I blogged on this site once about the original and most famous stylite, St Simeon the Stylite as well as one of his successors, St Daniel the Stylite. Stylites are people who are the living embodiment of ancient desert monasticism, poised between earth and heaven, continually interceding for those below. They were most popular in the fifth century and have pretty much died out. But here we see that there is one in Georgia! What impresses me is that the monastery at the bottom of the pillar serves as an outreach to troubled young men. This is what true asceticism is about — the quest for holiness and God reaching ever upwards and then, as a natural result, turn outwards to bring Grace to the world.
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.
I recently read the Life of Daniel the Stylite here. St. Daniel lived from 409-493 in the Eastern Roman Empire. I recommend his Life. It’s long, but the author gives a nice recap at the end:
Our all-praiseworthy father Daniel bade adieu to his parents when he was twelve years old, then for twenty-five years he lived in a monastery; after that during five years he visited the fathers and from each learned what might serve his purpose, making his anthology from their teaching. At the time when the crown of his endurance began to be woven the Saint had completed his forty-second year, and at that age he came by divine guidance, as we have explained above, to this our imperial city. He dwelt in the church for nine years, standing on the capital of a column, thus training himself beforehand in the practice of that discipline which he was destined to bring to perfection. For he had learned from many divine revelations that his duty was to enter upon the way of life practised by the blessed and sainted Simeon.
For three and thirty years and three months he stood for varying periods on the three columns, as he changed from one to another, so that the whole span of his life was a little more than eighty-four years.
During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’;( 1 Philipp. 3:14.)1 he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all, yet he possessed nothing on earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built. And though many, amongst whom were sovereigns and very distinguished officials occupying the highest posts, wished to present him with splendid possessions he never consented, but he listened to each one’s offer and then prayed that he might be recompensed by God for his pious intention.
One of the things from this life that interested me was his battle with demons in a little church. This demon-battling role is something that we find frequently in the monks and anchorites of the fourth and fifth centuries. The holy man does battle with the spiritual forces of evil on our behalf. St. Daniel cast out demons from people as well as places. He also healed the sick.
Holiness for the ancients wasn’t simply good, moral living. That’s called virtue. Holiness is that something more, that way of life that goes to the next level.
Martyrs, for example, bear witness to Christ through their deaths. The ascetic, once Roman persecution ceases, takes his place, bearing witness to Christ through his suffering. The martyrs are glorified by the wounds from their deaths — Tertullian imagines that they will still have them even at the Resurrection. Daniel was glorified through the wounds on his feet caused by standing on a pillar all the time.
The Stylite — a type of asceticism founded by Simeon — is a living symbol of what all monks are. He stands on his pillar between Earth and Heaven, interceding for the people below. He is an intermediary, and the pillar clearly shows us this aspect of the monastic role in society.
Daniel is also notable because, being a Stylite and being so close to Constantinople (1 mile North along the Bosporos), he was easily accessible to the emperors and aristocrats. The pious Emperor Leo of blessed memory (as the Life calls him) liked listening to Daniel so much that he had a palace built nearby. The Monophysite usurper Basiliscus sent an envoy to essentially get Daniel’s blessing. A very different world than our friend St. Antony of Egypt!
And so we see Daniel the Stylite. Living on a pillar isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it seems to have worked for him. One last thought from his biographer to close:
While we bear in mind our holy father’s spiritual counsels let us do our utmost to follow in his steps and to preserve the garment of our body unspotted and to keep the lamp of faith unquenched, carrying the oil of sympathy in our vessels that we may find mercy and grace in the day of judgment from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost now and henceforth and to all eternity, Amen.