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 Holy persons of many religions have at all times withdrawn from the secular world to draw closer to God.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.
(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.