What is this awesome mystery

by Symeon the New Theologian

English version by John Anthony McGuckin
Original Language Greek

What is this awesome mystery
that is taking place within me?
I can find no words to express it;
my poor hand is unable to capture it
in describing the praise and glory that belong
to the One who is above all praise,
and who transcends every word...
My intellect sees what has happened,
but it cannot explain it.
It can see, and wishes to explain,
but can find no word that will suffice;
for what it sees is invisible and entirely formless,
simple, completely uncompounded,
unbounded in its awesome greatness.
What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as one,
received not in essence but by participation.
Just as if you lit a flame from a flame,
it is the whole flame you receive.

-- from The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, Translated by John Anthony McGuckin

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This verse is a wonderful ecstatic meditation on the mystic's dilemma: The experience of divine union can be witnessed, participated in, but the mind can't comprehend it or define it in a way that can be truly communicated.

I can find no words to express it;
my poor hand is unable to capture it...

My intellect sees what has happened,
but it cannot explain it.

The reason for this is that the reasoning mind understands reality by dissecting it. The intellect slices reality into manageable pieces that it can comprehend and manipulate. But the Divine Presence witnessed by mystics in deep communion is the Wholeness of reality. It is "the totality recapitulated as one" -- what a perfect phrase!

That Totality permeates everything, has no boundaries; it is "unbounded in its awesome greatness." It is "invisible" in the sense that the physical eyes do not see it; it is not a play of light and dark, but an eternal all-pervading radiance or presence. It is "entirely formless" because form is defined by boundaries. How then can the poor intellect hope to describe that which "transcends every word"?

This doesn't mean the intellect can't try, by resorting to metaphor (and poetry), but the communication of this divine Truth ultimately comes not through words but through participation. You silently pass the flame, and it is the "whole flame" that gets passed along.



Recommended Books: Symeon the New Theologian

Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives Hymns of Divine Love: Songs of praise by one of the great mystics of all church history Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages
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