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Saint Simeon the Stylite

Saint Simeon the Stylite
  • Century: 5th Century
  • Patronage: fasting, isolation, antisocial disorders
  • Feast Day: January 5th

Perhaps one of the most intense and bizarre stories of sanctity derives from the example of St. Simeon the Stylite.  Born in the late 4th Century to a shepherding family in Syria, the happenstance of hearing the Beatitudes read aloud one day permanently altered this boy’s life at the early age of thirteen.  When he heard them read, he apparently sought counsel from an elder who was a Christian and explained the meaning of happiness to St. Simeon as being achieved through prayer, fasting, weeping, watching, humility, and patient suffering.  He immediately fell to the ground praying where he was moved by a vision to embrace a supernatural life.

He traveled to a local monastery where he was not admitted due to his age.  However, he remained at the gate for several days, begging and praying—not eating or drinking.  This impressed the abbot, who then admitted him.  Over the next four months, St. Simeon memorized the psalter and became well admired among the monks for his extraordinary humility and charity—especially for a boy of thirteen! 

St. Simeon moved from different monasteries over the next years, being dismissed from one due to his habit of extreme mortification.  He ultimately arrived as a hermit at the foot of Mount Telanissae.  It was here that he began his annual practice of total abstinence during the forty days of Lent—no eating or drinking.  A local priest had advised St. Simeon to proceed with caution at the commencement of the practice, offering him bread and water to take to his hermitage in case his health was in danger.  He further warned St. Simeon that he would visit on Easter to check-up.  Upon his arrival on Easter, the priest found the bread and water untouched and discovered St. Simeon on the ground, motionless.  Giving him water and the Eucharist, St. Simeon slowly recovered.  Despite the toll it took on his body, St. Simeon would continue to do this for the next 26 years of his life.  He further added the practice of remaining standing continually; moving to a seated position; ultimately laying on the ground.

After three years in the hermitage at the foot of the mountain, St. Simeon moved to the top of the mountain and denied himself shelter or a roof, but resolved to have only a small and minimal enclosure.  It was here that he fastened his leg to a rock by a chain in order to keep him from leaving the area during trial or torment.  However, the Patriarch of Antioch heard of this and sent word that the hermit would be equipped with God’s grace to remain on the mountain-top if it was God’s Will, and therefore implored him to break the chain.  He did, and there St. Simeon remained.

The reputation of St. Simeon on the mountain-top spread throughout the region and soon people flocked to the hermitage to catch a glimpse of this austere spectacle of a man.  Indeed, over time, many asked for his blessing and many attributed miraculous healings to his benedictions.  It was not long until the peace of his contemplation and penance were interrupted by continuous visitors.  Thus in 423, St. Simeon resolved to retreat to a new hermitage—a pillar.  Initially he had a pillar erected six cubits high (one cubit is about 20 inches, and thus six cubits is 10 feet).  Upon this perch he remained day and night, year around for four years.  As the number of spectators grew, so did the distractions, but so also did his capacity to endure, and over time higher and higher pillars were erected.  The second pillar of 12 cubits (20 feet) he spent three years atop; a third pillar of 20 cubits (33 feet) he spent ten years atop; and on a fourth pillar of 40 cubits (67 feet) he spent the last twenty years of his life. 

Thirty-seven years this man lived on the top of pillars—which in Greek is ‘stylos;’ hence, his name connected to the phrase “the Stylite.”  The platforms atop the pillars upon which St. Simeon the Stylite lived were circular and did not exceed six feet in diameter.  It is said that he never permitted himself to sit.  He lay, knelt or leaned.  He wore leather clothes and had an enclosure at the base of the pillar into which he allowed no women to enter.  He spent most of his time in prayer, most especially for the soul of his own mother.

This man’s example was not initially welcome by many superiors in the local episcopate—many thought the endeavor was at first a popularity stunt or self-serving.  However, over the course of time it became evident to even some of the most holy and learned men that this extraordinary person could not accomplish this task but for the Grace of God.  In time more and more people visited St. Simeon not for the spectacle, but to shout up questions, petitions and seek counsel.  Emperors that lived in his lifetime (Theodosius, Leo I, and Marcian) all personally sought his counsel from below the pillar.  He offered discourses and prayers that lead to the conversion of countless visitors.  By the time he died in 459 at the age of 69, this man was widely respected not only in the Christian community and in political circles, but was even venerated among pagans and infidels.

Practical Take-Away: Intensity

It is an understatement to say St. Simeon the Stylite was intense.  Often intensity produces admiration, precisely as it did in St. Simeon’s case.  However, the Christian must be prepared to cope with that admiration.  Intensity is a right, holy characteristic; but only so long as it does not become a source or pride to have people admiring you.  Indeed, this seems to be what St. Simeon’s superiors initially thought he was doing with his public austerities—being proud and self-serving.  But, ultimately, it was discovered through St. Simeon’s humble diligence and fidelity to not succumb to the temptation of using his newfound popularity to become a demagogue or personality.  Intensity, even intensity of this degree, is precisely in order, if and only if, it is God’s Will being done and not our own wills being calculatedly served.  As Butler aptly writes, “God is sometimes pleased to conduct certain souls through extraordinary paths, in which others would find only danger of illusion and self-will…the holiness of the person does not consist in such wonderful actions or in their miracles, but in the perfection of their charity, patience and humility; and it was these solid virtues which shone so conspicuously in the life of St. Simeon” (i, 37).