Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Texts on Thanksgiving: Symeon the New Theologian

The following passage may be found in Symeon the New Theologian’s homily On Faith:

I grieve, I exhaust my heart, I pine for you when I bring to mind that we have a Lord so bountiful and compassionate that simply if we have faith in Him He grants us gifts beyond our imagination—gifts we have never heard or thought of and that ‘man’s heart has not grasped.’ Yet we, like beasts, prefer the earth and the things of the earth that through His mercy it yields in order to supply our bodily needs…This is our purpose, for this we were created and brought forth: that after having received lesser blessings in this world we may through our gratitude to God and our love for Him enjoy great and eternal blessings in the life to come. But, alas, far from having any concern for the blessings in store, we are even ungrateful for those at hand, and we are like the demons, or—if truth be told—even worse. Thus we deserve greater punishment than they, for we have been given greater blessings. For we know that God became for our sakes like us in everything except sin, so that He might deliver us from delusion and free us from sin. But what is the use of saying this? The truth is that we believe in all these things only as words, while we deny them where our acts are concerned. Is not Christ’s name uttered everywhere, in towns and villages, in monasteries and on mountains? Search diligently, if you will, and find out whether anyone keeps His commandments.

Symeon, with fearful conviction, speculates about just how deep is human ingratitude. It is one thing that humanity should prefer the immediate, terrestrial blessings to the eschatological, supernal blessings. After all, the one is grasped by the senses and the intellect (if one is keenly perceptive), while the other is grasped only by faith and only in the spirit. Yet humanity is not even appropriately thankful for those earthly blessings it receives. Being more richly blessed than the demons—infinitely so—in this life, humans typically have a disposition no better than evil spirits. It raises doubts about whether or not humanity truly can be grateful for the eternal gifts which were bequeathed to it in the Incarnation since humans cannot seem to begin to show appropriate thanksgiving for the blessings which are experienced now.

Symeon suggests that the truest act of thanksgiving is obedience, which in turn mediates more blessings to creation. If he were alive today, would he still find that our thanksgiving exists “only in words?” Would he still say, “Among thousands and myriads you will scarcely find one who is a Christian both in word and in act.”

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