‘Extreme Holiness’ in the 5th Century: the Example of Simeon Stylites
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.