From El Camino de Santiago: A Word from Symeon the New Theologian on Being Aware of False Teachers

Those who set themselves up as givers of retreats and as writers on “spiritual matters” should never fail to make, as St. Ignatius of Loyola directs, daily “examinations of conscience”. There’s too much bullshit being circulated [and I include my own part in its manufacture] by those who have only read books.

It’s one thing for a medical scientest to prescribe the safest method of performing triple-by-pass. heart surgery. It’s a whole different reality when teachers prescribe ways for their students to become spiritually enlightened and “realized” human beings. Symeon the New Theologian offers hard warnings to those who dare to teach. He also offers a student a way for discerning if the “spiritual teacher” is for real: has he overcome his “passions”? If not, walk away and never look back.

Thomas Merton was an honest broker of the spiritual life. He did not consider himself a spiritual master nor a guru. He was the first to admit that any treasure he could offer was dispensed in a fractured jar. Everyone who teaches should humble themselves before their students, and confide that the only wisdom they truly possess is the truth that, on the road to a “realized life”–a courageous and joyful life in serving their neighbors–they have not traveled very far at all.

If I were sending a gift to all the successful “spiritual writers” of our day, it would be a ribbon of admonition, offered by Chuang Tzu, to be taped to the bottom of their computer screen: “Achievement is the beginning of failure. Fame is the beginning of disgrace.”

Sitting at the feet of his Spiritual Master, Montaldo has just asked Dietzie for direction, “Do you know the way to San Jose”? and the Master has just replied that he hasn’t a clue.

Here’s a “word” from Symeon the New Theologian on the matter of “false teachers”:

1.4 “Those who simply teach do not gain the Lord’s blessing. It is for those who have practiced the commandments and so have deserved to see and contemplate the shining and brilliant radiance of the Spirit within themselves. For with this vision, this knowledge and power, the Spirit instructs them fully in all that they must speak and teach to others. So, as I have said, all those who try to teach must first of all become students lest they wander off and lose themselves by speaking of things outside their experience. This is the fate of [those] who [only] trust in themselves.”

1.41 “When a man can see with his eyes, he knows when it is night and when it is day. But a blind man is unaware of both. And when a man looks upward through the Spirit and sees through the eyes of the mind, he contemplates the true and inaccessible light. So if he then falls back into his former blindness through carelessness and is deprived of the light, he will really suffer the loss and know the reason for it all too well. But the man who is blind from birth knows nothing of these things, either from experience or his efforts, unless perhaps he catches something from hearsay and so learns about things he has never seen. Such a man may tell others what he has heard, but neither he nor his audience will know what he is talking about.”

1.48 “If you want to renounce the world and be instructed in the evangelical way of life, then do not surrender yourself to a master without experience, or to one still subject to the passions, because he might initiate you into the diabolical life instead of the evangelical. Good masters give good doctrine, but the evil teach evil. Bad seeds always produce rotten fruit.”

1.49 “Call on God with prayers and tears to send you a holy guide who has overcome the passions. For yourself you should search the divine writings, especially the ascetical works of the holy fathers [and mothers]. If you compare these with the teachings of your own tutor and master, you will be able to see and learn all these things as if in a mirror. Whatever is in agreement with the sacred writings hold to your heart and keep in your thoughts, but discern whatever elements are different or adulterated and cast them away so that you will not be led astray. You must understand that there are all too many deceivers and false teachers these days.”

1.50 “A deceiver is one who is blind…but who still tries to guide other people. He leads all who follow him to their ruination in a ditch, just as the Lord said: “If the blind leads the blind, both will fall into the pit.”

1.60 “God and Lord of all things, who have power over all life and each soul, you alone can heal me. Listen to the prayer of [one who is wretched]. By the power of your all-holy Spirit bring death to the serpent coiled in my heart and make it disappear. I am poor and naked, devoid of any virtue, but make me worthy to fall in tears at the feet of my holy father, and make his holy soul bend to compassion and pity for me. Lord, give me that lowliness in my heart and my thoughts that is right for a sinner who has resolved to repent. Never finally abandon a soul that has once surrendered to you, confessed its faith in you, and chosen and prized you before the whole world. For you know, Lord, that I wish to be saved in spite of all the evil habits that still fetter me. For you, Master, all things are possible which are impossible to [us human beings]. ”

“Thank you, Blessed Symeon. Your words have pierced me to the quick.”

Da nada, Jonnie Montaldo. Have a nice day!”

Quotations from Symeon the New Theologian. The Practical and Theological Chapters (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982).

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