Simon of Taiboutheh Posted by Macrina

Posted by on Jul 9, 2013 in Library | Comments Off on Simon of Taiboutheh Posted by Macrina

This is my report of the second conference from the colloquium on the

Syrian Fathers in Ghent last weekend. Please see my earlier disclaimer

regarding the accuracy of my reporting and translations!

Dom André Louf, ocso is abbot emeritus of the abbey of Mont des Cats

in France and author of several books, including Teach us to Pray, The

Cistercian Way and Grace can do more. He is now a hermit and

translates Syrian texts. He was responsible for the French translation

of the second series of St Isaac’s homilies.

Our information concerning the life of Simeon comes from two Syrian

chroniclers who lived several centuries later: Bar Hebraeus (+1286)

and Abdisho Bar Brika (+1318). From these we learn that he had been a

doctor before becoming a monk, that he lived during the episcopacy of

Catholicus Henanisho (685-699), and that he wrote works on medicine,

on monastic life and on the mystery of the cell. From these works we

can also gather that he lived in the southeast of what is now Iraq, a

region that at that time was undergoing a monastic growth and which

was home to well known spiritual writers such as Dadisho Qatraya and

Isaac of Nineveh. The latter was somewhat older than Simeon.

The designation “of Taibouthèh” refers not to a place, but means “of

grace” and refers to one of his writings. Many manuscripts contain

such a “Book of Grace” which had previously been ascribed to Isaac of

Nineveh, but which recent critical scholarship believes to originate

with Simeon. Simeon also refers to the crucial role of grace in his

other works and is particularly concerned with the relationship

between asceticism and grace.

Most of Simeon’s works are to be found in a manuscript that dates from

1298 and which was found in a Mosul in 1908. It has been partially

published in English and wholly in Italian. His work also received

serious attention in Fr R Beulay’s work La Lumière sans forme on East

Syriac writings published by Chevetogne.

Until now only a short work of his has been published in French

(translated by Dom André and published in Collectanea Cisterciensa if

I understood correctly, but I haven’t been able to locate the details

yet). This is a manuscript dating from 1289 and is found in the

Vatican library. Its title reads “A helpful address spoken on the day

of the consecration of a cell, on the occasion of the departure of a

brother from the cenobium, written by Mar Simeon of Taibouthèh, also

called Luke, disciple of Rabban Shabur.” The name Luke is an allusion

to Simeon’s identity as a doctor. Rabban Shabur was the founder of the

monastery of Bet Huzaye in the middle of the seventh century; it was

to this monastery that Saint Isaac retired when he became blind. The

text is thus a homily that was preached to mark the transition of a

monk from the cenobium to the hermitage, a frequent occurrence in a

monastic tradition that viewed the eremitical life as the crowning of

the cenobitical. It was preached during an all night vigil in which

the entire community gathered to encourage the new hermit. Towards

dawn Simeon began to speak of what was expected of the hermit monk. He

speaks of the hermit being consecrated as the vessels of the altar.

Simeon advises the new hermit not to discard the observances of the

cenobitic life too quickly, especially the Office and spiritual

reading and he emphasises the importance of alternating these and

finding a balance. This was probably a reference to the Messalians who

taught that interior prayer freed one from the obligations of the


Simeon is particularly concerned with the transition from the

asceticism proper to the cenobitical life to the asceticism of the

cell, which is at the service of the hidden prayer which the monk will

offer in the “cell of the heart”. It is in this cell, which is a

replica of the cell that he will literally inhabit, that the monk will

celebrate the mysteries of the Holy Spirit and in which he will regain

the integrity of his original nature. The asceticism proper to the

cell consists principally in keeping guard over one’s thoughts and

desires, and particularly in noting the changes and variations in

these and in paying attention to how one falls and gets up again.

The task of the hermit is to patiently persevere in his cell, despite

the subtle efforts of the devil to persuade him to leave it,  “until

the cell feels compassion for him and draws him to itself.” For Simeon

there are two clear signs that the hermit is on the right track. These

are that he avoids all exaggerated asceticism and that he radiates a

humble love for all people without distinction, so much so indeed that

he is no longer able to see any evil in others.

Much of the advice given in this work is also to be found in the form

of short sayings found in the Centuries of Grace (and this is where

the quotes below are taken from).

Simeon is particularly concerned with the relationship between

asceticism and grace in the life of the hermit. Ascetical effort will

always remain necessary.

Without ascetical effort one cannot be healed from the passions.

Nothing is written in the book of the heart without great ardour, and

without the exertion of strict and hard practices one does not bear

the fruits of the Spirit which Paul speaks of.

Nevertheless, grace is equally necessary:

One does not receive the divine influence if one is not brought to

rest on the way through the flowing love that is poured out by the


But even with this action of the Spirit, ascetical effort remains necessary:

The passionlessness of the soul requires an unshakeable, exceptional

virtue and the keeping of the commandments. The commandments are kept

with the help of God and through much effort, and when the blood of

the soul flows as sweat flows over the body.

Yet, despite this vigilant asceticism, grace continues to have the upper hand:

The until then unknown peace of the soul, which is accompanied by

rest, love and calmness, is thanks to the grace of God, even if there

is also voluntary asceticism involved; when these are brought about by

the Holy Spirit then they are no longer natural or voluntary, nor

subject to nature or the will. Without grace, their truth is not

realised and it is impossible to appreciate them.

Simeon speaks of the slavery of virtue, which needs to be transcended:

Exertion, hardness of heart, bitterness and the schemes with which

virtue is practiced and the passions and the devil are conquered; as

long as these are still needed our soul is not truly free but is still

on the way of the slavery of the virtues and not yet in the freedom of

its nature. For where strenuous exertion is still needed there is no

freedom; where one still needs to exercise cunning there is no purity;

where the natural tendencies still dominate there is no clarity; where

bitterness dominates there is no calm; where one desires to conquer at

all costs there is no love, and where there is no spiritual love there

is no light of passionlessness and no light of grace; where there are

encounters, the one useful and the other damaging, there is neither

peace nor truth nor the freedom to treat all alike, and where there is

no freedom to treat all alike the conscience is injured.

Simeon quotes Abba Isaiah:

As long as one’s conscience accuses one there is no freedom. We only

become true sons and we can only climb to the holy rest that God longs

to give us when our conscience no longer accuses us during prayer

concerning purity or concerning memories or strange thoughts; we can

only climb to this holy rest when our senses and our emotions come to

rest and when our struggle with the demons is ended, thanks to the

mercy of Christ.

Simeon adds,

Now all asceticism has become superfluous and we suddenly find

ourselves without power to exercise such asceticism.

Grace retains the upper hand:

Patience and perseverance are the daughters of the exertion; a soul

that is at rest and the absence of work are the daughters of freedom.

Thanks to fiery prayers, tears and sighs; thanks to intercession,

incessant persistence; thanks to the strong desire of our heart that

has been painfully touched by God; thanks to a heart that mourning has

made humble and contrite and that hopes each moment and awaits the

coming of grace; (thanks to all this) this takes place in us while we

sit in rest under the protection of the Most High, as a result of this

grace, this peace and this comfort which no eye has ever seen, no ear

has ever heard, and which has never before arisen in the human heart.

Simeon distinguishes between a virtue that comes from ascetic exertion

and a virtue that is given by grace:

In order to turn us away from evil, a virtue based on justice and that

is reached by human effort will suffice; but in order to reach the

perfection of the good the Gospel tells us that we need a new

attitude. This unfolds itself spontaneously in the freedom of the sons

that unites us with the Holy Spirit, makes our soul holy and fills it

with peace, comfort and joy. In the virtue that is the fruit of

exertion for exertion’s sake rather than for the sake of the future

hope, we find neither joy, nor truth, nor spiritual love that is

content with everything and puts up with everything, but we find only

the justice that does violence out of fear of judgement and the

torments of hell. But in the virtue that is spontaneously exercised

out of love for God and hope for the future, our soul is filled with

the joy of the Spirit.

Simeon shows his insight into the psychology of the hermits and into

the tactics of the demons who would tempt them which adapt themselves

to the spiritual qualities of those whom they attempt to bring down.

The demons who fight with novices are harsh: they fight hard in an

incorporeal way. Those who fight with the “psychiki” are more subtle

in their tactics. With the perfect they are very calm and convinced,

they scrutinise all their steps and pretend to help them; they are not

fiery but calm; they are able to persevere without discouragement for

forty six years as it is written in the Sayings of the Fathers; those

who intervene in the moment of great change and great ardour are harsh

and without mercy.

The work of the demons thus accompanies the work of God, making

discernment difficult.

As often as grace begins to work in the heart so the demons begin

their scheming in all aspects of our desires. Just as scent comprises

a mixture of good and impure fragrances, so the soul is at the same

time filled with peace and turmoil, with love and fear; the intellect

is confused and is no longer able to distinguish truth, appearance and

error, while the members are resting and “workless”; this is worse

than anything else for Satan often entices the impure passions through

all sorts of fragrances and in a very cunning way is able to make an

impure and bad odour appear as a sweet and pleasant one…

The most subtle of Satan’s schemes is to inspire strictness and

austerity that the ascetic is not able to fulfil.

Some of the Fathers of old had conquered their bodies by all sorts of

bodily and spiritual asceticism; the asceticism had made them humble

due to their falling and getting up again in the midst of the

passions; they had advanced through the fire of temptations and of

misery, and had endured both the cold and the heat of the midday sun

in the regular asceticism which they had learnt from the Fathers;

their spiritual senses had matured, but in their fiery emotion they

had overestimated themselves where they had no right to do so,

thinking that they had perfectly received the practicing of thoughts

as one reads of in the texts of the spiritual Fathers; alas! They

thought that they were exercising spiritual freedom when this was

simply the imagination of their intellect … when the ardour stopped

the passion were once more aroused and they found themselves totally

robbed of their monastic life.

There is only one weapon that can save us from such a fate, namely humility.

The hermit who is found worthy of compassion must never let go of his

weapons: humility, rest, submission, bearing the weakness of his

neighbour, patience, long-sufferingness, self-contempt that means that

means that he is never proud of his own victories which is the root of

all evil; self love is the mother of all passion. In order to remain

free from the demons he continually searches his thoughts, his

intentions and his desires, using an intellect that is enlightened to

distinguish which of these are bound up with the passions, or which

are used by them, in order to secretly conquer his soul under the

appearance of virtue.

This struggle with temptation does not necessarily end in a definite

victory, but is rather a continual process of “falling and getting up

again.” This requires continued vigilance, the assistance of grace and

the guidance of a spiritual father “… so that he is able, even when he

is exhausted by the desert of mourning, to recognise the traps of the


Just as with all sinners, the monk is exposed to both grace and the

demons and needs to be able to freely choose between these.

We are not able to remain totally free of the traces of the passions,

but thanks to the asceticism and the healing remedies that the Lord in

his mercy has given to his holy Church, our free desires can heal us

and cleanse us from the traces of the passions.

For Simeon the heart of the hermit is the place where this struggle

and choice take place. The heart is by nature pure, full of light and

transparent, even if it still needs to be purified by asceticism. He

is concerned with what has been given to us in advance in baptism, or

the seed planted in us at creation that needs to germinate and grow so

that the heart can see itself “in the glory of its original nature in

grace … thanks to the passionless light” which is able to distinguish

between truth and appearance.

Simeon compares the heart to a mirror in which the soul can see

itself, but it must first be purified from the rust of the passions.

The heart is the “inner cell” which is of another nature than the

“external monastery” of the senses. It is on this “book of the heart”

that the words of prayer will be written. Simeon also compares the

heart as a “spiritual bridal chamber” and to the good earth which

contains both good seed and bad and in which the farmer must give the

good seed the chance to grow:

Just as the earth never ceases to allow the good and the bad seed to

grow, so the earth of the heart must allow the good and the bad seed

to grow; for it is the farmer’s task to get rid of the weeds. He will

cultivate the earth of his heart with the Lord’s commandments and with

irreproachable practice so that the weeds of the passions do not grow.

The hermit must show the same care for the earth of his heart which

the farmer shows for his land.

One finds in the heart the secret source of pain which gives rise to

the tears of all the emotions. But the heart is above all a sanctuary,

the “Holy of Holies” where the hermit celebrates as a priest and

offers a spiritual offering.

When, thanks to the voluntary asceticism of the discernment of

spirits, the priest in the Church of your inmost being has adorned

this inner temple through an irreproachable conduct and you now desire

to know whether you have received mercy; or if the inner door of the

Holy of Holies has been opened; or if the inner intellect may enter

for the mysterious celebration in order to continually offer the

incense of prayer, then you will understand all this from the sweet

incense of the peace, the love and the spiritual joy that constantly

arise in your inmost being, thanks to the memory of the steady

rumination of your reflections on the divine love, and thanks to the

joy and the comfort that inexplicably arise in your soul.

Simeon’s emphasis on the repetition prayer formulas may be an illusion

to the Jesus prayer. He says:

One makes a fire by rubbing wood against wood, and the fire of love

catches on in the heart that bursts into fire through the tender love

for Christ through continually repeating the words of the prayer.

The hermit’s prayer consists in the first place of intercession for

others. To pray for oneself means to humbly entrust oneself to the

prayer of others.

The righteous one praises God at the beginning of his prayer and

accuses himself; when he begins he prays for the peace of the world,

for kings and rulers; he prays ardently for the peace of the Holy

Church, for her children and her governors; he prays for sinners, for

the weak who fall; he weeps and mourns for penitents, as ascetics, for

those in difficulties and those who weep; and only then does he seek

refuge in their prayers and he asks for mercy and forgiveness.

The true sign that the hermit has reached the summit of spiritual

experience is not to be found in the subtle enlightenments that he

receives, but rather in the compassion with which he greets sinners,

without ever judging them.

When the spring of the heart, purified through the pain of prayer, and

overwhelmed by peace and light, remembers the weakness of others it

proclaims no judgement; when it meets sinners it does not become angry

or seek to exercise its zeal, nor does it reproach them inwardly…

Love is born in the soul and grows so that you do not see the weakness

of your neighbour, so that you do not remember them and do not judge

them. Peace and rest inhabit the thoughts so that you are able to

defeat the evil of your neighbour with good…

When, you are found worthy through pure mercy so that the behaviour of

all people appears the same to you and noble, know then that the

mirror of your conscience is pure and clear; that, thanks to grace, it

no longer contains bad passions; that this excellence is not your work

but must be ascribed to God’s help, praise God then that your soul is

beginning to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit because the pure eye

of your conscience does not see the evil of your neighbour…

It is only the humble prayer of the sinner that is able to justify us

in God’s eyes.

The prayer of the sinner with a contrite heart, whose conscience

humbles him when he considers his mistakes and weaknesses, is better

than the prayer of a conceited righteous person who is puffed up when

he thinks of himself, haughty and pompous because he considers himself

to have reached a spiritual level. When a sinner becomes conscious of

his weakness and begins to mourn he becomes righteous, but when a

righteous person is convinced in his conscience of his righteousness,

he is a sinner.


Simon of Taiboutheh


Posted by Macrina