Oct 26, 2022
You might never have heard of Symeon the Theologian, but he has a lot to say about something many of us today lack--attention
Symeon describes a “war” within us. Attention serves as a guard against thoughts that pull you away from God. If we don’t have attention, then our thoughts can drive us to despair or corruption. It is like the bow, where we mindfully draw back the string and fix our aim.
Although Symeon tells us that we have a “choice” in how we pray and attend, it’s clear which one he himself prefers. He describes three ways of attention and prayer.
The first way of attention and prayer
Symeon describes this first way as looking to the sky “with his eyes and mind.” There's much imagination and visions here, as well as considering the saints and angels. Although this first way is very emotional and profound, pride can tempt someone in this state. He writes:
“In this way his soul gradually becomes proud without realising it, thinking that what he does is by the grace of God’s compassion for him. Hence he pleads God to always grant him worthy of such deeds which are, however, signs of error.”
In describing this state, he suggests that there are times when we might be carried away by this emotional state. If someone has these ecstatic prayers alone, the person’s mind could go astray. In other words, oftentimes, we can be easily deceived by these sensory and emotional experiences. They can eventually lead us towards delusion or false perceptions of God.
Symeon said that some might be misled by the devil and eschew any truth coming from wise counselors that might steer them on a more noble path. He makes it clear that insanity is a likely outcome.
This first way, according to Symeon, offers little progress on the spiritual path, even if others accompany those on this path.
The second way of attention and prayer
This way is less about the senses and more about concentration. It’s centered more on the mind itself, detaching from the world and everything in it. It becomes too absorbed in thoughts, which can ruminate obsessively to the point of little inner peace.
Symeon describes this war within, as beating back the sensory desires of the first way, but also fighting the darkness within. This way not only breeds internal confusion but also breeds vanity for being too internally ascetic. This way is similar to the Pharisee who brags in the temple about his spiritual practices.
However, Symeon says this way is better than the first. He recognizes that the spiritual path is not easy. It requires a deep inquiry into the choices and patterns that lead us toward darkness. This inner restlessness is critical, though, because it moves us away from choices that bring us suffering.
We often have to give up those comfortable patterns that made us complacent. It also means stripping away the attachments that kept us bound yet promised us pleasure. This is the process of repentance because we’re called to turn away from the path of sin. Symeon says this way is better than the first because it offers a sliver of light into union with God.
The third way of attention and prayer
The most unfortunate aspect of this third way is that it’s not common. It requires total abandonment of the will. Although this way surrenders to God and might seem constrictive, this way frees the soul from struggle. Obedience to God suppresses the temptations and lures that pull us away from God.
He summarizes all of these ways:
“The beginning of the third way is not by looking up to the sky, raising the hands, having your mind in heaven and asking for help from there. As we have said, these are of the first way and they are false. Nor is it to guard the senses with the mind and concentrate exclusively on this, whilst neither being attentive nor seeing the inner wars of the soul conducted by the enemies. These are all of the second way. He who uses them is trapped by the demons and is unable to revenge those who trapped him, whilst the enemies are always fighting him both secretly and openly, making him proud and vain.”
He offers a way for us to live—to maintain a clear conscience towards “God, our spiritual father, other people, and earthly things.” In other words, we should imagine God is with you at every moment and conduct ourselves accordingly.
If we have a “spiritual father” who “has no error,” we can accept his (or her) advice as wise and follow the prescriptions given us along the path. In terms of our relationships with others, Symeon suggests the Golden Rule—refraining from behaviors that you wouldn’t like to have done to yourself. In other words, if you don’t like being mistreated or insulted, you shouldn’t mistreat or insult others, no matter who they are or whether or not they deserved it.
With the “earthly,” Symeon suggests refraining from any abuse of the material world. He gives examples of food, drinking, and clothes, but this could also include abuses of all sentient beings as well as the resources on the planet. This is a respect for all God’s creation, seeing the entire world as a temple in which to worship. This clear conscience is only a start on this third way of attention and prayer.
Symeon then returns to the relationship between the mind and the heart. Although the heart is often regarded as the seat of emotion in contemporary times, it’s seen as the seat of the spiritual life. This seat, the spiritual heart, is where the soul connects with God. It’s not in the mind, where we can think our way to God. Think about this—can you think your way into loving someone? No, it’s something you experience on a deeper level, beyond the senses and even beyond emotional feelings.
Symeon reminds us that the heart can also be the seat of disordered passions and ill intentions, so it’s important for us to have a clean conscience. From there, the heart can serve as a medium for prayer.
The mind can be used as a tool to guide in prayer. Through our attention, the mind guards the heart against any concepts related to the ego or any tempting desires. He, therefore, stresses the importance of attention in guarding the heart. Without this guard in place, it will be impossible to “see God.”
Attention is just as important as a clean heart. So how do we improve this attention? He suggests preserving three things: a disinterest in all things, a clear conscience, and complete peace through detachment.
Like the passage from Matthew 6:6, Symeon suggests retreating to a place of solitude and drawing within, using the mind to try to locate the heart. At first, this is difficult, but over time, we experience the heaven within.
If there are moments when thoughts want to intercede, Symeon suggests the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”) to dissolve the thoughts and redirect the mind to the heart.
To read the full text of Three Ways of Attention and Prayer by Symeon the New Theologian, head to the School of Mary's website.