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§ 37. St. Symeon and the Pillar Saints.


Respecting St. Symeon, or Simeon Stylites, we have accounts from three contemporaries and eye witnesses, Anthony, Cosmas, and especially Theodoret (Hist. Relig. c. 26). The latter composed his narrative sixteen years before the death the saint.

Evagrius: H. E. i. c. 13. The Acta Sanctorum and Butler, sub Jan. 5. Uhlemann: Symeon, der erste Säulenheilige in Syrien. Leipz. 1846. (Comp. also the fine poem of A. Tennyson: St. Symeon Stylites, a monologue in which S. relates his own experience.)


It is unnecessary to recount the lives of other such anchorets; since the same features, even to unimportant details, repeat themselves in all.327327   A peculiar, romantic, but not fully historical interest attaches to the biography of the imprisoned and fortunately escaping monk Malchus, with his nominal wife, which is preserved to us by Jerome. But in the fifth century a new and quite original path328328   Original at least in the Christian church. Gieseler refers to a heathen precedent; the Φαλλοβατεῖςin Syria, mentioned by Lucian, De Dea Syria, c. 28 and 29. was broken by Symeon, the father of the Stylites or pillar saints, who spent long years, day and night, summer and winter, rain and sunshine, frost and heat, standing on high, unsheltered pillars, in prayer and penances, and made the way to heaven for themselves so passing hard, that one knows not whether to wonder at their unexampled self-denial, or to pity their ignorance of the gospel salvation. On this giddy height the anchoretic asceticism reached its completion.

St. Symeon the Stylite, originally a shepherd on the borders of Syria and Cilicia, when a boy of thirteen years, was powerfully affected by the beatitudes, which he heard read in the church, and betook himself to a cloister. He lay several days, without eating or drinking, before the threshold, and begged to be admitted as the meanest servant of the house. He accustomed himself to eat only once a week, on Sunday. During Lent he even went through the whole forty days without any food; a fact almost incredible even for a tropical climate.329329   Butler, l.c., however, relates something similar of a contemporary Benedictine monk, Dom Claude Leante: “In 1731, when he was about fifty-one years of age, he had fasted eleven years without taking any food the whole forty days, except what he daily took at mass; and what added to the wonder is, that during Lent he did not properly sleep, but only dozed. He could not bear the open air; and toward the end of Lent he was excessively pale and wasted. This fact is attested by his brethren and superiors, in a relation printed at Sens, in 1731.” The first attempt of this kind brought him to the verge of death; but his constitution conformed itself, and when Theodoret visited him, he had solemnized six and twenty Lent seasons by total abstinence, and thus surpassed Moses, Elias, and even Christ, who never fasted so but once. Another of his extraordinary inflections was to lace his body so tightly that the cord pressed through to the bones, and could be cut off only with the most terrible pains. This occasioned his dismissal from the cloister. He afterward spent some time as a hermit upon a mountain, with an iron chain upon his feet, and was visited there by admiring and curious throngs. When this failed to satisfy him, he invented, in 423, a new sort of holiness, and lived, some two days’ journey (forty miles) east of Antioch, for six and thirty years, until his death, upon a pillar, which at the last was nearly forty cubits high;330330   The first pillar, which he himself erected, and on which he lived four years, was six cubits (πήχεων) high, the second twelve, the third twenty-two, and the fourth, which the people erected for him, and on which he spent twenty years, was thirty-six, according to Theodoret; others say forty. The top was only three feet in diameter. It probably had a railing, however, on which he could lean in sleep or exhaustion. So at least these pillars are drawn in pictures. Food was carried up to the pillar saints by their disciples on a ladder. for the pillar was raised in proportion as he approached heaven and perfection. Here he could never lie nor sit, but only stand, or lean upon a post (probably a banister), or devoutly bow; in which last posture he almost touched his feet with his head—so flexible had his back been made by fasting. A spectator once counted in one day no less than twelve hundred and forty-four such genuflexions of the saint before the Almighty, and then gave up counting. He wore a covering of the skins of beasts, and a chain about his neck. Even the holy sacrament he took upon his pillar. There St. Symeon stood many long and weary days, and weeks, and months, and years, exposed to the scorching sun, the drenching rain, the crackling frost, the howling storm, living a life of daily death and martyrdom, groaning under the load of sin, never attaining to the true comfort and peace of soul which is derived from a child-like trust in Christ’s infinite merits, earnestly striving after a superhuman holiness, and looking to a glorious reward in heaven, and immortal fame on earth. Alfred Tennyson makes him graphically describe his experience in a monologue to God:

’Although I be the basest of mankind,

From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,

Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet

For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,

I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold

Of saintdom, and to clamor, moan, and sob

Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer:

Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin.

* * * * * *

Oh take the meaning, Lord: I do not breathe,

Not whisper, any murmur of complaint.

Pain heaped ten hundredfold to this, were still

Less burthen, by ten hundredfold, to bear,

Than were those lead-like tons of sin, that crushed

My spirit flat before Thee.


                                                    O Lord, Lord,

Thou knowest I bore this better at the first,

For I was strong and hale of body then;

And though my teeth, which now are dropt away,

Would chatter with the cold, and all my beard

Was tagged with icy fringes in the moon,

I drowned the whoopings of the owl with sound

Of pious hymns and psalms, and sometimes saw

An angel stand and watch me, as I sang.

Now am I feeble grown: my end draws nigh—

I hope my end draws nigh: half deaf I am,

So that I scarce can hear the people hum

About the column’s base; and almost blind,

And scarce can recognize the fields I know.

And both my thighs are rotted with the dew,

Yet cease I not to clamor and to cry,

While my stiff spine can hold my weary head,

Till all my limbs drop piecemeal from the stone:

Have mercy, mercy; take away my sin.”


Yet Symeon was not only concerned about his own salvation. People streamed from afar to witness this standing wonder of the age. He spoke to all classes with the same friendliness, mildness, and love; only women he never suffered to come within the wall which surrounded his pillar. From this original pulpit, as a mediator between heaven and earth, he preached repentance twice a day to the astonished spectators, settled controversies, vindicated the orthodox faith, extorted laws even from an emperor, healed the sick wrought miracles, and converted thousands of heathen Ishmaelites, Iberians, Armenians, and Persians to Christianity, or at least to the Christian name. All this the celebrated Theodoret relates as an eyewitness during the lifetime of the saint. He terms him the great wonder of the world,331331   Τὸ μέγα θαῦμα τῆς οἰκουμένης. Hist. Relig. c. 26, at the beginning. and compares him to a candle on a candlestick, and to the sun itself, which sheds its rays on every side. He asks the objector to this mode of life to consider that God often uses very striking means to arouse the negligent, as the history of the prophets shows;332332   Referring to Isa xx. 2; Jer. i. 17; xxviii. 12; Hos i. 2; iii. 1; Ezek. iv. 4; xii. 5. and concludes his narrative with the remark: “Should the saint live longer, he may do yet greater wonders, for he is a universal ornament and honor of religion.”

He died in 459, in the sixty-ninth year of his age, of a long-concealed and loathsome ulcer on his leg; and his body was brought in solemn procession to the metropolitan church Of Antioch.

Even before his death, Symeon enjoyed the unbounded admiration of Christians and heathens, of the common people, of the kings of Persia, and of the emperors Theodosius II., Leo, and Marcian, who begged his blessing and his counsel. No wonder, that, with all his renowned humility, he had to struggle with the temptations of spiritual pride. Once an angel appeared to him in a vision, with a chariot of fire, to convey him, like Elijah, to heaven, because the blessed spirits longed for him. He was already stepping into the chariot with his right foot, which on this occasion he sprained (as Jacob his thigh), when the phantom of Satan was chased away by the sign of the cross. Perhaps this incident, which the Acta Sanctorum gives, was afterward invented, to account for his sore, and to illustrate the danger of self-conceit. Hence also the pious monk Nilus, with good reason, reminded the ostentatious pillar saints of the proverb: “He that exalteth himself shall be abased.”333333   Ep. ii. 114; cited in Gieseler, ii. 2, p. 246, note 47 (Edinb. Engl. ed. ii. p. 13, note 47), and in Neander.

Of the later stylites the most distinguished were Daniel († 490), in the vicinity of Constantinople, and Symeon the younger († 592), in Syria. The latter is said to have spent sixty-eight years on a pillar. In the East this form of sanctity perpetuated itself, though only in exceptional cases, down to the twelfth century. The West, so far as we know, affords but one example of a stylite, who, according to Gregory of Tours, lived a long time on a pillar near Treves, but came down at the command of the bishop, and entered a neighboring cloister.



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