April 10th, 2013
Saint Simeon Stylites Influence on Later Ascetic Practices
Saint Simeon Stylite the Elder was a pioneer of early Christian monasticism. He is noted today as the man who sat atop a pillar, braving the cold, heat, sleet and rain, day and night, for 37 years. Living mostly in the fifth century, he was highly influential in convincing Pagans and Jews to convert to Christianity (1). After his death, he became a prime example influencing Monk’s in the practice of asceticism. His extreme examples of fasting, self-torture and prayer were all examples of how to become closer to the Biblical Lord. Simeon was born approximately 389 CE to a middle class family in a small village in northern Syria. His family owned a flock of sheep to which he tended in his youth. At the age of 13, while herding his sheep, he stumbled upon a Christian Church on a Sunday. There he heard a sermon that influenced him to become a Christian. By the age of 18 he left his family to live in a nearby monastery to become a monk. As a monk he practiced extreme forms of ascetics including hermitage, fasting and self-torture (2). “Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men- so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.” Isaiah 53.13 – 15 John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples and Saint Paul practiced ascetics and were Simeon’s major influences. Both John and Jesus practiced a 40 day fast, and both suffered a greatly terrible tortured death. Ascetics were a giant part of Simeon’s methods of operation. From the time he discovered the Gospel as an adolescent he began fasting as a form of worship. When he was in his physical prime, he only ate a small amount, once a week, on Sundays. On two occasions, he celebrated Lent without any food for 40 days (2). Simeon practiced many forms of self torture. He kept a wound open on his leg and encouraged infection to live in constant pain. He experienced sleep deprivation, creating devices that would awaken him if he were to fall asleep. He also vowed to remain standing and did so, for over 50 years. In his early career, he tied a rope around his mid-section and left it there for three years. When it was removed, his flesh had grown around the rope. The smell was noted as being so horrendous that he was asked to leave the monastery. Another reason for being asked to leave the monastery was that his ascetic practices were too extreme and the other monks were jealous of him (3). In the medieval era, hermit living and isolating oneself from society was considered an effective way for a monk to become closer to God. Society was considered full of mistruths and temptations. Simeon took hermitage very seriously. He locked himself away into a hut for ten years to pray and repent. He was fed by other monks who passed food through a gap in the wall. Simeon tied himself to a post for a year and a half, as to help quell the temptation of returning to society comforts (4). Being so extreme is his ascetics, people began to talk about Simeon. His fame grew and he began having difficulties with pilgrims who would insist on begging Simeon for a miracle. They would often want to rip a piece of his clothing for a relic souvenir. This attention led Simeon to sit atop his first of three pillars, high above the physical grasp of the public (2). Simeon’s pillar living was designed as a means to an end. His fame was growing across Christendom and he needed to somehow further isolate himself from his followers. He located his pillar on top of a small mountain where he could be closer to the heavens. He dwelled just outside of the city of...
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