Up the pole!

Up the pole!

The late NEIL BLEWITT looks back on the demented antics of St Simeon Stylites who took mortification to previously unscaled heights


SIMEON Stylites, passing his final days at the top of a pillar, set a new vogue for ascetics. Like others of his time he had, no doubt, been inspired to adopt a frugal and solitary life-style as a result of Jesus’ teachings. They would all have known that the Son of God had said that those who forsake their families for his sake would inherit eternal life; that seeking the Kingdom of God was the most important objective; that no thought should be taken for one’s food, drink, clothing or other bodily needs; and that those who came from their graves at the bodily resurrection who had done evil would go to eternal damnation.

And if those doctrines were not sufficient to put the fear of God into them, a reading of the Book of Revelation would have made up the deficit. Self-interest dictated that they remove themselves from society and dwell in solitary places where there would be no possibility of their doing evil, and where they could live in purity and practise their penances and deprivations in full view of the Almighty; for they would have been aware of what the Psalmist had written: that the Lord knew their thoughts and words and that he would be with them day and night, behind and before, sitting and standing, in heaven or in the nether world and even in the uttermost parts of the sea.

And so Eusebius elected to live in a driedup well, Antony in a disused tomb, Bavo in a tree, Macarius in a marsh, Paul of Thebes in the desert (as did Marc of Athens but, in an early display of oneupmanship, naked) and Besarion in the middle of some thorn bushes. He may well have been naked too since it is recorded that he stayed there for only 40 days.

Even Jerome lived as a hermit in the desert for a while, his only companions being, as he wrote, scorpions and wild beasts. He was also, he admitted, visited by some voluptuous dancing-girls but they proved to be no more than an hallucination. Whether Jerome judged this to be a matter of relief or regret is not known.

There is nothing to indicate that any of the ascetics chose to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea to practise their bodily chastisements. This will only be revealed when the sea gives up its dead, as John visualised in Revelation, or on the day of the bodily resurrection – whichever comes earlier.

Like Jesus himself, very few of the ascetics worked for their bread. They relied on handouts from those who did. Not that their dietary requirements were excessive. They fasted frequently, often for lengthy periods, and when they were not fasting they subsisted on very basic fare. Oman, it is recorded, lived on five figs a day (which would, at least, have prevented constipation from being added to his problems), another on barley bread and muddy water, a third on dates, while a group known as the Grazers ate only grass like cattle.

There were reports that the Almighty made provision for those ascetics who could not or would not feed themselves and who were not given food by their fellowmen by arranging for them to be fed by other intermediaries, notably otters, lions and ravens.

But solitude and diet were not the only disciplines they conducted. Scourging was common; indeed, by a church on Mount Nitria, three whips were hung – one for the chastisement of monks, the second for thieves and the third for visitors – of whom there must have been but few.

Some ascetics bound themselves in chains, one fastening himself to a rock so effectively that when he eventually decided to move on, a blacksmith had to be sent for to free him; one stood in prayer for an hour every night up to his neck in water, a pool his favoured spot; others walked about bearing heavy weights of iron.

Many neither washed nor cut their hair; Daniel’s was six feet long at his death, while St Mary of Egypt, who spent nearly fifty years in the desert living on dates and berries, was thought by an anchorite to be the very devil when he saw her naked, covered in filth and with long, white hair blowing in the wind.

A recreation of St Mary of Egypt found on this site

A recreation of St Mary of Egypt found on this site

And if that anchorite felt compromised by seeing a woman’s nakedness for an instant (one assumes that he didn’t stare) he may have felt easier in his mind if he had reflected that the omnipresent Almighty had also been viewing her in that condition – and, in his case, for half a century.

But Simeon Stylites must be the outstanding ascetic of them all and not simply for the novelty of his final choice of residence but also for the life of deprivation and self-abuse he submitted himself to before and after he ascended his succession of pillars. He was born about 390 and spent several years in a monastery, all the time increasing his mortifications until he almost killed himself by wearing a rope next to his skin tied so tightly that it became embedded in his flesh which putrefied around it. His fellow-monks were unaware of his condition until they noticed worms dropping from his body as he moved about the monastery.

After this, he lived for a while in a dry well, then chained to a rock at the top of a mountain (he it was for whom the blacksmith had to be summoned) and finally at the top of a succession of pillars, each one higher than its predecessor, in an effort, perhaps, to get ever closer to the Almighty.

The last was some sixty feet high and “scarcely two cubits in circumference.” He repeatedly bowed his body in prayer – for lengthy periods standing, often for days on end; and, on one occasion at least, on one leg.

A visitor counted over 1,000 bodily prostrations during one day and many marvelled at his lengthy fasts. His body became covered in ulcers and his biographer, who had ascended his pillar to gather material for a book, was requested by Simeon to collect up the worms that had fallen from him and replace them in his ulcers so that they might continue with their repast.

When he died, it was said that a bright star shone miraculously over his pillar, but that he contrived to stay alive for nearly 70 years seems to me to be the greater miracle. The fact that he was not a somnambulist must also have contributed to his longevity.

I have often wondered what reception the ascetics would receive when they reached the heavenly kingdom after the day of bodily resurrection in which, I imagine, they believed, as present-day Christians are required to by their creeds. Would the Almighty say “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”? Or “You silly sod”?

I know of two poets (there may be others) who have written of Simeon Stylites. One is Tennyson, whose portraits show him to be as lugubrious as most of the ascetics must have looked. He has his subject recalling the events of his life just before his demise.

The other is Ogden Nash, who described an event that I have not seen documented elsewhere. It is worth adding to the record:

The saintly Simeon Stylites

When faced with a shortage of nighties

Sanctimonious and solemn

Reached up from his column

And quietly stole the Almighty’s.

Note: The Spanish film director Luis Buñuel’s final film of his Mexican period is the short, punchy Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto), possibly:

The great surrealist’s wittiest and funniest film, and certainly his most focused meditation on a subject that interested him throughout his career: the combined folly and nobility of profound religious faith.

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