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The Baptism of Tears: The Two Baptisms of St. Symeon the New Theologian

This second baptism of tears is the point that gave his opponents the most to speak about for it is the real point of departure from the mainline of Byzantine theology.14  This baptism, which is the “baptism of the Spirit”, is most commonly imaged as the “baptism of tears”. As the “baptism of tears”, this second baptism is the real, spiritual cleansing of the individual from their post-baptismal sin. In the Discourses (p. 160), Symeon says that “Repentance gives rise to the tear from the depths of the soul; the tear cleanses the heart and wipes away great sins. When these have been blotted out through tears the soul finds itself in the comfort of the Spirit of God and is watered by streams of sweetest compunction.” Here we notice the catalyst to the tears—repentance. This is, for Symeon, the real cause of salvation. For, as he states earlier in The Discourses (pp. 81-82), “No one will ever prove the divine Scripture that any person ever was cleansed without tears and constant compunction.”

Why did Symeon press this issue about the second baptism?

This is not merely a one-time event, though. There must be a lifetime of penitence, a permanent disposition of the soul. Penthos is the word used to describe this disposition and it is the sign that the purification of the heart has been given by the Spirit as a result of the faithfulness of the believer. It is repentance, a sorrow for sin that leads to further purification. “Let no one say that it is impossible to weep daily! …For if you say that it is impossible daily to weep and shed tears, then how can you say that it is possible for men who are subject to corruption ever to attain a …heart that is pure from all kinds of passions and evil thoughts so that one may see God?”15 This “baptism of tears” is fundamentally tied to holiness and sanctification. It is necessary to attain penthos in order to see God, which for Symeon was a very legitimate, mystical experience of the Light. In addition to this mystical bent, it is also a prerequisite to actualizing the private and public lifestyle that is pleasing to God. Symeon recognized what might be seen as the negative and positive aspects of the presence of tears; that is, sorrow and joy. When someone recognizes their unworthiness of salvation, they are sorrowful, but the tears become tears of joy at the recognition of grace.16

The way of penitence includes the acceptance of whatever may come your way. As negative events bombard your life, the tears that are cried in prayer cleanse the soul: “The afflicted soul is moved to tears through trials; as the tears cleanse the heart they make it into a temple and a resting place for the Holy Spirit … so when the garment of the soul has been defiled with the mud and dung of sinful passions it cannot be washed clean except through many tears and endurance of trials and tribulations.”17 These statements lead to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, this lived theology is contextual and secondly, this is a God-directed spirituality.

The lived reality of the individual is not denied or white-washed. It is felt and realized by the individual. This spirituality is in all practicality based on the personal experience of the individual Christian as they are living in the community of saints where they are being taught, encouraged and challenged. Personal experience was a valid source of theology for Symeon. In essence it was the only source for theology because abstract ideas are meaningless outside of personal contact with God. J. A. McGuckin says in his article on Symeon’s vision of theology (p. 211) that “theology is solely the experience of the Spirit of God who initiates us into truth.”18 This experience of the Spirit of God may come in various shapes and with multitudinous contours, both positive and seemingly negative, but what all of the occurrences do is point us toward a life centered upon God; that is, they point us toward initiation “into truth”. Symeon insisted upon the need for direct experience and relationship with the Holy Spirit.19 One of the preeminent statements from Symeon in Chapters and Discourses (p. 58) concerning the role of experience is:

If a man has not achieved impassibility, he does not know what impassibility is, and cannot believe that anyone on earth could posses is … it is the same with a man who thinks he possesses the Holy Spirit but really does not. When he hears about the energies of the Holy Spirit working in those who truly possess him, he never believes that there is someone in the generation who is equal to the apostles of Christ and the saints of old, who is inspired and moved by the Spirit, and who sees him intuitively and perceptibly. For when a man judges the affairs of his fellows for good or evil, he can do so only on the basis of his personal condition.

This experience with the Spirit is an overwhelming experience which has outward manifestations. The entire person is spiritually consumed by the presence of the divine Light. This experience causes an overflow of the emotions and a collapse of physical ability of control. Symeon describes this experience in the Chapters and Discourses (pp. 77-78):

When a man has within him the light of the all-holy Spirit, he cannot bear the sight and so he falls prostrate on the ground. He cries out and shouts, driven out of his senses by immense fear. He is like someone who sees or feels something beyond nature, reason, and understanding. It is as if his entrails were touched by fire and scorched with flames. He cannot bear this burning and becomes like someone outside himself, and because he does not have the strength [to endure], he pours out an endless flood of tears which refreshes him and rouses up the flame of his desire. His tears become more abundant and, when he is purified in their flood, he shines with greater brilliance. Then, entirely on fire, he becomes like light and fulfills the saying: “God is made one with the gods and becomes known.”20

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2019

About the Author: Gene Mills, MDiv., ThM., (as of 2001) is a PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is Senior Assistant to the editors of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture and Senior Pastor of Words of Life Church of God in Tallahassee, Florida.

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