The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

ST. SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN - The Three Methods of Prayer : Part I

In this issue, we will begin a short series on prayer from the teachings of St. Simeon the New Theologian, a saint of the 11th century. St. Simeon served first in the imperial service in Constantinople, but then left it all for the monastic life, living in strict asceticism under the guidance of an elder, also named Simeon. He eventually became abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas and finally a hermit. He is considered the greatest theologian since St. Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church. St. Simeon entered the Kingdom of Heaven in 1022.

St. Simeon described three methods of prayer. We will look at the first of those here.


BEGIN -- There are three methods of prayer and attentiveness, by means of which the soul is either uplifted or cast down. Whoever employs these methods at the right time is uplifted, but whoever employs them foolishly and at the wrong time is cast down. Vigilance and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul, for the one cannot stand without the other. Vigilance first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts with which vigilance has already been battling, for attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them. This, then, is the gate of life and death. If by means of vigilance we keep prayer pure, we make progress; but if we leave prayer unguarded and permit it to be defiled, our efforts are null and void.

Since, then, as we said, there are three methods of attentiveness and prayer, we should explain the distinctive features of each, so that he who aspires to attain life and wishes to set to work may with firm assurance select what suits him best; otherwise through ignorance he may choose what is worse and forfeit what is better.


The distinctive features of the first method of prayer are these. When a person stands at prayer, he raises hands, eyes and intellect heavenwards, and fills his intellect with divine thoughts, with images of celestial beauty, of the angelic hosts, of the abodes of the righteous. In brief, at the time of prayer he assembles in his intellect all that he has heard from Holy Scripture and so rouses his soul to divine longing as he gazes towards heaven, and sometimes he sheds tears. But when someone prays in this way, without him realizing it his heart grows proud and exalted, and he regards what is happening to him as the effect of divine grace and entreats God to allow him always to be engaged in this activity. Such assumptions, however, are signs of delusion, because the good is not good when it is not done in the right way.

If, then, such a person is pursuing a life of stillness and seclusion, he will almost inevitably become deranged. And even if this does not happen to him, it will be impossible for him to attain a state of holiness or dispassion. Those who adopt this method of prayer have also been deluded into thinking that they see lights with their bodily eyes, smell sweet scents, hear voices, and so on. Some have become completely possessed by demons and wander from place to place in their madness. Others fail to recognize the devil when he transforms himself into an angel of light (II Corinthians 2:14); and, putting their trust in him, they continue in an incorrigible state of delusion until their death, refusing to accept the counsel of anyone else. Still others, incited by the devil, have committed suicide, throwing themselves over a precipice or hanging themselves.

Indeed, who can describe all the various forms of deception employed by the devil? Yet from what we have said any sane person can understand the kind of harm that may result from this method of attentiveness. Even if someone who has adopted this method may perhaps avoid the evils we have mentioned because he lives in a community -- for it is solitaries who are especially subject to them -- none the less he will pass his entire life without making any progress. END


from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 67 - 68.