The definition of a hermit is that of a person living in solitude. When one considers that the harshest and most-dreaded punishment that can be inflicted on a prisoner is solitary confinement, one realises the severity of a hermit’s life. In Christianity, however, being a hermit is a free choice, emanating from the highest religious motives. Surprisingly, saints like the pillar-dwelling ascetics of Syria and Asia Minor show how a hermit can also be active in promoting peace among people, individuals and nations.
The first famous stylite hermit to live on top of a pillar (‘stylus’ is Greek for column or pillar) was a Syrian shepherd-boy called Simeon (390-459 AD). Especially devoted to bodily austerities, such as long fasts, he lived in various monasteries in Northern Syria until his Abbot felt he was going too far in self-denial and asked him to leave. To give an example, he is said to have passed the whole 40 days of Lent in imitation of Christ, without either eating or drinking, so that he nearly died. On another occasion he had his leg fastened to a rock with an iron chain. Wisely, a priest told him it was better to forge an iron will, subservient to God’s will, than to be physically chained. Simeon obeyed and had the iron fetter removed. His reputation for holiness quickly grew among the surrounding people and many thronged about him day and night, begging for his prayers and blessings. The constant press vexed him. He didn’t know what to do, until Christ told him in a dream: “Simeon, you seek to escape the world horizontally. Much better to do so vertically.” That was the beginning of the hermit’s lifelong, heroic ministry from the top of a high pillar.
Paradoxically, Simeon’s vertical flight meant that more people flocked to see him. Many were genuine pilgrims, others sightseers in search of wonders, from all walks of life, high and low. And from all nations, Persians, Arabs, Armenians, Scythians, Egyptians, they all came to him. Roman Emperors like Leo, Theodosius and Marcian sought his advice. When Theodosius was contemplating war on the Persians, Simeon restrained him: “Don’t you appreciate Christ’s words? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’. Pursue not war but peace then, so that at the end of your life, when you are forced to relinquish your earthly crown, a heavenly, imperishable crown will be yours.” The Emperor obeyed and the war, at least for the time being, was averted.
The hermit also strove to bring peace between estranged spouses. To a man who complained of his wife’s sharp tongue, Simeon said: ‘If you treated her kindly and gently, like a Christian husband ought to do, she would not behave like a shrew. Correct your behaviour then and you will see your wife’s conduct change accordingly.’
While preaching to pious crowds from his improbable pulpit, Simeon never neglected his awesome austerities. The pillar platform apparently did not exceed three feet in diameter, which meant he could not lie down on it. He only stooped or leaned and often in the day he bowed his head in prayer. He made exhortations to the people twice a day, every afternoon, and would hear confession privately from people who climbed near his platform on a ladder. As to his bodily intake and evacuations, the amount of food and drink he daily consumed was so small that he compared his output to that of birds…
Inevitably, Simeon’s holiness had imitators. Another Simeon, named the Younger (Feast Day, 5 May), and a St Daniel Stylite were among them. The former saint, again, had much influence on rulers and common people alike. Even before ascending to his pillar, he was celebrated for his miracles such as taming wild animals, healing the incurable, reading the thoughts of others and foretelling future events. He would say that ‘there is no such crime abhorred by God than the shedding of innocent blood’. He compared unjust wars to sacrilege and blasphemies and repeatedly lambasted the Byzantine Court for its aggressive adventures. Tradition has it that on one occasion a powerful courtier was so annoyed by the saint’s peace-loving sermons that he dispatched two assassins to dispose of the man of God. They got as far as the foot of the pillar and, armed with daggers, by night began to scale it on a ladder. They had nearly reached the top when a fiery shape, an angel warned them off. The scoundrels were so frightened that they fell off the ladder. The noise summoned the local people and the badly injured hit-men were chased away.
Although hermits still exist in the Eastern Orthodox Church, our secular age would consider a pillar saint to be as mad as a hatter. Admittedly, they were a little extravagant. The Church accepts that holiness can take extreme forms, shocking to human eyes, if God so wills. Nonetheless, working for peace, saying a firm no to unjustified wars is perhaps one of the most valuable messages the ancient ascetics have left us. Syria, the land where some of the Stylite saints lived, preached and ministered, is currently being torn by terrible violence and bloodshed. Some fear that Western nations are cynically about to take advantage of the Syrian civil war to intervene and cause even more murder and mayhem. The non-violent witness of St Simeon and his brothers is thus as topical as ever. And so is Christ’s promise: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.’