If you think about it, being “extreme” is a very fluid concept, having a lot to do with local, cultural and temporal factors. As someone has said: “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” So, for 21st century Western minds, the idea of hair shirts, heavy penances and dangerous levels of self-denial seems weird and wholly unnecessary. Yet in a more Eastern context, and in the 5th century, such ‘extreme holiness‘ was not only accepted, but praised.
One who took it to new heights (literally, see below) was Simeon Stylites (sty-ly-tees). Born c. 388 in what is now Kozan, Turkey, he showed great hunger for God as a child, and at 16 entered a monastery. However, his superiors found his asceticism so intense and exaggerated that they asked him to leave. So Simeon found a hut and lived there as a hermit, fasting for weeks at a time. Then he moved to a rocky outcrop on a mountain. Local people, seeing him as a holy man, brought him food. As his fame spread, people came from further afield seeking counsel and prayer.
This led Simeon to the decision for which he is remembered today (and for which he qualifies as one of God’s oddballs). In order to get away from distraction and celebrity, he found a pillar in an old ruin, about 9 feet (3m) high and constructed a platform on top of it. This became his home, but also a powerful visual symbol: unable to be separate from the world horizontally, he was doing so vertically!
As crowds and sightseers increased, Simeon simply found a higher pillar, his final dwelling being one c. 50 feet (16m) high at Afrin, 60 miles from Aleppo in Syria. His living-platform had a baluster around it and Simeon wore a chain, partly for self-abnegation, partly for health and safety! Wellwishers used a ladder to bring him food and milk. Some climbed up for a word of wisdom or prophecy from the holy man. The bishop of Antioch came and celebrated Communion with Simeon on the platform. Theodosius II, emperor of Byzantium, came to consult with Simeon. And certain clerics, jealous of his fame, challenged him to come down from his pillar as proof of his humility. As he began to climb down, they relented and let him stay.
Simeon’s platform being only 3 feet (1m) or so in diameter, he developed an unusual way of praying. He bowed until his head almost touched his knees, then straightened again. One onlooker records counting Simeon doing this 1,244 times in one session, at which point the counter gave up, exhausted. And when Simeon died, in September 459, after 37 years on his pillar, his body was found bent double in this posture of prayer. Simeon was buried at Antioch with great ceremony, while back in the wilderness, his disciples continued pillar-dwelling for another generation. In time, a great cathedral was built around the pillar itself, the ruins of which can be seen today.
Some wish to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell!
So wrote the famous missionary from Northamptonshire, Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931). He was from a privileged background and had played cricket for England in the 1882 match won by Australia, which was the origin of Ashes.
A year later, he heard the American evangelist D L Moody at Cambridge and was deeply convicted of God’s claim on his life. With six friends, Studd pledged his life to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him, he declared. As proof of ‘burning his boats’, he waived his right to a considerable fortune. In 1885, the “Cambridge Seven” set off for China. It was a high-profile action by some of the cream of England’s youth, and it made a great impression.
For the rest of his life, Studd worked hard on the mission field in China, India, Sudan and the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). His wife Priscilla worked tirelessly to promote the missions back in Britain. It was Studd himself, however, who made the biggest noise through his writings – and one in particular: The Chocolate Soldier. It is a rallying cry to rank alongside William Booth’s Darkest England.
Heroism is the lost chord of present-day Christianity, he writes. Then, with exquisite irony, he likens Western Christians to chocolate Christians, dissolving in water and melting at the smell of fire. Sweeties they are! Lollipops! Living their lives in a cardboard box, each clad in his frilled white paper to preserve his dear, delicate constitution. He parodies the great martial hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in a “chocolate” version:
Mark time, Christian heroes, never go to war. Stop and mind the babies, playing on the floor…
Studd echoes a concern of his day, that increased leisure was feminising young men; and he points a finger of blame at self-satisfied and risk-averse Christianity. Many fine youngsters are turned into chocolates by ‘old prophets’ – preachers who have lost their fire [referring to an episode in 1 Kings 13].
By contrast, Studd made it his practice to take the costly way, so he could model it for others. To him, Christians are the true heroes: braver than the bravest, scorning the soft seductions of peace and her oft repeated warnings against hardship, disease, danger and death, whom he counts among his bosom friends. So he lived in a mud hut, refused vacations and would not be hindered by disease or disappointment. His motto (which was later expanded into a hymn) was: “Only one life,‘twill soon be past; and only what’s done for Christ will last.”
This fired the imagination of hundreds back home, who came to find him in Africa and sit at his feet. From these, Studd believed a muscular succession would come, carrying the same spirit that had always gripped him. I will blaze the trail, he wrote, though my grave may only become a stepping stone that younger men may follow.
We ought not to forget the equally brave sacrifice made by Studd’s wife, Priscilla. Unable to travel with him on account of their four daughters, she chose before God not to impede him on his course, but to stay home, pray, and fund-raise for him – and rely on letters!