A man lived on top of a pillar for 37 years. You read that right. He lived 50 feet in the air on top of a 10 foot square pillar. Not only did he live there, he was exposed to the elements. He was exposed to the winter and summer near Aleppo, in what is now modern day Syria. Thirty six degree Fahrenheit average lows in the winter and 98 degree average highs in the summer. Sometimes it snows and sometimes it’s over 100 degrees in the summer. Rain or shine, he stayed on his pillar.
He was born Simeon around the year 390 A.D. in Sis, found in modern day Turkey. The picture above is what is left of the pillar he stood on. After a bombing by Russian military forces in 2016 during the ongoing Syrian war the pillar has been destroyed.
Christianity was growing rapidly in Simeon’s lifetime and was becoming openly accepted by rulers and leaders. Simeon, at a young age was so moved by reading the Beatitudes that it sparked his lifelong quest for truth. This small event in his life is an extraordinary example of the power of scripture. The word of God in written form has the power to change the trajectory of lives in sometimes rather spectacular ways. Who would’ve thought that a young boy influenced by the beatitudes would go on to influence the world in such a profound way? This is very similar to the experience of Joseph Smith, the latter day prophet, after reading a passage in the book of James.
Simeon tried to join a monastery in Egypt but was rejected because of the extremeness of his asceticism. That is really saying something about Simeon’s level of devotion to his cause if Monk’s were thinking he was taking things too far. He later fasted during the entire period of lent, nearly died, and because of this immortal feat became a fairly popular guy. He fled the fame for isolation and prayer to God and had followers that wouldn’t leave him alone. He eventually retreated to a pillar in an old city but when followers still came to him, he retreated to an even higher pillar about 50 feet high. Atop the pillar Simeon would pray and give sermons to the crowds that came to hear from him. These followers included Roman emperors and other leaders that sought his counsel. So revered to believers in Christ that Simeon today is venerated as a Saint in the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Church.
I’m not one to judge and I believe there is truth to be had from everyone. I like to learn from other people and I genuinely want to know their perspectives. Where they come from? How they were raised? Why they think the way they do? Why they do the things they do? It is no different with Simeon Stylites. By the way, stylites is derived from the ecclesiastical Greek term for pillar, hence the appellation.
When I first heard of Simeon’s story my first impression was how is this even possible? After further research my thoughts shifted to this is an impressive man with complete control of his mind and body. As I read further I wanted to understand the why. After more reading I’ve come to the conclusion that his reason was tied to his search for God, truth, and meaning. This was Simeon’s quest for learning and divine guidance. He shunned the throngs of followers not because he was mean. He was seeking for God and truth and not fame or money. He wanted to hear the inspiration of the divine or as modern Christians know, the influence of the Holy Ghost. I’m sure some were attracted to him because of his extreme asceticism and the novelty of what he was doing. That is human nature. There were probably others who wanted to be close to learn from him. He had many imitators. So many that people were imitating him for centuries. Yes, for hundreds of years there were stylites. Yet through the fame Simeon found truth in isolation and in constant prayer and meditation.
What is the lesson to be learned from Simeon? What is the application to our modern day? After all, this is why we read and study. It is for learning, yes, but more importantly to change our behavior and for application. For me there are several great lessons to learn from Simeon.
First, the human spirit is something that we don’t really understand. Simeon proves that there is no limit to what the mind and body can overcome and achieve when they are working towards a goal.
Second, it is incredible to see a Christian who can be in the world yet also be so separate from it in his living and devotion. Again, is this the approach that I would take? No, but that doesn’t matter, and I have a different world view, different experiences, and different beliefs. Also I believe periods of isolation are healthy, but then I also enjoy periods of being surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors. I am a social being for sure. Before anyone confuses or misinterprets what I am writing, Simeon did perform daily sermons from his pillar and he also converted many Arabs to Christianity. He was also a social, loving person.
In a day where I hear people bemoaning the Coronavirus isolation, and having to be inside all day, I wonder how Simeon would view our modern culture and our application of Christianity. I imagine that he would first recognize that we are weak in many ways and highly distracted by fleeting materialism. Could we look at his example and extract some of the devotional habits to apply into our lives? Could we be more willing to pray and meditate and focus less on the external and more on the internal?
Could we overcome our worldly habits and lust for sex, food, and comforts? I certainly don’t think that I could have the devotion, fortitude and discipline of a Simeon, not by any means am I even close. But I would like to be more disciplined in my devotion. So in my life, I think I can fast more. Fast earnestly and try not to focus so much on my hunger, but on my prayers for others and for those suffering in this pandemic.
I can dim my lustful and materialistic thoughts, and focus my thoughts on serving my fellow brothers and sisters in their time of need. I could do as Simeon and focus on studying and teaching those around me what I know. Most importantly I could deepen my devotion to God and his children by seeking ways to inspire and uplift others.
If you think about it, all of his followers looked up to Simeon. They looked up to his example in a figurative way, but even emperors had to physically look up to him. He was a light set on a hill that brought more people closer to Jesus Christ by just living on pillar. May we all reach upward and lift others eyes upward as well.