Saint Symeon the Fool for Christ and Saint John

21 July 2014
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Saint Symeon

So when they left the monastery, they said: “God of Your great servant, lead us who are strangers and without help, because we know neither the place nor the area, but since we’re coming to be with You, we’ve given ourselves over to die in the ocean of this wilderness”. John said to Symeon: “Now what? Where shall we go?”. The latter answered him: “Let’s go to the right, because everything that’s on the right’s good”. As they went on, they came to the Dead Sea, to the place called Arnonas.

So God, Who never abandons those who believe in Him wholeheartedly, arranged things in such a way that they found a place where a certain elder had been living, though he had departed this life a few days earlier. In this place, there were some small utensils and tender greens, so that they would have something to eat. The elder who was buried there had also eaten these. As soon as they saw the place, they were so overwhelmed that you’d think they’d found a treasure trove. They realized that it had been prepared and sent to them by God, so they began to thank Him and also the great elder, Nikanor. They said, “Believe me, everything turned out well for us with the help of his prayers”.

After a few days had passed, the devil, that enemy of our souls, who was unable to put up with the virtue of the servants of Christ, began to wage war against them: John, with the memory of his wife and Symeon with the great love he had for his mother. As soon as one of them realized that the other was saddened, he’d say: “Brother, come on, let’s pray”. They’d say the prayer of the great elder, which both of them had learned at once by heart, by the grace of God, because the elder used to pray saying: “Stamp the words of this prayer on their hearts”. They always said this prayer whenever they were tempted and every time they asked anything of God.

Sometimes, as the God-bearing Fool used to tell us, the devil would inflame them, as if they’d eaten meat and drunk wine. And at other times again, he’d try to make them lethargic and slack as regards their endeavours, to such an extent that sometimes they wanted to leave the desert and go back to the monastery. And apart from that, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in their imagination, the devil would make them see their kin, some of whom were crying and others were going mad. And they saw lots of other things, as well, which nobody can tell of unless they’ve got experience of this kind of temptation themselves. But as often as they bent their minds towards the crown each saw the other wearing, and the teaching and tears of the elder, their hearts were sweetened and comforted as if with holy oil.

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Saint John

Occasionally they saw Blessed Nikon in their dreams, sometimes admonishing them, at other times praying for them, or even teaching the psalms. Then they would waken up and try to learn by heart what they’d been taught in their dreams and were very pleased with this. They knew he was interested and they felt it truly because of these events. So before they asked God for anything they each prayed for the following: Symeon, that his mother’s heart be made firm and be comforted; John, that God would take his wife to Himself, so that he’d stop thinking about her. God, Who has promised to do the will of those who fear Him, paid heed to them.

Two years later, Symeon was told by God that his mother was no longer sad, and so he appeared to her at night and said to her in Syriac: “Don’t be sad, mother, because John and I are very well and we’re serving in the palace of the king and we wear crowns that the king’s given us and beautiful uniforms. But go and comfort my brother John’s parents, as well, because he’s serving with me. So don’t be sad at all”. And Abba John saw someone in white raiment telling him: “I’ve arranged things so that your father’s not sad any more. And I’ll be taking your wife with me soon”.

Each told the other what he’d seen and their hearts rejoiced and were glad. Since God had freed them of thoughts of their parents, they began to live without worry, without being at all sad over them, and, without any feelings of effort or sloth, they continued along the path of asceticism day and night, without any business other than the “undistracted distraction” or “unconcerned concern”, meaning, of course, unceasing prayer. These two tireless workers soon progressed in this, to such an extent that, in a few years, they were vouchsafed divine visions, messages and miracles.

A short time passed, during which they lived in quietude, a stone’s throw from each other. They’d agreed on the following: they’d separate and live by themselves so that they could each pray alone; but when either of them was troubled with thoughts or listlessness, the other would join him and they’d pray together to be free of the temptation. So one day, when Symeon was sitting in his usual place, he fell into an ecstasy [in Greek = “outside yourself”] and saw himself in Edessa, where he came from, next to his sick mother and saying to her in Syriac: “How are you, mother?”. “Fine, son”, she answered. He spoke to her again: “Go to the King. Don’t worry, because I asked Him and He’s prepared a great place for you. When He wants, I’ll come and join you”.

When he came to himself, he realized that at that moment his mother had fallen asleep in the Lord. He hurried to his brother, John, and told him: “Get up, and we’ll pray”. Seeing that John looked worried (because he thought Symeon was undergoing some sort of temptation) the latter said to him: “Don’t get upset, brother, there’s nothing wrong with me, by God’s grace”. John said to him: “Then why did you come all this way, Father Symeon?”. He called him that because he honoured and respected him greatly, and, indeed, these feelings were mutual. Then Symeon’s eyes filled with tears which ran down onto his chest like pearls and he said to John: “At this moment, the Lord’s taking my good and blessed mother to Himself”. And he told him of the vision.

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They knelt and started to pray. Symeon could be heard saying moving and intercessionary words to God. His innermost feelings were hurt and in turmoil because of the natural love of the son for his mother. He said: “God, You Who accepted the sacrifice of Abraham, Who acknowledged the burnt offering of Jephthath; Who did not turn Your face from the gifts of Abel; Who made Anna a prophetess for the sake of Your servant Samuel; for the sake of Your servant accept the soul of my mother. Remember, Lord, the labours and endeavours she performed for me. Remember, Lord the sighs and tears she shed, when I left her far behind, for Your sake. Remember, Lord, the breasts at which she nursed me, humble as I am, so that she’d enjoy my youth, which, was not, in fact, the ways things turned out for her.

Don’t forget, Lord, that she couldn’t bear to be away from me for even an hour, and yet she’s been without me so many years. Remember, Lord, You Who know all things, that when she wanted to rejoice over me, she was deprived of me for Your sake. Don’t forget, since You’re just, the heartache she felt that day I came to You. You know, Lord, how she’d stay awake at night, after I left her, remembering my early years. You know, Lord, how many nights she lay awake, seeking the lamb who used to sleep with her. Don’t forget, in Your mercy, the pain she felt in her heart when she saw my clothes, how she melted for her treasure who was wearing them.

Remember also, Lord, that I took away her consolation, her joy and her delight in order to serve You, her God and mine, the Lord of all. Give her angels as companions, who will protect her soul from the evil and cruel spirits and monsters of the air who try to ambush and swallow up those who pass among them. Lord, Lord, send her powerful guards to rebuke every unclean power she meets. Also command, Lord, that her soul separate from her body without sorrow or distress. And if, as a woman, she sinned in this life, in words or deeds, forgive her soul for the sake of the sacrifice she gave birth to and offered you, that is me, Your unworthy servant. Indeed, Lord, Lord, my God, Who are a righteous judge and merciful, don’t bring her from sorrow to sorrow, from pain to pain, from sighing to sighing, but, for the sadness she felt over her only child, lead her to joy; instead of tears, give her delight; that delight You’ve prepared for Your saints, my God, my God, unto the ages. Amen”.

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When they’d finished praying and had stood up, Brother John, in order to console him, said: “There you are, then, Brother Symeon, God’s consoled you, He’s heard your prayer and taken your mother to be with Him. But now, labour with me and let’s pray to the Lord together to have mercy on her who condescended to be called my wife, so that He’ll bring her to take the decision to become a nun and that He’ll have mercy on her and take her to Himself, as well”. So they prayed for a short time and one night Abba John saw Symeon’s mother coming, taking the hand of his wife and saying: “Get up, sister, come with me, because the King, Whose service my son entered, has given me a wonderful home. But change your clothes and put something clean on”. According to John, she immediately got up and followed her. And so he realized that she had also gone to her rest and that both of them were in a good place and he rejoiced greatly.

They stayed in the desert for another twenty-nine years, living in the strictest asceticism and privation, in the cold and heat, and suffered many indescribable temptations from the devil. But they defeated him and achieved great stature, especially Symeon, with the innocence and purity he had. By the grace of the Holy Spirit which he had within him, he felt no need to fear passion, or cold or heat, and had arrived at a stage which was close to being beyond human nature. So he said to John: “What good is it, brother, for us to continue to live in this desert? But, if you’re prepared to listen to me, come on and let’s go and save other people, because all we’re doing here is benefitting ourselves and we’ve got no sort of reward from anyone else. And he started to quote form Scripture, saying: “Nobody should look after their own interests, but those of other people” and “I became all things to everybody, in order to save some”. He also quoted the Gospel: “Let your light shine forth before other people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, Who is in heaven”, and other things like that. John replied: “I think, brother, that Satan hates our quietude and has created this though in you. It’s better that we stay here in the desert and finish the road we started out on; the one God has called us to”.

Symeon said to him: “Believe me, I’m not staying, but with the power of God I’m off to bamboozle people”. His brother again said to him: “Don’t, good brother. Please don’t. In the name of our Lord, don’t leave me alone, unworthy as I am. I haven’t yet got to the point where I can bamboozle people. But, in the name of Him Who joined us together, don’t go wanting to cut yourself off from your brother. You know that, apart from God, I’ve only got you, brother. I rejected everybody; I attached myself only to you; and now you want to abandon me, set me adrift, in this desert. Remember that day we threw a dice and went to Blessed Nikon, how we promised not to separate. Remember that dread moment when we put on the holy monastic habit and were both as one soul, to such an extent that people were puzzled by our love. Don’t forget the words of the great elder who advised us on the night we left. Please don’t leave, in case I then become lost and God requires my soul of you”. Symeon then said to him again: “Let’s suppose I died. Wouldn’t you then have to look after yourself, since you’d be alone? Believe me, if you come, that would be good. In any case, I’m not staying”.

Once John saw that he was adamant, he realized that he’d had a message from God to do this. Because the only thing that could separate them was death, and perhaps not even that. In fact, they’d often asked God to take them both to Himself at the same time and they thought that the Lord would agree to this request, as He had done with all the others they’d made. So John said: “Be careful, Symeon. Maybe the devil wants to lead you astray”. But he replied: “Just don’t forget me in your prayers, as I won’t you, and God and your prayers will save me”. Once again his brother  began to advise him and said: “Be careful, watch out, Brother Symeon, in case you just scatter in the world outside everything you’ve gleaned in the desert; that, what peace has brought you, turmoil will destroy; what vigils have given you, you lose with sleep. Be certain, brother, that the circumspection of the monastic life isn’t destroyed by the deceptive secular life. Take care that the fruit of being deprived of female company, which God has saved you from so far, doesn’t mar your contacts with them. Make sure that your vow of poverty doesn’t succumb to love of material things, or that your body, which is so skinny from fasting, doesn’t become fat again from all the food. Take care, brother, that you don’t lose your contrition by laughing and your prayer by being heedless. Please be careful in case your face laughs but your mind wanders; in case what touches your hands also touches your soul; in case, when you eat, your heart is pleased; in case, when you walk your internal peace is disturbed by the motion of your legs; and, in short, in case what the body does externally, the soul does internally.  But if you’ve got strength from the Lord, brother, so that nothing such as words or actions have any effect on the body and your mind and heart remain composed and undisturbed and aren’t contaminated and spoiled by these things, then I’m really happy for your salvation. Just ask God not to separate us in the beyond”. Abba Symeon then said to him: “Don’t worry, Brother John, because I’m not doing this of my own accord, but because God’s commanded it. And you’ll understand this, when, with God’s help, if what I’ve done has pleased Him, before I die, I’ll come and call you and embrace you, and, a few days later, you’ll come to join me. But come on now, let’s pray”.

Sym salWhen they’d prayed for a long time and embraced, drenching their breasts with tears, Symeon left and John accompanied him for quite a distance. He had no wish at all that they should separate, but when Abba Symeon said to him: “Turn back, brother”, he felt as though he’d been cut to the quick by a knife. He asked to accompany him a little longer, but Abba Symeon insisted and so he returned, drenching the earth with tears.

Source: Leontios of Neapolis, Ο Άγιος Συμεών, ο διά Χριστόν Σαλός, pubd. by Το περιβόλι της Παναγίας, pp. 50-64.

[Leontios lived in the 7th century and is important from a linguistic point of view because his works provide an insight into the vernacular of Middle Byzantine Greek. Hence the unevenness of the translation].