Christ Borne Within Us
St. Symeon preached on direct experience of God and baptism of the Holy Spirit
I recently saw evergreen trees piled high behind the Senior Center. A trash worker forgot to unlock the trash trailer bins. I stood beside the trees, breathing in the refreshing forest fragrance that conjured up happy Christmases past.
It pulled me back to my childhood and the lighted tree in my parents’ home. I was seven years old and went to bed that magical Eve, lying awake longer than usual, hoping to hear Santa’s sleigh bells on the roof. Next morning at 5 a.m. I saw the living room illuminated by tinsel-reflected tree lights in its green limbs. My younger brother and I gazed in awe before untying red ribbons to discover what was inside our presents, strewn all around the base of the tree.
A woman lugging her Christmas tree to the pile brought me back to reality. She saw me standing motionless and asked if I was okay. I explained my childhood reverie and she smiled, saying, “That happens during the holidays.” I nodded and went on my way.
Questions popped into my mind all day: Why use evergreen trees, tinsel, ornaments? Why the spiral string of lights and the trumpeting angel at the top? What do all these traditions really mean?
The evergreen tree represents eternal life — that’s easy. The tinsel represents the ice and snow of winter. The heralding angel announces the Savior born to spiritually illuminate us all.
Then I heard this subtle subtext: Death can’t foil everlasting life, even as winter can’t spoil evergreens. Christ’s resurrection from the dead illuminates the only way to eternal life.
I recalled that biblical scene where Christ heals a blind man.
“What do you see?” Jesus asks the man, after anointing his eyes with spittle.
“I see people, but they look like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24).
What if people and evergreen trees aren’t all that different? What if God cuts some of us down, humbling us to our knees with unbearable sufferings and travails? Then, after our prayers and austerities, He adorns us with His grace and helps us rise again, but now as walking Christmas trees, enlightened and surrounded by His Presence.
After returning home I discovered the teachings of St. Symeon (942-1022), a Byzantine monk and abbot of a monastery near Constantinople, honored by both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox rites. Symeon preached direct experience of God, like Sts. Paul and Augustine before him, and Sts. Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola after him. His mysticism wrought serious conflict with a politicized hierarchy that forced him into temporary exile until his vindication in old age. Assembly-line, formula Christianity was for him the major reason that Catholicism was corrupted by worldliness and caused division among his brethren. The Church had become a beautiful seashell, devoid of life.
In St. Symeon’s classic work, called The Discourses, he writes of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, profound mystical union with God, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. He teaches that Christian life must include personal experience of the presence of the living Christ, and he describes his own mystical experience of the divine light: “It shines on us without evening, without change, without alteration, without form. It speaks, works, lives, gives life, and changes into light those whom it illuminates” (Discourse XXVIII).
In my view, St. Symeon’s Baptism of the Holy Spirit was another way of saying, “Unless a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). There is a baptism of water and one of fire, as John the Baptist described it (see Matt. 3:11). Those who are humbled to deep despair, to suffering that dark, lonesome, silent night of the soul, may someday give spiritual birth to the living Christ. Those who are so purged by the flames of the Holy Spirit and thus reborn will be totally changed, forever transfigured into light. They will inwardly defer to Christ, who says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). They will be illumined like a walking Christmas tree, having a personal, ongoing, direct participation in Christ. “I will live in them and move among them” (2 Cor. 6:16).