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Simeon the Stylite

Norman H. Baynes, a modern historian of Byzantium, writes of Simeon Stylites and his influential
imitator, Daniel the Stylite:

    It was Simeon the Stylite who in the fifth century set the model for this strange form of penitential
asceticism, and it was his renown which led others to follow his example. Syrian asceticism was
represented rather by the solitary than by the monk who shared in the common life of a monastery;
when compared with the Palestinian rule of St. Sabas it adopted extremer forms in its struggle to
subdue the passion of man's intractable flesh. One form which was widely practiced was that of the
'station' (stasis): the ascetic took his 'stand' and thence forth remained immobile. Some would stand
all the night in prayer, some stood continuously for years while others divided the day between sitting
and standing in one and the same spot.

Simeon was born c. A.D. 389 on the borders of Syria and Cilicia; he became a shepherd-boy
and was completely illiterate. It was the hearing of the beatitudes as they were read in church
which led him to asceticism and caused him to join a monastery. Here the rigours of his
mortification of the body roved incompatible with the common life of the brotherhood, so,
leaving the monastery, he began his discipline as a solitary by shutting himself up in a cell not
far from Antioch. Three years later he retired to a neighbouring height, and there marked out for
himself a circular enclosure; to prevent himself from passing beyond this enclosure he attached
himself to a large stone by a chain. After some time he ceased to use the chain, and for four
years he stood within the enclosure without lying or sitting down, 'snowed upon, rained upon,
and scorched'. His fame spread far and wide; pilgrims came in large numbers; the sick sought
healing; all wished to touch him or to carry off some relic from the Saint. To escape the
devotion of the crowds he thought of the expedient of standing upon a column and the original
column was twice increased in height by the addition of a new drum. On the column in its final
form-forty cubits in height-he stood for thirty years without shelter either from the frosts of
winter or the scorching heat of summer. At times the glare of the sun made him completely blind. The
night and the greater part of the day he spent in prayer, but twice a day he addressed the folk who thronged
about the column, giving them moral counsel, settling their disputes, healing their diseases. Arabs,
Persians and Armenians came on pilgrimage to the Saint; Christians came from Italy and Spain, from Gaul
and from Britain. St.Geneviève of Paris wrote to him. In Rome little images of Simeon, even during his
 lifetime, were to be found in work- shops to secure the safety of the workers.

Many ascetics had their own peculiar forms of devotion: Simeon would bow so deeply in his
worship that his forehead all but touched his feet. On one occasion an admirer set himself to
count the number of these bowings; he had counted up to twelve hundred and forty-four and then
desisted from sheer weariness: the Saint continued bowing. The crowds of his admirers had no
doubts of Simeon's sanctity, but the ecclesiastical authorities frowned upon this novel form of
penitential piety. It is clear that the Saint's champions developed an apologia to meet such
criticism: they pointed to the strange conduct of the Jewish prophets. God, they urged, can use
extraordinary means to bring home to man His messages. The apologia was successful: when
Simeon died seven bishops accompanied in solemn procession the translation of the Saint's
remains to Antioch

In this Byzantine world everything was fair where sacred relics were concerned: to secure a
relic guile and even open theft were justified. The dead saint would even help those who sought
to steal his body. When it was thought that a certain holy man was near to death there was a free
fight amongst parties from rival villages. The victors in the affray carried off the body to
Antioch when the Saint, recovering, asked to be taken back to the mountain from which he had
been violently transported. Immediately it was known that Simeon was dead Saracens rushed up
on their camels in order to gain possession of his body by force of arms, but the sacred relic
was guarded by the imperial troops under the command of the master of the soldiery. In Antioch
the body rested; it remained the city's pride and protection.

It is not easy for us to picture to ourselves the life led by the stylite saints on the pillar-top.
There was, of course, a balustrade or iron trellis-work around the platform: we never hear of a
saint inadvertently falling from his pillar. The saint controlled all access to himself since any
visitor was of necessity compelled to wait until the order was given for the ladder to be placed
against the pillar (see the Life, ch. 42). To reach Daniel's first column the ladder according to
one manuscript had fourteen rungs but when a column might be sixteen or eighteen metres in
height the moving of the ladder can have been no light task. The Stylite's column consisted of
three parts: the steps up to the platform at the base of the column, the column itself and then the
enclosure at the column's top. The column of the elder Simeon had three drums, in honour of the
Trinity, says the Syriac biographer. The elder Simeon, as we have seen, had no shelter at all as
he stood upon his column and St. Daniel desired to follow his master's example until he was
ultimately persuaded to permit the construction of a covering. Exceptionally in Daniel's case
twin columns were erected, clamped together by iron bars and a piece of masonry 'of which
it is difficult to fix the position' (Delehaye) Of the extent of the space occupied by the pillar-saint on
the top of the column we have no accurate knowledge; often it is not easy to decide whether
visitors stood on the topmost rungs of the ladder (cf. the Life of Daniel, ch. 95) or whether they
mounted on to the platform.

The Stylite soon became a magnet and drew disciples desiring to settle near the Saint; thus, as it
was with St. Daniel, a monastery was formed or, it might be, as with St. Alypius a nunnery as

It is terrifying to contemplate the sufferings endured through whole decades by these athletes in
the school of salvation: amongst those of strict observance it was not permitted to sit or to lie
down: they had taken their 'stand' and might not desert it. They sought to overcome the need for
sleep and, if sleep they must, they did so, still standing, leaning against the balustrade. To
increase the strain upon the rebel body St. Simeon the younger forced himself for a whole year
to squat upon his heels. Only in the interest of threatened Orthodoxy might they abandon, as did
Daniel, their 'stance' and descend from their column. When they had established themselves in
lonely places they might be forgotten and might all but perish of hunger and thirst. We may
sympathize with Delehaye's comment: 'Nous comprenons difficilement que ces hommes pieux
aient pu agir de la sorte sans tenter la Providence. Leur simplicité est leur grande excuse.'

And, despite everything, they were so astonishingly longlived. Newman's judgment is familiar:
'if these men so tormented their bodies as Theodoret describes, which it is difficult to doubt,
and if, nevertheless, instead of killing themselves thereby, they lived to the great age which he
also testifies, this fact was in itself of a miraculous character'....

    And I had hoped that ere this period closed
    Thou wouldst have caught me up into thy rest,
    not these weather-beaten limbs
    The meed of saints, the white robe and the palm.
    take the meaning, Lord: I do not breathe,
    Not whisper, any murmur of complaint.
    Pain heap'd ten-hundred-fold to this, were still
    Less burthen, by ten-hundred-fold, to bear
    Than were those lead-like tons of sin, that crush'd
    My spirit flat before thee.



Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, I.13:

    In these times [about 440 A.D.] flourished and became illustrious, Simeon, of holy
    and famous memory, who originated the contrivance of stationing himself on the top of
    a column, thereby occupying a space of scarce two cubits in circumference. This man,
    endeavoring to realize in the flesh the existence of the heavenly hosts, lifts himself
    above the concerns of earth, and overpowering the downward tendency of man's
    nature, is intent on things above. He was adored by all the countryside, wrought many
    miracles, and the Emperor Theodosius II listened to his advice and sought his

    Simeon prolonged his endurance of this mode of life through fifty-six years; nine of
    which he spent in the first monastery where he was instructed in divine knowledge,
    and forty-seven in the "Mandra" as it was called; namely, ten in a certain nook; on
    shorter columns, seven; and thirty upon one of forty cubits. After his departure [from
    this life] his holy body was conveyed to Antioch, escorted by the garrison, and a great
    concourse guarding the venerable body, lest the inhabitants of the neighboring cities
    should gather and carry it off. In this manner it was conveyed to Antioch, and
    attended, during its progress, with extraordinary prodigies.

    The body has been preserved nearly entire until my time [about 580 A.D.]; and in
    company with many priests, I enjoyed a sight of his sacred head, in the episcopate of
    the famous Gregory, when Philippicus had requested that precious relic of the saints
    might be sent him for the protection of the Eastern armies. The head was well
    preserved save for the teeth some of which had been violently removed by the hands
    of the pious [for relics].

    According to another writer, Theodoret, in Simeon's lifetime, he was visited by
    pilgrims from near and far; Persia, Ethiopia, Spain, and even Britain. To these at
    times he delivered sermons. He wore on his body a heavy iron chain. In praying, "he
    bent his body so that his forehead almost touched his feet." A spectator once counted
    1244 repetitions of this movement, and then gave up reckoning. Simeon took only one
    scanty meal per week, and fasted through the season of Lent. It is alleged that the devil
    having afflicted him with an ulcer in his thigh as reward for a little self-righteousness,
    Simeon, as penance, never touched the afflicted leg upon the pillar again, and stood
    for the remaining year of his life upon one leg.


Daniel the Stylite


Extract from the Life of Daniel the Stylite (born AD 409):

Here, too, at the monastery, the afore-mentioned holy Simeon had received his training.
And when the monks there began talking about the achievements of the holy Simeon, the monks
from Mesopotamia withstood them, contending that it was but a vainglorious proceeding. 'For',
said they, 'it is true that a man even if he were living in your midst might practice a mode of life
hitherto unknown and please God, yet never has such a thing happened anywhere that a man should
go up and live on a pillar'.

So the monks of that monastery persuaded them to go and see what hardships Simeon was
enduring for the sake of the Lord.* And they were persuaded and went and the holy Daniel with
them. When they arrived at the place and saw the wildness of the spot and the height of the pillar
and the fiery heat of the scorching sun and the Saint's endurance and his welcome to strangers
and further, too, the love he shewed towards them, they were amazed.


For Simeon gave direction that the ladder be placed in position and invited the old men to come
up and kiss him. But they were afraid and declined the ascent of the ladder- one said he was too
feeble from old age, another pleaded weakness after an illness, and another gout in his feet. For
they said to each other, 'How can we kiss with our mouth the man that we have just been
slandering with our lips? Woe unto us for having mocked at such hardships as these and such
endurance'. Whilst they were conversing in this manner, Daniel entreated the archimandrite and
the other abbots and Saint Simeon as well, begging to be allowed to go up to him. On receiving
permission he went up and the blessed man gave him his benediction and said to him, 'What is
your name?' and he answered, 'Daniel'. Then the holy Simeon said to him, 'Play the man, Daniel,
be strong and endure; for you have many hardships to endure for God. But I trust that the God
Whom I serve will Himself strengthen you and be your fellow-traveler'. And placing his hand
upon Daniel's head he prayed and blessed him and bade him go down the ladder. Then after the
holy and blessed Simeon had prayed for the archimandrites he dismissed them all in peace.


After they had all by the will of God been restored to their own monasteries and some little time
had passed, the holy man, Daniel, was deemed worthy to be raised to the post of abbot. Thereupon
he said to himself, 'At last you are free, Daniel,* start boldly and accomplish your
purpose'. When he had made trial of him who held the second place and found that he was able
to undertake the duties of an archimandrite, he left everything and quitted the monastery; and
when he had reached the enclosure of the holy Simeon he stayed there two weeks.

The blessed Simeon rejoiced exceedingly when he saw him and tried to persuade him to remain
still longer, for he found great joy in his company. But Daniel would not consent thereto but
pressed towards his goal, saying, 'Father, I am ever with you in spirit'. So Simeon blessed him
and dismissed him with the words, 'The Lord of glory will accompany you'. Then Daniel went
forth wishing to travel to the holy places and to worship in the church of the Holy Resurrection
and afterwards to retire to the inner desert.


After a space of nine years had elapsed, the servant of God fell into an ecstasy, as it were, and
saw a huge pillar of cloud standing opposite him and the holy and blessed Simeon standing
above the head of the column and two men of goodly appearance, clad in white, standing near
him in the heights. And he heard the voice of the holy and blessed Simeon saying to him, 'Come
here to me, Daniel'. And he said, 'Father, father, and how can I get up to that height?' Then the
Saint said to the young men standing near him, 'Go down and bring him up to me'. So the men
came down and brought Daniel up to him and he stood there. Then Simeon took him in his arms
and kissed him with a holy kiss, and then others called him away, and escorted by them he was
borne up to heaven leaving Daniel on the column with the two men. When holy Daniel saw him
being carried up to heaven he hard the voice of Saint Simeon, 'Stand firm and play the man'. But
he was confused by fear and by that fearful voice, for it was like thunder in his ears. When he
came to himself again he declared the vision to those around him. Then they, too, said to the holy
man, 'You must mount on to a pillar and take up Saint Simeon's mode of life and be supported by
the angels'. The blessed one said, 'Let the will of God, our Master, be done upon His servant'.  And
taking the holy Gospel into his hands and opening it with prayer he found the place in which was written,
(Luke 1:76) 'And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face
of the Lord to prepare His ways'. And he gave thanks and closed the book.


And it came to pass after three days when night had fallen they opened the church in which
Daniel was shut up, and taking the brother he went up to the spot-for Sergius had departed to
another place Thrace-wards-and they found a long plank lying there which the inhabitants of the
suburb had prepared for knocking down the column. This they bound with a rope and stood it up
against the column, and then went up and put the balustrade on the column, for that column was
not really high, only about the height of two men. When they had fitted the balustrade and bound
it firmly with a rope they knelt and prayed to God. And the blessed Daniel went up and stood on
the column inside the balustrade and said, 'Oh Lord Jesus Christ, in Thy holy name, I am
entering upon this contest; do Thou approve my purpose and help me to accomplish my course'.
And he said to the brother, 'Take away the plank and the rest of the rope and get away quickly so
that if anybody comes he may not find you'. And the brother did as he was told.


On the following day there happened to come the elder daughter of Cyrus, the eminent man of
whom we have already spoken,* and she had an evil spirit; and after staying some time in the
enclosure she obtained healing through God. After his daughter had been freed from the demon
and returned to her home, the most distinguished man, Cyrus, whom we have often mentioned,
came giving thanks to God and to the Saint and asked to be allowed to put an inscription on the
column. Though the just man did not wish this to be done, yet, being hard pressed by Cyrus and
not wishing to grieve him, he allowed him to do it. So he had carved on the column the
following lines:

Standing twixt earth and heaven a man you see
Who fears no gales that all about him fret;
Daniel his name. Great Simeon's rival he
Upon a double column firm his feet are set;
Ambrosial hunger, bloodless thirst support his frame
And thus the Virgin Mother's Son he doth proclaim.*

These verses are still inscribed on the column and thus preserve the memory of the man in
whose honour they were written.


Things were in this state when a certain elder born in Pontus came to the Saint's enclosure
bringing with him his son, a young man of about twenty years old, who was afflicted by an evil
spirit. And this evil spirit was deaf and dumb. Then the father fell down before Daniel begging
him to heal his son. Now while the father and his son were still on their way the Saint saw the
young man being held fast by his own servants. And knowing in his spirit why the man was
coming, he besought God for him and asked that He would give him a speedy healing. In
consequence the demon was greatly agitated and having wrenched the young man from the grasp
of the servants who were holding him he dashed away from them. It was Sunday and thus by the
providence of God the ladder was necessarily standing against the column. And the young man
rushed headlong to the ladder and climbed up it, but before he had gone half way up he was
cleansed and descended in perfect health and stood in front of the column with his father
glorifying God; and other signs, too, God did at Daniel's hands.


Now the blessed Emperor Leo* of pious memory had heard from many of these things and
desired for a long time to see the man. Therefore he sent for the pious Sergius, who carried the
Saint's messages, and through him he asked that the Saint would pray and beseech God to grant
him a son. And Daniel prayed, and through God's good pleasure the Emperor's wife, the
Empress Verina,* thereafter conceived and begot a son- whereupon the Emperor immediately
sent and had the foundations laid of a third column.