Symeon was born in Galatia in Asia Minor in 949 A.D. during an era he described as "a time of profound and perfect peace" (The Discourses, Chapter XX:Section 2). His parents were members of the provincial nobility. They provided him with primary Greek school until he was about 11 years old. His uncle then presented him to the court of the two brother emperors, where he completed his secondary education.
When he was 14 years old, Symeon met his mentor and spiritual father, who was Symeon the Studite, a monk at the Studion monastery of Constantinople. The younger Symeon wanted to enter the monastery at the age of 14, but his mentor encouraged him to wait until he was 27 years old.
During the years before he entered the monastery, Symeon lived in Constantinople, the richest city in the world in its day. There, he managed a patrician's household and engaging in worldly affairs. Those who knew Symeon in the palace were not aware of his evening pursuits, in which he prostrated himself with his face to the ground, praying each night until midnight. When he was 20 years old, Symeon the Studite gave him the book of Mark the Hermit to read, and the book exerted an important influence on the younger Symeon's thinking. Among the teachings of Mark the Hermit that he "fixed in his heart," was the lesson that the blind man addressed Jesus as "Son of David" until he received his sight and saw the Lord, and then he worshipped him as "Son of God" (John 9:35 ff).
One day, Symeon silently recited "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner," and a flood of divine light filled the room. Symeon was wholly in the presence of light. When the vision was over, he was filled with joy and amazement and wept, feeling sweetness together with the tears. The church bells soon rang for matins, and he rose to sing psalms without sleeping that night. He later wrote that God brought this to pass although he was a lay person living in the city, because he had done what he did with right faith and unhesitating hope. (The Discourses XXII:5). Symeon later had other, lesser, visions of light.
At the age of 27, after a 13-year wait, Symeon at last entered the Studion monastery. Unhappily, his zeal did not mesh with the coolly formalistic monastery of tenth century Constantinople. The abbot insisted that Symeon leave after only a few months. Symeon’s mentor then led him to a decadent monastery nearby. Three years later, Symeon was tonsured a monk and ordained a priest. He worked there as abbot for 25 years, transforming the monastery based upon his readings of the Bible and the early church fathers. During that time, he wrote The Discourses, made up of instruction given to the monks.
The theological environment in which Symeon wrote was as far removed in time from the early church as from our own time. His thinking placed a high premium on repentance of sins. He wrote from the Eastern Church in an era when the East was almost wholly out of communication with the Western Church, although a century before they fully separated. Symeon made no distinction between faith and works in the sense that would become a key issue in the Reformation, centuries into the future. Rather, when he spoke of those who valued faith without works, he had in mind lifeless formalism. He wrote that the only faith that matters is faith that produces repentance, righteousness and a reformed life. He considered how Adam and Eve must have wept for the rest of their lives over the cost of their own sin (The Discourses V:7). Jesus set all people free from the cost of sin by his death and resurrection. Rather than "neglect so great a salvation" (Heb. 2:2f), Symeon actually required his monks to weep daily in repentance (The Discourses Chapters V and XXX). "Such tears flood and wash out the house of the soul; they moisten and refresh the soul that has been possessed and inflamed by the unapproachable fire (cf. I Tim. 6:16)." (The Discourses IV:10). Such penitence he defined as "but the recognition of sin," according to Romans 3:20 (The Discourses XXIII:2). He encouraged his monks to search the word of God and to hold fast to it in order to know God's will (III:8).
Symeon saw God always as light and fire, who imparts His brightness to those kindled by the divine fire, abiding in us as we abide in Him (The Discourses XV:3, XXXIII:1). He encouraged people to run to that light by keeping God's commandments with eagerness (XV:5). He saw works without faith as being just as useless as faith without works (VIII:6-7). Only by "love in a broken spirit" did Symeon believe a person could be called a disciple of Christ (I:5). Possessions were to be viewed as our own, given to us to enable us to distribute them to our brethren with cheerfulness, joy and magnanimity (IX:7). "God, because He is just, will prepare a place of rest for those who are thus on the way to eternal life and enjoyment." (IX:7)
The monks eventually rebelled against Symeon's strict aceticism. Moreover, Symeon was confronted with the differences between his own priority on the personal experience of God and Archbishop Stephen's hierarchical authority. One of his views that caused him great controversy was his opinion that a Christian could confess sins to a holy monk in preference to a decadent bishop or priest, in an era when he considered much of the church to have departed from the faith of the early church fathers. In 1009, Symeon was forced into exile in a small town. There, he built a small monastery from a chapel that was falling into ruins, where he lived out the rest of his life, continuing to write. The Patriarch Sergios later lifted the exile and offered Symeon the position of archbishop, but Symeon chose to remain where he was. He died in 1022, around the age of 73. One of his disciples continued to edit his writings for the public after his death.