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Saint of the East: St. Simeon Stylites

art direction/illustration by Dick Malin

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One of the most well-known “stylites” (style means pillar), St. Simeon lived for thirty-seven years on a roofless platform atop an 80 foot pillar. He was protected from the elements only by a rough woolen monk’s habit, and a small sheepskin during the winter. Water and dried beans were his only fare, and he spent hours on end with his arms extended in prayer.

Today, this type of behavior might be labeled “peculiar” or “exhibitionist,” and although Simeon was laughed at, others began to imitate him and pillar-sitting became an accepted form of asceticism during the fifth century. It began in Syria and quickly spread to Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Mesopotamia, and lasted in the East until the twelfth century.

Simeon was born in Silicia on the Syrian border to poor shepherd parents in 388. Having no formal education, he spent his boyhood tending sheep and enjoying the Sunday liturgy. One day he asked an old neighbor to explain the beatitudes. The man told him that prayer, fasting and patience during suffering were sure means to show God love, and that the lonely life of a shepherd was conducive to such practices. Much impressed, the boy began to fast often and spend long nights in prayer. At 15 he entered a local monastery where he continued his harsh penances until the abbot, worried about Simeon’s health, chided him for unauthorized practices which set him apart from the rest of the community. As quickly as his superiors forbade one penance, however, Simeon would dream up another, until his body was covered with sores. Finally, he was asked to leave.

Simeon retired to a desert hermitage. One Easter, a young priest friend named Daniel brought him Communion and advised him to maintain contact with the world where he could do much good. In 423, with the help of his disciples, Simeon began to build his columns. The remainder of his life was spent blessing and preaching to all who came to him. His death in 459 ended the life of one of the most unusual saints in the Church – a man whose stern self-discipline was a puzzle to many and an example to a few.

His feast is celebrated January 5th.

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