The ruins of a church built around St Simeon's pillar.
For centuries after Christ’s death, Christians eagerly sought martyrdom, desperate enough to share some of the pain and humiliation of crucifixion. When, however, Christianity became the official religion of the empire they were denied that privilege. Other ways of proving yourself had to be found.
It is hard now to fathom the intensity of faith, which in Christ’s words could move mountains. There are no records of Christians in Syria or the Holy Land moving mountains, but it wasn’t for lack of faith or desire to emulate Christ. For them, the cosmic struggle between light and the forces of darkness were very real, some seeing it as their duty to create a ring of steel, protecting the Holy Land from demonic intrusion.
Hermit monks settled themselves in mountainous crags absorbed in prayer and contemplation. Deprived of martyrdom, they starved themselves, suffered thirst and prayed whole nights without sleeping. Some went to further extremes, mixing ash in their gruel, living from the waste scraped from their sandals, living like cattle—chained to cowsheds eating grass. One saintly woman confined herself to a cell that had a spectacular riverside view. For the rest of her life, she refused to look out, praying instead to the opposite wall.
There was fierce competition in the holiness stakes. Theodore – the empire’s most celebrated living saint was a man of awesome holiness. He wore a fifty-pound metal corset, subsisted entirely on lettuce and was thus able to forecast the end of the world
None though compared to the all-conquering Stylites which, admittedly sounds like some kind of a Motown Band. The first and most famous was St Simeon Stylites (390-459 AD) who spent more than 30 years standing on top of a 200-metre pillar near Aleppo—all the time preaching to the masses below. When not preaching, he did trunk curls repeatedly touching his toes with his head in unnerving repetition. Eventually the former young shepherd boy degenerated into a withered, worm-infested and fabulously hairy old man known from Britain to Ethiopia as ‘The Hairy One.’ Pilgrims travelled for miles seeking miracles.
Feeling cheated, the imperial capital felt in need of its own Simeon Stylites and so, a year after his death, a disciple was persuaded to climb a similar pillar on the outskirts of Constantinople. There, Simeon’s disciple spent the rest of his life lecturing the emperor and nobles who flocked around to be suitably chastised.
Stylites popped up all over the place. There was the not so well known Alypius who stood on top of his platform for 53 years until his legs gave in. He spent the remaining 14 years lying down on his pillar until he died aged 118.
And then, to confuse things, seventy years later (517 – 592 AD) another St Simeon Stylites – known as ‘The Younger’ so as not to confuse things.
He began his career aged seven, marching from Antioch to the Syrian desert. After a year’s training in a nearby monastery he ascended his pillar where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Plagued by demons, leg ulcers and worse, nothing deterred him; his reward, heavenly visions and huge crowds of pilgrims, lepers, and other unimaginable diseases, all of which he apparently cured.
Antioch took great pride in him, his pillar seen as a heavenly lightning rod attracting celestial residue. So, ironically, Simeon who’d left Antioch to be alone with God found Antioch had followed him, a burgeoning tourist economy bustling around the base of his pillar.
It’s hard to imagine anything similar in our present age, though as late as the 1920’s there was perhaps a faint parallel in the American craze for pole-sitting – in most cases associated with advertising. (From the sublime to the worldly) It’s greatest exponent was Aloysius Anthony Kelly, better known as ‘Shipwreck Kelly.’ Kelly began life as an orphan in Manhattan’s ‘Hell Kitchen’ and became the prestige brand of pole-sitting often going on tours. He’s small fry though, compared to his Syrian forbears who stayed on their pillars for years. Kelly’s record was a mere 49 days at 69 feet in Atlantic City. He died, knocked over by a car in 1954 when I was a small boy and Doris Day was in the charts with ‘My Secret Love.’
A far cry from Antioch.