Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Closer God to Thee

Much of the behaviour that in more believing eras passed for devout religiosity seems distinctly pathological to the modern eye - but perhaps this is to impose one system of thought too heavily on another. In any case the disparity between any modern view of our next protagonist and those of his contemporaries, for whom he was an object of mass-veneration, is quite simply unbridgeable. Despite his obvious compulsive neurosis, his delusions and megalomania, one can never imagine psycho-analysing Simeon, the famous Stylite - or any of his imitators for that matter.

The late-Classical writer Lucian (c.117-180 AD) is best known for his satires and parodies of contemporary life. Among his surviving works there is an illuminating essay on phallus-worship in his native province of Syria. In this he describes the ancient temple at Hieropolis, the great seat of the worship of Astarte (Venus). This cult-centre was the largest and most holy in Syria and attracted pilgrims from the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. According to Lucian it held all manner of wonders, including several oracles and, intriguingly, statues of gods that moved and spoke. Judging by Lucian's entertaining account the temple was very popular and busy - 'Nowhere else, among any people, are celebrated so many feasts and solemnities'. It was also extremely wealthy, as a result of the tributes that it received. The entrance to this sacred complex was dominated by two enormous towers, dedicated to Dionysis, in the unmistakable form of phalli. These monuments, which were around 170 feet high, were so gigantic that they accommodated a priest, who lived in the top of one of them operating as a sort of oracle. Living in the top of this tower, in proximity to the Gods, he was able to converse with them, and pass on these communications to visiting pilgrims.

In many ways Lucian was a very modern writer. He had a droll, sceptical view of the world, and his description of the wonders of Hieropolis was almost certainly based on personal observation. Sadly, nothing now remains of its unusual phallic edifices, they, together with the rest of the temple, were destroyed by zealous Christian monks in the 3rd century. But years later, in the same locality, the notion of communicating with the Divine from the top of an elevated structure somehow resurfaced in the tortured mind of a poverty-stricken Syrian goatherd - who, as a result, went on to become one of the most notable and influential of all the early Christian ascetics

Simeon Stylites was born around 390 AD in the Antioch region. His parents were extremely poor and although they were Christians he received no formal religious instruction; he was, though, clearly marked out for the religious life. From an early age he was prone to visions, and spent a great deal of time with the local hermit monks, of the kind that abounded in Syria at this time. He ran away from home at the age of fourteen and joined a monastery, and it was here that his ascetic nature (or tendency to self-dramatising masochism) first became evident. It seems that even at this early age Simeon was overburdened with a sense of guilt. He felt that he was drowning in an 'ocean of sin', and the monastic regime, severe though it was, did not satisfy his notions of austerity. He constantly went against the rules of the place and engaged in a series of self-torturing penances of his own devising. He tied a rope around his body so tightly that it cut into his flesh and caused it to putrefy; he habitually attached heavy rocks around his neck during prayer; and for a while he inhabited a nearby well that was infested with snakes, scorpions and demons. Eventually he was asked to leave the monastery.

Having found the rules of the collective coenobitic life too restrictive, Simeon determined to become an isolated anchorite and made his way north to the small village of Telanissos, some thirty miles east of Antioch. He climbed to a nearby summit and, within a great circle of stones, he made a covenant with God to stand and pray continuously. In this wild, barren place, completely exposed to the elements, unprotected from the winters freezing cold and the summer's burning heat, Simeon was to spend the rest of his life

For the first three years at Telanissos Simeon filled the role of a local holy man; many Syrian villages had one such at that time. He practiced as a 'stationary saint'. Stasis was a conventional form of mortification involving 'standing before God', i.e. standing upright by night and day, a remarkable, if pointless, feat of mortification. However at some stage Simeon was commanded by an angel to mount a large stone, and to continue his devotions from there. This command indicated the direction of his true vocation, and inspired him to adopt an entirely novel expression of penance. The saint fastened himself to this boulder by means of a heavy iron chain and, between the periods that were dedicated to prayer and meditation, he began to build a mound from the stones scattered around. This pile gradually grew into a pillar, from the top of which he continued his prodigies of self-denial.

Simeon never left his pillar, and only broke off his devotions to hold mass twice a week for visiting pilgrims. By the time he was thirty, as a result of the severity of his austerities, the miracles that he occasionally performed, and of course his ever-growing pillar, he had become widely known. In fact he was something of an ascetic celebrity, and the summit above Telanissos gradually became the focus of a fairly substantial pilgrimage movement. Year by year as he continued with his visible life of prayer and penance, and as his pillar grew ever taller he became more and more famous. In time his column had grown to well over sixty feet high, and pilgrims were flocking from very far afield indeed to see, and hear, him - for he was now preaching regularly.

Simeon's biographer, the Bishop Theodoret, has left a graphic account of the scene at Telanissos around the year 440 AD, where the roads in every direction were packed with pilgrims and suppliants. He describes the clearing around the pillar as a 'human sea into which the roads debouched like rivers'. 'As his fame circulated everyone hastened to him, not only the people of the locality, but those who had travelled many weeks journey .... Ishmaelites, Persians, Armenians and even inhabitants of the extreme west, Spaniards, Britons and Gauls - from virtually every part of the known world, in fact. He adds that it was 'superfluous to speak of Italy'. During his lifetime Simeon and his pillar became so well known in Rome that his portrait was on display everywhere. In today's terms he had achieved international iconic status.

The scene that greeted the pilgrims at Telanissos was extraordinary indeed. Simeon was usually standing at the top of his pillar with outstretched arms, in the form of the crucified Christ, occasionally breaking off to perform an interminable series of prostrations, bending his head almost to his feet; one observer gave up counting after the saint had performed twelve hundred and forty-four flexions. The smell at the scene was another regularly reported feature. Simeon and his column gave off a quite appalling stench. He stood in his own ordure and wilfully neglected the sores and ulcers that covered his body. For his followers this utter disdain for personal hygiene was, of course, proof positive of Simeon's sanctity. The platform at the top of his pillar was too small to lie with any comfort, but a chain, fastened to an iron fetter around his leg, prevented him from accidentally rolling off. He was fed by devotees who placed his meagre rations into a lowered basket.

Simeon had, by now, attracted a small community of disciples who mediated between him and the visiting hordes. Their role had indeed become essential to deal with the sizeable pilgrim industry that had grown up around the saint. Although many of the pilgrims simply wanted to witness this spiritual athlete in action, as it were, he was constantly petitioned by others who sought his aid in a whole range of problems. There were individuals suffering from every kind of physical and mental distress; there were delegations from villages that were afflicted by drought or plague, or marauding bandits; and there were victims of injustice who came to the saint as a last desperate resort. Such was his reputation that in many matters of this kind Simeon's judgement itself was frequently decisive. For other problems, such as paralysis, plague, earthquake etc., he generally advised the suppliants to take home some of the dust from around the pillar, mix with water, and sprinkle over the affected parts.

His intermediates must have been kept very busy - not least with the task of keeping female pilgrims at a distance, since this was one group that Simeon did not encourage at all. He would not speak to any women, or allow them to approach anywhere near his pillar. According to his biographer he applied this rule even to his mother who, after twenty years of separation, desperately wanted to see her saintly son before she died. It has to be said, however, that this particular theme, the breaking of the mother’s heart, was a fairly standard inclusion (as a defining proof of sanctity) in ascetic biography. Many women tried to get into the saints presence by disguising themselves as men, but Simeon, naturally, was always aware of this kind of intrusion, and thundered his disapproval.

The stories of Simeon's sanctity multiplied. If we are to believe his biographers, of whom there were several, he made the lame walk, cleansed lepers and cured the paralysed. At the same time his own sufferings were severe and innumerable. His vertebrae became dislocated but, if we believe the stories, he did not allow this minor indisposition to interrupt his genuflexions. At one stage his leg became so seriously infected, no doubt from the iron fetter around it, that maggots dropped from the wound and the smell became so intolerable that even his closest devotees could not bear to approach the pillar. At this stage he nearly died, but the wound miraculously healed. The maggots that fell to the ground were of course collected, and became holy relics in their own right.

In his later years, Simeon, despite his illiteracy and peasant manners, was deeply admired by contemporary theological writers, indeed his prestige became so high that he was frequently asked to intervene in their disputes. His advice was even sought by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius on some of the more critical issues of the day; these included the important rulings of the Church councils of Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon, 451. Apparently his virtue was also recognised in the far-off royal courts of Arabia and Persia, although not apparently by the monks of the Egyptian desert, with whom the Syrian brothers were in deadly rivalry. In fact, the former tried, unsuccessfully, to excommunicate Simeon.

Simeon finally died on his pillar in 459, at about the age of seventy. By this time his fame far exceeded that of the Byzantine Emperor himself. There was the usual tussle over the saintly remains (particularly bitter in view of their value as relics), and there is some evidence of local resistance to their removal. But Simeon's body was seized and solemnly transported to Antioch, escorted by the Patriarch, the provincial Governor, a bevy of aristocrats and six thousand troops of the Byzantine army. His relics were much coveted by Constantinople, but they became the great pride and sacred protection of Antioch (although they failed to prevent the city's sack and utter destruction by the Persian Emperor Chosroes some seventy years later).

Shortly after Simeon's death work began on a massive commemorative shrine centred on his pillar. The entire area that had been the setting of his long spiritual drama was levelled and greatly extended by artificial terracing to accommodate a monumental basilica that was for a while the largest church in the world, and became a pilgrimage centre on a quite colossal scale. St. Simeon's church was essentially a gigantic reliquary in the shape of a cross, with the pillar itself in the centre. It was accompanied by three major monasteries and extensive hostelries for the great numbers of visiting pilgrims. The basilica complex was connected to Telanissos in the valley below by a great processional way. Telanissos itself, as a result of the pilgrim trade, had grown from a small village into a fair sized town with its own extensive bazaar. Sadly this great church and the town were virtually destroyed by earthquakes in the 6th century.

Simeon left another, rather more enduring, legacy. His novel style of asceticism inspired a whole host of imitators, who were to inhabit pillars all over Europe, East and West, for hundreds of years to come (the last serious stylite was recorded in the Ardenne in the 16th century). Among the more famous pillar saints were his namesake, Simeon the younger, and Daniel the Stylite (who had visited and been blessed by Simeon). The younger Simeon set up his pillar on the outskirts of Antioch (which became a fashionable drive from the centre). Daniel's, likewise, was conveniently close to Constantinople. One gets the impression that this second generation of stylites were somewhat more domesticated than the uncouth Simeon. Daniel had started out with a relatively modest pillar, but had caught the attention of the Emperor Leo, who ordered a superb, purpose-built, double column with an inter-connecting bridge for him. Daniel remained aloft for over thirty-three years (breaking Simeon's record by just three months). His only recorded descent in all that time was made to persuade the Emperor Basilicus to renounce his heretical (Monophysite) views - a demand with which that devout ruler dutifully complied, publicly, in the great cathedral of St. Sophia.

In the centuries to come the example of these early stylites was followed in a big way. There were to be literally hundreds of column-dwellers throughout the Middle East, and as far afield as Greece and Egypt. The phenomenon peaked in the seventh and eighth centuries, but was still fairly common up to the thirteenth century. The mode established by Simeon was closely adhered to; most were exposed to the elements, adopted a standing position, and deprived themselves of decent food and sleep. Most of them also gradually increased the height of their columns, or moved to a new, higher one (this usually had to be effected without touching the ground, using a system of scaffolding, and was often an occasion of great ceremony). It was common for individual stylites (again after Simeon's example) to attract a small community around the foot of their column. And it was not unheard of for rival groups of the faithful to fight over, or even steal, these masochistic heroes.