Revival & Repentance: From Cluny to Simeon

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The tenth century was not made illustrious by any great theologians — at least not in the West. But it was a century of great advances for the church in terms of its social impact. (Perhaps one lesson is not to overrate theologians.)

In the ninth century, Christian civilization had almost been destroyed in western Europe by the Norse invasions. Unlike today’s benign neo-pagans, Vikings were ferocious, skull-cracking warriors who burnt down churches, slaughtered clergy and monks, and raped nuns. The tenth century, however, saw a remarkable turnaround. One by one, the Norse kingdoms embraced Christianity. The process had actually begun toward the end of the ninth century in England, when the Danish Norsemen submitted to Christian baptism as part of a peace treaty with Alfred the Great. In the tenth century, the Norsemen of France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland followed suit.

In all cases but Iceland, the movement to Christianity came from the top, after the monarch and his court were converted. The Icelandic example, however, will resonate more with us today. From the 870s, the Norsemen had settled in Iceland, where they developed one of the most cultured and democratic societies in the Western world of that day. Christian missionaries sent by Olaf Tryggvason, the newly converted king of Norway, brought the faith to Iceland in the late 900s. The response of the Icelanders was to polarize into Christian and pagan parties; a religious civil war seemed to be brewing. However, the democratic traditions of Icelandic culture prevailed, and the nation agreed to submit the great religious question to one of their sages. After a long period of meditation, the sage finally reported back that the new faith in Christ was better than the old paganism. This decision was accepted by all and ratified by the Icelandic parliament in the year 1000.

We may ask why, in democratic Iceland, the two religions could not live together peacefully. The answer is that no one in the Middle Ages could imagine a society with two or more religions. People saw religion as the “glue” that held society together. Therefore, each society — even a democratic one — could have only one faith. Medieval democracy did not guarantee religious toleration, it only ensured that a society would make a democratic decision about which faith the whole society would practice.

After the warfare and devastation of the ninth century, Christian Europe was rebuilt in the tenth by a partnership between monastery and monarchy. One monastery in particular led the movement for establishing Christian values in society — the monastery of Cluny in southeastern France, which was founded in 909. Cluny’s role in restoring the vigor and purity of the Western monasteries and in helping to shape a new Christian West has been described as the “Cluniac revival.”

Cluny was led by a series of great abbots. The inspiration behind the Cluniac revival was Odo, abbot from 927 to 942, who deliberately set up “daughter” monasteries from Cluny. In 931, Pope John XI gave Cluny the right to control these other monasteries. The heads of the Cluniac monasteries were personally appointed by Odo, and they took a vow of obedience to the abbot of Cluny. So a great network of Cluniac monasteries spread across France and Germany, all under the central direction of Cluny.

The main thrust of the Cluniac revival was to reform existing monasteries and establish new and better ones. Central to this Cluniac vision of reformed monastic life was the Cluniac liturgy. A Cluniac monk devoted almost the whole of his day to services of worship, and Cluniacs constructed and decorated their monastic churches with awesome beauty and magnificence to make worship as glorious an experience as possible. The Cluniac reformers were also committed to the Benedictine rule. By the end of the ninth century, most Western monasteries had become very ill-disciplined; by the end of the tenth century, through the impact of the Cluniac revival, strict obedience to the Benedictine rule had become widespread throughout western Europe.

From its very foundation, Cluny enjoyed freedom from all secular or political control — unusual in the age of feudalism. In 999, it also received from Pope Gregory V freedom from episcopal authority; Cluny was subject only to the pope. However, until the reform of the papacy in the mideleventh century, the papacy was itself corrupt and powerless. The abbots of Cluny were therefore free to pursue their own policies without interference from popes or kings. The abbots of Cluny, rather than the popes, were the central figures in the Christian life of western Europe.

Although Cluny had freedom from political control, there grew up a strong alliance between the Cluniac monks and the secular rulers (dukes, princes, and kings). Indeed, the Cluniac revival itself helped to spread Christian ideals to the ruling classes, for part of the Cluniac policy was to take the sons of the aristocracy into Cluniac monasteries to give them a solid Christian education. An especially powerful partnership grew up between Cluny and the kings of Western Christendom. The abbots of Cluny believed that the best hope of making Europe into a truly Christian society lay in strong Christian monarchies being established, which could then govern society according to Christian ideals.

The West, then, underwent a kind of Christian “social revival” in the tenth century without the aid of great theologians. In the East, however, where society was solidly and resplendently Christian in the form of the Byzantine Empire, a great theologian did arise — Simeon the New Theologian (949–1022), often called the greatest of the Byzantine mystics. Prior to this, Easterners had given the title “Theologian” only to the apostle John and Gregory of Nazianzus because they were seen as matchless in their teaching about the nature of God and the Trinity. The East could express its respect for Simeon in no higher way than by ranking him on this most exalted plane with John and Gregory.

Simeon was born to a wealthy family in the village of Galatia on the southern coast of the Black Sea. His early career as a civil servant clashed with his deep yearning for the monastic life, but his spiritual director, a monk of Constantinople’s great Studium monastery, advised the young Simeon to remain a civil servant for a time, until his life in Christ had grown and he could make a mature decision to become a monk.

The director’s name was also Simeon — he is known as Simeon the Reverent, to distinguish him from his more famous disciple. Young Simeon eventually joined the Studium, but his spiritual intensity alarmed many of the other monks, who began criticizing and mocking him. To spare him, Simeon the Reverent had his pupil transferred to Constantinople’s Saint Mamas monastery, where he was soon elected abbot in 980. He produced a steady stream of written sermons, hymns, and treatises on the spiritual life, which earned him his lofty status among Eastern teachers.

This status did not, however, come without conflict. Simeon provoked much hostility, spearheaded by Stephen, former bishop of Nicomedia, now an official of the Constantinople patriarchate (the highest bishopric in the East). Stephen attacked Simeon unceasingly, criticizing his writings as the work of a shallow, uneducated man. It was in some ways a clash between those (like Stephen) who emphasized the official organized church and its authority, and those (like Simeon) who placed higher value on the dynamic life of the Spirit indwelling the people. Opinions about Simeon event ua lly became so divided in Constantinople that Patriarch Serg ius II asked Simeon to leave the city in 1009 for the sake of the church’s peace. Simeon settled just outside Constantinople. There a rich friend helped him found a new monastery, where he enjoyed the peace that had escaped him in the turbulent Byzantine capital.

Simeon was certainly an unusual and striking person. Whenever he led his monks in worship, his face (they said) shone like an angel. He often made prophecies about individuals (which apparently came true), and he had a ministry of healing through prayer. A highly valued spiritual grace in the mysticism of the Eastern Church is “the gift of tears” — a burning anguish of repentance in the heart that issues forth in weeping profusely over one’s sins. Simeon possessed this gift in abundance; people noticed that he was bathed in tears when sitting alone. Simeon’s faith was also atypical. Unlike other Byzantine mystics, he spoke freely about his experience of God. He was a relentless critic of a merely nominal Christianity. Baptism and church attendance, Simeon insisted, were spiritually worthless unless they bore fruit in a changed life.

Is Christ’s name not spoken everywhere,” Simeon said, “in cities, villages, monasteries, and on mountains? But if you search carefully to see if people obey Christ’s commands, you will hardly find one among thousands and tens of thousands who is a real Christian in word and in deed.”

Through his preaching, writing, and counseling, Simeon spent his life trying to turn people away from a religion that was all ritual and ceremony to an inward spirituality of the heart. He insisted that a true knowledge of God could not come through doctrine alone but through committed spiritual practice, especially prayer, in which the believer comes to know God personally and experientially.

Controversial in his lifetime, the Eastern Orthodox Church gave its verdict in Simeon’s favor after his death, and he became and remains one of the East’s most beloved saints. His spiritual greatness at least ensures that the tenth century should not be forgotten.

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