It seems fantastically unlikely that the monastic career of Simeon Stylites should have spawned a host of imitators – involving, as it did, living for 37 years on pillars of increasing height. Astonishingly, however, we often have to refer to this Simeon Stylites (born in 389 CE, the son of a Turkish shepherd) as Simeon Stylites The Elder in order to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger (born at Antioch in 521 CE) and Simeon Stylites III (probably 5th Century).
His last name, more nickname than surname, comes from the Greek word for pillar. Simon the Pillar-Guy, basically.
Self-denial and asceticism were, for Simeon, full-contact sports and he played to win. He lay on the ground outside a monastery for five days and nights in order to be admitted and was asked to leave after only a short time because his devotions were making the other monks uncomfortable. Being the most extreme ascetic in a fifth-Century monastry was a bit like being the most disturbing clown at an Insane Clown Posse gig, so that took some doing.
Standing upright for as long as his limbs would allow, not eating through the entire forty days of Lent, and wearing palm-frond underpants so tight they had to be peeled out of the wounds they had made in his flesh, were part of what led to Simeon being voted out of the tribe.
Leaving the monastery, Simeon began his slow ascent to heaven, living at first on an exposed, square stone platform atop a three metre high pillar, before changing into something less comfortable – an exposed, square stone platform atop a twenty metre high pillar. From there he perfected even further the disciplines of standing for long periods, bowing continually, praying and not eating very much. When we wasn’t thus occupied, he took the time to preach, resolve disputes, dispense advice and pray for the crowds of people who gathered underneath his pillar every day, hoping to garner some blessing from the holy man.
The poet, Tennyson, imagines him there,
In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold,
In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,
A sign betwixt the meadow and the cloud,
For all that, I think it is still harder being a saint at ground level.
File under: stylish stylites | probably too much time on his hands
(Image source: outre monde)