What is often known and repeated concerning any individual persons of fame are the most spectacular or peculiar aspects that stand out in their lives. Unfortunately, we tend to judge the individual's entire life on these alone which often results in complete misrepresentation of the person's character.
What has the average person heard of St. Simeon Stylites the Elder? A Catholic may recall that he was an early Saint somewhere in the middle east who spent his life on top of a tall pillar fasting and praying. Is this true? Yes. But this one lasting and isolated fact of the Saint's life is prone to giving a completely wrong picture of the Saint. Although this extraordinary fact is given in order to quickly sum up the Saints life, it actually does a disservice to the Saint.
Such a isolated fact is likely to give one, especially a non-Catholic, the mental picture of a poor, lonely man who is without friend or family, maybe even a bit of an anti-social, who wandered into the countryside and one day chanced upon a ruined temple. Already an outcast of society one may imagine that he naturally had an affinity for this neglected structure. It may be imagined that he gets the idea to climb the old pillar, possibly to brood over his life and feel sorry for himself; possibly to prove to himself and to the world, in some way, that he is somebody. And, using the only thing he could carry up the pillar - his religion - he tries to attract attention by making himself a holy sage.
Whatever could be imagined, this scenario, and similar ones, unfortunately are more likely to occur than the truth. Imagine what people would think of Our Lord Jesus Christ were we to determine His whole character and life on two isolated incidents: Jesus, the Man who went into the temple with a whip, poured out the money of the money changers, overturned their tables and drove all out of the temple; the Man who cursed the fig tree because it wasn't bearing good fruit. To give such scant knowledge of a man's life is to give a slanted and false view. This is a good example of how it is possible to foster a lie by telling the honest, but incomplete truth. The Mass Media seems to be very adept at it, and propaganda heavily relies upon such a tactic.
Incidentally, as an example, a distortion of Our Lord's life has been gaining ground especially since the last century when the heresy of liberalism began to markedly infect the world. Today it is a very serious threat to the Church. In 1910, St. Pope Pius X had written a letter to the Catholic hierarchy of France concerning the errors of a particular Catholic Action group of laymen called the "Sillon". Before speaking further of the life of St. Simeon Stylites, an interesting excerpt will here be quoted from that Papal Letter which speaks of a distortion concerning Our Lord. The error which then was only rearing its head, can be seen today to be prevalent among many Catholics even unknowingly:
"We wish to draw your attention, Venerable Brethren, to this distortion of the Gospel and to the sacred character of Our Lord Jesus Christ, God and man, prevailing within the Sillon and elsewhere. As soon as the social question is being approached, it is the fashion in some quarters to first put aside the divinity of Jesus Christ, and then to mention only His unlimited clemency, His compassion for all human miseries, and His pressing exhortations to the love of our neighbor and to the brotherhood of men. True, Jesus has loved us with an immense, infinite love, and He came on earth to suffer and die so that, gathered around Him in justice and love, motivated by the same sentiments of mutual charity, all men might live in peace and happiness. But for the realization of this temporal and eternal happiness, He has laid down with supreme authority the condition that we must belong to His Flock, that we must accept His doctrine, that we must practice virtue, and that we must accept the teaching and guidance of Peter and his successors.
Further, whilst Jesus was kind to sinners and to those who went astray, He did not respect their false ideas, however sincere they might have appeared. He loved them all, but He instructed them in order to convert them and save them. Whilst He called to Himself in order to comfort them, those who toiled and suffered, it was not to preach to them the jealousy of a chimerical equality. Whilst He lifted up the lowly, it was not to instill in them the sentiment of a dignity independent from, and rebellious against, the duty of obedience. Whilst His heart overflowed with gentleness for the souls of good-will, He could also arm Himself with holy indignation against the profaners of the House of God, against the wretched men who scandalized the little ones, against the authorities who crush the people with the weight of heavy burdens without putting out a hand to lift them. He was as strong as he was gentle. He reproved, threatened, chastised, knowing, and teaching us that fear is the beginning of wisdom, and that it is sometimes proper for a man to cut off an offending limb to save his body.
Finally, He did not announce for future society the reign of an ideal happiness from which suffering would be banished; but, by His lessons and by His example, He traced the path of the happiness which is possible on earth and of the perfect happiness in heaven: the royal way of the Cross. These are teachings that it would be wrong to apply only to one's personal life in order to win eternal salvation; these are eminently social teachings, and they show in Our Lord Jesus Christ something quite different from an inconsistent and impotent humanitarianism."
Although there is often incomplete knowledge of the lives of many of the early saints, we find that there is much evidence of the life St. Simeon Stylites the Elder. He had a lead witness in the bishop of Cyrus of Syria, Theodoretus, who lived only a short distance from the spot where St. Simeon spent the greater part of his adult life.
Simeon was born near Nicopolis in northern Syria around 389 A.D. A shepherd in youth, he entered the monastic life at Teleda around 411 A.D. Ten years later he migrated to the mountains east of Antioch in Syria. In this period of history the Roman empire was collapsing mainly because of the incompetency of the emperors. Syria at that time had very many Catholic Churches, and the monastic life was flourishing.
Like so many others, St. Simeon's goal was a life of solitude. Like all those who God calls to be great saints, Simeon ran into difficulties on all sides; not only because his fellow religious did not see eye to eye with his desire to serve God with extraordinary rigor and asceticism, but because he began to develop a reputation for extraordinary sanctity and healing powers. This in turn attracted the faithful of all ranks to such an extent that he found little time for quiet and prayer which was the first and greatest desire of his soul. There were even those over-enthusiasts who cut off pieces of his tunic to keep as relics. He was on his way to fame, yet in his profound humility and love of God he desired only to get away and devote his life to prayer, quiet and self-denial. Except there was one thing stopping him: he felt that he couldn't entirely abandon these poor and simple believers who implored his mediation and help. "He who loveth God loveth also his brother." (John 4:20)
What was he to do? The day had not yet come when there were cloisters whose solitude was carefully guarded against intrusion. There were many ascetics who wanted prayer and seclusion without entirely withdrawing from the world. In faraway Egypt it was simple: They went into the desert, which would be secluded yet not far from the settled districts. Unfortunately Simeon did not live in Egypt, and his own country Syria was fertile and densely populated. The practicality of the Saint shows itself: He needed a physical barrier, one that would not exclude access entirely, and he found the solution to his problem with a pillar.
Simeon, however had to be patient; it took his fellow monks two years to fashion a 9 foot platform out of the native limestone. There he stood on a platform about a yard square holding on to a balustrade for safety. It was just high enough to physically keep him away from the people and high enough to give him to solitary prayer. And so he got his name "Stylites", a variant form for the word "pillar" in Greek, although it was more of a mere platform at first. We can imagine the reaction of the people when they came to see their Saint again. Likely mixed feelings. On the one hand they may have felt saddened that they no longer could have such personal contact with him as they once did, and quite happy on the other hand that they knew where to find him any time of the day in order to gaze upon one so edifying, and listen to words that would lift their souls to God!
He passed about 36 of the remaining years of his life standing on his platform. He was just one of the many Saints who had a special work in Christ's Church. He stood on his platform praying and doing penance, not for his own pleasure, but for the strength and growth of the One True Faith, for conversions, and reparation for sin. The world at that time was in much need of it; during those 36 years at his post there grew the theological disputes that were splitting the East from Rome. We see the heresies that were doing their destruction of the Church then, such as the Monophysites, the Manichaens, Nestorians and Pelagians: We see the General Councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon and the Second of Constantinople convening to remedy the problems in the Church: We see the infamous Robber Council of Ephesus - the Latrocinium take place: We see the Vandals enter Africa and Rome; we see Attila the Hun reeking his havoc.
It is a pleasant thought to realize that, at the time St. Simeon stood on his pillar praying and preaching, St. Patrick was entering Ireland and St. Augustine was writing his "City of God". We see other great saints doing their part during those years, such as Pope St. Leo I, St. Peter Chrysologous and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Only God knows what terrible events would have taken place at that time had St. Simeon not done penance and prayed for causes and individuals who were fighting for the Church Militant.
The average day would find St. Simeon, even before dawn, standing with his arms and eyes raised to heaven in prayer. That position was only interrupted by the occasional deep reverential bows he made as they still do in the Byzantine Rite. The crowds gathered - people from Persia to Briton. When 9:00 in the morning came he started to preach using scripture to explain, exhort, upbraid and denounce pagans, heretics and Jews. When he finished, the people were allowed to petition or get counsel. The men had the privilege to consult him face to face by climbing a ladder. Among the crowds were the lame, sick, blind and possessed who obtained cures. Disputes among individuals or whole tribes were remedied. Bishop Theodoretus writes that literally thousands of Arabs from the desert had been enlightened by his teaching: "I was eyewitness and I heard how they renounced their native godlessness and accepted the evangelical teaching."
He also did his share of dictating letters to bishops, emperors and other officials. The Emperor Theodosius and the Empress Eudocia reverenced him as a Saint and listened to his counsels. The Emperor Leo paid respectful attention to a letter St. Simeon had written in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. The Saint was always found to be attentive with unwearying patience and kindness to all. Truly amazing considering he took food only once a week, while during lent no food or drink passed his lips.
Gradually the monks at his monastery added sections to the pillar. At the end of his life the pillar was a height of over 50 feet. One morning he was found dead clinging to the balustrade having given up his soul during the night on September 2, 459 A.D. He was then about 70 years of age. After his death the spot became a place of pilgrimage and within fifty years one of the most remarkable monuments of Christian antiquity was built on that spot - a great cruciform Church.
In the course of time many followed his example and solitaries set up pillars as far west as Constantinople and eastward into the upper Mesopotamia valley. There were several Saints known as the Pillar Saints. Among the most prominent were Saints Simeon the Younger, Daniel, Alipius and Luke. Many more ascetics in the east followed their examples.
What is apparent by the example of St. Simeon Stylites and his followers is the great need for penance and prayer. Although it may seem overdone to some, it is only because they did not live in that era and country, and above all, because God has not inspired them to follow such rigorous asceticism.
From St. Simeon Stylites we learn another principle even greater than what we see on the surface: That the children of God should be "in" the world but not "of" the world. In Saint Simeon Stylites God has given us a concrete and picturesque example of the highest and most perfect way of serving Him. A perfectly moderate combination of the active and contemplative life. St. Simeon lead the "highest" form of life on top of his pillar, in more ways than one. Some Saints stood out for their intellectual or mystical heights while St. Simeon stood out for his physical and ascetical height.
St. Augustine, who lived at the time of St. Simeon, agreed that Mary, the sister of Martha, had chosen the "better" part, as we see in scripture. But he further makes it clear that she didn't choose the "best"; that the best part is a combination of both. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas, also echoes this: "Contemplari et comtemplata aliis tradere; actio procedens ex contemplatione" - To contemplate and propound what is contemplated. Loosely put, "Preaching of the divine word should proceed from the fullness of contemplation."
St. Simeon Stylites is only thought to be uselessly eccentric by those who are ignorant of the great work which he accomplished during his life; fruits which could not be wrought by mere human effort but through the Divine Goodness. The pillar is a holy symbol of that ideal religious life - the strength of the active contemplative where the mind is always in heaven and the feet are firmly planted on the ground.
St. Simeon Stylites now enjoys his eternal reward in heaven along with Our Lady, Saints Anthony, Teresa, Jude, Bernadette, etc. He is there also to intercede for us with God, and the Lord is greatly pleased by prayers to them, and our veneration of them.
St. Simeon Stylites the Elder, pray for us!