St Simeon of the pillar

The challenges of St Simeon might seem extreme but, as Frank Gelli explains there are still lessons to be learned, even today

It is strange but one of the best films about a saint was  made by an atheist. Luis Bunuel, Spanish anarchist  and surrealist genius, directed Simon of the Desert, an  unadorned, spare, beautifully minimalist movie. The  hero is St Simeon Stylite, a Syrian desert hermit who made  the top of a high column (‘Stylite’ comes from the word  ‘pillar’) his home and pulpit for 37 years. Call St Simeon an  eccentric oddball – I find him a moving and, yes, an  extraordinarily inspiring figure. His feast day falls on January  5th.  Was he just crazy? Quite the contrary. Holy persons of many  religions have at all times withdrawn from the secular world  to draw closer to God. However, they have usually done that  horizontally, moving over the earth from one place to  another while staying ‘on the surface’, so to speak. St  Simeon’s originality was to do that vertically. It was not a  vulgar gimmick but a powerful way of expressing his critique  of a society sunk in decadent, carnal pleasures. His example  and, literally, ‘position’, aimed at reminding people of a  ‘higher way’, the way up, towards Heaven.  Born the son of a shepherd, Simeon should have followed in  his father’s humble footsteps but as a child, he realised his  vocation was to care not for an animal flock but for a human  one. He entered a monastery where his self-denial and bodily  austerities were so radical that he nearly died. So the monks  turned him out, urging him to follow a gentler way. A saint is  not easily discouraged, however. After living near the foot of  a mountain, aided by local people he built as his dwelling  the first of a series of pillars, the tallest of which stood 19  metres high.  Technically St Simeon was a Christian hermit, a recluse,  devoted to living in the wilderness. Actually, he was seldom  alone. Drawn by his fame, people flocked to him in droves  from the surrounding countryside but also as far away as the  Byzantine capital, Constantinople. Peasants as well as  Emperors like Theodosius, Leo and Marcian came to him.  His tall pillar was like a pulpit. After spending most of his  time in prayer, he devoted hours to preaching to the crowds  gathered at the foot of his column. He would teach, exhort,  chide and answer questions. Many pagans were converted by  the words of the strange man, John the Baptist-lookalike,  clad in skins and emaciated but glowing with benevolence  and radiating a supernatural zeal.Bunuel’s film shows  Simeon undergoing many trials and temptations, which he  no doubt did.  The devil is always enraged when he sees holy men scorning  the lures of the world for the sake of Heaven. The Evil One  then does his worst to undermine their resolve and make  them stumble and fall. In Simeon’s case, the devil first took  the shape of a courtesan, an attractive female who showed him her naked flesh to kindle his lust but the Saint abruptly  turned his back on her. Then a renegade monk falsely  accused him of being a secret glutton and a drunkard.  Simeon prayed for him – whereupon the man fell down,  foaming at the mouth and uttering obscenities: it became  clear to all that Satan had possessed him. The hardest  temptation was when the devil disguised himself as Jesus. At  first, Simeon was overcome with awe but when the friend  invited him to come down from the column and enjoy the  pleasures of the flesh, Simeon realised the trick and cursed  him. Then the devil fled.  Years back, David Blaine, an American magician, spent 48  hours atop a pole 107ft high in Manhattan’s Bryant Park.  Close to New York’s Times Square. Blaine averred that he got  the original idea from St Simeon, whom he called, according  to ‘The Times’, ‘an extremist’. Whatever his intention, Blaine  hit the nail on the head. Simeon was indeed a religious  extremist, in the sense that he was extreme in his spirituality.  Interestingly, the land in which his pillars stood, Northern  Syria, later became largely populated by Muslims. I like to  think that Sufis were amongst his latter-day followers,  unafraid often to appear like holy fools in order to show  people unconventional, deeper ways of accessing the Divine.  Bunuel’s final movie scene has a twist. The devil, dreaming of  revenge, transports Simeon to a modern nightclub  somewhere in a big American city. There the Saint is  surrounded by partying young people, promiscuously  mingled and dancing to frenetic music. Simeon is now  dressed as a pipe-smoking, existentialist philosopher. The  devil triumphantly tells him: ‘See? All your efforts ultimately  have been in vain. The youth of the modern world would  laugh at you on your pillar; just consider you an amusing  freak. Instead, they follow my ways! I have won! Haha!’  The Saint says nothing. He sits there, calmly, looking blissful  amidst the swirl of hedonism, ignoring the hideous creature.  Such is atheist Bunuel’s ambiguous message. Yet a possible  lesson for us in the West is that encircled as we are by the  multiple and insidious temptations of modernity, to resist the  devil and his lures is a tougher task than fleeing to the desert  and standing on a high pillar. Yet, the spirit of St Simeon’s  example shows it can be done.


Qalaat Semaan
(Church of Saint Simeon Stylites)
The Church of Saint Simeon Stylites is a historical building located about 30km (19 mi) northwest of Aleppo, Syria. It is the oldest surviving Byzantine church, dating back to the 5th century. St. Simeon was born in 386 AD in a village in the Amanus Mountains. Within just a few decades (c.475), a vast martyrium was built in Simeon’s honour on this site.It consisted of four basilicas radiating from the sides of a central octagon, within which was enshrined the famous column. St. Simeon’s pillar can still be seen in the centre of the courtyard, although it is now only a 6ft 7in high boulder due to centuries of relicgathering by pilgrims.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, Idlib, Syria


The stylites were a group of early Christian ascetics who spent long periods of time sitting or standing on top of narrow pillars. The word comes from the Greek stylos for a column. The best known of these pillar monks, was St Simeon Stylites. He sat for thirty years from 423 [CE] onwards on top of a column.
The record is thought to be held by the sixthcentury St Alypius, who is believed to have remained on his pillar for 67 years without a break, for
the last fourteen of them lying down because his feet could no longer support him.



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