Tuesday, July 1, 2014

St. Simeon Stylites (c. 390-459 AD) : Somewhere between Heaven and Earth by Chris White

Egyptian Icon of St. Simeon
For 36 years a group of monks had tended to the bodily needs of their master by the means of ropes and ladders.  He was one of the most well known and popular ministers of his day.  Respected by kings, village leaders, men both great and small, when he spoke they listened and obeyed.  When he prayed, the infertile had children, the sick were healed, and those tortured by evil spirits were delivered.  But today was different.  Simon Stylites was seen kneeling on one knee and all who tended to him realized this holy man had passed away during the night.  Now they had another problem:  how to get a body down from a 60 tall pillar that had a platform less than 6 square feet. For St. Simon Stylites’ place of residence was a pillar erected on a mountainside where he stood 24 hours a day in the open air worshipping God, praying, and offering counsel and comfort to all who came to see him.

What would lead a saintly man to do such a seemingly odd thing with his life?  Most modern people would simply write off St. Simeon as someone who is mentally unhinged at best and someone with a penchant for self-immolation and an appetite for public attention at worst.  I believe St. Simeon Stylites was perfectly sane and a person of great spiritual and moral character.  That was how he was viewed by the public in his day which suggests that his story has a certain context that requires our understanding before we can appreciate it.  I will consider myself successful in this essay if I can shed some additional light on the subject of the pillar saint from Syria.

Let’s begin with the basic story of St. Simeon Stylites and then from there put this story within its natural context.  Simeon was a shepherd boy who followed in the occupational footsteps of his father.  He was born near Cilicia in Asia Minor which was also the region where St. Paul the Apostle grew up several centuries before.  We are told by one of his disciples, later one of three biographers, that the occasion of his conversion was quite simple.  In the winter of his thirteenth year a heavy snowfall allowed Simeon a day off from his shepherd duties.  It being a Sunday, Simeon felt pulled in the direction of attending a worship service at the church nearby their home.  The Gospel reading that particular morning was the Beatitudes of Jesus.  Simeon was so taken with the force of Jesus’ words that in his heart he became a disciple and shortly thereafter left home to join a monastery hoping for a vocation of prayer and seeking to have a pure heart before God.

During his years at the monastery Simeon had friends but proved through his actions that he had less of a monastic calling and was more wired to be a hermit.  Monks usually all live in community while hermits tend to live alone and apart from a community.  Both are seeking a greater union with God but follow different paths with the monastic vocation being one that requires a more regulated life.

Simeon’s actions were not in the category of “does not play well with others” but rather “does not play by the rules”.  He was always taking the spiritual disciplines of the community to the extreme.  For example, in his community there was a dedication to fasting.  As a group they usually ate three times a week choosing to use the energy directed towards eating for prayer and contemplation.  Simeon would eat only once a week.  During the season of Lent before Easter, Christians of every denomination will frequently fast from something for 40 days as a means of disciplining their bodies.  Food was taken regularly but perhaps meat or wine would be left out of the diet during Lent.  Simeon would just not eat anything at all for 40 days.  His worse transgression however was finding a coarse rope one day and wrapping it tightly around his legs and back and then covering it with his regular robes.  Monks would wear coarse clothing on purpose as a means physical buffeting of their bodies (something akin to self-flagellation) and identifying with the suffering Jesus underwent in his earthly life but Simeon wanted to take this to an extreme wanting coarser underneath the coarse.  What ends up happening is his entire body becomes infected and covered with vermin and he gets caught because he smells so bad that the abbot (the leader of the monastery) demands he explain why no one in the monastery will go near him.  When Simeon exposes his misdeed, the abbot orders the rope removed (which was an ordeal so disgusting I will not speak of it here) and Simeon almost dies requiring him to be nursed back to health.  Finally the abbot of the monastery, concerned that Simeon has some sort of death wish and that he is unable to live by the regulations of the order, sends him away for fear that his example will take hold with the other monks.  Cut loose (literally and figuratively) from the monastery, Simeon continues his pursuit of God as a solo act.

St. Simeon and those who imitated his path

Simeon soon finds a like-minded hermit in a nearby village where he goes to live.  He builds for himself a small rock hut to live in and for the next few years gains the reputation as a holy man as he continues his austerities and lives as one who has completely broken from the system of the world.

Now we get to the interesting (or weird part) of St. Simeon’s story.  For reasons that are never spoken of by Simeon or any of his disciples he makes the decision to live in the open air chained to a rock on the side of Mt. Telanisissas.  A year later, Simeon transfers from the rock to a 6 foot tall pillar.  As time progresses the pillar is built up first to 40 feet and eventually topping out at 60 feet tall.

There are hints given us by Simeon’s biographers that suggest that God gave Simeon the vision of living out in the weather on the rock but because of his personal popularity with the local people, going vertical was the only way of achieving some modicum of solitude.  Another points to the pillar’s ability to make Simeon part of the world but really not of it.  From this disinterested position he was used by God to be a judge of righteousness and mediator of peace among the people.  Finally, Simeon mentions himself that God has called him to be like the prophets of old declaring righteousness and the glory of God to humanity.  One does not have to dive too deeply into the Old Testament to find prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel who were told by God to do things that would be a public spectacle and within the spectacle was the message of God’s intent.

Whatever the exact reasons for Simeon living on a pillar it is undeniable that the pillar was on a mountainside that border a major trade and travel route through Syria.  Anyone who traveled by would find their attention arrested seeing a man standing on a pillar with his arms out praying and looking at a distance like a human cross.  It is also known and recorded that people throughout the world made the pilgrimage to see and hear St. Simeon and to possibly get his counsel or blessing.  Kings, nobleman, the rich and poor, the sick and those disturbed by demons, village leaders, church leaders, even school children streamed from the area and as far away as Spain and Britain to be in his presence.  In the city of Rome, Simeon was a popular figure with the people or more specifically a figurine.  Apparently in the 5th century you would have been hard pressed to find a shop in Rome that didn’t have a miniature of Simeon on his pillar displayed as a means of warding off evil (and if you have ever owned a small business, you know you need all the help you can get!).

So what was a day like on the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites?  The platform on top of the pillar was too small for him to sit or lie down and so 24 hours a day he remained standing.  A pole on top of the pillar enabled Simeon to be tied up to it so that if he did fall asleep, he wouldn’t fall to his death.  It is said he never slept but apart from some miraculous intervention by God, this simply is not possible as eventually lack of sleep causes your body to shut down.  More likely Simeon took “catnaps” at night between his prayer vigils which began at dusk and continued until 9 am.  At 9 am every day and later at 3pm, Simeon would preach a sermon to whoever was present.  Then during the remainder of the day he would address the visitors and crowds.  The monks that attended him would bring him notes from the people which stated their business and he would reply either in writing or would speak from his lofty perch.

An ancient historian considers St. Simeon Stylites

People that had legal disputes and community leaders between warring villages often came seeking Simeon’s mediations.  Often what he said alone had great power over the people, but Simeon often had peace treaties and legal documents drawn up and stored at the base of his pillar.

Simeon wore a long beard and hair and wore animal hide clothing.  He would often worship the Lord and bow to him spontaneously during the day.  One contemporary tried to count how many times he did this in a day and lost count at 1,200 times.  The point is, Simeon was more than a spectacle, he was an active minister of the Gospel and sought a change of heart and mind in all his visitors.

Like many other hermits, St. Simeon was fairly long-lived.  He died at age 69 which was quiet aged at the time and no small feat for someone who lived in the elements year round and rarely ate or slept.  It is believed what took his life was an infected ulcer on his foot that never healed because he was always standing on it.

With that as a brief outline, let me close out the story of St. Simeon with some historic context which might help us put this unusual saint into perspective.  First of all, I do find it a bit incredible that those of us who daily see people dressed up in costume by the side of the road and constantly waving signs for a mattress sale or a $5 pizza special would think of Simeon Stylites as eccentric and weird.  In a sense, St. Simeon was doing the same thing at a more advanced level and he actually had a very important message to tell his audience.  But that aside, let’s consider what Simeon’s last name means.  Stylite means “column dweller” and thus his name speaks not a family heritage but a category of holy men.

 The pillar was a fairly common feature in the Near East of Antiquity.  There are evidences of pagan religions in this region of the world that had holy pillars.  Once a year the priest of the religion would climb to the top and commune with the local god for a week.  Then he would come down and tell the people what he learned.  As the Near East became increasingly Christian (and it did so rapidly) the community memory of the custom would remain and it’s practical purpose of being an oracle of the spirit world.  If this be true then what might be happening here is that Simeon was taking a local tradition and Christianizing it.  This public spectacle opens the door for his preaching.  We should not be surprised at this for the God of the Bible knows well all the particulars of a local society and often inspires His servants to exploit them for a greater purpose.

Simeon is also what Delahaye and others refer to as a stationary saint.  Although pillar dwelling was fairly uncommon, many hermits (both male and female) were known as anchorites which meant they lived in a purposeful confinement seeking God alone and having people come to them rather than going to the people.  Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena are but two other notable examples of this phenomena.  Certainly their lives were quite constricted, but this was a constriction which enabled a constant communion with God.  I believe this has its corollary in the academic and literary world where no great work is done apart from being chained to a writing desk.

Finally, it should be noted that St. Simeon was not singular in his vocation.  In his lifetime he inspired others who in turn became pillar saints and this hardly died out in antiquity.  The practice of pillar saints is known to have continued all the way into the 19th century.  Pillar saints were not without controversy and eventual regulation by the bishops of the church occurred in the 5th century.

When he died his pillar was surrounded by and enclosed by 4 churches and monasteries the remains of which stand today as witness to the saint who served God’s people stationed somewhere between heaven and earth.
Remains of Simeon's Pillar today


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The Lives of Simeon Stylites.   Robert Doran Trans. (Spencer : Cistercian Publications, 1992)

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