Simeon the Stylite spent thirty-seven years of his life standing on a pillar. He ate as little as possible, and did his utmost never to sit or lie down: he would tie himself to a pole fixed to the top of his pillar so as to sleep upright, or, on laxer occasions, he would sleep leaning on the balustrade that also prevented him from blowing off his perch during storms. He had no roof, and no walls apart from the open balustrade; a leather garment, long hair, and a beard were all he had for protection against the elements. Modern people, masters of sewerage as we have become, shudder at the thought of what happened to his admittedly meagre excrement.
He prayed all night, bowing frequently and low (this being his only exercise): one witness stopped counting after his 1,244th bow. He slept very briefly towards dawn, and was ready to greet the crowds that thronged around him every day. Pilgrims came to Antioch in Syria from distant places--we hear of Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Spanish, British, French--and then walked a short distance into the country to where the saint's pillar stood. They would beg for his prayers, listen twice a day to his gentle, practical and briefly expressed thoughts, ask him to settle disputes, and pray for miracles that frequently occurred. Most of the time, however, the saint stood in silent prayer.
Many were the complaints from the church hierarchy about Simeon's excesses. He was threatened with excommunication at the request of monks in Egypt and denounced as a show-off by a whole convocation of archimandrites meeting in Antioch. But his awesome austerity, his dedication to his calling and his enormous following wore down all opposition. Simeon was so famous that one of his biographies was written during his lifetime: Theodoret of Cyr visited him in 455 and wrote down what he saw.
Simeon the Stylite was born in 389 at Sis, a village near the border between Syria and Cilicia. He described how, as a shepherd boy, he was converted by the first sermon he ever heard. The priest spoke on the text, "Blessed are the pure in heart." On asking how best to become pure in heart and so see God, Simeon was told that joining a monastery was good, and he at once became a monk. He said he repeatedly heard a voice telling him to "dig ever deeper."
After ten years he obtained permission from his superiors to leave the monastery and become a hermit. He was called, he said, to give up movement. He built himself a round enclosure and shackled his leg to a chain fastened to a pole in the middle of it so that he could not leave. The bishop of Antioch ordered him to remove the chain, and Simeon immediately complied. But crowds had begun to come in ever-increasing numbers to ask for his prayers.
It was they who first made Simeon think of living higher up, out of their reach. He built a platform three metres high, to prevent people from grabbing him while he was at prayer. A bit of leather snipped from his garment was a valuable relic during his lifetime, so we can imagine his predicament. Besides, the whole point of his immobility was, in Simeon's mind, not only stability but also verticality. He was choosing Heaven, denying to himself wandering, distraction, the horizontal. He built himself successive pillars (styloi in Greek)--a six-metre one, an eleven-metre one, and finally a stylos twenty metres high.
By the end of his life, Simeon was embodying his ideal of purity of heart with the unlettered shepherd's naïveté that never left him: he had reduced his distance from God in the most concrete manner he could imagine; he was like a flame burning atop a candle. He had "dug deeper" and ended up high, in this extraordinary place. Having left human society behind, he had made himself available to it unceasingly.
Simeon the Stylite had hundreds of followers--a fact we tend to forget, one such life seeming to us to be perhaps more than enough. Stylitism was popular from the fifth century to the seventh, and again in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It could be a matter of great pride to live in a town with a stylite. Sometimes a city had several, or a pillar that was inhabited by hermit after hermit. The stylite might live in a small house built on the pillar's top, or create for himself a hollow roofless space like a great nest supported by the column. Most had disciples living nearby, recluses who saw to the stylite's needs and controlled the constant flow of pilgrims. Just as St. Francis of Assisi was the first but certainly not the last to achieve the stigmata, Simeon began a well-known, if always remarkable, ascetic practice in the Christian east.
Margaret Visser is a contributing editor of Compass and the author of The Way We Were, among other books.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld