I recently finished reading Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2000; 2005 reprint), one of the more recent volumes in the Oxford Early Christian Studies series edited by Gillian Clark and Fr Andrew Louth.
Let me first say that, magnificent as the content this book is (and it is, on which see below), as is the case in the other several volumes in the Oxford Early Christian Studies series that I have, all the volumes in the series are too expensive, whether paperback or hardback. The Alfeyev St Symeon volume is hardcover and $218.00 list price. The cover is hard, but the binding is cut and glued, not sewn signatures, which I always, not unreasonably, expect in a “hardcover.” Likewise, it’s a laser-printed copy. This is evident in the sheen of the letters on the page. Had I any doubts about that, this statement on the copyright page would have allayed them: “This book has been printed digitally and produced in a standard specification in order to ensure its continuing availability.” Right. Someone thinks that a $218 laser-printed, cheaply bound hardcover is going to “ensure…continuing availability” in some realistic market. [As an aside, having formerly worked with archival documents, I do not hold out hopes for the print in this volume to remain on the page for much more than about ten years. Usually around that time, laser-printed ink begins to flake off the page. So, I have that to look forward to down the line: a book in disappearing ink!] So, I would suggest waiting for a paperback reprint of this book to appear (which will run around $75, if it’s like other titles in this series), or perhaps one might even buy the Kindle edition (for $135), which is available through Amazon, if one has a Kindle thing (yet, who knows how long that format will remain viable?). This is all so very regrettable and quite distressing, because this book (Iike all the others I’ve read in the series) deserves a wide audience that it simply will never find in these formats at these prices.
St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition is the doctoral dissertation of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, supervised by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at Oxford. That combination alone should raise eyebrows, as will the following familiar names who contributed to Bishop Hilarion’s study: Sebastian Brock, Robert Taft, Ephrem Lash, and Andrew Louth. As a dissertation, it is more than one would expect it to be, displaying not just familiarity, but a real mastery of both primary and secondary material. In addition, there is an added degree of attention and care, as Bishop Hilarion is also an Orthodox believer, and St Symeon the New Theologian is a treasured saint.
For those who are not familar with St Symeon the New Theologian, a short history here is in order. There were several various crossroads in Orthodox Chrisitan history, which were theological controversies. Usually at these crossroads in the Orthodox Church, there would be a determination of one side of the controversy as orthodoxy, with the opposing side designated heresy. St Symeon the New Theologian was at the center of such a controversy in his time, and suffered exile and censure for it, to the point of even being considered a heretic by some ecclesiastical authorities in his day (he lived roughly 975-1025), though he was later vindicated. His appellation “the New Theologian” is, as Bishop Hilarion shows, very likely based in his affinity with the Church Father he most often quotes, St Gregory Nazianzen, who is also known as St Gregory the Theologian, and often even as simply The Theologian, just as St Paul the Apostle is often referred to as The Apostle. St Symeon the New Theologian fought against what we can now see in hindsight was a very dangerous opinion, that the age of holiness had past, and there would be no more great saints, no more miracles, no more visions. This archivization of the Faith is still something that must be fought, for there are those who would turn Orthodoxy into a museum of ancient practices devoid of any relation to modern life and modern lives, and deny the possibility of sanctity among the living (which denial sounds like heresy to me!). St Symeon the New Theologian, following in the footsteps of his spiritual father St Symeon the Studite, instead joyously announced that visions of the uncreated light of God were available not just to ancient saints, who surely saw it, but also to modern people who lived proper Orthodox lives, particularly in following a monastic, ascetic way of life in humility and obedience. As proof, St Symeon the New Theologian mentions his own experiences of the Divine light, which he was blessed to experience often. His writings were also drawn upon and key in establishing the direction taken at the next Orthodox crossroads, during the Hesychastic controversy about three hundred years later. Bishop Hilarion shows how St Symeon the New Theologian, far from being the innovator he was accused of being by some, was solidly rooted in Orthodox Tradition, basing his position in the writings of the great Church Fathers through the ages right up until his own day. In the end, what I myself take away from St Symeon the New Theologian is that particular hopefulness for sainthood that a sometimes put-upon Christian needs the reassurance of. No, I don’t expect to be another St Gregory the Theologian or even St Symeon the New Theologian, but I feel a need to aim for it. To have that hope as a possibility, however much I may fail in its attainment, is a great help. Thank you, St Symeon, and the God of our grace, for that hope!
Anyhow, back to the review. The pages are xiv + 338. Aside from the oddity of the laser-printing of the text, the font is nice and the paper is good, matte, not glossy (there is no mention as to its being acid-free, so it’s probably not). The book is roughly 5.75 x 8.75 x 1″ (14.5 x 22.5 x 2.5 cm), so it’s a comfortable enough one-hand book, though the glued binding is a bit tight for that to be truly comfortable. Following the usual front matter and Introduction, the book is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Historical, Monastic, Scriptural, and Liturgical Background of St. Symeon the New Theologian,” is composed of the chapters “Symeon the New Theologian in the Context of the Studite Monastic Tradition,” “Symeon and Holy Scripture,” “Symeon and Divine Worship,” and “The Influence of Symeon the Studite on Symeon the New Theologian.” Part 2, “St. Symeon the New Theologian and the Patristic Tradition of the Orthodox Church” is composed of the chapters “Symeon and the Cycle of His Daily Reading,” “Triadological Polemic in Symeon’s Writings,” “Symeon’s Theology as Based on That of the Church Fathers,” “The Patristic Basis of Symeon’s Anthropology,” “The Patristic Background of Symeon’s Eccleisiology,” and “Some Aspects of Symeon’s Asceticism and Mysticism with Patristic Parallels.” This is followed by a General Conclusion in two parts, “Mysticism and Tradition: Symeon and His Place in the Orthodox Church,” and “Symeon’s Afterlife in Orthodox Tradition.” There then follow a very helpful Bibliography arranged by subject (The Writings of St Symeon the New Theologian; The Writings of St Symeon the Studite; The Life of St Symeon the New Theologian; Patristic Writings; English Translations of Patristic Writings Used in the Present Study; Hagiographical, Historical, and Canonical Sources; Liturgical Texts; Other Primary Sources; Secondary Literature), an Index of Greek Words, and a General Index. As one can see, the subject of St Symeon and Orthodox Tradition is, even in the outline of the contents, thoroughly covered. Numerous quotations of St Symeon’s writings and other Patristic writings appear in English throughout the text, most in Bishop Hilarion’s own renderings, it seems. Most of St Symeon’s writings have not appeared in English, though the majority are in French (with a facing critical text, in the excellent Sources Chrétiennes series), yet some of the writings excerpted in translation by Bishop Hilarion are unpublished, having been compiled from manuscripts. So, we have perhaps the best representation of St Symeon’s work available to us in English here in Bishop Hilarion’s work, an introduction to St Symeon’s life and spiritual instruction, for that is surely what his writings are. In fact, I think this book makes a fine general introduction to the subject of Orthodox “mysticism”, so-called, which is really simply Orthodox prayer, properly done with a foundation in Tradition, in an ascetical lifestyle, and with a humble heart.
To gain the full benefits of the discussion in this book, I think the reader should already be familiar at the very least with the vocabulary of theology, prayer, and ascesis in the Eastern Church. While many of the technical terms (theoria, ekstasis, etc) are glossed, most are not described in the kind of detail that would be very helpful for the beginner, which we shouldn’t have expected in a dissertation in any case. But this would not be too much of a problem with a little introduction. (Detailed and easily read book-length introductions on this subject are available in the classic by Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, and in Fr Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition [make certain to get the revised edition, 2007, for the important new Afterword from Fr Louth].) On the other hand, the English translation of quotations is helpful for bringing the material to a wider audience, and most of the original Greek texts are available readily enough in the Sources Chrétiennes volumes, so the text is available, though not immediately so on the page. The discussion seldom revolves around philological or textual issues that would require the original, though certain important or interesting phrases are included in the numerous footnotes when appropriate.
In the end, I think this book would be a great introduction to Eastern Orthodox Tradition, St Symeon the New Theologian, and Eastern Orthodox mysticism, all in one. The three are intertwined throughout. Having the focus on a concrete individual, St Symeon, with such a wealth of his relevant writing presented, brings the often abstruse and somewhat technical discussions of Eastern Orthodox Tradition and mysticism back down to earth, showing how these things are actually lived, and in an exemplary way in this particular life of St Symeon. Barring the price, I recommend this book wholeheartedly. As it is, it is far too expensive, and I feel a certain amount of guilt in describing such a great book here in review when it is, I presume, out of the budgetary reach of most of the readers who’d be interested in it. Perhaps the pricing will change in the future to something more affordable, and this book will gain a wider readership. One can hope so, and that it will happen soon, for there are a number of titles in that Oxford series which look more interesting than their price tags look acceptable!