July 20, 2024

True Orthodox Diocese of Western Europe

Russian True Orthodox Church (RTOC)


85 min read

Krueger, Derek. Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’s Life and the Late Antique City. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.


The Life and Conduct[1] of Abba Symeon Called the Fool for the Sake of Christ Written by Leontius, Most Pious Bishop of Neapolis on the Isle of Cyprus

Those who are eager to pursue the worthy status which can be taught to others are obliged to demonstrate in their own life the teaching of still others and present themselves to all as a model of a way of living which is a virtue inspired by God, according to the divine word which says, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” [Mt 5:16], lest perhaps they are eager to chastise, reform, and guide others before they themselves are instructed and purified through working at the divine commandments, having failed to lament their own death, while concerning themselves with the death of another, and fulfill in themselves the truthful saying, so fitting to them, which says, “He who does not do and teach these things will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” [Mt 5:17], and again, “Hypocrite, first take the log out of your eye and then look to take out the speck in your brother’s eye” [Mt 7:5]. For this reason also the wise author of the Acts of the Apostles says thus concerning our great and true God and teacher, “I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” [Acts 1:1]. For this also Paul, the great vessel of election, wrote rebuking the Romans, saying, “You then who teach others, will you not teach yourselves?” [Rom 2:21] and so forth.[2]

Since therefore I am unable to present instruction and the image and model of virtuous deeds from my own life, carrying with myself everywhere the mark of sin, come, and from the work of others and their sweaty toils, I shall today unveil for you a nourishment which does not perish but which leads our souls to life everlasting [cf. Jn 6:27]. For as bread strengthens the body, the word of God often awakens the soul to virtue in earnest, and especially the souls of those most slothful in the work of divine commandments and disposed to [122] carelessness. For the zealous, those whose intention is directed toward God, it is sufficient for their conscience to set them in the presence of instruction, recommending all good things and dissuading them from evil. Those more humble than these need to have the commandment of the written law set before them. But if someone escapes both from the first and from the second type of path which leads to virtue, it is necessary that from the zeal and concern of others, which he sees before his eyes, through his hearing, and through the stories which are told to him, a divine yearning be aroused in him to shake his soul from its sleep, that he may travel through the straight and narrow path and begin eternal life now. For it depends on us and lies within our power either to despise the desire for things which come in the present because they pass away, or, in the desire and longing for present things, to lose the unceasing good.

That what I have said is true is proven by all men who throughout the ages have been pleasing to God, and they themselves master our nature, especially those luminaries of our own generation who have shone forth. One of these was the very wise Symeon, who, indeed, is much more venerable than most because he rose to the most pure and impassible height, although to those more impassioned and more fleshly he seemed to be a defilement, a sort of poison, and an impediment to the virtuous life on account of his appearance. Because of these things he was most pure, just as a pearl which has traveled through slime unsullied. Indeed, I say that through spending time in the city, hanging around with women, and the rest of the deception of his life, he truly sought to show a weakness in the virtuous life to the slothful and pretentious and the power granted by God to those who truly serve against the spirits of evil with all their souls.

I ask all who hear or read the narrative of his angelic conduct, which I have set down, to regard these writings with fear of the Lord and with the faith without doubt which is fitting to true Christians. For we know that to the most senseless and disdainful we seem to be relating something incredible and worthy of laughter. But if they had listened to the words, “If one wishes to be wise in this age, let him be a fool, that he may become wise” [1 Cor 3:18], and again, “We are fools for Christ’s sake” [1 Cor 4:10], and again, [123] “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men” [1 Cor 1:25], they would not consider the achievements of this true athlete to be laughable; rather they would marvel again at those seeking the alternate ways[3] to virtue. For this was not someone undisciplined, still lacking a trainer, who has gone toward the world, but just as we see those arranged for battle, when the entire army stands with one intention: these men have confidence in themselves, or better yet, in the power of God, and in the soldiers’ armor laid upon them, and in excellent skill at war and long-developed experience; and these alone tread forth from the ranks into single combat against the adversary—and this is what Symeon did. Because he was fighting the noble battle well and in accordance with the law, because he saw that he had been armed with the power of the spirit, because he had acquired the power to trample snakes and scorpions under foot [Lk 10:19], because he quenched the burning of the flesh with the dew of the Holy Spirit, because he spat upon all the softness and sentiment[4] of life as on a spider—what more can be said—and because he put impassivity[5] upon himself as a garment, both inside and outside, on account of his humility, and he was deemed worthy of adoption as a son according to the word in the Song of Songs concerning the purity and indifference of the soul, which says, “All fair,” says Christ to the soul, “You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you” [Song 4:7]. Called by God, he went forth out of the desert and into the world, as into single combat against the Devil. For it was not thought just that the one thus honored by God and placed high should disdain the salvation of his fellow men, but remembering the one who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” [Lk 10:27], who did not disdain to put on the form of a slave, although unchanged, for the salvation of a slave [cf. Phil 2:6ff.], Symeon imitated his own master and truly used his own soul and body in order to save others.

But it is now time to relate to you, first of all, the manner of his coming from the desert into the world, and then of his strange[6] and marvelous deeds.



In the time of the reign of the Emperor Justinian, now faithfully departed, when the friends of Christ came, eager to venerate Christ’s holy places in the holy city, according to the custom, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the honorable, life-giving, and venerable Cross[7] (all those who come there, as is the custom, to the holy and renowned festival know that crowds of cross-loving and Christ-bearing people from nearly every land gather together), at this celebrated festival it happened that two young men from Syria met each other according to God’s plan. One was named John; the other Symeon. When they had spent a few days there and the holy festi-val of God was finished, the others returned home, each to his own city. But since the two young men had spent time together and had become friends, they would no longer part from each other. Therefore, on their return home they traveled together, along with their families. For John had an aging father, but no mother; and he had married a girl that year. He was about twenty-two years old. Symeon did not have a father, only a mother, a very old woman about eighty;[8] he had no one else. Therefore they formed one party. When they descended the slope to Jericho and passed through the city, John saw the monasteries all around the holy Jordan, and said in Syriac to Symeon, “Do you know the ones who dwell in these houses which are before us?” The other said to him, “Who are they?” And John said, “Angels of God.” Symeon said to him in wonder, “Can we see them?” “If we will become like them, yes,” said the other. However the two remounted their horses (for their families were very wealthy). Then straightaway they descended from their horses and handed them [125] to their slaves, saying, “Go on ahead,” for they pretended to defecate there. By chance they found themselves on the wrong road, leading back into the holy Jordan. They both stopped, and John, pointing with his finger, said to Symeon, “Behold the road that leads to life!” and he showed him the road of the holy Jordan. “And behold the road which leads to death” [cf. Mt 7:13ff], he said, showing him the main road, which their parents had preferred to take. “Come now, let us pray, and let each of us stand facing one of these roads and draw lots, and whichever is chosen, we shall convey ourselves on that path.” They knelt down and said, moaning, “God, God, God who would save the whole world, reveal your will to your servants.” And drawing their lots, ten more fell to Symeon than to John. But Symeon stood facing the road which leads to the holy Jordan. Then, overjoyed, forgetting all their property, wealth, and their parents, as in a dream, they embraced and kissed each other. They had been thoroughly instructed in Greek letters and endowed with much intellect.[9]

All this Symeon narrated in Emesa,[10] where he pretended to be a fool,[11] to a certain deacon of the holy cathedral church of the same city of Emesa, an excellent and virtuous man, who, by the divine grace which had come to him, understood the monk’s work, and it was on his behalf that this most blessed Symeon performed a wonderful marvel, which we shall recall in its proper place. This aforementioned John, beloved of God, a virtuous deacon, narrated for us almost the entire life of that wisest one, calling on the Lord as a witness to his story, that he had written nothing to add to the narrative, but rather that since that time he had forgotten most things.

Thereupon, he said,[12] they went down the path which would truly lead them to life. You can just see them overjoyed and running like Peter and John toward the Lord’s life-giving tomb [cf. Jn 20:4]! And they aroused an eagerness in each other and made each other zealous. John was afraid that Symeon’s sympathy [126] for his mother would stop him. On the other hand, Symeon wondered whether John’s attachment to his newlywed wife would pull him back toward her like a magnet. So for this reason they addressed to each other admonishing and comforting words. And one said, “Be of good courage, brother Symeon. For we hope in God that this very day we are reborn. For how will these idle possessions of our life or our wealth have the power to help us on the Day of Judgment? Will they not harm us? Furthermore, the youth and the beauty which are joined to our body do not remain unfading up to the end, but are destroyed and extinguished either by old age in its time or by untimely death.” And when John had said this and many other things to Symeon, then the other echoed back and remonstrated similarly, saying, “I have, brother John, neither a father, nor brothers, nor sisters, only that humble old mother who bore me. I do not consider this trouble for myself so much as I fear for your heart, lest your boiling for your newlywed wife drag you away from this good path.”

After they had discussed this and many other things concerning one another, they arrived at a monastery named for Abba Gerasimos. For they had prayed, “Lord God, let us find open the door to the monastery where you command us to renounce the world.” And this was where they had come. In this monastery, there was an admirable man named Nikon, truly a person who achieved for himself a way of life according to his name.[13] For he was conquering[14] every demonic battalion, he shone in wonders and signs and had been honored by God with the gift of prophecy. He had foreknowledge of the arrival of these blessed ones. For he said that on the day they arrived, he had seen in a dream someone who said to him, “Arise and open the flock’s door, so that my sheep may enter.” And he did so. Therefore, when they arrived they found the door open and the abba sitting and waiting for them. John said to Symeon, “It is a good sign, brother. Behold the door is open and the doorkeeper is sitting.” When they approached, the superior[15] said to them, “Welcome, sheep of Christ.” And he also said to Symeon, “Welcome fool,[16] truly you have (drawn) ten more (lots) than [127] Abba John. For the ten await you.” He said this on account of his perfection in the virtuous life. Giving them a bite to eat he welcomed them as ones sent by God. And before they spoke to him, he spoke to them, in the following manner, as a prayer to the Lord. “Good, good and worthy is your love of God, but only as long as you do not weaken it so that it may be extinguished by our salvation’s adversary. Your course is good, but do not give up running until you are crowned. Your resolve is good, but do not sleep, lest the fire burning your hearts today should cool. It is good that you prefer the permanent to that which passes away. Good are your parents according to the flesh, and it is good to serve them, but it is incomparably better to be well-pleasing to the heavenly Father. Good are your fleshly brothers, but spiritual brothers are more useful. Good are the friends in Christ whom you have in the world, but better to have the saints for friends and intercessors before the Master. Good are the patrons whom you have, when you need them, against the powerful, but they are not necessary when we have holy angels interceding on our behalf. It is good and praiseworthy for the prosperous to give money and alms and charity to beggars, but God does not seek any offering from us, as long as we offer our souls. Sweet is the enjoyment of the good things in life, but they are not equal to the delight of paradise. Pleasant is wealth and desired by the majority of people, but it is not equal to that which ‘No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived’ [1 Cor 2:9]. Pleasant is the beauty of youth, but it is nothing compared to that of Christ, the heavenly bridegroom. For David says, ‘You are the fairest of the sons of men’ [Ps 44:3, RSV 45:2]. It is a great thing to wage war for the earthly king, but such a campaign is temporary and dangerous.”

He admonished them in this manner, and the devout man did not want to cease his admonition seeing the streams of tears pouring forth from their eyes. They paid attention to what was said, as if they had never heard the divine word. Then (Nikon) turned toward Symeon and said, “Do not worry; do not weep for the gray hair of the mistress, your mother, for God, persuaded by your combat, can console her much better than you. And if [128] you remained with her until her death, it is uncertain whether you would leave this life before her without having attained virtue, dying without having the power to protect yourself from the coming evils. Neither a mother’s nor a father’s love, nor a great number of brothers, neither wealth, nor glory,[17] nor marriage bonds, nor the sympathy of children could persuade the judge, nothing but virtuous conduct and toil and labors in accord with God.” Then to John, he said, “Lest, child, the enemy of our souls suggest to you, ‘Who will feed my parents in old age? Who will console my spouse? Who will stop their tears?’ For if you (pl.) had forsaken them for another god and left to serve him, then it would be well for you to be anxious whether he would care about them and console them or not. But now that you have run toward and consecrated yourselves to this one, for whom you have forsaken them, it is fitting to be confident and consider this, namely that if while we are in this world and serve life, God’s goodness holds foreknowledge of all things, how much more does He care about your families, now that you have left them to serve and please Him? Therefore, O children, remember the word of the Lord to the one who said, ‘Let me first go and bury my father.’ (he responded), ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’ [cf. Mt 8:21 ff.]. Run after Him with an unalterable mind and an unchanging heart. And why? If the earthly and mortal emperor, wanting you to gird up to be patricians or chamberlains, had persuaded you to rule his earthly palace, which appears and disappears as a shade in a dream, would you have despised all the advantages to yourselves, and wouldn’t you rush up to him eagerly and unhindered, desiring to enjoy his honors, his perspective, and his license to speak, and preferring to survive all toil and suffering and death, only so that you would be judged worthy to see that day on which the emperor would doubtless receive you, and enlist you, and honor you with gifts before his entire senate?” When they said that they would, the great Nikon said, “How [129] much more, then, children, with more zeal and compunction, do we run to the immortal and eternal King of kings, being bound to follow Him as grateful slaves. We remember the love which God shows to us, such that, for our sake, He did not spare His only-begotten Son, but He delivered him up for all of us. Therefore, even when we, who were ransomed from destruction and death by His precious blood, pour forth our own blood and are placed in the brigade of the legitimate sons, still we have not offered Him anything worth as much. For the shedding of royal blood and the shedding of slave’s blood are not equal, my brothers.”

All this and much else the God-bearing man counseled them, knowing already the contests and the course which had been set for them, having been assured by God. Indeed, I mean their life in the desert, absolutely homeless, as anchorites.[18] For he understood that this was neither a chance happening nor an everyday occurrence, but something righteous and brought about blamelessly, especially when he saw their delicate bodies, clothed in soft garments, and their youth, brought up on a luxurious life, accustomed to every comfort and delusion. Whence the wise doctor and teacher, by the divine knowledge and experience which was within him, having armed and prepared them with such precepts and instructions, said again to both of them, “Do you wish the hair on your head to be tonsured, or before this would you (rather) spend a little time today with your lay clothing on?” And just as from one consideration, or rather from one holy inspiration, both fell at the superior’s feet beseeching him to tonsure them immediately and without delay. And Symeon said that unless Nikon did this with great haste, he would leave them immediately for another monastery. For Symeon was actually guileless and innocent. But John was wiser and had acquired greater knowledge. Therefore the pious Nikon took each one of them aside straightaway, wishing to test [130] their hot renunciation for God, and said to Symeon certain things, trying to dissuade him from being tonsured on that day. But when Symeon would listen to absolutely none of it, he went to the other and said to him, “You see, I have prevailed upon your brother to remain for one year as he is, a layman.” Immediately then John answered the one who had spoken thus, “If he wishes to remain so, let him. Truly, father, I cannot endure it.” And Symeon said to him, when he spoke to him alone, “Quickly father, for the Lord’s sake, for my heart trembles much for my brother John, because this year he was married to a very wealthy and beautiful woman, lest later his longing for her ravish him away and steal him from the longing for God.” Then John said this alone to the virtuous man, with much supplication and tears—for they came to his eyes more naturally than to Symeon’s—“Father, do not lose my brother by your error. For he has only a mother, and such is the extraordinary longing of each of them, that he cannot last two hours without her, but until today both slept together, his mother and he; they cannot be separated during the night. It is this above all which burns and gnaws at me until I see him tonsured and finally become free from anxiety about him.”

The great one heard the concern that both had for the other, and being fully assured that God neither dishonored nor mistook their running to Him with whole hearts and without hesitation, he brought out a pair of scissors, and with the appropriate order, having placed the scissors upon the holy altar, he tonsured them. And stripping them of their garments, he dressed them in ones base, but nevertheless holy. The wise and most sympathetic man had pity on them because of the tenderness of their bodies, which were unaccustomed to suffering. When they were tonsured, John cried a lot, and Symeon nudged him to stop, not knowing exactly why he was crying. [131] For it seemed that he was crying because of distress about his parents and love for his wife. After they were tonsured and the superior had performed the Holy Eucharist, he sat down and advised them nearly the whole day. For he knew that they would not be with him for long since God had planned it thus.

He wanted to give them their holy habit on the next day since it was Sunday. Therefore certain brothers said to them, “Blessed are you, for tomorrow you will be reborn and become pure from all sin, as when you were born, as if on the day you were baptized.” Both were astounded and ran to the divine Nikon late Saturday and fell at his feet, saying, “We beseech you, father, do not baptize us, for we are (already) Christians and born of Christian parents.” But he did not know what they had heard from the fathers in the monastery, and he said to them, “My children, who wants to baptize you?” They said, “Our lords and masters the fathers of the monastery said to us, ‘Tomorrow you will be rebaptized.’ ” Then the superior understood that the fathers had spoken concerning the holy habit, and he said to them, “They spoke well, my children. For with the Lord’s consent, tomorrow we will clothe you in a holy and angelic habit.” And when the innocent children of Christ understood that they did not lack anything except the monastic attire, they said to the abba, “What, father? Do we need anything else, in order to be dressed in this angelic habit, as you call it?” One week before, which was (the festival of) the Exaltation of the Precious Cross, this great one had given the holy habit to a certain novice brother, and it was not yet seven full days since. He still wore the complete (habit), as is the rule. The great one commanded him to be brought into their midst immediately. When he came, both beheld him and immediately fell at the feet of the abba and said to him, “We beseech you, if you will clothe us and think us worthy of such honor and glory, do it this evening, lest perhaps, being human, during the night we die beforehand and miss such glory and joy, such an escort and crown.” When the superior heard them, speaking of missing such an escort and crown, he understood that they had had a vision with regard to bearing the holy habit, and he commanded (the novice) to return to his cell, where he had been since he was clothed in the holy habit. When he had gone, the children of Christ were very distressed, and they said [132] to the superior, “For the Lord’s sake, father, stand up, make us like that one, for there is not a man in your entire monastery who is so honored as he.” The abbot said to them, “Honored in what way?” Then they said, “By Him who judges us worthy of (this monk’s) habit and honor, father! We are blessed if we are escorted by such a crowd of monks with wax candles and carry on our heads such a brilliant crown.” For they thought that the superior also saw what they saw. Wherefore, understanding this, he said nothing to them, because he had not seen. But he remained silent and amazed by their great innocence and purity, especially Symeon’s. The great one said only this to them, most graciously, “Tomorrow we will also clothe you (in the habit), through the grace of the Holy Spirit.” When the most pious deacon affirmed this, the truthful Symeon declared confidently, “We will see each other’s faces tonight as in the day.” And, each saw a crown on the head of the other, as they had seen (on the novice) before. “Our souls,” said Symeon, “are in such joy, so that we can neither eat nor drink.”

Two days after they received the holy garment, they saw the one who had received it seven days before, in regard to whom they had beheld the crown and the procession, and he wore a coarse cloak and was performing chores and no longer had either a crown around his head or monks processing with candles. And they were amazed. And Symeon said to John, “Believe me, my brother, if we also fulfill the same seven days, we will not have this fair appearance and grace.” John said, “What do you want to happen, brother?” Then Symeon said to him, “Listen to me! Just as we renounced and set ourselves apart from worldly things, let us set ourselves apart completely from every person. For I behold another life and strange circumstances in this habit. For from the moment that this servant of God clothed us, my insides burn, I know not how, and my soul [133] seeks neither to see anyone nor speak to or hear anyone.” John said to him, “What will we eat?” Symeon said to him, “What those called the Grazers[19] eat, of whom lord Nikon spoke yesterday. For perhaps it is because he wants us to lead such a life that he narrated to us how they live, how they sleep, and all about them.” Thereupon John spoke, “And how (will we do this), since we have learned neither psalms nor rules?” Then God opened Abba Symeon’s heart, and he said, “He who saved those who were well-pleasing to him before David[20] will also save us. If we are worthy, he will teach us as he taught David when he was with his flock in the desert. Therefore do not attempt to contain my zeal, brother. But henceforward, because we led ourselves to this deed, let us not suppress it.” Then lord John said, “Let us do as you wish. But how will we leave, with the door closed at night?” Symeon said to him, “That which was open for us during the day is open for us at night.”

After they had made their plan, as soon as night fell, the superior, in his sleep, saw someone opening the door of the monastery saying, “Come outside, O branded sheep of Christ, into your pasture.” And waking immediately from his sleep, he went down to the gate and found it open, and believing that they had already left, he sat down gloomy, sighed deeply and said, “Hardened in sin, I was not judged worthy to receive the blessing of my fathers. Truly my fathers and masters and teachers were blessed and because of this I endeavored after their blessing. Heavens! Such precious stones,[21] as the scripture says, secretly rolling along the ground [cf. LXX Zec 9:16], seen by many, but discovered by few.” While he pondered these things in his anguish, behold the pure bridegrooms of Christ came in order to go out. In front of them, the very pure superior, Nikon, saw some eunuchs carrying torches, while others held scepters in their hand. When he beheld them, he was overjoyed, because he had not lost his wish. Seeing him, the blessed ones wanted to turn back. They did not recognize him as the superior. Therefore the pious Nikon ran and called them to his side. When [134] they knew that he was the superior, they were overjoyed, especially when they saw as well that the gate was open. For they understood that God had revealed this to him too. Therefore they wanted to make obeisance, but he stopped them, saying that it was not permitted for them to do such a thing on account of the honor of the angelic habit bestowed upon them. They said to him then, “We thank you, father, but we do not know what to bring to God and to your precious head. Who had hoped that we would be judged worthy of such gifts? What sort of king could honor us with such a status? What sort of earthly treasures made us so suddenly rich? What sort of baths so purified our soul? What sort of parents could so love and save us? What sort of presents and gifts are powerful enough to achieve for us the remission of our sins quickly, as you did, our dear father, beyond all our ancestors, and parents, you, our father and mother with Christ? You are our master, our helper, our leader, our guide, and all that language cannot express. Through you we obtain this inviolate treasure; through you we gain the much prized pearl; we truly learn the power of baptism, which the pious fathers proclaimed to us; we have understood the burning of our sins by the fire which inflames our hearts. Wherefore, lest we suffer it, thus burning our innards, we ask Your Beatitude to pray earnestly, father, and set your servants free to serve the God to whom we have consecrated ourselves, genuinely and with all our soul. O revered one, never forget the useless child at the time when you extend your precious hands; yes, yes, O one revered by us, your guests, pious one, remember how we are orphaned.” And taking hold of the pious man’s knees, they said again, “Remember, father, your humble sheep, whom you burnt as an offering to Christ. Remember the strange trees, whom you hastened to plant in the lovely garden of paradise. Do not forget the reluctant workers, whom you hired at the eleventh hour into Christ’s vineyard” [cf. Mt 20:6–9]. And the pastor was astonished and amazed to see those who had two days before been laymen thus suddenly made wise through putting on the divine habit.

After they had both cried for a long time, the pious Nikon knelt down, placing Symeon on his right and John on his left. Then he stood up and stretching out his hands to heaven said, “God, just and praiseworthy; God, great and [135] mighty; God eternal: harken in this hour unto a sinful man. Hear me, God, hear me in your strength; during this my prayer, do not remember my constant disobediences with contempt. Hear me, Lord, hear my prayer from within the fire, as you heard your prophet [cf. Ex 3:2].[22] Yes, God of holy powers; yes, creator of the incorporeal;[23] yes, God who says, ‘Ask, and you will receive’ [Jn 16:24]. Do not despise me, clothed with impure lips and contained in sin. Hear me, you who promised to listen to those who call upon you in truth: guide the steps of your servants, and their feet to the path of peace. Have pity on your innocent children who are in a strange place; you who say, ‘Be innocent as doves’ [Mt 10:16]. I have cried out to you with my whole heart: God, God, hear me, the hope of all ends of the earth and all far off in strange lands [cf. LXX Ps 64:6, RSV Ps 65:5]. Banish all unclean spirits far from the face of your children. Take hold of your arms and your shield, and rise up for their help. Draw your sword and defend them against those who pursue [LXX Ps 34:2–3, RSV Ps 35:2–3]. Say, O Lord, Lord, to their soul, ‘I am your salvation.’ May the spirit of timidity withdraw slowly from their thought, and the spirit of despair, of arrogance, and of every evil, and may all their burning be quenched together with all motion created in their soul by diabolic energy. May their body, and their soul, and their spirit be enlightened with the light of your knowledge, so that, arriving at the unity of the faith and the full knowledge of the holy and venerable Trinity, attaining mature manhood, and the measure of the stature [Eph 4:13], they will extol forever and ever, together with the angels and all those well pleasing to you, O God, since eternity, your all-honorable and protecting name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Grant them, together with all the good people, O Lord, to have in their heart at all times the words of this my pitiable and unworthy prayer to you for glorification and praise of your goodness.” [136] Again he said to them with many tears, “The God whom you have chosen, good children, and to whom you have run, sent out his angel before your face, and he will prepare your path in front of your feet. The angel, as the great Jacob says, ‘who has delivered me from all opposing powers’ [Gn 48:16], will lead you on your path. The one who delivered his prophet from the lions’ mouth [cf. Dn 6:23] will deliver you from the lion’s clutches. The God whom you have chosen will himself protect my bold offering.” When he had prayed these things and more for them, the God-bearing man patted their backs and said, “Save, God, save those who love your name with their whole heart. For it would be unjust, Lord, if you overlooked or abandoned those who renounced the vain things in life.” Thereupon again he said to them, “See, children, you have given yourselves into a frightful and invisible war. But do not fear; for God is mighty, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength to endure [1 Cor 10:13]. Struggle, my children, lest you be defeated by the Devil, but stand nobly, having the armor of the holy habit upon you. Remember the saying, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is fit for the kingdom of heaven’ ” [Lk 9:62]. And again concerning the building of the tower: “When you have begun this perfect and lofty building and way of life, do not slacken and fulfill in yourselves that, ‘This man began to build and did not have the power and the zeal for the completion of the foundation’ [cf. Lk 14:30]. Be on your guard, my children. The war is little; but great, the crown. Fleeting the labor; but eternal, the rest.”

The hour was far advanced. As he was about to go out the gate, by which time the prayer bell had sounded, Symeon took the superior aside and said to him, “For God’s sake, father, pray that God dissipate my brother John’s memory of his wife, lest perchance because of evil he leave me by myself and I die grieving his loss and our separation. Pray, I ask for the sake of the Lord, that God console also his family, so that they are not anxious [137] about him.” The old man was amazed at the affection which he held for his brother, and made no reply. Again in the same manner, Abba John took him and called him aside, for Symeon’s sake, saying, “For God’s sake, father, do not neglect my brother when you pray, so that he does not flee from me for his mother’s sake, feeling for her, and is not found in the harbor suffering a shipwreck.” As I said, he was astounded by the love of both for each other. He finally said to them, “Go, my children, for I have good news for you: He who opened (the door) for you here (on earth), has already opened (the door) for you there (in heaven).” And making the sign of the cross upon their breast and the whole of their body he left them in peace.


After they had departed, they said, “God of your great servant (Nikon), guide us to the strange and solitary place, because we know neither the place nor the country, but in going toward you, we committed ourselves to death in the open sea of this desert.” Then John said to Symeon, “What now? Where do we go?” Symeon answered him, “Let us go to the right, because all on the right is good.” And they went, arriving at the Dead Sea, at a place called Arnonas.[24] While God sustained them, never abandoning those who believed in him with their whole soul, they found a place where a monk who died a few days before had dwelt. Here, there were a few tools and tender plants for them to eat by which the monk who had lived here had sustained himself. Seeing the place our renowned ones rejoiced as if they had found a treasure; for they knew that it had been prepared and sent to them by God, and they began to thank God and the great monk, Nikon. For they said, “Surely we have been well guided because of his prayers.”

When they had stayed a few days, the Devil, the enemy of our souls, unable to bear the virtue of Christ’s servants, began to war against them: against John concerning his wife, and against Symeon concerning his great love for his mother. When one of them saw himself afflicted, immediately he said to the other, “Get up, brother. Let us pray.” And they prayed the prayer of [138] the monk who prayed, “Grant them, O Lord, in their hearts the words of this prayer.” And immediately the two found that they knew it by heart. And they prayed it all the time in each temptation and in each of their requests to God. For it was the Devil who inflamed them, as the God-bearing Fool related, as he did when they ate meat and wine. And from the beginning, he suggested to them cowardice and despair concerning their asceticism, so that from time to time they sought to return from the desert to the monastery. And in their dreams, and sometimes in a delusion, the polymorphous snake made them see their own families weeping, driven mad, and many other things which it is not possible to narrate, unless someone has had the experience of such temptations. But as soon as they remembered the crowns which they had seen on one another and the teaching and tears of the old man (Nikon), their heart was soothed by them and encouraged, just as with holy oil.

Lord Nikon also appeared to them in a dream sometimes advising them, sometimes praying for them, and sometimes teaching them psalms, and they awoke repeating from memory that which he had taught them in their sleep, and they shared great joy. For they knew that he was anxious for their sake, and they assured him with their deeds. And before every request from God, both requested this above all: Symeon, that his mother’s heart be encouraged and assured; John, that God take his wife in order to root out his affection for her from his thought. God, who said, “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him” [LXX Ps 144:19, RSV Ps 146:19], answered them both. After two years had passed, lord Symeon was assured by God that his mother was without grief concerning him, and he appeared to her during the night, and consoled her, and said to her in Syriac, “La dechre lich em,” which is, “Do not grieve mother.”[25] “For we are well, [139] lord John and I, and we are healthy, and we have entered service in the emperor’s palace, and behold we wear crowns which the emperor placed upon us and glorious robes. Console the parents of my brother John, who is serving with me. But do not be grieved at all.” And Abba John saw someone wearing white who said to him, “Behold, I have made your father without grief; and your wife I have received this day.”

They related to each other what both had seen, and they rejoiced and their heart was gladdened. And meanwhile from consideration for their parents God soon took them, and Symeon and John were henceforth at ease. They did not grieve at all for them, but untroubled and without fear, they continued their course of asceticism and silence all through the night and the day. They had no other work but undistracted preoccupation and untroubled concern. Indeed I speak of unceasing prayer, through which in a brief span the tireless workers progressed, so that after a few years they were judged worthy of divine visions, and God’s assurances, and miracles. After a short time passed with both maintaining silence a stone’s throw away from each other—for they had conceived this for themselves, that is, to withdraw from the world separately, because each one wished to pray alone, but when imaginings or weariness came to one of them, he would go to the other and together they would call on God to be delivered from temptation. On one day, Symeon, sitting in his accustomed place, saw himself in ecstasy, as if he was with his ailing mother in Edessa,[26] for he came from that place. And he said to her in Syriac, “How are you, mother?” She said, [140] “Well, my child.” Again he said to her, “Go to the King, do not be afraid, because I have asked Him for help, and He has prepared for you a lovely place. And when He wishes, I will join you there.”

When he came to himself, he knew in that hour that his mother had died, and he went running to his brother John, and said, “Arise, sir, let us pray.” But John was troubled, for it seemed to him that some sort of temptation had fallen upon Symeon. Symeon said to him, “Do not be troubled, my brother, for nothing bad has happened to me, thanks be to God.” Then John said to him, “But what is the cause of this running, Father Symeon?”—for he honored and reverenced him, as Symeon did John.[27] Then as his eyes poured forth with tears, and they began to flow onto his breast like pearls, he said to John, “Just now, the Lord took my good and blessed mother.” And he told him of the vision. They knelt down and prayed, and one could hear Symeon speaking utterly wretched and imploring words to God. His insides twisted and churned, stirred up by nature, and he howled, “God, who accepted Abraham’s sacrifice [Gn 22:1ff.], who looked with favor upon Jephtha’s holocaust [Jgs 11:30–39], who was not disgusted by Abel’s gift [Gn 4:4], who, for the sake of Samuel your child, declared Hannah your prophetess [1 Sm 2], You, my Lord, Lord, for my, your servant’s sake, accept the soul of my good mother. Remember, God, the trouble and distress which she suffered on my account. Remember, Lord, her tears and moaning, which she poured forth because I fled to You from her. Remember, Lord, the breasts at which she suckled humble me, so that she might enjoy my youth, but she did not enjoy it. Do not forget, Master, that she could not be separated from me, even for an hour, and she was separated from me the whole time. Recall, Master who knows all, that although she wished to rejoice in me, I deprived her of myself for your name’s sake. Do not forget, O righteous one, the rending of her innards, which she endured the day I fled to you. You understand, Lord, what sleeplessness she suffered every night [141] from the time when I abandoned her, when she remembered my youth. You know, Master, how many nights she was sleepless, while she sought the sheep who slept with her. Do not forget, lover of humanity, what sort of pain embraced her heart when she melted, seeing my habit, because her pearl no longer existed, being clothed thus. But recall, Master, that I robbed her of her consolation, joy, and exultation, so that I might serve you, my God and hers, and Master of all. Grant her angels who will keep her soul safe from the spirits and beasts of the air, evil and unmerciful beings who endeavor to swallow up everything which comes into their midst. Lord, Lord, send out to her mighty guards to rebuke every impure power molesting her, and, my God, command that her soul be separated from her body, without pain or torture. And if, being a woman, she sinned in word or deed in this life, forgive her soul on behalf of the sacrifice which she bore and offered to you, Master, namely me, your unworthy servant. Yes, Lord, Lord God, righteous judge and lover of humanity, do not carry her from oppression to oppression, from distress to distress, and from groanings to groanings, but instead of grief, which she suffered for the sake of her only child, (carry her) to joy, instead of tears, to the rejoicing prepared for your saints, God, my God, forever and ever. Amen.”

When they got up from their prayer, brother John began to console him, and said, “Behold, brother Symeon, God has fulfilled your request and given heed to your prayer; He has received your mother. But now, toil together with me, and let us both pray for the Lord’s sake, so that God has mercy also on her who, according to God’s will was called my wife, so that God either brings her to consideration of the monastic habit or has mercy and takes her.” And one night after they had prayed for a little while, [142] John saw Symeon’s mother approaching, holding his wife’s hand, saying to her, “Arise, my sister, come close to me, for the King who enlisted my son into his service has granted me a beautiful house. But change your garments and put on pure ones.” And she got up, he saw, immediately and followed her, and he knew that she also had died and that the two were in a beautiful place, and he rejoiced in a very great joy.


After they had spent twenty-nine years in the desert practicing every asceticism and mortification, in cold and in heat, enduring many and unutterable temptations from the Devil and conquering them, and had arrived at a high level (of virtue)—especially Symeon, who, because of his being innocent and very pure on account of the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within him, perceived himself fearing neither suffering, nor cold, nor hunger, nor burning heat, but rather nearly exceeded the limit of human nature—he said to John, “What more benefit do we derive, brother, from passing time in this desert? But if you hear me, get up, let us depart; let us save others. For as we are, we do not benefit anyone except ourselves, and have not brought anyone else to salvation.” And he began to quote to him from the Holy Scripture such things as “Let no one seek his own good, but rather the good of his neighbor” [1 Cor 10:24], and again, “All things to all men, that I might save all” [1 Cor 9:22], and from the Gospel, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” [Mt 5:16], and other such things. And lord John answered him, “I think, brother, that Satan is jealous of our silence and suggested this thought to you. On the contrary, sit down and let us complete our course in this desert, where we began and where we were called by God.” Symeon said to him, “Believe (me), I won’t stay, but I will go in the power of Christ; I will mock the world.” Again his brother said to him, “No, good brother, please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me. For I have not yet reached this level, so that I can mock the world. Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. [143] You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lots and went down to lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from each other. Remember the fearful hour when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don’t forget the words of the great monk, with which he advised us on the night we left. Please don’t, lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from you.” Again Symeon said to him, “Think of me as dead. Wouldn’t you have to think about being alone by yourself? Believe me, if you come, it would be well and good, since I myself am not staying.” When brother John saw that he was persistent, he knew that he had been convinced by God to do this, since nothing would separate them except death, and perhaps not even that. For they had often prayed to God, that he would take the two of them together, and they knew that the Lord heard them in this as in all things.

Then John said to him, “Beware, Symeon, lest the Devil wishes to jest with you.” Symeon said, “Only, do not forget me in your prayers, just as I won’t forget you, and God and your prayers will save me.” Again his brother began to admonish him and say, “Beware, be on your guard, brother Symeon, unless as the desert gathered together, the world disperses; and as silence helped, commotion hinders; and as much as keeping watch brought, you lose through sleep. Be on your guard, brother, lest the delusion of worldly things corrupt the prudence of the monastic life. Beware, lest the fruit from the privation of women, from whom God has saved you until today, be destroyed by spending time with them. Beware, lest the love of possessions carry off poverty, lest foods fatten the body, which fasting had melted away. Beware, brother, lest you lose your compunction through laughter and your prayer through your carelessness. Beware, please, lest when your face laughs, your mind be dissolved;[28] lest when your hands fondle,[29] your soul fondles as well; lest when your mouth eats, your heart eats as well; lest when your feet walk, your inner silence dances along recklessly; and to speak concisely, lest as much as the body does outwardly, the soul does inwardly. But if [144] you receive strength entirely from God, brother, so that whatever the forms, or words, or actions the body makes, your mind and your heart remain unmoved and untroubled and in no way are defiled or harmed by them, truly I rejoice in your salvation, if only you would pray to God, so that he won’t separate us from each other in the world to come.” Then Abba Symeon said to him, “Do not fear, brother John; for it is not by my own (will) that I wish to do this, but because God commands me. And you will know through His help that my work was well-pleasing to God by this: that before I die, I will come and call you and embrace you, and in a few days, you will join me. But get up, and let us pray.” And after they had prayed for many hours and kissed each other’s breast and drenched them with their tears, John let go of Symeon and traveled together with him a long distance. For his soul would not let him be separated from him, but whenever Abba Symeon said to him, “Turn back, brother,” he heard the word as if a knife separated him from his body, and again he asked if he could accompany him a little further. Therefore, when Abba Symeon forced him, he turned back to his cell drenching the earth with tears.

Then straightaway Symeon ran ahead to the holy city of Christ our God. For during that time, he thirsted greatly and burned, as he said, yearning to savor Christ’s holy places. And arriving at Christ’s holy and life-giving tomb, and the holy, saving, and victorious Golgotha, he fulfilled his desire. He remained in the holy city for three days, visiting the Lord’s all-holy places, worshipping and praying. And his every prayer was that his works might be hidden until his departure from life, so that he might escape human glory, through which human arrogance and conceit arises, and which also made the angels fall from heaven. For he had heard Him who said, “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them” [LXX Ps 33:18, RSV Ps 34:17]. For when he performed [145] such miracles and accomplished such unexpected things, as can be learned from what follows, the pious one’s works were not manifest to people. For his request was that, until his death, it might be just as if there was a veil over the hearts of those who saw the things he did. For, I say, indeed, if God did not conceal the blessed one’s virtue from people so that they might not glorify him, how was it that he was not manifest to all when he cured those possessed by demons, and again when he held live coals in his hand, (or) when often he predicted the future for some, while to others he announced what had been said about him far away, when in the desert he gathered up nourishment of all sorts miraculously from nowhere, (or) when also he converted Jews or heretics to the right belief or cured the sick, or rescued others from danger? Also he often brought some disreputable women and prostitutes to lawful marriage through his jesting; others he made chaste after captivating them with money; then he spurred them on to pursue the monastic life by means of the purity he had acquired. And I am not surprised, friends of Christ, that he remained unknown while he accomplished these things in God’s (name). For He, who often makes the virtues which have been hidden from His servants manifest to all, by His plan also made manifest to all the virtues of this saint which were unknown.


As was said above, after spending three days in the holy places, he arrived in the city of Emesa. The manner of his entry into the city was as follows: When the famous Symeon found a dead dog on a dunghill outside the city, he loosened the rope belt he was wearing and tied it to the dog’s foot. He dragged the dog as he ran and entered the gate, where there was a children’s school nearby. When the children saw him, they began to cry, “Hey, a crazy abba!” And they set about to run after him and box him on the ears.

On the next day, which was Sunday, he took nuts, and entering the church at the beginning of the liturgy, he threw the nuts and put out the candles. When they hurried [146] to run after him, he went up to the pulpit, and from there he pelted the women with nuts. With great trouble, they chased after him, and while he was going out, he overturned the tables of the pastry chefs,[30] who (nearly) beat him to death. Seeing himself crushed by the blows, he said to himself, “Poor Symeon, if things like this keep happening, you won’t live for a week in these people’s hands.”

According to God’s plan, a phouska-seller[31] saw him, who did not know that he was playing the fool.[32] And he said to him (for he seemed to be sane), “Would you like, my lord Abba,[33] instead of wandering about, to be set up to sell lupines?”[34] And he said, “Yes.” When he set him up one day, Symeon began to give everything away to people and to eat, himself, insatiably, for he had not eaten the whole week. The phouska-seller’s wife said to her husband, “Where did you find us this abba? If he eats like this, it’s no use trying to sell anything! For while I observed him, he ate about a pot full of lupines.” But they did not know that he had given away all the rest of the pots to fellow monks and others—the beans, the lentil soup, the desert fruits, all of it. They thought that he had sold it. When they opened the cash box and did not find a single cent, they beat him and fired him, and pulled his beard. When evening fell he wanted to burn incense.[35] Now he had not departed from them that evening but slept there outside their door. And not finding a shard of pottery, he put his hand in the oven and filled it with live coals and burned incense. Because God wished to save the phouska-seller, for he was a heretic of the Acephalic Severian sect,[36] his wife saw Symeon burning incense in his hand and was very frightened and said, “Good God! Abba Symeon, are you burning incense in your hand?” And when the monk heard this, he pretended to be burned and was shaking the coals in his hand and threw them into the old cloak which he wore, and said to her, “And if you do not want it [147] in my hand, see I will burn incense in my cloak.” And as in the presence of the Lord who preserved the bush [Ex 3:2] and the unburnt boys [Dn 3:19 ff.], neither the saint nor his cloak were burned by the coals. And the manner in which the phouska-seller and his wife were saved will be told in another chapter.

It was also the saint’s practice, whenever he did something miraculous, to leave that neighborhood immediately until the deed which he had done was forgotten. He hurried on immediately elsewhere to do something inappropriate so that he might thereby hide his perfection.

Once he earned his food carrying hot water in a tavern. The tavern keeper was heartless, and he often gave Symeon no food at all, although he had great business, thanks to the Fool. For when the townspeople were ready for a diversion, they said to each other, “Let’s go have a drink where the Fool is.” One day a snake came in, drank from one of the jars of wine, vomited his venom in it and left. Abba Symeon was not inside; instead, he was dancing outside with the members of a circus faction.[37] When the saint came into the tavern, he saw the wine jar, upon which “Death” had been written invisibly. Immediately he understood what had happened to it, and lifting up a piece of wood, he broke the jar in pieces, since it was full. His master took the wood out of his hand, beat him with it until he was exhausted, and chased him away. The next morning, Abba Symeon came and hid himself behind the tavern door. And behold! The snake came to drink again. And the tavern-keeper saw it and took the same piece of wood in order to kill it. But his blow missed, and he broke all the wine jars and cups. Then the Fool burst in and said to the tavern-keeper, “What is it, stupid? See, I am not the only one who is clumsy.”[38] Then the tavern keeper understood that Abba Symeon had broken the wine jar for the same reason. And he was edified and considered Symeon to be holy.

Thereupon the saint wanted to destroy his edification, so that the tavern keeper would not expose him. [148] One day when the tavern keeper’s wife was asleep alone and the tavern keeper was selling wine, Abba Symeon approached her and pretended to undress. The woman screamed, and when her husband came in, she said to him, “Throw this thrice cursed man out! He wanted to rape me.” And punching him with his fists, he carried him out of the shop and into the icy cold. Now there was a mighty storm and it was raining. And from that moment, not only did the tavern keeper think that he was beside himself, but if he heard someone else saying, “Perhaps Abba Symeon pretends to be like this,” immediately he answered, “He is completely possessed. I know, and no one can persuade me otherwise. He tried to rape my wife. And he eats meat as if he’s godless.” For without tasting bread all week, the righteous one often ate meat. No one knew about his fasting, since he ate meat in front of everybody in order to deceive them.

It was entirely as if Symeon had no body, and he paid no attention to what might be judged disgraceful conduct either by human convention or by nature. Often, indeed, when his belly sought to do its private function, immediately, and without blushing, he squatted in the market place, wherever he found himself, in front of everyone, wishing to persuade (others) by this that he did this because he had lost his natural sense. For guarded, as I have often said, by the power of the Holy Spirit which dwelt within him, he was above the burning which is from the Devil and was not harmed by it at all. One day, when the aforementioned virtuous John, the friend of God who narrated this life for us, saw him mortified from his asceticism (for it was the time after Easter and he had passed all of Lent without food), he felt both pity and amazement at the indescribable austerity of Symeon’s regimen, although he lived in the city and associated with women and men. And wanting him to refresh his body, John said to him playfully, “Come take a bath, Fool!” And Symeon said to him, laughing, “Yes, let’s go, let’s go!” And with these words, he stripped off his garment and placed it on his head, wrapping it around like a turban. And Deacon John said to him, “Put it back on, brother, [149] for truly if you are going to walk around naked, I won’t go with you.” Abba Symeon said to him, “Go away, idiot, I’m all ready. If you won’t come, see, I’ll go a little ahead of you.” And leaving him, he kept a little ahead. However, there were two baths next to each other, one for men and one for women. The Fool ignored the men’s and rushed willingly into the women’s. Deacon John cried out to him, “Where are you going, Fool? Wait, that’s the women’s!” The wonderful one turned and said to him, “Go away, you idiot, there’s hot and cold water here, and there’s hot and cold water there, and it doesn’t matter at all whether (I use) this one or that.” And he ran and entered into the midst of the women, as in the presence of the Lord of glory. The women rushed against him, beat him, and threw him out. The God-loving deacon (John) asked him, when he told him his whole life, “For God’s sake, father, how did you feel when you entered into the women’s bath?” He said, “Believe me, child, just as a piece of wood goes with other pieces of wood, thus was I there. For I felt neither that I had a body nor that I had entered among bodies, but the whole of my mind was on God’s work, and I did not part from Him.” Some of his deeds the righteous one did out of compassion for the salvation of humans, and others he did to hide his way of life.

Then one time (some youths) were outside the city playing lysoporta,[39] of whom one was the son of Symeon’s friend, John the deacon, who a few days earlier had fornicated with a married woman. As he was leaving her house, he was possessed by a demon, although no one saw it happen. Therefore the saint wanted both to chasten him and heal him at the same time. And he said to the runners, “Truly unless you let me play with you, I won’t let you run.” And they began to throw stones at him. They wanted to take him to the side where the one he wished to cure was running. Seeing this, Abba Symeon went off the opposite way instead. For he knew what he was going to do. And when they began to run, the saint rushed headlong toward the possessed boy and overtook him. When no one was looking, he punched him in the jaw, and said, “Commit adultery no more, wretch, and the Devil won’t draw near you.” And immediately [150] the demon threw the boy down, and everyone jumped on top of him. As he lay on the ground foaming, the afflicted one saw the Fool chasing a black dog away from him, beating it with a wooden cross. Many hours later, when the youth came to, they asked what happened to him. And he could not say anything except, “Someone said to me, ‘Commit adultery no more.’ ” Only after Abba Symeon had died in peace, as if coming to his senses, the youth narrated the event carefully.

One day, some mimes were putting on a performance in the theater. One of them was a juggler. The righteous one wanted to put a stop to such an evil thing—for the juggler mentioned had done some good deeds—he did not disdain to go, but went and sat below in the arena, where the mimes performed. And when he saw the juggler, he began to do wicked things: He threw a very small stone, after making the sign of the cross on it, and he hit the juggler’s right hand, causing it to shrivel up. No one noticed who had thrown the stone. The saint appeared to the juggler that night in a dream and said to him, “Truly I hit the mark, and unless you swear that you will no longer do such things, you won’t be healed.” So the juggler swore to him by the Mother of God, “I will never again engage in such a game.” And when he awoke, he found that his hand was healed. And he related all which he had seen, except that it was the Fool who spoke these things to him in his sleep. He could only say, “Some monk wearing a crown of palm branches said this to me.”

Once when a large earthquake was about to seize the city, when Antioch fell, during the time of the faithfully departed Emperor Maurice[40]—for it was then that the saint came down from the desert into the inhabited world—he grabbed a whip from a school and began to strike the pillars and say to each one, “Your master says, ‘Remain standing!’ ” And when the earthquake came, none of the pillars which he struck fell down. However he also went up to one pillar and said to it, “You neither fall nor stand!” And it was split from top to bottom and bent over a bit and stayed that way. No one figured out what the blessed one had done, but everyone said that he struck the pillars because he was out of his mind.

There was this for the glorification and admiration of God: The gestures which caused some to believe that Symeon led an [151] irredeemable life were often those through which he displayed his miracles. For once when a plague was about to come upon the city, he went around to all the schools and began to kiss the children, saying to each of them, as in jest, “Farewell, my dear.” He did not kiss all of them, but only those whom the grace of God made known to him. And he said to the teacher at each school, “In God’s name, idiot, do not thrash the children whom I kiss, for they have a long way to go.” The teachers mocked him, sometimes giving him a whipping; sometimes also the teacher nodded to the children and they ridiculed him publicly. When the plague came, not one of the children whom Abba Symeon had kissed remained alive, but they all died.

It was the saint’s habit to enter into the houses of the wealthy and clown around, often even pretending to fondle their female slaves. For example, one day a certain circus faction member had got a slave girl of one of the notables pregnant. The slave girl did not want to expose the one who had fornicated with her, and when her mistress asked her who had seduced her, the slave girl said, “Symeon the Fool raped me.” Therefore, when he came into the house, according to his custom, the girl’s mistress said to him, “Well, Abba Symeon, so you seduced my slave and got her pregnant.” And immediately he laughed and hid his head in his right hand and said to her, while at the same time squeezing his five fingers, “Leave me alone, leave me alone, wretch, soon she will give birth for you, and you will have a little Symeon!” Until her day arrived, Abba Symeon kept bringing her wheat bread, meat, and pickled fish, and said, “Eat, my wife.” When the time and the hour for her to give birth came, she struggled in child-birth for three days and almost died. Then her mistress said to the Fool, “Pray, Abba Symeon, for your wife cannot give birth.” He said to her, dancing and clapping his hands, “By Jesus, by Jesus, wretch, the child won’t come out from there until [152] she says who its father is.” When the girl in danger heard this she said, “I slandered him. The child belongs to so-and-so of the circus faction.” Immediately then she gave birth.[41] And while all were amazed, some in the house believed he was a saint, while others said once again, “He prophesied this because of the Devil, since he is a complete imbecile.”

Two fathers then in a certain monastery near Emesa considered a question among themselves and inquired why the heretic Origen had fallen, although honored by God with such knowledge and wisdom.[42] One said, “The knowledge which he had was not from God, but was a natural advantage. Furthermore, he had a clever mind, and especially when he devoted himself to his reading of the Holy Scriptures and to the holy fathers, he sharpened his mind, and from this he wrote his books.” The other responded, “It is not possible for someone to say the things which he put forth because of natural advantage (alone), especially the statements in his Hexapla”—which is why even to this day the catholic Church accepts them as indispensable. And the first answered again, “Believe me, the pagans have acquired more wisdom than he and have written more books than he. What then? Should we also approve them because of their wordy nonsense?” When they could not agree, thus standing their ground to the end, one said to the other, “I hear from those who have come back from the Holy Places that the desert of the holy Jordan has great monks. Let us go and learn from them.” Thereupon they came to the Holy Places, and after they had prayed, they went also to the desert of the Dead Sea, in which John and Symeon of everlasting memory had been anchorites. God had not rendered their labors fruitless, for they found Abba John, who still remained there alone and had achieved an even higher level of virtue. When he saw them, he said, “Welcome, you who have left the sea and come to draw water at the dry pool.” After having conversed for a long time together about things pleasing to God, they told him why they had made such a journey. And he said to them, “My fathers, I have not yet received the gift to discern God’s judgments, but go to Symeon the Fool in your land, and he himself can explain both this and anything else that [153] you wish. Say to him, ‘Pray also for John, so that a ten[43] might be cast for him.’ ” So they went to Emesa and asked where a fool named Symeon was. And everyone laughed at them and said, “What do you want from him, fathers? The man is beside himself, and he abuses and jeers at all of us, particularly monks.” They sought him out and found him in the phouska-seller’s shop, eating beans like a bear. Immediately one (of the fathers) was scandalized and said to himself, “Truly we have come to see a great sage;[44] this man has much to explain to us.”[45] As they approached him, they said to him, “Bless us.” He said to them, “You have come at a bad time, and the one who sent you is an idiot.” Thereupon he grabbed the ear of the one who had been scandalized and gave him such a blow that (the bruise) could be seen for three days. And he said, “Have you found fault with my beans? They were soaked for forty days, but Origen would not eat them because he plunged into the sea and was not strong enough to get out, and he drowned in the deep.” They were amazed that he said all this in advance—and also this, “Does the Fool want the ten? He’s as much an idiot as you!—Do you want a kick on the shin?” he said. “Yes, yes, go away.” And immediately lifting up a jug of hot wine he burned the two of them on their lips so that they were unable to repeat what he had told them.

One day while he was in the phouska-seller’s shop he picked up a pandora[46] and began to play in an alleyway, where there was an unclean spirit. He played and spoke the prayer of the great Nikon in order to chase the spirit away from the place, for it had abused many. When the spirit fled, it passed through the phouska-shop in the form of an Ethiopian and broke everything. The amazing Symeon, when he returned, said to his mistress, “Who [154] broke these things?” She said, “An accursed black man came and smashed everything.” He said to her, laughing, “Too bad, too bad.” She said, “Yes, indeed, Fool.” He said to her, “Truly I sent him, so that he would break everything.” When she heard this, she tried to beat him. But ducking down and scooping up a handful of dirt, he threw it in her eyes and blinded her. And the saint said, “Truly, you won’t catch me, but either you will take communion in my church, or the black man will break everything every day.” For they were members of the sect of Acephalic heretics. After he left her, behold the next day at the same hour, the black man came and again smashed everything in sight. In dire straits, they became Orthodox, taking Symeon to be a sorcerer. They did not dare to tell anyone about him, although every day the Fool came by and jeered at them.

One of the city’s artisans wanted to unmask Symeon when he had perceived his virtue. For one time he saw Symeon at the baths conversing with two angels. Now the artisan was a Jew, and he blasphemed Christ all the time.[47] The saint appeared to him in his sleep and told him to say nothing about what he saw. That morning he wanted to expose him, and immediately the saint stood before him, touched his lips, and sealed up his mouth. He was silenced and unable to speak to anyone. He came up to the Fool and gestured to him with his hand to make it so he could speak. But Abba Symeon played the fool[48] and gestured back to him like an idiot. He gestured to him to make the sign of the cross. To see the two of them gesturing to each other was an impressive sight. Symeon appeared to him again in a dream and the monk said, “Either you get baptized, or you will go begging.” At that time he refused to obey him, but after Abba Symeon died and the Jew saw the straits he was in, and especially after the (vision he had) at the transporting of the saint’s remains,[49] then he was baptized together with his household. And as soon as he came up from the holy font, immediately he spoke. And every year he commemorated the Fool and he invited beggars (to join him).[50]

The blessed one had advanced to such a level of purity and impassivity that often he skipped and danced, holding hands with one dancing-girl[51] [155] on this side and another on that, and he associated with them and played with them in the middle of the whole circus, so that the disreputable women threw their hands into his lap, fondled him, poked him, and pinched him. But the monk, like pure gold, was not defiled by them at all. For, as he said, when he had the burning desire[52] and the battle in the desert, he asked God and the great Nikon, so that they would lift him above the battle with unchastity. And one time he saw the celebrated Nikon coming to him and saying, “How are you, brother?” “And I said to him,” Symeon reported, “ ‘Badly, if you hadn’t come. For my flesh troubles me, and I don’t know why.’ ” The admirable Nikon, he reported, smiled and took some water from the holy Jordan and put it beneath Symeon’s navel sealing the place with the sign of the precious cross. And he said to him, “Behold, you are healed.” And from then on, so he swore, neither in his sleep, nor while awake, did he experience burning desire or bodily arousal. And because of this, and especially thus assured, the noble one returned to the world wishing to show compassion for those who were under siege and save them. For sometimes also he would say to one of the courtesans, “Do you want me to make you my girlfriend and give you a hundred gold pieces?” All excited, many were persuaded by him, for he also showed them the money. For he had as much as he wanted, because God supplied him invisibly for the sake of His inspired plan. And moreover he extracted a promise from the one receiving the money, that she would be faithful to him.

He played all sorts of roles foolish and indecent, but language is not sufficient to paint a portrait of his doings. For sometimes he pretended to have a limp, sometimes he jumped around, sometimes he dragged himself along on his buttocks, sometimes he stuck out his foot for someone running and tripped him. Other times when there was a new moon, he looked at the sky and fell down and thrashed about.[53] Sometimes also he pretended to babble, for he said that of all semblances, this one is most fitting and most useful to those who simulate folly[54] [156] for the sake of Christ. For this reason, often he reproved and restrained sins, and he sent divine wrath to someone to correct him, and he made predictions and did everything he wanted, only he changed his voice and (the position of) his limbs completely. And in all that he did, they believed that he was just like the many who babbled and prophesied because of demons. If one day one of the women whom he called his girlfriends betrayed him, he knew immediately by her spirit[55] whether she had fornicated, and he spoke to her, opening his mouth wide and screaming, “You have lapsed, you have lapsed! Holy Virgin, Holy Virgin, strike her!”[56] And either he prayed that a deadly disease would come to her, or often, if she continued in her unchastity, he would send her a demon. Because of this, henceforward, he got all those who promised him to remain chaste and not betray him.

There was a certain village headman living near Emesa, and when he heard about Symeon’s way of life, he said, “Believe me, if I saw him, I would know if he’s pretending or if he really is an idiot.” Therefore, he came to the city and found Symeon by chance while one prostitute was carrying him and another was whipping him. Immediately the village headman was scandalized, and he reasoned with himself and said in Syriac, “Does Satan himself not believe that this false abba is fornicating with them?” At once, the Fool left the women and came toward the village headman, who was about a stone’s throw away from him, and hit him. And stripping off his tunic, he danced naked and whistled. And he said to him, “Come here and play, wretch, there’s no fraud here!” By this the man knew that Symeon had seen what was in his heart, and he was amazed. Every time he started to tell someone about this, his tongue was bound, and he was unable to utter a sound.[57]

Symeon possessed the gift of abstinence in a way not many of the saints do. For each time the sacred Lenten fasts came, he did not taste anything until Holy Thursday. From early on the morning of Holy Thursday he sat in the cake shop and gorged himself, so that those who saw him were scandalized since, as they said, “He doesn’t fast on Holy Thursday.” Now John [157] the deacon knew his behavior was (inspired by) God. When he saw him on Holy Thursday sitting in the cake shop having eaten since early morning, he said to him, “How much does it cost, Fool?” And he said to him, holding forty noumia in his hand, “Here’s my follis, stupid,” showing that he was eating after forty days (of fasting).[58]

Once again a demon was haunting another part of town. One day, while he was walking around, the saint saw it trying to strike one of the passersby. And taking stones from his pocket Symeon began to throw them every which way into the marketplace, and he turned back everyone who wanted to go across. At this moment, a dog passed by, and the demon struck it and (the dog) began to foam. Then the saint said to everyone, “Go on now, idiots!” For the all-wise one knew that if someone had gone across, the demon would have struck him instead of the dog. It was for this reason that he stopped them from crossing for a short while.

As I already said before, the all-wise Symeon’s whole goal was this: first, to save souls, whether through afflictions which he sent them in ludicrous or methodical ways, or through miracles which he performed while seeming not to understand, or through maxims which he said to them while playing the fool; and second, that his virtue not be known, and he receive neither approval nor honor from men. For example, one day when some little girls were dancing and singing satiric songs,[59] he got the idea to pass through that street. When they saw him, they began to lampoon monks. The righteous one prayed, wishing to make them learn, and immediately God made all of them cross-eyed. And when they began to tell each other the bad thing which had happened to them, they knew that it was Symeon who had made them cross-eyed, and they ran after him, wailing behind him, and they cried, “Loose us, Fool, loose us!”[60] For they thought that he had made them squint with a spell. When they caught up to him, they seized him with force and they commanded the one who, they said, bound them to loose them. Then he said to them, joking, “You will be cured of such things; I will kiss your crossed eyes and heal them.” Then all of them, said the saint, whom God wanted to be healed, consented, but the rest did not let him kiss them, and they stayed cross-eyed and wailed. Then a little while after [158] he left them, and the others began to run after him and cry, “Wait, Fool, wait! By God, wait! Kiss us too!” One can just see the monk running with the young girls behind him! And some people said that they were playing with him, while others thought that the girls too had been driven insane. Thus they remained permanently unhealed. For the saint said, “Unless God had made them cross-eyed, they would have exceeded all the women of Syria in debauchery. But through the disease of their eyes they gave up all their evil.”

Once his friend, Deacon John, invited him to lunch, and they were hanging salted meats there. So Abba Symeon began to knock down the raw meat and eat it. The all-wise John, not wanting to say anything to him with a loud voice, drew near his ear and said to him, “You really don’t scandalize me, (even) if you eat raw camel. Do whatever you’d like with the rest.” For he knew the Fool’s virtue, because he also was a spiritual person.

Once some Emesans went to the holy city during Eastertide to celebrate the feast. One of them descended to the holy Jordan to pray. And when he visited the caves he gave gifts to the fathers. It happened that Abba John, Abba Symeon’s brother, met the Emesan merchant in the desert by God’s design. When the merchant saw him, he threw himself on the ground, begging for a blessing from him. Abba John said to him, “Where do you come from?” The merchant said to him, “From Emesa, father.” Then he asked him, “And as long as you have Abba Symeon called the Fool there, what do you seek from wretched me? For I too have need of his prayers, as does the whole world.” And Abba John took the merchant into his cave and set an abundant table before him. Everything he had was from God. For where in that parched desert can [159] white bread, hot fried fish, first-rate wine, and a full wine jar be found?[61] After they ate and had had their fill, John gave him a gift of three spiced fish,[62] which had also come from God, and said, “Give these to the Fool, and say to him for me, ‘For the Lord’s sake, pray for your brother John.’ ” Then the Lord’s truth was confirmed: When the merchant came to Emesa, Abba Symeon met him at the city gate and said to him, “What is it, idiot? How is Abba John, who is a fool like you? Didn’t you eat the gifts which he gave you? Really, really, if you ate all three, you have digested them badly.” The merchant was astounded when he heard everything which he wanted to say coming out of Symeon’s mouth. The Fool immediately took him into his hut, and the merchant affirmed confidently that “Everything he set before me was exactly the same as Abba John had,” even the size of the wine jar, which he had seen in John’s cave. “And after we ate, I gave him the three gifts and returned to my house, embarrassed to tell anyone anything about him, since everyone was convinced that he was an idiot.”

I said before that he performed a miracle for the God-loving man who also narrated this life for us. The manner of the miracle was this: Some criminals committed a murder, and taking the corpse, they threw it through the window into the house of that most God-beloved man. This caused not a little trouble: the matter came to the attention of the governor, and he decided that Deacon John should be hanged. When he went off to be executed, he said to himself nothing other than, “God of the Fool, help me, God of the Fool, stand beside me in this hour.” Because the Lord wanted to save him from this false accusation, someone went and said to Abba Symeon, “You, wretched one, this friend of yours, Deacon John, is going to be hanged, and truly, if he dies, you will die of hunger, for no one looks out for you as he does.” He also told him about the false charge of [160] murder. Then Abba Symeon, playing the idiot, according to his custom, left the man who had told him, and he retired to his hiding place, where he used to pray all the time, which no one knew about except his friend, God’s beloved John. And on bended knee he beseeched God that his servant might be delivered from such danger. And when those who led him out to be hanged came to the place where they were going to erect his gallows, behold! the cavalrymen ran up and said that the man should be released because those who really committed the murder had been discovered. As soon as John was free he ran straight to the place where he knew Abba Symeon prayed all the time. And seeing him from afar stretching out his hands to heaven, he was afraid. For he swore that he saw balls of fire going up from him to heaven, “And round about him, like a baker’s oven with him in the middle,[63] so that I did not dare to approach him, until he had finished his prayer. And he turned and saw me, and he immediately said to me, ‘What is it, Deacon? By Jesus, by Jesus, you almost drank it.[64] But go and pray. This trial came to pass because yesterday two beggars came to you, and although you were quite able to give to them, you turned them away. The things which you give, are they yours, brother? Or do you not believe in Him who said that you will receive a hundredfold in this age and eternal life in the age to come [cf. Mt 19:29]? If you believe, give. And if you don’t give, it will be manifest that you don’t believe in the Lord.’ ” Behold the words of a fool, or rather of a holy wise man. For concerning this Deacon John, when the two found themselves alone together, the old man did not act like a fool at all, but he conversed with him so gracefully and with such compunction,[65] that often perfume came from his mouth,[66] as Deacon John maintained, “such that I almost doubted that he had been a fool only moments before.”

But he behaved otherwise before the crowd. For sometimes when Sunday came, he took a string of sausages and wore them as a (deacon’s) stole. [161] In his left hand he held a pot of mustard, and he dipped (the sausages in the mustard) and ate them from morning on. And he smeared mustard on the mouths of some of those who came to joke with him. Wherefore also a certain rustic, who had leucoma in his two eyes, came to make fun of him. Symeon anointed his eyes with mustard. The man was nearly burned to death,[67] and Symeon said to him, “Go wash, idiot, with vinegar and garlic, and you will be healed immediately.” As it seemed a better thing to do, he ran immediately to a doctor instead and was completely blinded. Finally, in a mad rage he swore in Syriac, “By the God of Heaven, even if my two eyes should suddenly leap (from their sockets), I will do whatever the Fool told me.” And he washed himself as Symeon told him. Immediately his eyes were healed, clear as when he was born, so that he honored God.[68] Then the Fool came upon him and said to him, “Behold, you are healed, idiot! Never again steal your neighbor’s goats.”[69]

Someone in Emesa stole a sum of five hundred gold pieces, and when (the owner) looked for them, Abba Symeon came upon him, and the man, wishing to encourage himself, said to him, “Can you do something, idiot, so that the coins are found?” And Symeon said to him, “If you wish, yes.” And he said to him, “Do it, and if they are found, I will give you ten.” The Fool said to him, “Do everything I tell you, and you will find them in your money chest tonight.” So he promised him with an oath that he would obey him in anything he might say, except if he told him to do something indecent. Symeon said again, “Go, the slave who is your cupbearer took your money. But behold, give me word that you won’t thrash him nor anyone else in your house.” For he thrashed them brutally. The other one thought that it was only in regard to the coins that he told him not to [162] thrash anyone. But Abba Symeon said this to him so that the man would never thrash his slaves. So the man gave Symeon his word with terrible oaths that he would not thrash anyone. And when he returned, he took his slave aside gently and got the money back from him. Then after this, sometimes he would be about to thrash someone and was not able to, but instantly his hand grew numb. And understanding why, he said, “Truly I have the Fool to thank for this.” And he went to him and said, “Loose the oath, Fool.” And immediately Symeon played the fool and pretended that he did not know what the man was saying to him. When the man continued to bother him, Symeon appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Truly, if I loose the oath, I will loose your money and disperse all of it. Would you disgrace yourself? Why do you want to thrash your fellow slaves who precede you in the age to come?” When he saw this, he ceased thrashing his slaves.

Symeon had extraordinary compassion for those possessed by demons, so that from time to time he went off to make himself like one of them, and passed his time with them, healing many of them through his own prayer, and therefore some daimoniacs cried out and said, “O violence, Fool, you jeer at the whole world. Have you also come by us to give us trouble? Retreat from here; you are not one of us. Why do you torture us all night long and burn us?” While the saint was there (in Emesa), he cried out against many because of the Holy Spirit and reproached thieves and fornicators. Some he faulted, crying that they had not taken communion often, and others he reproached for perjury, so that through his inventiveness he nearly put an end to sinning in the whole city.

During this time there was a woman clairvoyant and maker of amulets who performed incantations. The righteous one contrived to have her as a girlfriend and gave her things he had collected from those who gave him presents, whether coins or bread or even clothing. Then one day [163] he said to her, “Do you want me to make you an amulet so that you will never be touched by the evil eye?” And she said to him, “Yes, Fool,” reasoning that although he was a fool, perhaps he would succeed. So he went off and wrote in Syriac on a tablet, “May God render you impotent and stop you from turning his people away from him and toward yourself.” Then he gave it to her, and she wore it. And she was no longer able to make anyone either oracles or amulets.[70]

Another time he was sitting with his brothers (in poverty) and warming himself near a glassblower’s furnace. The glassblower was Jewish. And Symeon said to the beggars, joking, “Do you want me to make you laugh? Behold, I will make the sign of the cross over the drinking glass which the craftsman is making, and it will break.” When he had broken about seven, one after the other, the beggars began to laugh, and they told the glassblower about the matter, and he chased Symeon away, branding him. As he left, Symeon screamed at the glassblower, saying, “Truly, bastard,[71] until you make the sign of the cross on your forehead, all your glasses will be shattered.” And again after the (glassblower) broke thirteen others, one after the other, he was shattered[72] and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. And nothing ever broke again. And because of this, he went out and became a Christian.

Once ten circus fans were washing their clothes outside the city. The blessed one came up to them and said, “Come here, idiots, and I will prepare a sumptuous lunch for you.” The five of them said, “God knows! Let’s go.” But the rest prevented them, saying, “Sure, he’s going to prepare us lunch from nothing.[73] This man begs from door to door, and where does he get anything? He only wants us to stop working.” The five, however, believed and went off. And he said to them, “Wait here.” And he left them alone and went about an arrow’s flight away from them,[74] and hiding himself, prayed. Then they said among themselves, “Truly we have been tricked. For I think that Abba Symeon wants to bring us grass so that we may graze.”[75] And behold, when [164] they said this, they saw him motioning them to come toward him. For he had prayed, as I said, and with God’s help he had prepared everything. When they came to him they found, as before the Lord, lying in front of him wheat bread, flat cakes, meat balls, fish, excellent wine, fried cakes, jam, and simply everything tasty which life has (to offer). And while they ate, he said, “Wretches, take some also for your wives. And if you will stop being idiotic circus fans, truly this wheat bread will not be lacking in your houses until I die.” They said to each other as they left, “Let us test it for a week and if the wheat bread does not stop, let us go no more with our companions to the circus.” Then when they saw that the wheat bread did not stop even though they ate from it every day, they no longer took part in bad things, and three of them became monks, spurred on by the Fool’s conduct.[76] But while the Fool lived in the flesh, they were unable to tell anyone anything about this.

It is worth relating in my writing about Symeon the thing he did for a certain wretched but worthy mule driver. For the mule driver was merciful and through a series of accidents had bad luck in business. Then one day, when he had gone out to bring wine for his house and to sell, the blessed one met him and said to him, “Where are you going, idiot?” For he always had these words in the same way on his lips. Then the mule driver said to him, “For wine, Fool.” Abba Symeon answered him, “Bring fleabane[77] too, when you come back.” Regarding this as a bad omen, the mule driver then said to himself, as he went away, “What sort of Satan sent me this abba early in the morning saying to me, ‘Bring me fleabane’? Truly this wine will spoil and either turn to vinegar or I don’t know what.” When he returned bringing very good wine, in his joy he forgot to bring the fleabane. Abba Symeon met him at the gate and said to him, “What is it, idiot? Did you bring the fleabane?” Again the mule driver said to him, “Truly, wretch, I forgot it.” The Abba said to him smiling, [165] “Just go away, your matter is taken care of.” Later, when he went to unload the wineskins, he discovered that they were (full of) vinegar so foul that a person might die smelling it. Then he understood that Abba Fool had done this, and he began to say, “Truly now, now let’s go for the fleabane.” Then he ran and went to the Fool and entreated—for he said that just as the juggler does an optical illusion, thus had Symeon done—“Unbind what you’ve done, Fool.” He said to him, “What did I do?” He said, “I bought good wine, and after two hours it was found to be vinegar.” And again Symeon said, “Go, go, it doesn’t matter to you! Quickly, open a tavern and it will turn you profit.” For the old man’s aim and prayer was that the mule driver’s toils might be blessed, because he was merciful. However, Symeon did not want to do anything in a clear manner; instead he always did things through clowning. Then the mule driver gave up and said, “Blessed be God, I will open a tavern.” And when he opened it, God blessed him. And instead of thanking the Fool for these things, he was angry with him, for he did not know what Symeon had brought about for him. In this whole matter, God hid Abba Symeon’s plan.

Once, one of the city’s great men fell ill. The saint was in the habit of entering his house and clowning around. And when he was burdened (by illness) almost to death, he saw himself in his sleep playing dice with an Ethiopian, who was death. The sick man’s turn came and, he said, he was about to roll the dice, and unless he threw a triple six, he would lose. Then Abba Symeon appeared to him in his sleep and said, “What is it, idiot? Truly this black man is about to beat you. But give me your word, that you will no longer soil your wife’s bed,[78] and I will roll instead of you, and he won’t beat you.” “I swore,” the one who saw this said, “and he took the dice from me, [166] rolled, and they fell triple six.” The sick man woke up, and immediately the Fool went up and said to him, “You threw a beautiful triple six, stupid.[79] Believe me, if you transgress your oath, that black man will choke you.” And after Symeon had insulted him and all those in his house, he left, running.

This wise man truly kept nothing in his hut—for he had a hut to sleep in, or rather in which to stay awake at night—except for one bundle of twigs. Often he passed the night without sleeping, praying until morning, drenching the ground with his tears. He went out in the early morning and cut branches either from an olive tree or shrub, and made himself a crown, and he wore it and held a branch in his hand and danced, crying, “Victory for the emperor and for the city!” But he said “the city” for the sake of the soul, and “the emperor” for the sake of the mind.

Also, the saint begged God that neither the hair on his head nor his beard should grow, lest in his having it cut, it become known that he was (only) playing the fool. Therefore, during all the time when he was continuing to behave this way, no one saw the hair on his head grow or saw him cut it.

He often carried on very helpful conversations with John the deacon alone, and threatened that if he unmasked him, he would meet with great torture in the coming age. Symeon said to the deacon, when he related his whole life to him just two days before he was translated from this life, “Today I went off to my brother John, and, thanks to God, I found him to have made great progress, and I was overjoyed. For I saw him wearing a crown upon which was written, ‘Crown of patience in the desert.’ And that blessed one said, ‘I saw you, when you were coming, as someone who says to you, “Go away, go away, Fool,” for you win not one crown, but the crowns of those souls whom you offer me.’ But I maintain, Mister Archdeacon, that he saw nothing on me such as (I saw), but rather he was being gracious with me. For the Fool, who is an idiot, what sort of reward does he have to carry off?” And he spoke again, “I beg you, never disregard a single soul, [167] especially when it happens to be a monk or a beggar. For Your Charity knows that His place is among the beggars, especially among the blind, people made as pure as sun through their patience and distress. Such country peasants as I often saw in the city, coming in to receive communion,[80] are purer than gold on account of their innocence and simplicity, and by the sweat of their brow, they eat their bread [cf. Gn 3:19]. But do not blame me at all for what I say to you, master. For my love for you compels me to relate to you also all the carelessness of my miserable life. Know that the Lord will soon receive you as well. But as long as you have the strength and the power, take thought for your own soul, so that you are able to pass by the worldly rulers of this airy darkness [cf. Eph 6:12]. For the Lord knows that I have much anxiety and fear until I am free from the cares which come from them. For that is the evil day about which the apostle and David spoke [cf. Eph 6:13; LXX Ps 40:2, RSV Ps 41:1]. For this reason I beg you, my child and brother John, with all your might, if possible beyond your might, show love for your neighbor through almsgiving. For this virtue, above all, will help us on that day. For it says, ‘Blessed is he who meets with the poor, the Lord delivers him on the evil day’ [LXX Ps 40:2, RSV Ps 41:1]. I ask this also of you: never approach the holy altar holding anything against someone else, lest your transgression make others also unworthy of the visitation of the Holy Spirit.” These and many other things Symeon exhorted him; among them he begged for something which he never spoke to anyone, because not all received his words with faith: “Comfort yourself, for during these three days, the Lord will receive His most humble Fool and John, his brother. For I myself went to say to him, ‘Brother, come, let us go, now is the time.’ But after two days come to my hut and see what you find. For I want you to have a memento of the humble and sinful Fool.” And when he had said these and many more things to him, he left and withdrew into his hut.

Now the time calls, O Friends, to narrate to you his marvelous death, [168] or rather sleep. For his death does not present ordinary edification, but it was more remarkable than everything I said before. It became both seal and guarantee of his triumph and confirmation that his behavior did not defile him. For when the great one perceived the profane hour, not wanting to obtain human honor after his death, what did he do? He went inside, lay down to sleep underneath the bundle of twigs in his sacred hut, and committed his spirit to the Lord in peace. When they had not seen him for two days, those who knew him said, “Let’s go, let us visit the Fool in case he’s ill.” And they went and found him lying dead under his bundle of twigs. Then they said, “Now all will believe that he was beside himself. Behold his death is another idiocy.”[81] And two of them lifted him up without washing him, and they went out without psalm singing, candles, or incense, and buried him in the place where strangers are buried.[82] Then when those who were bearing him and going out to bury him passed the house of the formerly Jewish glassblower, whom Symeon had made a Christian, as I said before, the aforementioned former Jew heard psalm singing,[83] music such as human lips could not sing, and a crowd such as all humanity could not gather. This man was astounded by the verse and the crowd. He glanced out and saw the saint carried out by the two men and them alone bearing his precious body. Then the one who heard the invisible music said, “Blessed are you, Fool, that while you do not have humans singing psalms for you, you have the heavenly powers honoring you with hymns.” And immediately he went down and buried him with his own hands. And then he told everyone what he had heard in the angel’s songs. John the deacon heard this and went running, with many others, to the place where he was buried, wishing to take up his precious remains in order to bury him honorably. But when they opened the grave, they did not find him. For the Lord had glorified him and translated him. Then all came to their senses,[84] as if from sleep, and told each other what miracles he had performed for each of them and that he had played the fool for God’s sake.

[169] Such, O friend of Christ, was the life and conduct of this wondrous Symeon. Such were a few of his virtues collected from the many. Such truly was his hidden and heavenly course which no one saw, but which was suddenly found manifest to all. Such was the new Lot, just like the one in Sodom [cf. Gn 19:1ff.] who thus went secretly in the world unseen. I was eager to commit his miracles and his praiseworthy victory-prize to writing, as far as it is possible for me in my worthlessness, even though I had already done another shorter one in addition to this, because detailed knowledge of this marvelous story had not yet come to me. Honoring him with encomia does not result from my knowledge, but from that of those to whom the power belongs also to compete with his virtue. For what language could praise one who is honored beyond language, or how can fleshly lips (praise) one who, while in the flesh, appeared plainly without flesh?[85] How can the wisdom of the tongue praise the one who obliterated all wisdom and prudence in the folly according to God? Truly human in face, but God in heart. Truly God will not see thus as a human sees. Truly no one knows a person’s deeds without knowing the person’s spirit. Truly we must not judge someone before the time, O friends of Christ, before the Lord comes and illuminates everything. Who knew, friends of Christ, that Judas who lived with the disciples in his body was with the Jews in his heart? Who in Jericho supposed that Rahab who was in a brothel in body was in the Lord in spirit [cf. Jos 2:1ff.]? Who had hoped that that beggar Lazarus who lived suffering such sores would be in such health in Abraham’s bosom [cf. Lk 16:20ff.]? Knowing these things, beloved friends, let us also obey the one who counseled well, “Attend to yourself alone,” neither to your family, nor those around you, but to yourself alone, because each carries his own [170] burden and will receive his own wages from the hand of Christ the heavenly king, to whom are glory and power with the Father and the All-holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

Having lived the angelic and most admirable life on earth, Symeon, who for Christ’s sake was named Fool, died on July 21, having shone exceedingly in his achievements according to God and astounded even the supernatural powers of the angels with his virtues. And when he received confidence, he placed himself at the insufferable throne of God and Father of lights, and he honored Him in unceasing hymns along with all the heavenly powers. May the Lord grant us part and portion with this holy Symeon, and with all the saints in His eternal kingdom, for His is the glory forever and ever. Amen.


This translation of the Life of Symeon the Fool by Leontius of Neapolis is based on the critical edition of the Greek text by Lennart Rydén in Léontios de Néapolis: Vie de Syméon le Fou et Vie de Jean de Chypre, ed. A. J. Festugière, in the series Bibliothèque archéologique et historique (Paris: Geuthner, 1974), pp. 55–104. The translator is indebted to the textual commentaries of Rydén (Bemerkungen zum Leben des heiligen Narren Symeon von Leontius von Neapolis [Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell, 1970]) and Festugière (Vie de Syméon le Fou, pp. 161–222).

Numbers in square brackets refer to the pagination of the Greek text in Das Leben des heiligen Narren Symeon, ed. Lennart Rydén (Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell, 1963), which is reproduced in the inner margins of Rydén’s text in the volume edited by Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou. Biblical references also appear in brackets. Words supplied to clarify the sense of the Greek appear in parentheses.

1. πολιτεία. Lampe (s.v.) lists many instances where this word refers to Christian life and conduct. It may also refer to ascetic practice. I have translated it as “conduct” and as a “way of life.” 

2. Leontius’s introduction focuses attention on the actions of holy persons as examples for others. This may seem particularly ironic, given the nature of the deeds to be described in the account which follows. By referring to Paul as a “vessel of election,” Leontius suggests that Symeon also was the recipient of God’s grace. [

3. πολιτεία.

4. δόξα.

5. ἀπάθεια

6. παράδοξα.

7. Celebrated on September 14. The celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross in Jerusalem was established in the sixth century, after which it spread to other parts of the empire. It was first celebrated at Constantinople in 614. Leontius’s interest in the True Cross reflects an enthusiasm for the military successes of Heraclius. After the Cross had fallen into Persian hands, Heraclius restored the Cross to Jerusalem while on pilgrimage in 630. For the bibliography see chapter 1. 

8. This claim is problematic if Symeon is supposed to be 22 years old at the time. 

9. Symeon and John are native Syriac speakers. Presumably Greek was the dominant language in the monasteries of the Jordan in this period, despite the use of Palestinian Syriac by the native population. Cf. Sidney H. Griffith, “The Gospel in Arabic: An Inquiry into Its Appearance in the First Abbasid Century,” Oriens Christianus 69 (1985): 161–63. 

10. Modern Homs in Syria. 

11. σαλός.

12. John the deacon.

13. Nikon (Νίκων) means victorious. 

14. νίκων

15. Abba Nikon. 

16. σαλός

17. δόξα, possibly also “repute.” 

18. Those who have withdrawn from the world—hermits. [

19. βοσκοί, hermits who ate grass in the desert. 

20. I.e., before there were psalms to sing. 

21. Symeon and John. 

22. Leontius refers to Moses and the burning bush. 

23. The angels. 

24. The Arnon River (modern Mujib) flows through central Jordan into the Dead Sea. 

25. This is a transliteration of the Syriac l’ tkr’ lky ’my, literally, “May it not grieve you, mother.” Cf. R. P. Graffin’s explanation quoted by Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 180. 

26. Modern Urfa in Turkey. Edessa was a major center for Christian learning in Mesopotamia. 

27. The use of the title “Father” is the honor to which Leontius refers. 

28. Or “melted at the same time.” 

29. ψηλαφάω, “to grope or stroke,”

30. Symeon’s behavior recalls Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the courtyard of the temple. 

31. The φουσκάριος sold a soup called phouska, which was made with vinegar. (Cf. Latin posca, a mixture of vinegar, hot water, and eggs.) He is not a “wine merchant” as others have conjectured. On this point, cf. Rydén, “Style and Historical Fiction in the Life of St. Andreas Salos,” DOP 32 (1978): 175–83. Leontius’s phouskarios also sells baked beans and boiled lentils in his stall in the market place. This should probably be understood as rather humble fare. 

32. σαλός

33. The phouska-seller addresses him as mari abba, a transliteration of the Syriac mry ab’, “my lord abba.” 

34. θέρμια, a legume notorious for causing gas, and thus the rough equivalent of “baked beans.” 

35. Presumably for evening prayer. Cf. Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, pp. 190–91. 

36. That is, he adhered to the theology of Severus of Antioch, a Monophysite who lived from about 465 to about 540. Severus rejected the notion that Christ had suffered hardship. He wrote in Greek, but his works are preserved only in Syriac. His teachings won wide currency in the Syrian churches in the sixth and seventh centuries. Cf. W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), and John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Division (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1989), pp. 252ff. For an extended discussion of Severus’s theology see Roberta Chesnut, Three Monophysite Christologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), esp. pp. 9–56. 

37. δημότες. Festugière translates “les habitués du cirque” (Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 135) and justifies the translation at length (p. 194). Rydén, however, interpreted the term to mean a member of the crowd, an inhabitant of the city (Bermerkungen, pp. 94–96). I have adopted the translation “member of a circus faction” with some reservation. Circus factions were fans of various chariot-racing teams. Cf. Alan Cameron, Circus Factions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). 

38. The meaning of the word ἀπέργης is unclear. Lampe suggests “idle,” but Festugière prefers “maladroit.” This is the only known occurrence of the term. 

39. The game appears to be something like the American children’s game red rover. Willem Aerts reports that a game similar to the one described here is still played on Cyprus; “Emesa in der Vita Symeonis Sali von Leontios von Neapolis,” in From Late Antiquity to Early Byzantium, ed. Vladimír Vavrínek (Prague: Academia, 1985), pp. 114–15. 

40. On chronology problems created by this passage, see chapter 2. Evagrius, HE includes accounts of numerous earthquakes in the eastern Mediterranean in the fifth and sixth centuries (1.17; 2.12, 14; 4.4, 8, 23; 5.17; 6.8). Agathias, History 2.15–17 includes a digression on earthquakes throughout the Eastern Mediterranean in the mid-sixth century as well as a discussion of various current theories of the causes of earthquakes. 

41. A version of this story is one of the anecdotes about Symeon in Evagrius, HE 4.34. 

42. One takes a pro-Origen position, the other an anti-Origen position. The antiOrigenist classifies Origen’s achievements with those of pagan wisemen. 

43. Such as the lot cast by Symeon earlier in the narrative. 

44. γνωστικός: i.e., enlightened one, the perfect monk. Cf. Lampe s.v.; consider the title of Evagrius Ponticus’s ‘Ο Γνωστικός. Here the term is obviously ironic. Or simply someone that is sane.

45. ἐξαπλοῦν, perhaps a pun for Hexapla. 

46. A stringed instrument much like a lute. 

47. There was an increasing distrust of Jews among Syrian Christians during the early seventh century, presumably because they sympathized with the Persian invasion. For example, see Theophylact Simocatta, History 5.6.5–7. On Jews under Byzantine rule in this period see A. Sharf, “Byzantine Jewry in the Seventh Century,” BZ 48 (1955): 103–15; also Vincent Déroche, “L’Authenticité de l’ ‘Apologie contre les Juifs’ de Léontios de Néapolis,” Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 110 (1986): 655–69. 

48. σαλίζω, a verb derived from σαλός

49. Leontius is recalling Joseph of Arimathea. 

50. While this appears to be an explanation for a cult of Symeon, there is no evidence that such a cult existed. 

51. Perhaps a “mime-actress.” 

52. πύρωσις, surely a euphemism for sexual excitement. 

53. He behaves literally as a lunatic. 

54. μωρία

55. Or, perhaps, “by his spirit.” 

56. ἁγία ἁγία. It is unclear who the holy woman called on is, but the Theotokos seems most likely. Cf. Rydén, Bemerkungen, p. 113. On the increasing importance of Mary in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, see Averil Cameron, “The Theotokos in Sixth-Century Constantinople,” JThS n.s. 29 (1978): 79–108, and “The Virgin’s Robe: An Episode in the History of Early Seventh-century Constantinople,” Byzantion 49 (1979): 42–56. 

57. The language here recalls binding spells. See H. J. Magoulias, “The Lives of Byzantine Saints as Sources of Data for the History of Magic in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries A.D.: Sorcery, Relics, and Icons,” Byzantion 37 (1967): 228–69, and John G. Gager, ed., Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 116–50. 

58. One follis equals forty noumia. Symeon had not eaten for forty days. 

59. Literally “dancing and making charges,” but see Festugière, Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 209. 

60. The language again reflects that of binding spells. 

61. Fish, bread, and wine, of course, are the things which Jesus feeds to the multitudes in unlimited supply.

62. Festugière translates ζεστά here not as “fish,” but as “bread,” although he translates it as “fish” in the line before. The point must be that the fish were well spiced, since they might give one indigestion.

63. Cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp 15. 

64. Cf. Mt 26:42. 

65. κατανενυγμένως. The word is found only in Leontius, and its meaning is unclear. I have followed Festugière (Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 150) in translating it “with such compunction.” 

66. This is usually only the case with dead saints. 

67. The meaning here is unclear. Literally, the man is “contracted to death”; however, this must not refer to his whole body but rather only to his eyes. 

68. Cf. Jn 9:1–11. 

69. αἰγίδια. This word usually means “goat kids,” but it can also mean “eye salve,” as it does in the writings of the sixth-century doctor, Aëtius of Amida (7.103) (cf. LSJ, s.v.). Consider also that αἰγίς, usually a “goatskin,” refers to a “speck in the eye” in the Hippocratic corpus (cf. LSJ, s.v.). Given the context, this is probably meant as a pun. 

70. The amulet would have contained a piece of silver, gold, or papyrus with the text written on it. 

71. μάνζηρε = mamzere, a Hebrew word (cf. mamzer in Modern Hebrew) which does not appear in Syriac. Festugière (Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 214) postulates that this word was still used as an insult among Jews. However, its occurrence in a Christian text suggests that it was known to Jews and Christians alike in seventh-century Cyprus.

72. Leontius identifies the Jew with the shattered glass. 

73. Literally, “out of darkness.”

74. Presumably more than a stone’s throw. 

75. A reference to the Grazers (βοσκοί) of the first half of the text. 

76. It is unclear whether this means that they too became fools or merely became monks. 

77. Or perhaps “pennyroyal.” 

78. It is unclear whether Symeon is demanding abstinence within marriage or merely marital fidelity. 

79. μάταιος

80. There were few churches in the countryside, so peasants came to town on Sundays and festivals. 

81. κατάσκαλμος. The meaning of this word is unclear. Cf. Festugière (Vie de Syméon le Fou, p. 221), who translates “enfouissement.” I have chosen to follow Aerts, Leven van Symeon de Dwaas (Bonheiden, Belgium: Monastieke Cahiers, 1990), p. 87. 

82. Symeon was a stranger in Emesa, not a resident, so this is perfectly sensible. Cf. Life of the Man of God where the Man of God is also buried in the strangers’ cemetery. 

83. On the problem of which of the Jews mentioned earlier in the text is meant here, see chapter 2. 

84. They were fools not to have seen Symeon’s true nature. 

85. I.e., free from carnal appetites. 

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