A timeless truth about preaching from Jacob of Sarug

When the preacher speaks of matters that concern perfection, it leaves him cold; when he tells stories of those who have stood out for their zeal for righteousness, his mind begins to wander. If a sermon starts off on the subject of continence, his head begins to nod; if it goes on to speak of sanctity, he falls asleep. But if the preacher speaks about the forgiveness of sins, then your humble Christian wakes up. This is talk about his own condition; he knows it from the tone. His heart rejoices; he opens his mouth; he waves his hands; he heaps praise on the sermon: for this is on a theme that concerns him.

-Jacob of Sarug, late 500s, quoted by Peter Brown, ‘The Decline of the Empire of God’, in Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, p. 41.

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Missiology and Christian History

Caesarius giving his ‘Rule’ to two nuns (MS c. 990, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Lit.142, fol. 65)

I am spending all of tomorrow at a day-conference about Caesarius of Arles (470-542; bp of Arles 502-542). The opening lecture by William Klingshirn of CUA, tonight (Friday), discussed scholarship on Caesarius, past, present, and future, 1970-2042. One of the interesting points he brought up, and this is something he also discussed in his 1994 book Caesarius of Arles: The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul, was the re-interpretation of Caesarius as an evangelist (I’ve only read the introduction, though, so don’t blame him for what follows).

The traditional image of Caesarius of Arles is that he was a great evangelist of Provence and helped drive out the paganism and superstitions that were present in the more rural areas, establishing Christian orthodoxy as we know it.

There is probably truth to that.

But Caesarius as ecclesiastical reformer does not necessarily mean Caesarius vs. paganism and superstition. This is the same sort of image we have of the Reformers everywhere they went, burning statues and smashing stained glass. The truth of these encounters is more nuanced than that, and this is where more recent scholarship is heading.

What Caesarius represents is the ascetic-monastic vision of the Christian life from Lérins, strongly influenced by Augustine and Cassian. What Caesarius represents is the official hierarchy, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy of the organised Christianity of the monasteries, the cities, Rome. What he counters could very well be ‘baptised’ pagan practices. It could also, and here I conjecture based on other examples brought up by Peter Brown in The Cult of the Saints and Authority and the Sacred, be different visions of Christianity, different ways of celebrating that arise in the local context from their encounter with the gospel.

Some things that people like Caesarius and Augustine are fighting against are laudably combatted, such as turning feast days into opportunities for gluttony and drunkenness; some of their positive actions are also helpful such as seeking to install biblical morality in a local population. Other things, such as sacred springs, sacred oaks (such as the one St Boniface [saint of the week here] famously cut down), and so forth, which are favourites of men like Caesarius and Boniface, are probably remnants of paganism, indeed.

The difficulty that happened in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages when Christianity left the cities and went into the countryside of Gaul or the wilderness of Armenia or northern Europe was figuring out where superstition ends and local culture begins. Does the city need to worship like a monastery on Lérins? If people don’t make it to Matins, is it because they are half-pagan still?

This is the problem facing Christian mission at all times. And our standard response, particular moments of inculturation notwithstanding, is to impose the entire Christian system of our own cities, monasteries, cultures, lives upon those of others, be they central such as the truths of the creeds or adiaphora such as particular feast days or certain modes of worship.

What the church must do in all cultural situations is negotiate these boundaries, and seek to present Christ to new peoples and help create worshipping communities that worship in spirit and in truth as part of the trans-temporal, trans-cultural communion of all saints. And as we do so, we need to be open to the gifts and strengths of the new and the old believers in the cities and cultures where we work, rather than always assuming a paternal position that we have authority and are right — on which, see this post at George in Exile.

Untaming God: How the Fathers can help save modern Protestants from small theology

A friend recently posted on Facebook the famous passage from C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I would argue that today’s Protestant, especially the evangelical variety (speaking from within that tradition) has a tendency to tame, to reduce God and the Christian world. God is made smaller and domesticated, taken from His place as the Holy One (and therefore Wholly Other) to my best friend or my genie or the Dude Who gets me into Heaven or whatev.

I realise that’s a crude caricature, and it certainly isn’t true of all evangelical Christians. But I do think we have a minimalising tendency that can be harmful at some levels. For example, the endless war with Rome over justification by faith alone through grace alone or the inner-Prot fights over predestination can obscure the fullness of the Christian life and the bigness of our untame God.

For example, I was recently involved in a discussion about early monasticism, and people were displeased with the attempts by the Desert Fathers and other ascetics to live in the Adamic state not only in terms of walking with God in the cool of the evening but also in terms of diet and relationship with the natural world (using some ideas from Peter Brown, Body and Society, which I’ve never read). Where, wondered the Scottish Presbyterian deacon (not anyone from my church, don’t worry), is Christ in this? Didn’t he take our sin away? Are they not aware that the price has been paid?

I proceeded to explain that the discussion of this-life holiness is not necessarily the same as next-life reward. Christ has paid the price, yes, but these men were concerned how we live as a result. And if Christ has removed sin, we can once again life in the state of Adam, trusting in God’s grace.

The tendency revealed here is the fear that whenever Christians start discussing how we should live in practical details, we will forget justification by faith for some reason. Theology and the Christian life has been reduced to a paltry caricature of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Cheap grace, rightly derided by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, is a short step away.

Another manifestation is the quest for bare minimum Christianity. By this I mean what is the least I need do for salvation? What is the least I need do for the Eucharist or Baptism to ‘count’? What is the simplest version of the Scriptures? While this can help strip away things like, say, papal indulgences and such, it can also lead to non-sacramental visions of Christianity, such as contemporary Salvation Army practices.

The Fathers can help. They’ve certainly helped me. While I’m not yet an expert on the entire patristic period of Christianity, I’ve read a lot of them and a lot about them, from the Apostolic Fathers to St John of Damascus (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), with focuses (foci?) on the early ascetics from St Antony to St Benedict and on the fifth century.

These readings have helped regrow my vision of Almighty God and the Christian life (alongside dabbling in mediaeval mystics, of course). The high-flying world of Trinitarian thought in the Cappadocians and its modern explication by Christopher A Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers and by John Zizioulas in Being As Communion has helped me stand in awe before a God Who is so much bigger than ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ Christianity. Such theology can bring you to your knees and truly worship in Spirit and in truth — I would argue better than any Anglo-Catholic incense or low-church contemporary music ever can.

And for those who are rightly concerned about the intellectualising tendency that oft comes with high Trinitarian theology, the fifth-century has helped me enter into the messy bits, too. It all sounds so academic to say that Christ is one person with two natures, fully God and fully human, the God-man. But when you start seeing how this plays out in the sermons of Leo the Great (saint of the week here), you see that this means that God entered into the muck of our sordid lives, into a world of pain and sorrow, taking on the form of a slave, associating with the poorest of the poor. The ethical consequences of the two-natured Christ? Give to the poor and love abundantly; never despise those who share the same nature as the God you worship.

This is not minimalist theology but maximalist theology that takes hold of us and makes us ready to receive the God of Life Himself and be transformed as a result.

The ascetic fathers also help transform us. They remind us that we are called to pray continually, without ceasing. Evagrius Ponticus declares to us that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian; he also gives us some practical advice about how to fight temptation. We are given thoughts on our own thoughts and how to control them, how to assess our dreams, how to live day by day. We are shown a radical call to forsake this world and live for the next. We are called to help the poor. We are called to live humbly with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are called to radical obedience to the commands of our Lord Christ.

I’ve spoken before about why evangelicals do read the Fathers (here and here and here). This, I believe, is why they should — to rediscover the untame God, wild, powerful, unstoppable, majestic, glorious, awesome.

The Desert Fathers and the wider church

Alternate Title: The Desert Fathers Never Left the Church, and Here’s Why

Alternate Title 2: The Historical Impossibility of the Desert Fathers Leaving the Church

Some days I am unhealthily obsessed with my stats. Today I observed that a search term that has brought people to this blog is, ‘why the desert fathers left the church.’ This is a tantalising query, and I can see why one may ask it.

For example, the Desert Fathers do leave behind the settled life of the city, moving to remote regions of Egypt or the Judean desert or the wild areas of Syria. In doing so, they are separated from the life of the rest of the Church in the city. This looks a lot like leaving the church.

Or we see the Desert Fathers, as the Holy Men described by Peter Brown in ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’* with some tempering of the thesis in Authority and the Sacred, taking some level of inherent spiritual authority formerly vested in the local bishop.

We see Desert Fathers/Holy Men such as Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) or the more famous Simeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) challenging the local authorities, be they bishops or secular rulers.

When people such as the many ascetics discussed by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in his Historia Religiosa (trans. for Cistercian as The History of the Monks of Syria) retreated into the wilderness, they were in many ways cut off from the regular religious life of the Christian community — the Eucharist, the acts of charity, the preaching, and so forth.

However, we must acknowledge that these noble men and women of the early history of Christian asceticism were not schismatics. The Desert Fathers of Egypt hid St Athanasius when he was on the run. Shenoute of Atripe was present at the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Monks went to Alexandria under Theophilus to help destroy pagan temples. Jacob of Nisibis was recruited from his naked life in the wilds of Syria to become a local bishop. Savvas went on embassies to Constantinople to persuade the emperor to fight against heresy and protect his monks from roaming bandits. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza encouraged local clergy in their pastoral task.

On the other hand, it is perhaps important to see the Desert Fathers as a sort of protest movement within the church. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea spends some time discussing the luxury and corruption of the late third-century church. While it is likely that this is possibly part of theodicy — why did God allow the last persecution — there may be the ring of truth to it. Furthermore, after the Triumph of the Church under Constantine, I have no doubt that in many ways the urban church began to become a bit more worldly.

The Desert Fathers, in their retreat from the ordinary ways of being a Christian, but by maintaining communion and contact with the official hierarchy and the urban Christian communities, were a way of protesting a perceived wordliness, if not compromise, in the church. They were a way of becoming living examples of holiness, cut off from the burdens of urban society and its networks of relationships. As men and women devoted to nothing but prayer, they could remind their local bishops with silver and gilt vessels that what matters most is a heart devoted to God.

And so, I believe, they did. The western luminaries Ambrose of Milan (saint of the week here) and Augustine of Hippo were certainly influenced by the Desert tradition. Ambrose melted down the Milanese silver plate to help ransom poor, enslaved Christians. Augustine turned to the ascetic life himself because of the example of St Antony (saint of the week here).

So, no the Desert Fathers did not leave the Church. But they stood at a distance from its official structures, providing a prophetic critique of the day and shining as examples of what they believed true Christianity was. This is the cause of their retreat, anachoresis, into the desert.

For more on the Desert Fathers, see my page here.

*In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity and The Journal of Roman Studies …..

Joseph Campbell and Hagiography

This post is hypothesising more than anything. Please keep that in mind, in case you place great stock in Late Antique/Early Mediaeval hagiography.

In Authority and the Sacred, Peter Brown writes:

In large areas of eastern Christianity (and, if in a more diffident and spasmodic manner, also in the West) the holy man was thought to have brought back to the settle world, from his long sojourn in the wilderness, a touch of the haunting completeness of Adam. (p. 76, referencing B. Flusin, Miracle et histoire dans l’oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991), pp. 34-5.)

A good example of this narrative is the life of Jacob of Nisibis, recounted by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ in his Historia Religiosa (translated for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria). Jacob was what is termed a boskos, a grazer. He lived in the wilds of Syria with no shelter and no food. He literally lived off the land, eating wild plants to sustain himself. This was his ascetic labour.

Somehow, word of Jacob’s holiness got around, and he was elected bishop of Nisibis. Reluctantly, he answered the call of the people of Nisibis and strode naked into the local church, and was duly consecrated. This anti-social character lived out the rest of his life as bishop of that city, serving the spiritual needs of his flock.

Similarly, St Hilarion (saint of the week here) spent a very long time in self-imposed exile before his monastic complex sprung up around him in Palestine. Barsanuphius of Gaza never left his retreat, bricked up in a cell in his monastery, but dispensed wisdom to many through his letters. St Symeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) spent time living as a traditional anchorite before climbing his pillar and drawing crowds; so did his imitator, St Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) in Constantinople.

Examples no doubt abound. The basic cycle of the story is that the holy man or woman withdraws from human society — into the wilderness, into a tomb, up a mountain, into a cave, on a pilgrimage — and there acquires holiness and access to God and the wisdom of God. This access to God (parrhesia) and power (dunamis) is acquired through ascetic struggle, through wrestling with demons, constant prayer, fasting, or wearing iron undergarments.

Then, whether he or she likes it or not, a return to society is made. Sometimes, society comes to the saint, as with Symeon the Stylite. Sometimes the saint goes to society, as with Jacob of Nisibis. Having returned to society, the saint dispenses the wisdom, holiness, and spiritual power upon the people. The saint intercedes on their behalf, with God and with local or imperial men of power.

This is the basic story.

It sounds a lot like this:

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

This is an image representing the most popular aspect and core thesis of Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology and psychological interpretation thereof, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, the vast majority of hero mythologies take this journey from the known to the unknown and back again. This is part of the archetypal universe that inhabits the subconscious of the human psyche.

I find it interesting that Late Antique and Byzantine hagiography fit this pattern. Many would probably subscribe to a statement such as, ‘Hagiography is a skillful blending of history and mythology.’ By that, however, they would usually mean that true facts about these persons are mingled with tall tales and fables. They would not mean, ‘Hagiography is mythological in that it traces the same patterns as the foundational myths of most civilisations.’

This can mean a few things. One thing this observation can mean is that the appeal of hagiography throughout the Byzantine centuries is precisely rooted in its drawing up the same archetypal motifs as all mythology. We all like mythology — Homer, Hesiod, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the adventures of Sigurd (Siegfried). It speaks to something in the core of our being. It resonates with us.

Myths are not just stories that are untrue and that explain some religious aspect of the universe. They are often this. But they are more than this. To quote my friend Emily, something that is mythical is bigger than true. Whether such a definition helped her ESL students, who can say? But that does get at the heart of why we find the voyage of Orpheus to the Underworld or Galahad’s Quest for the Grail so compelling. They speak to our hearts and communicate realities that mere history and philosophy (and their awkward companion allegory) cannot touch.

Thus hagiography’s appeal.

Another realm for play in this discussion ties into the thoughtworld of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. For these Oxford dons, Christianity was the myth that came true. It was not simply the history of God with humanity. It was not simply theology. Nor was it myth in the sense of an untrue story that communicates deep truths about the world. It was a myth that actually happened.

This is to say that the mythical impulses of the Christian story — the eucatastrophy of the Easter cycle (a concept discussed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ — see the volume Tree and Leaf), the miracles, the events surrounding the lives of the apostles — are, in fact, historically true, just as Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC is historically true. But they are still mythologically charged and speak to the mythical impulse in ourselves. It is as though the myths of the world that resemble the Incarnation are, in fact, backwards echoes of the power and incomprehensibility of God becoming man. Or that they are implantations within the human heart of the greatest story of all, a historically true story to be recognised when met.

What if, then, the mythological impulses of hagiography are real? This would presuppose the staying power of God’s presence in the world after Christ’s ascension. This would also mean that myths can be acted out in real life. Indeed, could not the appeal of Campbell’s cycle tug on the heartstrings of real men and women? Could they not live out the myth for real? It strikes me as plausible.

Perhaps we should all live out the myth. Hagiography was written to remind us that we, too, should be holy. Let us leave the familiar and combat the forces of darkness that we may return to the world of the known, bestowing the gifts of the divine upon our fellow humans.

Brief Thoughts on the Green Man

Green Man, Rosslyn Chapel

If you look for the Green Man on the internet (as with popular books), most people you will find who discuss this allegedly mythological figure will tie connections between High and Late Mediaeval grotesques and some Imperial Roman art, which is fair enough, and then often run off telling you about vaguely similar things in other cultures and then trying to convince you that Bacchus is Okeanos is the Green Man. It’s all a bit breathless and doesn’t really work.

One can reasonably demonstrate that the visual motif in Roman art is about the same thing we’re getting on mediaeval cathedrals. No dispute there. The links with Bacchus and Okeanos, however, are tenuous at best.

However, to say that a motif from pagan art is because the sculptors themselves were still pagans is a bit silly. All sorts of magnificent, wonderful, bizarre things are going on in mediaeval churches. These are the things that lurk about in the edges of the consciousness of the human mind. Things go bump in the night. Man is a creature of Earth, even if he can look to the heavens. We are physically of the same stuff as everything else. And so things make their way onto church walls and pillars and roofs, not only Green Men but other, stranger figures.

We like to parse the world of wonder and mystery in our Enlightenment world. And so there is nature and, perhaps, super-nature. But living with the inheritance of the thought-purges of the Renaissance and Reformation, super-nature is God and his angels, and — depending your mood — the devil and his minions. Full stop.

That mediaeval people may have believed in other facets of the numinous world makes them no less Christian than we. It means that their universe was larger in many ways. Indeed, it is not the Green Men who make you pause and question the level of Christian commitment held by the mediaeval world so much as the Platonic worldview so many held!

However, for me, the idea of a visual motif from the pagan world surviving into the Middle Ages cannot mean that these people were half-Christianised pagans (although some/many of them likely were). This is partly because Peter Brown has aptly and amply demonstrated that the Cult of the Saints is not a paganised version of Christianity, even when it so strikingly resembles paganism (see The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity).

Green Man, York Minster (not my photo, it was blurry!)

A second reason is the fact that the mythology neo-pagan websites attach to the Green Man is extrapolated entirely from the architecture itself. We know nothing of what a stonemason in 13th-century York was thinking when he carved a Green Man. All we have is a visual motif that bears a resemblance to a Roman pagan visual motif. To tie it in to Druids and pre-Christian Germanic religion and specific ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature — we cannot go this far. The evidence is unable to bring us to these conclusions, because the Classical framework wherein our first properly attested Green Men arise gives us no such help and is so philosophically plural that there is no single Graeco-Roman pagan vision of humanity’s relationship to nature.

Goddess Victory, Ephesus

A third reason why the Green Man does not proclaim to me that these people were still pagans who worshipped whatever it is that pagans worshipped is the fact that we know full well that an angel is an angel, and not the goddess Victoria (Nike) or Cupid. Yet more than enough art shows angels who resemble one or the other. Motifs from pagan art carry over into Christian art to a very large degree; this is the classical inheritance of the mediaeval world. It comes along with allegorical readings of texts, Ptolemaic astronomy, dactylic hexameter, and Ciceronian rhetoric. For a good, readable treatment of the mediaeval and Renaissance use of classical pagan literary and philosophical ideas, read C S Lewis’ The Discarded Image.

Third, Green Men appear in churches. Mediaeval piety as represented by illuminated manuscripts, the rest of church architecture, Books of Hours, Breviaries, the Cult of the Saints, the Cult of the Cross, the Cult of the Virgin, Corpus Christi festivals, mystery and miracle plays, devotional poetry, and eucharistic devotion shows me people who have a strong Classical inheritance, sometimes (even among the ‘elites’) un-Christian and pagan, but always overlaid and refashioned and reinterpreted in light of the Christian message and Christian gospel.

Green Men tell me nothing of survivals of pagan piety into the Middle Ages. And they tell me nothing of ancient pagan beliefs about nature. For that, I will turn to Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius or Plato or Aristotle. They do, however, tell me of the survival of pagan artistic motifs of one form or another through the Middle Ages. And this I already knew.

One final thought: perhaps these modern re-imaginings lie in the false dichotomy forged between popular religion and the elites by David Hume. Peter Brown deals with this is in his opening chapters ofThe Cult of the Saints. Perhaps that is precisely the problem. We see the monks as cut off from these barbarians who, through forced, mass conversions never actually abandoned their old religions. In some ways, that is a story Northern Europe tells. However, this is not the story of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity, the place where our Green Men have their best earliest attestation.

So much for now. I think we should re-think the Green Man as a pagan visual motif surviving in a Christian setting. This may give us a thoroughly different narrative.

Saint of the Week: Simeon the Stylite

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:

Primary Sources

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.

Secondary Sources

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.