March 12 – Symeon the New Theologian; Maximilian of Tebessa

Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022) met Symeon the Studite at age 14, and began to learn Christian spirituality from him. The elder man forbade him to join the monastery until he was older, so he served as a servant to a patrician (or the emperor) until he was 27, at which point he enrolled. He soon moved to another monastery when the brethren accused him of being too spiritual. At St. Mammas, he was tonsured (taking the name Symeon; his birth name may have been George, but may not have been), priestified, and abbotified in a mere three years, all the while remaining under the Studite’s tutelage.

Eventually he fell foul of an Archbishop Stephen over what constituted authority in the church. Stephen was on the side of study and hierarchy, while Symeon felt that the direct experience of God was necessary (and sufficient) for spiritual authority. He believed all Christians could directly experience God, and wrote of his own experiences of “divine light.” What really got Stephen’s goat (or sheep or whatever he had that was gettable) however was Symeon’s services (he even had an icon written) for his former teacher. He was enjoined to renounce his veneration many times, but remained adamant. Finally, after 25 years at St. Mammas, he was exiled to a townlet on the Bosphorous, where disciples gathered around him, and he continued to write. When a patrician follower begged the emperor to lift the exile, an offer was made that would allow him to return to St. Mammas, if he only gave up saying services for the Studite. Needless to say he refused, and died in exile.

His followers began calling him “the Theologian” because of his writings on the direct experience of God. His enemies added the “New” to discredit him, but his supporters accepted it into his title as an honorific, and there it remains.

He left many writings, many of which were eventually incorporated into the Philokalia*. To give you an idea of why he was not the best-liked of abbots, I leave you with these lines, written about his opponents, and couched in the voice of Christ: “They unworthily handle My Body / and seek avidly to dominate the masses.” Can’t imagine why he made them angry, can you?

Maximilian of Tebessa (274–295) is sometimes called the first conscientious objector. As the son of a military man, Maximilian was required by Roman law to join the army if called up. He was called up. Among other things he refused to wear the dog tags that contained an image of the emperor, considering it idolatry to do so.

When he was brought before the proconsul and asked his name, he replied, “Why do you need my name? I’m a Christian and I’m not joining the army.” Told he must serve or die, he said, “Then cut off my head. My army is the army of God; I will not fight for this world.” Told there were Christians in the emperor’s bodyguard, he said, “That is their business” and “they know what’s right for themselves.” (An admirable attitude, I think.) This went back and forth for some time, until finally they said, “Okay we’ll just kill you now,” to which Max replied, “Death shmeath [mors schmors]. When I leave this earth, I shall live with Christ.” Just before they lopped off his head, he asked his father to give his new suit of clothes to the executioner. His father went home rejoicing that his son’s soul had gone to heaven. His son’s body went to Carthage.