The story of ‘George’

St Symeon the New Theologian

St Symeon the New Theologian

I KNEW a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4


The following story, to be found in the “Philokalia”, comes from St Symeon the New Theologian, who reposed in the Lord in 1022.

THERE was someone called George, very young in age, nearly twenty years old, living in Constantinople – in our own day.

He was very good-looking, and he went about with such ideas of his own appearance, that many people had a mean opinion of him, especially those who judge things by a man’s outward show, and who, without taking into consideration what is hidden in each person, condemn, and become indiscriminate judges of others.

This young man made the acquaintance of a very holy monk, who lived in a monastery in Constantinople, and opening up to him all that was hidden in his heart, he even told him that he longed for the salvation of his soul, and had a great desire to remove from the world, and become a monk.

Now, the honourable Elder praised him for the goal he had set for himself; he counselled him, as was proper, and gave him that book of St Mark the Ascetic to read, in which he writes about the spiritual law.

The young man took it with such longing and reverence, that it might have been sent by God himself; and he had such faith in it, that he hoped he would receive the greatest possible profit by it.

Going home, he immediately began to read with great care, and he read the whole thing with great reverence three times, and a fourth, and he did not let it out of his hands again, such profit did he hope for from that book.

But he selected just three passages, and imprinting them upon his heart, he made a decision within himself to put them into practice, and to keep to them with every care.

[Continues after the video, which is Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Lord’s Prayer”]

The first passage said this: Should you look to find healing for your soul, it is essential to have great diligence and care to keep your conscience well, so that it does not convict you in any matter. And whatever of your good works your conscience tells you to do, do not weary of them, but do them, and you will find them of great benefit.

The next passage said this: Anyone who looks to acquire the gifts of the Holy Spirit before he is doing the commandments of God, is like a slave who asks for the purchase price of his liberty from his owner, at the very moment when his master hands over the money to buy him.

And the third passage said this: He who prays with his mouth, and as yet has not acquired spiritual knowledge, and does not yet understand how to pray with the eye of the heart, is like the blind man who cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). But he who has acquired spiritual knowledge, and prays with the eye of his heart, is like the same blind man when the Lord healed him from his blindness, when the light of his eyes came, and he saw the Lord, and he no longer called him son of David, but confessed him Son of God, and worshipped him as was proper (John 9:38).

These three passages delighted that young man enormously. He was filled with wonder at them too, and absorbed their message in his soul, and believed unhesitatingly that he would find great benefit from them, provided he exercised great care over his conscience, just as St Mark says; and that he would enjoy the gifts of the Holy Spirit and their energies, provided that he kept the commandments of God; and thirdly, that by the grace of the Holy Spirit he would be made worthy to open the eyes of his soul, and to see the Lord with heart-sight (νοερῶς).

In hoping that he might see that same inexpressible goodness of the Lord, he was wounded in the heart by this passion (ἔρωτα) and love, and had a great desire for it. However, he did not do anything, as he later assured me on his honour, but only this, that every evening, when he went to bed to sleep, he made the prayer and the prostrations which that holy Elder had encouraged him to do, and then fell asleep.

So a short time passed, in which he took good care of his conscience. Then when he did the prayer rule of his elder one evening, his conscience told to do another prayer and some prostrations, and to say again “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!” several times more, because he felt he was capable of it.

The young man was obedient to what his conscience said, with great eagerness, and began, without taking a break, to do it immediately, believing that what he was doing was what God himself was telling him to do.

[Continues after the video, which is the prayer “Open to me the gates of repentance, O giver of life”]

From that time onward, he no longer fell into his bed to sleep, if he had not first done what his conscience told him he was capable of doing. And being obedient in this fashion to his conscience, and his conscience always increasing things and telling him to do more, in a short while the prayer he did, as we said, had grown considerably every evening.

Since he did not have the opportunity for prayer during the day, because he had the oversight of the whole household of a great nobleman, and he had many responsibilities and matters, and went every day, no less, to the king’s palace, and he had no opportunity for prayer during the daytime; but every evening when he went home to sleep, he would pray, just as we said.

And his heart began to be warm. Compunction also began to come to him, and plentiful tears began to run from his eyes.

He began to make genuflections frequently, and to say other prayers to the Birth-giver of God, with deep sighing and with pain of heart;

A nun at prayer

"He began to make genuflections frequently, and to say other prayers to the Birth-giver of God, with deep sighing and with pain of heart."

and it seemed to him that he stood before the Lord bodily, and that he fell at his immaculate feet and begged him with tears to be tenderly pitying towards him, just like the blind man of whom the Holy Gospel speaks, and to grant to him light for the eyes of his soul.

Thus grew from day to day the prayer he made each evening, to which he applied himself until midnight.

And at the time when he was praying standing upright, he stood like a column, and did not move his feet at all, nor any other part of his body.

Nor did he turn his eyes to this way or that to look about himself, but stood with great fear and trembling, without drowsiness, nor did listlessness or laziness come over him.

So then it was, that one evening at the time when he was praying, and was saying with heart-sight (νοερῶς) in the eye of his heart, the “God be merciful to me a sinner”, suddenly a divine illumination shone out upon upon him, and that whole place was filled with that light.

And that blessed young man, I mean to say, George, remained in wonderment and forgot whether he was in his house, because he saw light everywhere, as if he were outdoors.

Nor did he comprehend whether his feet were still planted on the earth, or whether he was standing upon air; but at the same time, he had no bodily or worldly concern in his heart-mind (νοῦς) at all, but he completely forgot the whole world, and everything met and became one with the divine light; and it seemed to him, that he too became light, and was wholly filled with tears and an indescribable joy.

And at the last, his heart-mind went up to the heavens, and there he saw another light, brighter still, and beside that light it seemed to him that there stood the holy Elder who had given to him, as we said, the book of St Mark, and the prayer rule which he observed.

Now I myself, as I heard these things from the young man, came to the conclusion that the intercession of the holy Elder contributed a great deal to this, and that God so ordered things to show the young man to what height of virtue the holy Elder had come, which is why he saw him standing beside that light.

Then that young man, as this vision passed and he came again to himself, was filled, so he said, with joy and wonder, and poured out tears from his heart; and together with those tears there followed also a surpassing sweetness.

At the end of it all, he fell upon his bed to sleep a little, and at the same moment the cock crowed; and barely any time passed, before the church bells called him to Matins.

And so the young man got up to read Matins, as was his habit; and that night he did not sleep at all, neither did any thought of sleep come to him for one moment.

St Symeon the New Theologian, “On Faith”. George is, of course, St Symeon himself.

This is my translation of a katharevousa Greek abridgment to be found in the “Philokalia” as originally compiled by St Nicodemus and St Makarios (Athens edition, volume 5 [1992]). The “Philokalia” as translated by Sherrard, Palmer and Ware, Volume 4, has a different version, translated from a critical edition of Symeon’s original. I’m pretty sure I can’t use that for such a long extract, though, as it’s in copyright.

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