The details of Symeon's life come from his own writings and from the Life of Symeon, written by his disciple Nicetas. He was born at Basileion in Galatia to Basil and Theophano Galaton, members of the Byzantine nobility who supported the Macedonian dynasty. His given name at birth is unclear—it was traditional at that time, when becoming a monk, to take on a new name with the same initial as one's birth name. Symeon may have ignored that tradition in order to take the same name as his spiritual father, Symeon the Studite. In his writings, he sometimes described the experiences of "George," which might have been his birth name. Symeon received a basic Greek school education until the age of eleven, when an uncle recognized that he had potential for higher learning. The uncle helped Symeon to complete his secondary education at the court of the emperor Basil II and his brother Constantine VIII.
At age fourteen he met Symeon the Studite (also called Symeon the Pious), a holy monk of the Monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople. That meeting convinced the younger Symeon to forgo higher education and take on Symeon the Studite as his spiritual father. At that time he began studying the life of prayer and asceticism under his guidance, with the desire to immediately enter the monastery. Symeon the Studite asked the young Symeon to wait before becoming a monk, so he spent the years until age twenty-seven serving in the household of a patrician, though according to some sources he served the emperor instead.
Living a worldly life during the day, he reportedly spent his evenings in vigils and prayer, putting into practice the writings of two authors—Marcus Eremita and Diadochos of Photiki—that were given to him by his spiritual father. It was during this time that Symeon had his first experience of God as divine light, as he described later in one of his Discourses (Disc. 22.2–4). He attributed the experience to the prayers of Symeon the Studite. In spite of the experience, the young Symeon confessed that he still fell into worldly ways of living. Direct personal experience of God was to become one of Symeon's central teachings in his writings, and to the monks who followed him.
Abbot of St. Mammas monastery
At age twenty-seven, he entered the Monastery of Stoudios, giving his life over completely to discipleship to his teacher Symeon the Studite. The elder Symeon was not an ordained priest, but a simple monk who was considered holy by many people. The younger Symeon was extremely zealous in his practices and in following his teacher—to such an extent that the abbot of the monastery insisted that Symeon leave after only a few months.
Remaining walls of Monastery of Stoudios in modern-day Istanbul
Following the elder Symeon's advice, he left for the nearby Monastery of St. Mammas in Constantinople, which was described as run down, both physically and spiritually. During his time at St. Mammas he continued to follow Symeon the Studite's guidance. Within three years after moving to St. Mammas, Symeon was tonsured as a monk, ordained as a priest, and elected as the abbot of the monastery. He spent the next twenty-five years as abbot of St. Mammas, attracting many monks and clergy with his reputation for learning and sanctity.
Not all of the monks were attracted by Symeon's zealous approach. Symeon attempted to reform the Byzantine monasteries, where monks had become subservient to the emperor and had acquired large holdings of property, libraries, and art. His writings and teachings were aimed at returning the monasteries to their traditional role in the early church, urging the monks to take up a life of simplicity, asceticism, purity of heart, and constant prayer. The strict monastic discipline for which Symeon aimed upset several monks in the monastery. Symeon also took a more emotional approach to worship, suggesting that a monk shouldn't take the sacrament without tears. The introduction of vegetarian meals, along with other unique practices to instill discipline and humility, also caused some displeasure among the monks.
Fifteen years after becoming abbot, one morning after the Divine Liturgy a group of approximately thirty monks rose against Symeon, who drove them away. Breaking the locks on the monastery gate on their way out, the monks took their appeal to the Patriarch Sisinios, who sided with Symeon and sent the monks into exile. Symeon pleaded on their behalf, doing everything he could to have the monks return to the monastery, including seeking out some of the monks to apologize to them. During his time as abbot, Symeon wrote Hymns of Divine Love (completed during his exile), the Discourses, and many letters and polemical works which have been lost. He also wrote articles relating to his disputes with the church theologians—these survived as his theological and ethical treatises. In 1005 Symeon resigned as abbot of St. Mammas, appointing one of his disciples in his stead, and taking up a more solitary life at the monastery.
Opposition from the church
Symeon endured severe opposition from church authorities, particularly from the chief theologian of the emperor's court, Archbishop Stephen, who at one time was the Metropolitan of Nicomedia. Stephen was a former politician and diplomat with a reputation for a thorough theoretical understanding of theology, but one which was removed from actual experience of the spiritual life. Symeon, in contrast, held the view that one must have actual experience of the Holy Spirit in order to speak about God, at the same time recognizing the authority of scripture and of the earlier church fathers. Their differing views on the source of authority to speak on spiritual matters was the cause of several years of intense conflict, ending with Symeon's eventual exile.
Stephen found fault with Symeon especially for his charismatic approach, and his support of individual direct experience of God's grace. Symeon believed that direct experience gave monks the authority to preach and give absolution of sins, without the need for formal ordination—as practiced by his own teacher, Symeon the Studite. Church authorities also taught from a speculative and philosophical perspective, while Symeon taught from his own direct mystical experience. Symeon's teachings, especially those regarding the direct experience of God's grace, brought accusations of heresy from Stephen. Symeon responded to Stephen's charges by declaring that the real heresy was to teach that it is impossible to have direct experience of God (Disc. 29.4).
Stephen also found fault with Symeon for revering his spiritual father, Symeon the Studite. At that time, formal recognition of saints was seldom practiced and not obligatory, so revered monks were informally recognized and honored by monasteries and by their disciples. Every year the younger Symeon arranged a celebration honoring his teacher, which included an icon of Symeon the Studite and a service to him. Stephen rebuked Symeon for honoring his teacher as a saint, because in his opinion the Studite was not worth of any honor. The conflict between the two lasted for six years.
Stephen was finally able to bring Symeon before the Synod on charges of honoring as a saint someone who Stephen believed was far from saintly. At first, Patriarch Sergius II of Constantinople supported Symeon, going so far as to send candles and perfume in support of the veneration of Symeon the Studite at St. Mammas. Stephen attacked the Studite as unholy and sinful, and was eventually able to convince others that Symeon's homage was improper by convincing them that the Studite held some unorthodox beliefs. As a compromise, Stephen suggested that the annual festival honoring the elder Symeon be held as a private observance within the monastery. Symeon the New Theologian refused to compromise, declaring that it was his duty to honor the church fathers and the saints, and in January 1009 was condemned to go into exile. Stephen also convinced the Patriarch to order all icons of Symeon the Studite removed from St. Mammas, with many of them destroyed or covered over with soot.
Symeon, for his part, never backed down from the church authorities. In one of his hymns, he had Christ speaking the following rebuke to the bishops:
They (the bishops) unworthily handle My Body
and seek avidly to dominate the masses...
these evil and perverse men! (Hymn 58)
They are seen to appear as brilliant and pure,
but their souls are worse than mud and dirt,
worse even than any kind of deadly poison,
Exile and death
In 1009 Symeon was sent into exile near Paloukiton, a small village near Chrysopolis on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. According to one account, he was left by church authorities alone and without food, in the middle of winter. There he found a deserted and ruined chapel that had been dedicated to Saint Macrina. It happened to be on land owned by one of Symeon's spiritual children, Christopher Phagouras, who donated the land and proceeds to start a monastery.
By this time, Symeon had many disciples—some of them, including the patrician Geneseos, appealed to Sergius II, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to lift the order of exile. Out of fear that the dispute would reach the emperor, Sergius II lifted the exile order completely, and then offered to re-establish Symeon at the monastery of St. Mammas and consecrate him as archbishop of an important see in Constantinople. The only qualification was that Symeon must show some restraint in his celebration of Symeon the Studite's festival day. Symeon refused to compromise—the Patriarch, out of respect for Symeon, gave him his blessing to "live together with your disciples and act according to your good pleasure."
Symeon remained at the Saint Macrina monastery, where many close disciples, both monks and secular people, gathered around him. At Saint Macrina he was free of monks who were averse to his discipline and zeal, and free from direct conflict with church authorities. He continued to honor Symeon the Studite—most of the clergy from Constantinople, along with many monks and laymen, joined him during those celebrations. He also wrote during that time and made himself accessible to all who wanted to see him. Symeon spent the last thirteen years of his life in exile, dying from dysentery on March 12, 1022. According to his biographer and disciple, Nicetas, Symeon foretold his own death many years previously, and on his last day called together all the monks to sing the funeral hymns.
Symeon is now recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church. The title of "Theologian" was not given to him in the modern academic sense of someone who is learned in theology, but to recognize someone who speaks from personal experience of the vision of God. Until Symeon's time, that title was reserved mainly for John the Apostle, author of one of the four gospels, and Gregory of Nazianzus, writer of contemplative poetry. His opponents derisively called him the "new" theologian because of his creative approach—his supporters, and later the Church at large, embraced the name in the most positive sense.