Michael E. Nelson
The Christian life has room for all who will come, as it sanctifies the vocation of soldiers, peasants, bishops, politicians, and merchants alike. The vast universality of Christian life and the potential for growth therein is underscored in the vocation of St. Simeon Stylites, who ministered sitting atop a pillar for thirty-seven years. St. Simeon was a city on a hill; his powerfully radical life reaches far from the past and speaks as an example to today's church.
In his strange vocation, St. Simeon demonstrated the redeeming value of a life absorbed in standing, ceaseless prayer before God. His constant vigilance and devotion allowed God to sanctify St. Simeon, granting him obedience, perseverance and discipline. As a result, from sixty feet off the ground, St. Simeon took the results of his radical devotion and lived out Christ's desire that we change the world communally, being in the world yet not of it. His life is highly relevant to Christians of every time period, providing a supreme model for the imitation of Christ and a guide for Christian spirituality.
St. Simeon ministered in the Syriac-speaking church, where a more zealous brand of asceticism had developed by the fifth century. By St. Simeon's day, Syriac monks had acquired a reputation for much stricter practices in mortifying the flesh than their Egyptian cousins. For a long span of time the Syrian church encouraged commitment to sexual continence in order to be baptized (Gasparro 139). Theodoret of Cyrrhus, St. Simeon's bishop and biographer, applauds the creativity with which Syriac monks created tortuous living circumstances for themselves in his History of the Monks of Syria (Doran 23). Syriac monks called themselves "Sons and Daughters of the Covenant" (Harmless 427). St. Simeon was born into this context in the last decade of the fourth century, where the idea of living on a pillar for thirty-seven years was not a far cry from established norms of Syriac asceticism.
St. Simeon was an illiterate shepherd-boy for the first years of his life, before he attended church, heard the beatitudes and was truly converted in the heart (Doran 16). St. Simeon determined to totally follow God as a monk, spending a few years with nearby anchorites before entering a monastery in nearby Teleda. St. Simeon spent around ten years at this monastery before he was asked to leave by the abbot and its community. At the monastery, St. Simeon had fasted far more often and stricter than his fellows did. According to Theodoret of Cyrrhus, he especially angered his superiors once by tightly tying an extremely rough palm-rope around his bare waist, refusing to take it off and rejecting medicine when he finally did (Theodoret 72). When he was ousted, it was apparent to him and his fellow ascetics that the communal monastic life was not his calling—he left and spent three years atop a hill.
Here begins St. Simeon's career as a stylite monk, setting a trend for later Syriac stylites as he dwelt solitarily on a pillar topped with a platform. He is the first monk recorded to live as such, and inspired many other monks to act likewise, including his acquaintance St. Daniel the Stylite (Dawes and Baynes 3). Atop the rural hill, St. Simeon erected the first pillar, moving onto it to find relief from the countless people who sought healing from him (Harmless 426). As he grew in popularity, the pillar grew from six, to twelve, to twenty-four, to thirty-six cubits, ending at a height of around sixty feet (Ibid). St. Simeon died in 459, his body brought to nearby Antioch and treasured by Christians there as a great relic (Dawes and Baynes 4).
In the strange vocation that God called St. Simeon into, the potential of a Christian's complete dedication to prayer and worshipping God is made evident. This is a relevant message for us in the modern day, one that is not by any means lessened by the fact that St. Simeon's brand of asceticism is misunderstood and oftentimes looked down upon. In fact, the advent of technology as a real hindrance and distraction to devotion has made understanding St. Simeon's disciplined example essential to spiritual health. A great potential is realized in the ascetic devotion St. Simeon displays; the potential available to the illiterate man sitting on a pillar is equally accessible to the average working everyman.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus describes St. Simeon's strange pillar-sitting vocation as similar to the odd works God had Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah do to get the attention of the Israelites (Theodoret 76). St. Simeon got the attention of people from Britain to the Persian Empire, praying, preaching and working miracles from the pillar (Doran 16). There are accounts of his interactions with emperors, Arab tribesmen, archbishops, merchants, and peasants. This notion of ceaselessly praying atop a pillar also has a cultural precedent in the ancient Syrian worship of Dionysus. Chosen men would ascend a tall pillar for one week of the year and request blessings for Syria (Doran 30). St. Simeon probably did not get his novel idea from this cultural context, but rather from God, as Theodoret suggested. The cultural precedent reveals St. Simeon's and his contemporaries' understanding of the idea of climbing vertically in order to draw closer to God.
In his practice of standing atop the pillar, St. Simeon became close to God much better than the pagans had, as he prayed and repeatedly prostrated in humble penitence. Theodoret records how St. Simeon stood, "stretching out his hands to heaven...all night, neither beguiled by sleep nor overcome by exertion" (Harmless 462). Such closeness to God and a love for that closeness is enviable; the wisdom that sprung out of that relationship on a pillar between earth and heaven is shown in the stories about his life. Though no sayings of St. Simeon survive, one such story recounts how he foretold a Scythian and Persian revolt against Roman rule from a dream. He fervently prayed, crying out to both God and the political leaders; war was eventually averted (Theodoret 80).
The value of St. Simeon's constant attention in prayer is seen in the iconography of all the stylite saints; their arms outstretched in worship atop a pillar depict the image of a cross (Doran 32). They attempted to imitate Christ not in only their suffering but in the everlasting, triumphant glory of worshipping him, which everyone on the ground could see. Simeon stood vigilantly, sleeping very little; when he chose to he slept standing up or leaned against a railing ("Stylites" 1212). In the Bible, Joshua likewise stood with arms outstretched in prayer, beseeching God for the victory of the Israelites; angels are also associated with endless worship and vigilance (Doran 32).
According to another Syriac biography of St. Simeon, the cause of his constant standing on the pillar is a vision in which an angel told him how to worship like the angels of heaven (Doran 33). St. Simeon not only remained standing, rarely sitting down unless to prostrate, but he begged God that he would never have to stop. A prayer attributed to him says, "Lord, powerful God...grant me that on this stone, on which I stood at your command and order, I may complete the days of my life" (Doran 35). Unlike the pagan pillar sitters, St. Simeon never came down; atop his pillar, St. Simeon had found his cell and he stayed there letting it teach him everything.
St. Simeon's example is especially relevant to Christians in the modern era. His practice of constantly standing before the Lord in prayer should be a model for how we live in a world filled with vice and distraction. By the power of God we can live imitating Christ and his faithful servants, drawing incredibly close to God with prayer of the heart, such as the Jesus prayer, spontaneous prayer or liturgical prayer. Even a small dose of the fervor St. Simeon had for worship could effect change in the life of any Christian today. Alfred Lord Tennyson, a late poet laureate of Great Britain, realized such, lyrically illustrating St. Simeon's holy and divine desire in the saint's voice, "I will not cease to grasp to the hope I hold...[or] to clamor, morn [sic] and sob, battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer, have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin" ("Alfred Tennyson").
The products of such a great degree of devotion are more valuable than any amount of material wealth; the obedience, perseverance and discipline God gave him are unrivaled. God accepted the radical devotion that caused St. Simeon to live on a pillar and in turn filled St. Simeon with his love and power. God gave St. Simeon the strength to live a sanctified life, evident in the endless stories of St. Simeon's humble virtue. The empowering infusion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is available to all mankind through humble Christian penitence.
The preeminence of obedience was a consensus among the Desert Fathers, evident in the sayings that have survived the centuries; our God, "demands nothing so much as sincere obedience" ("Obedience" 144). While St. Simeon may have been lacking in this area earlier in his life, as the account of his refusal to remove the cord from his waist shows, St. Simeon grew spiritually and became a giant of obedience after ascending the pillar. As his fame grew, church authorities began to doubt his humility and asked him to come down from the pillar. St. Simeon was obediently, humbly willing to obey and they allowed him to stay.
The desert life was dangerous and difficult; St. Simeon confined himself to a pedestal twelve feet square, exposed to the elements and all sorts of difficulties that come with wilderness life ("Simeon the Stylite" 312). He possessed a storied amount of endurance against these factors. Accounts tell of his countless prostrations, once numbered at over 1,244 before the counter was distracted. St. Simeon could do this with the strength of God and the physical fact that, as Theodoret of Cyrrhus recounts, "his stomach only takes in food once a week, and a small amount at that, this allows his back to bend easily" (Theodoret 81).
Life atop the pillar also involved numerous ulcers and infected wounds, which St. Simeon patiently endured throughout his life. Though it may appear that St. Simeon's endurance was disguised hatred for the body, seemingly overdoing the already strong tendency for self-mortification in the Syriac tradition, St. Simeon's sufferings were not self-inflicted or self-centered. According to theologian S. Ashbrook Harvey, "literally through the use of his body, God's purpose is worked...Simeon's endurance on the pillar is always described...[as] participation in God's battle against Satan. It is not self-mortification. The body is a weapon for a battle outside himself [emphasis mine]" (Harvey 384). The battle St. Simeon fought was not a self-centered one; it had a larger universal purpose, for which he selflessly sacrificed himself and his own health, enduring all sort pain.
The life of the monk required untold amounts of discipline and self-control, an area in which St. Simeon was likewise gifted from heaven. It is always a temptation to replace vigorous pursuit of God with laxness, or even with leaving one's cell altogether. Monks battled their tendencies to pride, despair and other spiritual dangers with disciplined ascetic practices. In St. Simeon's case, these were strictly practiced for the last forty or more years of his life in conjunction with the sincere love that sprung from his ardent devotion to God. The discipline of St. Simeon was not legalistic; rather it was a self-awareness and realization of the need to keep the flesh under a firm hand.
The final product of St. Simeon's sincere worship and prayer, from which flowed the Holy Spirit's gifts of obedience, perseverance and discipline, was a life consumed with love for his fellow man. From his pillar, St. Simeon preached repentance to pagans, healed the sick, defended the poor, rebuked the rich and loved everyone. Suspended between the ground and heaven, St. Simeon interceded for everyone almost like an angel, or though he was taking literally Jesus' command to be in the world yet not of it (Harmless 426). Likewise, we should follow his example to effect loving change in the world on a huge scale without becoming stained ourselves.
In many ways, St. Simeon behaved like an old Hebrew prophet such as Isaiah or Ezekiel, instructing the emperor in the will of God, or mediating between warring tribes. In one instance, St. Simeon had made a covenant with the town of Panir promising security from vicious wild beasts if the town continued steadfastly in Christianity (Doran 22). When the town broke the covenant, St. Simeon was filled with anger and disappointment; the sight of this caused them to seek his forgiveness by prostrating themselves repeatedly for three days. In this way St. Simeon looks very much like a Hebrew prophet enforcing the holy covenant between God and Israel (Ibid).
St. Simeon's concern for community was not centered simply on social justice; his purpose was profoundly mission-centered. Both Christians and non-Christians of St. Simeon's day recognized the power of God; when he healed, the physical miracle was generally accompanied by spiritual healing and conversion (Doran 22). St. Simeon was also very much involved in the evangelism of local Arab tribes. According to one biographer, many Arabs and their king came to St. Simeon after he ascended the pillar; the devil hated this and caused a tumor to grow on his thigh and a worm to eat it. St. Simeon allowed the worm to eat his thigh, and when he began to preach to the Arabs the worm fell down, turning into a pearl. God thereby was revealed to many Arabs (Antonius 95).
The ideal Christian life is an imitation of Christ's life; it so happens that the life of St. Simeon reflects that of Christ's in many ways, and modern Christians would do good to heed the wisdom of both. In an industry-centered culture where work ethic and productivity are idolized, it is important to recognize the incomparable value of the labor of love that is Christian spirituality. Growing close to God involves, as St. Simeon has shown, a strong sense of devotion to God, worship and prayer. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit's gifts enable true personal piety and holiness; St. Simeon was especially rewarded in the areas of obedience, perseverance and discipline. Lastly, the kingdom of God is realized in the world with the outpouring of love coming from this heavenly arrangement; mission work, social justice and love of others have the twofold benefit of helping others and spiritually enriching one's own life. The universal, timeless nature of Christianity indicates that the miraculous life of Jesus Christ is available to us now just as much as to the ancient church.
"Alfred Tennyson's 'St. Simeon Stylites.'" Victorianweb.org. 21 Jan 2009. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/stylitestext.html
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