As the church grew institutionally during its first centuries, those flooding through its doors were not always of high caliber. In reaction, a number of Christians withdrew to a life of poverty, chastity, and separation. Monastic forms developed, and sometimes rivalry arose among monks concerning self-denial. Simeon seems to have won the contest.

He was born about 390 to a shepherd’s family in Cilicia. He kept flocks as a boy, but when thirteen he was moved by listening to the Beatitudes. He left home to join a cloister but was soon dismissed because of his acts of self-torture. Simeon moved to the Syrian desert and lived with an iron chain on his feet before having himself buried up to the neck for several months.

When crowds flocked to view his acts of perceived holiness, Simeon determined to escape the distractions by living atop a pillar. His first column was six feet high, but soon he built higher ones until his permanent abode towered sixty feet above ground.

The tiny perch wouldn’t allow for comfort, but a railing and a rope kept Simeon from falling while asleep. Disciples took his food and removed his waste by ladder. The rope eventually became embedded in his flesh, rotted, and teemed with worms. When worms fell from his sores, Simeon would pick them up and replace them, saying, “Eat what God has given you.”

Simeon lived atop his pole for thirty years, exposed to blistering heat, driving rain, and chilling frost. But if his motive was crowd avoidance, he failed. Huge numbers came to gawk at him, and Simeon preached to them daily, stressing the importance of prayer, selflessness, and justice. He settled disputes between neighbors and persuaded lenders to reduce their interest.

He was likened to a candle on a candlestick.

He died at age 69, but his example created a fashion of pillar hermits lasting over a thousand years. His name has been remembered throughout church history on January 5—in western tradition the Feast Day of Saint Simeon Stylites.

You would have to leave this world to get away from everyone who is immoral or greedy or who cheats or worships idols. (1 Corinthians 5:10)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan.5.

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