our feelings, our entire disposition, and where we control and know these things. Beneath this level is the subconscious. The content of our subconscious is unknown. However, on occasion, because it is close to the conscious mind, it allows us to sense what it might contain. Now and then, something springs from the subconscious and enters our conscious mind.
Even lower, in the deepest regions, or what we might call the basement of our soul, is the unconscious. The content of the unconscious is terra incognita, unknown land, and it is entirely unknowable to us. And so it is there, deep within us, that exist our personal experiences, our personal conditions. However, because these exist in the unconscious –in this dark basement- we neither know what exactly exists there nor can we control this content. According to the language of psychology, these experiences are repressed emotions and impulses that are pushed into the depths of the unconscious mind. According to the psychologists, this content of the unconscious gains autonomy and does whatever it wants. It doesn’t consider, nor does it ask, us.
That this is autonomic, all of us know. The moment you want to do the right thing, another power comes over you and forces you to do something else, something you don’t want to do, but which you do anyway.
Certainly these things were known to the fathers of the Church, and in particular the neptic fathers. For this reason, they preferred first that they themselves –and later also advised others to –stay in the silence of the desert, and say the Jesus prayer (noetic prayer), trying to plummet the deepest depths of their souls, and in this way to start to know the content of the subconscious, and the unconscious, in order to control it, and not allow it be autonomic and to do whatever it desired.
Because of this, a saint does not have a conscious, a subconscious, and an unconscious. The whole content of his soul is conscious. The saint controls it, and is not at the beck and call of repressed emotions and impulses.
We will see how man can become simple, and not be led blindly by the content which exists in the basement of his soul.
Holy Hesychasterion “The Nativity of Theotokos” Publications.
Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
For The Portrait of a Spiritual Father – I, The Theologian and the ‘Liturgical’ Being (his famous church services and vigils), go to here
(To be continued)