Dec 11 2020

Symeon the New Theologian – We awaken in Christ’s body

Published by at 8:30 am under Poetry

We awaken in Christ’s body
by Symeon the New Theologian

English version by Stephen Mitchell

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

— from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell


/ Image by rpphotos /

Since we are coming into the Christmas season, I thought I would take the opportunity to share one of my favorite poems by Symeon the New Theologian.

Symeon doesn’t urge us to merely honor or love the Beloved (Christ within the Christian tradition) from a distance. We melt into the Divine, become one with the Divine, share the same body.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him

Some of these lines remind me of the poem attributed to Teresa of Avila, You Are Christ’s Hands with it’s lines– “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, / no hands but yours…”

This poem by Symeon is one I just want to drink in — it feels so deeply healing and generous to the soul.

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Thinking of Christmas, I have always felt a particular love for manger scenes, ceramic, porcelain, or carved wooden figurines of the Christ Child laid in a bed of straw, Mary knelt over her new child, Joseph with his lamp, the Three Magi holding their gifts, a shepherd with a few sheep, an ox and an ass at rest. Often the scene has a hut-like manger as background, the roof covered with moss — with the announcing angel and the Christmas star shining above. That iconic scene has always felt magical and alive to me, rich with unspoken meaning.

And it is. We can read the gospel stories of the birth of Christ as simply describing events, or we can read it more deeply as being imbued with spiritual meaning.

In the Nativity, we discover the pure spark of light that is the Christ child — also represented by the star — surrounded by the emptiness of the night. The Nativity is an image of light in the darkness. A small child, vulnerable, humble, poor, a tiny point of existence, surrounded by the immensity of the night… but with the promise that the light will increase until it floods the world with its light. (It is no accident that Christmas is set near the Winter Solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness and awaits the rebirth of the sun.)

Looking at Mary and Joseph, one way to understand Mary in the Nativity story is that she represents the heart or the soul, while Joseph represents the intellect. From this perspective, the gospel story of the virgin birth takes on ever deeper dimensions.

In the mystical tradition, the soul must first stop attempting to take false lovers through every outer experience, and yearn so deeply for the true Beloved within that she (the soul) becomes restored to her natural “untouched” state (Mary’s virginity). That is, the soul must become purified, inward focused, unattached, “untouched” by the experiences of the outer world. Mary’s virginity is a virginity of awareness.

When this happens deeply enough, the divine touch comes, and a new life (the Christ child in Christian tradition) is formed within the soul. The overwhelming sense of joy and spiritual bliss that is felt becomes a new presence in the body and mind.

But the father of this new life is not Joseph. The heart does not conceive by the intellect, but through direct communion with the Eternal. At this stage, the intellect has a choice: Retreat into cold denial, proclaiming, ‘I do not know that child’ and reject the heart and the life it carries; or it can recognize that something deeply sacred is taking place, something not of its own making, and then take responsibility and provide for the growth and maturation of that inner illumination.

In this way, the Christian gospel drama is played out in you and me and in all devout mystics. This isn’t something experienced only by Christians; here, we are simply using Christian language to describe a universal mystical experience…

In the traditional iconography, we see the infant Christ on a bed of straw in a manger surrounded by animals. In the gospel tale, two animals are mentioned specifically: an ox and an ass. Why those two animals? Esoteric Christian teachings sometimes explain it this way: the ox (an ancient symbol of Venus), represents sensuality and passion; the ass can be seen as embodying either the ego or reason. What are they doing in this image of divine birth? Notice that they are not suppressed; the ox and ass are not chained or slaughtered. No, they rest, they are at peace, tamed by the presence of spiritual light. More than that, they are actually protecting the infant, giving him their strength. As one 20th century Christian teacher phrased it, “They are warming the Christ child with their breath.” Viewed this way, the nativity gives us an image not of suppression, but of integration of the energies of life in support of the awakening soul.

There is, of course, much more to explore. The cave or manger of the birth. The three Magian wise men from the east. But I hope I have suggested some good ideas to contemplate and inspire a bit more spiritual connection this Christmas.

he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Wishing each and every one of you a beautiful Christmas, Hanukkah, and Solstice. May this time when the light renews itself amidst the darkness also bring a renewal of the light and life within you and everyone your life touches.


Recommended Books: Symeon the New Theologian

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives
More Books >>


Symeon the New Theologian, Symeon the New Theologian poetry, Christian poetry Symeon the New Theologian

Turkey (949 – 1032) Timeline
Christian : Eastern Orthodox

Symeon was born into an aristocratic family in Asia Minor (Turkey) and was given the name George. This was when the region was still part of the Christian Byzantine Empire. From boyhood George was groomed for a life in politics. At age eleven, he was sent to the capital Constantinople (Istanbul) to live with his uncle who guided him in his early education.

When he was 14, George met a monk at the monastery of Studios named Symeon the Pious. George accepted Symeon the Pious as his spiritual director while continuing to prepare for a life in politics.

Somewhere around age 20, George was overcome by an ecstatic state in which he experienced God as a living presence of radiant light.

Despite this radically transformative experience, he spent several more years attempting to fulfill his family’s expectations, eventually becoming an imperial senator. However, his continuing mystical experiences were not compatible with such a public life and, at age 27, he renounced his previous life and became a monk, entering the monastery at Studios to continue under the direct guidance his spiritual director, even taking on the same monastic name — Symeon.

The closeness teacher and disciple shared worried the monastic authorities and the two were separated. The young Symeon was given the choice of remaining at Studios and no longer receiving spiritual guidance from the elder Symeon, or he could go to another monastery and keep his spiritual director.

So as not to lose the guidance of Symeon the Pious, the young Symeon chose to move to the monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople. There, Symeon was ordained a priest and eventually became the abbot of the monastery, reviving the monastery’s life of prayer and meditation. While abbot of St. Mamas, Symeon wrote extensive treatises (called the Catecheses) as guidelines for the ideal monastic and God-focused life, emphasizing the power of contemplative prayer and meditation.

The mystical spiritual practices that he advocated led to further conflicts with authorities and Symeon was exiled in 1009 to a small hermitage on the far side of the Bosphorus.

Disciples began to gather around Symeon and soon the small hermitage grew into a full monastery. It was there that Symeon wrote his most personal work, Hymns of Divine Love, a collection of poems describing his mystical experiences.

Symeon’s doctrines and poetry emphasize not only the possibility, but the necessity of personally experiencing the Divine. He also stated that one need not be a monk or renunciate, saying that one “who has wife and children, crowds of servants, much property, and a prominent position in the world” can still directly experience communion with the divine.

He is called Symeon the New Theologian to distinguish him from John the Evangelist (called John the Theologian in Greek) and Gregory of Nyzanius (also called Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox tradition).

More poetry by Symeon the New Theologian

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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Symeon the New Theologian – We awaken in Christ’s body”

  1. Jacksonon 11 Dec 2020 at 8:34 pm

    I’d never thought of Christmas this way before! Thanks, Ivan.

  2. Bob Corbinon 22 Dec 2020 at 10:33 pm

    I am embarrassed and almost ashamed that I do not reaf most Christian mystics with the same openness and appreciation that I read the spiritually aware poets from other traditions. I know that many people from many traditions view there their own stories and insights are somehow “truer” than those of other. I read of an Alaskan Indian saying that for the Tlingit and the Haida Raven stories are not myths they are our history and this does not dampen my appreciation of those stories. But when a follower of one of the Abrahamic religions insists that I should accept his or her faith as “truer” than others, I want to argue which is not a good frame of mind for me to appreciate. Somehow the Sufis (the “drunken” ones at least) never make me want argue but rather they fill me with joy and a desire to delve more deeply into their insights. I should be to appreciate Christian poetry as much as any other, but I do not. I have read poems by Symeon The New Theologian which minimize theological content and they are wonderful. This one left me cold. I wish it hadn’t.

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