Saint Simeon Stylites is celebrated by some on January 5, as St Simeon Stylites Day.
This character … for such he must be called … rose to great hermit heights when he spent 36 years atop a pillar in the middle of the desert, somewhere between Syria and Cilicia.
Simeon was born in 384AD to a family of shepherds in Syria. At age 13 he evidenced a commitment to extreme holiness, and was so passionate about entering a monastery that he refused food and drink until they admitted him. After two years he relocated to another monastery, at Helidoras where he found the rigours not strict enough. To compensate he tied a coarse rope around his body as underwear. When this caused his flesh to rot he was dismissed, to save the other monks from suffering the stench of his open sores.
These actions and his lifestyle that followed reveal that he believed his physical body needed to be punished in order to attain increased spiritual progress and escape the temptations of a worldly life.
Simeon’s departure from Helidoras set him on his life as a hermit, but even there he found conditions were not challenging enough. He thus built a roofless rock enclosure and chained his leg to a rock. When this lifestyle attracted spectators in 423AD, he moved further up the mountain and erected a 6 cubit high stone pillar as his home. After three years he went up in the world, to 22 cubits, which suited him for the next decade. Then he spent the final 27 years of his life at the dizzy height of 40 cubits.
An account of Simeon, dated from about 580AD, explains that his living space was sparse, “occupying a space of scarce two cubits in circumference”. “He was adored by all the countryside, wrought many miracles, and the Emperor Theodosius II listened to his advice and sought his benediction.”
Another ancient writer advises that Simeon took only one scanty meal per week, and fasted through the season of Lent. It is alleged that the devil having afflicted him with an ulcer in his thigh as reward for a little self-righteousness, Simeon, as penance, never touched the afflicted leg upon the pillar again, and stood for the remaining year of his life upon one leg.
Pilgrims flocked to see and hear this ‘holy’ man, from Persia, Ethiopia, Spain, and even Britain. After all, he had built this 60 feet high pillar to escape the temptations of the world, even to the extent of having a wall around its base to keep women from getting too close! He preached to the great crowds of on-lookers who visited his remote escape from the world.
On record is a spectator who counted St Simeon practised 1,244 obeisances in one day. And he watched St Simeon pray all night with his hands raised. To punish the “flesh” he even “fed maggots on his self-inflicted wounds which he kept open for that purpose”! (The Saints, by E. Simon, Penguin Books, page 83.)
“He died at 69 (453AD); his dead body was discovered by some brave soul who climbed the pole to see how things were going. The corpse of Simeon was covered with lice, vermin, ulcers…”, but that’s enough! (History of the New Testament Church, page 197).
Thousands attended his funeral, celebrated by a torch-lit procession through the streets of Antioch.
Because Simeon was counted as an extremely holy man his body was preserved as a holy relic, as can be seen by this account from 580AD. “I enjoyed a sight of his sacred head, in the episcopate of the famous Gregory, when Philippicus had requested that precious relic of the saints might be sent him for the protection of the Eastern armies. The head was well preserved save for the teeth some of which had been violently removed by the hands of the pious” (which means some people had stolen teeth as good luck charms for themselves).
Don Prout notes: It’s a shame someone didn’t tell him what Paul meant by “the flesh”…
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com