[T]he true meaning of hagiographical literature, according to Symeon, is not open to everyone who reads it, but only to those who try to imitate the saints. The compilers of the lives of the saints, Symeon suggests,
described their bodily efforts, their non-possessiveness, fasting, vigils, abstinence, patience . . . but they hardly described their spiritual activity except as mirrored in such deeds, that those who show their labours and their faith by deeds may by these deeds in knowledge participate in the spiritual gifts of saints, while the others will not be counted worthy even to hear of such things.
So in hagiographical literature, as in Scripture, there is also a certain θεωρια (internal meaning) which is revealed to ‘gnostics’ who imitate the saints and is hidden from ‘others’ who do not imitate them. Symeon definitely regards himself as such a ‘gnostic’ and this is why he thinks he has a right to interpret the lives of saints in a personal way, clarifying their hiddent mystical meaning.
Developing the theme of the imitation of saints, Symeon in fact follows Theodore the Studite who suggests that ‘we must not only admire saints, but also imitate them with good sense: that is, let the cenobite imitate a cenobitic saint; the hesychast, a saintly hesychast; the hermit, the saint who is a hermit; the hegumen, a saintly hegumen.’ In Cat. 5 Symeon gives a description of the Last Judgement and suggests that people will be condemned if they were not familiar with the lives of saints and did not imitate them:
[Christ] says to the women: ‘Have you not heard in the churches the readings of the “Life of St. Pelagia, the Former Harlot”, the “Life of St. Mary of Egypt, the Former Profligate”, [the “Life of] Theodora the Adulteress, Who Became a Wonderworker”, as well as [the “Lives of] Euphrosyni the Virgin, Called Smaragdos”, and “Xeni, the True and Wonderful Stanger”. . . ? Why have you not imitated those and similar women . . . ?
Correspondingly, men who are kings and rulers will be asked why they did not imitate the Old Testament saints, such as David, who, after being reproved by Nathan, ‘did not cease day and night from weeping and lamenting’, as well as Moses, Joshua, and many virtuous ‘kings, rulers, and commanders’. To the patriarchs Christ will oppose John Chrysostom, John the Almsgiver, Gregory the Theologian, Ignatios, Methodios, and Tarasios; and against the metropolitans He will set Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Wonderworker, Ambrose, and Nicholas. Rich people will be judged by those who were rich, and the poor by those who were poor; married by those who were married, and unmarried by those who lived unmarried. ‘In short on the awesome day of Judgement every sinful man will see [a saint] who is like him . . . and will be judged by this [saint].’
[Bishop] Hilarion Alfayev, St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition (Oxford, 2000), 135-136. Though it’s several days since I first read the above passage, it’s managed to stick with me. Its implications are numerous and profound, particularly in the manner it can be unpacked and applied not just to personal transformation but in many other ways. It is a finely crafted watch of many tiny gears, ticking along smoothly. So I thought I’d share it.