Saint Simeon Stylites or Symeon the Stylite (c. 390– 2 September, 459) was a Christian ascetic saint who achieved fame for a life of increasingly strict devotions, culminating in 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar in Syria. Though such piety seems utterly unintelligible today, Simeon's renunciation fit into a pattern of worship that was (relatively) common in Syriac and Egyptian Christianity at the time. Likewise, his particular lifestyle spawned numerous imitators, leading to a brief profusion of stylitism in the centuries following his death.
After the cessation of Christian persecution under Constantine (and later Theodosius I), the fact that individuals were no longer being martyred for their faith meant that burgeoning religious community found itself without a distinct class of moral exemplars. Fortunately for the development of the tradition, this lacuna was soon redressed by a new group of devoted Christians who arose from the harsh deserts of Egypt and Syria. They styled themselves as “athletes of Christ” and strove to emulate their founder’s actions in all things. Two notable elements characterized the various adherents of this early movement: first, its adherents saw a strong Biblical precedent for their renunciation; and, second, they (in many cases) viewed themselves as successors to the martyrs.
Concerning the scriptural basis for their activity, it is notable that the Syrian fathers came from a tradition that stressed personal spiritual striving and present-day poverty. For instance, Luke’s gospel—frequently described as Syriac—describes hunger and poverty as essentials to spiritual achievement. Further, their tradition also utilized the Acts of Thomas as a central text: a document that describes “the ascetic life … [as] an essential step on the road to salvation.” For the Egyptian renunciants, the move to the desert was also seen as an essential imitatio Christi: “by following [Christ] into the desert, St. Antony was entering a terrain already targeted and stamped by our Lord as a specific place for spiritual warfare.” They also stressed the Biblical verses in which Jesus championed “prayer, fasting, and chastity.” In answer to the second point, it must be stressed that asceticism was a response to the “no longer attainable ideal” of martyrdom; a statement that is made more persuasive by the fact that “much of the terminology used in connection with ascetics, such as 'contest,' 'athlete,' and so on, was previously applied to martyrs.”
An examination of the writings of these ascetics amply demonstrates two facts: first, these early monks did not see themselves as categorically different from the body of Christians; and, second, they desired to impart their learning/lifestyle to others. Aphrahat, a fourth century Syrian ascetic, dedicates a chapter of his Demonstrations to describing the correct path for monastic life. While he acknowledges the ethical primacy of celibacy—as was common in the Syrian tradition—he openly states that in the case of a monk who still desires the flesh, “it would be better for him in that case to take (to wife) a woman openly and not be made wanton by lust.” As such, he presents an alternative to the traditional lifestyle without completely demonizing those who cannot suppress such urges. In addition, the orthodoxy and conviction of his position are demonstrated by his recurring call to imitate Christ in all things:
All this humility did our Savior show us in Himself. Let us then also humble ourselves, my beloved. When our Lord went outside of His nature, He walked in our nature. Let us abide in our nature, that in the day of judgment He may cause us to partake of His nature.
In this passage, he offers both instruction on the proper manner of imitating Christ and the theological justification of such an imitation. Finally, the fact that Aphrahat does not attempt to distinguish himself is made most apparent in his humble conclusion: “And when thou hast read this epistle, on thy life (I adjure thee), my beloved, arise and pray, and remember my sinfulness in thy prayer.” These three examples demonstrate the manner in which Aphrahat understood his own spiritual quest, his relationship to the divine, and his relationship to other Christians. The letters of Pachomius, a coenobitic Egyptian monk, demonstrate similar concerns. When attempting to instruct his brother monks on the proper lifestyle, he suggests a constant remembrance of Christ as key to their psychic preparations: “Let those who practice askesis labour all the more in their way of life, even abstaining from drinking water…; for he asked for a bit of water while he was on the cross and he was given vinegar mixed with gall.” Finally, concerning the proper mode of moral instruction, he says to his monks: “My son, emulate the lives of the saints and practice their virtues.” In all of these examples, the desert renunciants utilize the traditional understanding of ascetic moral striving as the key to comprehending Christian virtue. This trend towards a learnable and applicable morality, common among the early ascetic Christians, had massive repercussions in lay piety.
During this period, these desert ascetics came to be acknowledged as true purveyors of sanctity, whose example was pure moral instruction. The intensity of the spiritual experience received from these exemplars spawned an explosion of personal pilgrimages to their desert fastnesses. Commenting on his experience visiting Saint Anthony in the Egyptian desert, Athanasius is reported to have said: “when we look at you, it is as if we look upon Christ.” The writings of contemporary pilgrims make this connection apparent. For example, the chronicles of Melania and Paula (two lay pilgrims) make it apparent that “for these two women, to gaze at holy people or holy places was to gaze at the scriptures.” Indeed, visiting these ascetic exemplars provided religious seekers with living windows to their core of their faith: “seeing the face of the desert saints allowed pilgrims to participate in the biblical past and the scriptures in new ways…. [T]he eye of faith allowed pilgrims to the living to interpret bodily appearance … to serve their need for biblical realism.”
It was in this context that Simeon Stylites emerged: a climate of praxis and devotion that made his ascetically iconic lifestyle a spiritual ideal for the masses.
Simeon was born in the year 389 C.E. at Sisan, a northern Syrian village. Though baptized and raised in a Christian household, young Simeon's passion for Christianity only became inflamed after hearing a sermon on the Beatitudes as an early teenager—a discourse that inspired the youth to become "pure in heart" himself. Not long after (when he was around 16 years of age), he abandoned the tending of his father's flocks in order to enter a monastery.
Though the young man's zeal for religious life initially endeared him to his eremetic brethren, it wasn't long before his passionate indulgence in askesis began to raise eyebrows. On one occasion, he commenced a severe regimen of fasting for Lent and was visited by the head of the monastery, who left him some water and loaves. A number of days later, Simeon was discovered unconscious, with the water and loaves untouched. When he was brought back to the monastery, his rescuers were shocked to discover that his entire midsection was encased in a girdle of palm fronds, a home-made device for mortifying his flesh. At this, the monastic authorities requested that Simeon leave the monastery, claiming that his excessive ascetic efforts were incompatible with their own style of spiritual discipline.
Following his ejection from the monastery, Simeon followed a path of ever-increasing self-deprivation, all in hopes of more accurately imitating the sufferings of Christ. First, he shut himself up for three years in a hut, where he passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. Furthering his deprivation, he later took to standing upright continually as long as his limbs would sustain him. For a time, the ascetic also constrained himself physically, chaining his body to a post in the center of his meager dwelling. After completing his three years of voluntary imprisonment, Simeon then sought out a rocky fastness in the desert where he chose to live as a recluse. While this new environment suited his temperament, it soon came to be invaded by crowds of pilgrims seeking to directly experience the increasingly notorious devotions of the desert ascetic:
One of the almost inevitable consequences of a life of extreme penance and mortification such as Simeon's was the publicity it attracted; in time there would be a continuous crowd of pilgrims and sightseers, who had come to have their sick healed, to ask his advice on almost every subject under the sun, to lay their grievances before him, or merely just to touch the holy man, and if possible to get a souvenir of one of the hairs from his shirt, or the suchlike.
While the saint did attend to these pious visitors, he found that it left insufficient time for his own devotions—an issue that eventually prompted him to adopt a new mode of ascetic practice.
After a survey of the surrounding area, Simeon discovered a pillar that had survived amongst some ancient ruins, which provided the saint with the inspiration to create a novel form of personal piety. Following this discovery, he constructed a small platform at the top of the column and decreed that he would spend the remainder of days at its apex. Though the first pillar was little more than four meters high, visiting well-wishers subsequently replaced it with others, the last in the series being a mammoth structure that towered 15-20 meters off the ground.
In spite of his vertical reclusion, it should be noted that Simeon was not withdrawn from the world. In fact, it was in his role as a stylite that he began to minister to the public more overtly than ever before, giving individual advice to pilgrims (who would ascend a ladder to enter his saintly presence), preaching to the assembled masses, and dictating letters to Christians in distant lands. In these addresses, he frequently preached against profanity and usury. Intriguingly, and in contrast to the extreme austerity that he demanded of himself, the content of his preaching generally centered on the virtues of temperance and compassion.
Once ensconced upon his pillar, Simeon's reputation eventually spread throughout the Byzantine Empire. In addition to the throngs of commoners who gathered to revere the living legend, the saint's piety eventually led to attention from the upper echelons of temporal and spiritual power. For instance, the Emperor Theodosius and his wife Eudocia greatly respected the saint and listened to his counsels, and the Emperor Leo paid respectful attention to a letter that the saint dictated in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. Through the aid of a willing pilgrim, Simeon (who was illiterate) was also said to have dictated correspondence with Saint Bernadette of Paris. Indeed, Simeon became so influential that a church delegation was sent to demand that he descend from his pillar as a sign of submission to the authority of the patriarchate. When he showed himself willing to comply, the request was summarily withdrawn.
Following nearly four decades of austerities atop his pillar, Simeon died on 2 September, 459. The conclusion of the Syriac Vita states that his demise was signaled by a pleasantly pervasive breeze:
Following his demise, the saint was honored with an expansive funeral, after which his relics were divided between the cathedrals of Antioch and Constantinople. For better or worse, the tremendously iconic form of Simeon's piety inspired many imitators, and, for the next century, pillar saints (stylites) were a common sight throughout the Byzantine Levant.
The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honour and known in Arabic as the Qal at Simân ("the Mansion of Simeon") can still be seen in modern Syria today. It is located about 30 km northwest of Aleppo and consists of four basilicas built out from an octagonal court in the four cardinal directions. In the center of the court stands the an ancient, weather-beaten stone, which is thought to be the remains of Simeon's column.
Though not widely known in the West, Simeon Stylites is commemorated as a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church, where his feast is celebrated on 29 Pashons.
This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
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