26 February 2009

'You Chose the Riches of the Holy Words'—St Symeon of Serbia

Today, 13 February on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate St Symeon (Stefan Nemanja) the Myrrh-gusher of Serbia (1109-1199). Sadly, I don’t have a lot of time to work on this post. I will just post a couple of primary source materials that I have, and then finish with a brief personal reminiscence.

I begin with the words of St Sava, the son of St Symeon, concerning his father’s decision to abdicate the throne of Serbia and struggle in the monastic life on the Holy Mountain (Fr Mateja Matejić and Dragan Milivojević, ed. and trans., An Anthology of Medieval Serbian Literature in English [Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1978], p. 38):

After Nemanja had completed thirty-seven years of rule, the most merciful Lord did not neglect his prayers, which came with a sigh from the depth of his heart; and being generous, industrious, and the dispenser of rewards to all, the Lord desired that everyone should save himself. When the time arrived, this thoughful man valued all the glory and the honour of this world as (being) nothing, while the beauty of this life appeared to him as smoke. Christ’s love grew in him and filled his heart, as is the temple of Christ, and it became the purest repository for this holy spirit. Christ came into his mind as a gift and taught him.

Here is St Sava’s touching account of his father’s final hours (Anthology, p. 44):

All of us, looking and crying bitterly, saw on this blessed old man an inexpressibly heavenly providence and godly concern. For even here he asked from God and God gave him everything in his state; until this hour he did not want to be deprived of a single spiritual matter, and God granted him everything. Verily, my dear brothers and fathers, that was a wonder to behold, that one before whom all foreigners and states feared and before whom they trembled looked like one of the strangers himself: poor, wrapped up in a cassock, lying on a rug on the earth with a stone below his head, bowing to everyone, causing pity and asking for forgiveness and blessing. The night having come, they all took leave of him and blessed him and went to their cells to perform their duties and to rest a while. I and one priesst (whom I kept with me) stayed with him all that night. When midnight arrived, the blessed old man became quiet; he did not speak to me further. When morning came and the church singing was resumed, the blessed old man’s face became immediately illuminated; and raising his hands to the sky, he said, ‘Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in the firmament of his power.’ I asked him then, ‘Father, whom did you see?’ Having looked at me, he said then, ‘Praise him for his mighty acts; praise him according to his excellent greatness.’ When he had said that, his holy spirit left his body; and he fell asleep in God. I then fell on his face, weeping bitterly for a long time; and having stood up, I thanked God that I saw the last days of this very noble man.

Finally, here are three stanzas from an ‘Office for St Simeon’ in a MS of 1619 (Anthology, p. 45, with minor changes):

Venerable Father, neglecting the kingdom on earth, you chose the riches of the holy words; and you decided to keep them. After leaving your wife, your children, and all the beauties of the earth, you went to Mount Athos to serve God with the angels. Pray to Christ continuously for those who cherish your memory.

With the love of God you kindled your soul, you quenched carnal passions and created a spiritual life on earth, O blessed Simeon.

With heavenly brightness, you gleam in the hearts of us remembering your illustrious memory; deliver your flock from all dangers with your prayers, O most blessed Simeon.

I have felt a connection with both St Sava and St Symeon since college, when I first read the Life of the former by St Nicholas (Velimirović)—a book which, you may recall, I gave away to Max Cavalera, a deserving soul. At any rate, because I had already become Orthodox and was exerting all of my efforts to persuade my father to follow me, the story of St Sava exhorting his father to the monastic life resonated with me in particular when I first read it.

Then of course I had the tremendous blessing to be at Hilandar for St Symeon’s feast exactly eight years ago tonight, on my first pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. I remember being disappointed that I was not able to hear a completely Slavonic service because, as is traditional among the Athonites, ‘visiting chanters’ had come, likely from the kellia, to chant the literally ‘all-night’ vigil, and of course they were good, but Greek. I stood or sat right next to St Symeon’s reliquary for most of the vigil. It was an amazing experience. I developed a habit of walking out into the courtyard during these vigils, and looking up at the stars in the silence and stillness of the Holy Mountain, and feeling all our chanting and celebrating being watched by God.

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