Of the various patristic holy men you’ll encounter in readings of hagiography, few grab the imagination quite so much as St. Simeon the Stylite (c. 385-459) — not even his younger contemporary and imitator, St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here).
Years ago, I read the Life of Simeon by his (alleged?) disciple Antony (not that Antony) when I was just getting into Patristics, monasticism, and hagiography. Last week, I read Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Historia Religiosa (trans. by EM Price for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria), and one of the longer of his 30 biographical sketches was that of this famous Syrian ascetic. (I am soon to read the Syriac Life and make it a whole set, don’t worry.)
When Simeon came along, Christian Syrian asceticism already had a long and venerable history stretching to generations before Antony took refuge in the Egyptian desert. Ancient Syrian Christianity always had an ascetic streak, calling people to become “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant”, calling the faithful to live together in celibate marriages, calling believers to go into the Desert in “anachoresis” from the secular world, calling Christians to rise up and become the Perfect on the narrow road to the city of Christ (recall the Liber Graduum from this post).
By Simeon’s day, Syrian Christianity was becoming more and more Greco-Latinised, and asceticism was already looking to fourth-century Egypt for its roots, examples, and golden years. Syrian asceticism delighted in the intense. Sure, Egyptians would go off into tombs for a while and wrestle with demons as Antony did, or found monasteries of thousands of people, as Shenoute did.
Syrian ascetics would live in the wild with nothing to protect them from the elements. Some were called “grazers”, and they lived off the wild plants that grew in the Syrian wilderness. Others would wear iron tunics, only removing them when their bishop came along and enforced obedience. Still others refused to sit or lie down, sleeping in an upright position, suspended from the ceiling with ropes. What, as ER Dodds asked in Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, was the cause of all this madness?
A madness for Christ — a burning zeal to know Him and suffer for Him and suffer for one’s sins and be made holy through askesis and abandon the world and all its allures. As Theodoret says in De Caritate, appended to the end of the Historia Religiosa, it was love for God that drove the monks to perform the feats he records.
Enter, then, Simeon.
He entered the monastic life at a monastery in Teleda. During his time in this monastery, he decided that it would be a good idea to wrap a rope around his waist beneath his tunic. He tied the rope really tight and never washed it or removed it. Eventually, he started to stink, and someone stuck his hand up the tunic and the jig was up.
Simeon ultimately decided that he was more suited to the solitary life, but the abbot would not release him. However, due to some of Simeon’s antisocial ascetic practices, he was eventually free to go. So he moved into a nearby well. Soon, the abbot thought better of it, and the monks brought him back from the well.
He later escaped the monastery in Teleda.
He settled in an enclosure atop a hill near Telanissus. After several years of asceticism in this location, he built himself a pillar (Gr. stylos, hence “Stylite”) and lived atop it and two successively higher ones for the next 36 years.
Holy men and women were not unheard of in the Syrian world, as we saw above, and they had various social functions to play, arbitrating in disputes, praying for rain, cursing infidels, diverting marauding bands of Saracens — that sort of thing. The sort of thing you need someone who is removed from society to do, the sort of thing an outsider can do, the sort of thing someone who is close to the Divine can do.
So people heard that there was this guy living on a pillar. And if you live on a pillar, you must be, mad, holy, or both. And if you’re holy, you can probably arbitrate in disputes, dispense wisdom, intercede for the faithful, etc. So people started flocking to Simeon on his pillar and getting all of the above.
Amongst those who flocked to Simeon were his disciples, who built a whole monastic complex at the base of the pillar (as also happened with Daniel). They helped regulate and organise the various pilgrims and suppliants who came to Simeon’s pillar.
Simeon, when not dealing with the masses below, would pray continually. He would pray, alternately standing up straight and bending over double. This bending over eventually caused him back problems, while the constant standing caused him foot problems.
This, in short, is the long career of Simeon the Stylite up on his pillar. He was a living symbol for the entire monastic movement, a man positioned between earth and heaven, a man ceaseless in prayer, a man who cared naught for this world around him.
More on Ancient Syrian Asceticism:
Theodoret of Cyrrhus, A History of the Monks of Syria. Trans. EM Price, Cistercian Publications.
The Book of Steps: The Syriac Liber Graduum. Trans. R.A. Kitchen, Cistercian Publications.
The Lives of Simeon Stylites. Trans. Robert Doran, Cistercian Publications.
The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Trans. Sebastian Brock.
Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101, reprinted, with additional notes, in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 103-52. Classic introduction to the holy man — however, be aware of its 25th anniversary sequel:
—. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, 1971-1997.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998): 353-376.
Burton-Christie, Douglas. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. This work focusses primarily on Egypt, yet its story of the origins of Christian monasticism is interesting and discusses aspects of the Desert Fathers of Syria.
Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints. The Introduction, pp. 1-27, gives a good introduction to ancient Syrian Christianity and asceticism as found in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Persia.