Four hundred years after Jesus, to nine hundred years after Jesus, numerous Near Eastern and Greek Christians climbed atop high marble posts and never came down again.
Some of these ‘Stylites’ (from a Greek word for pillar) were elevated to the status of saints and regarded as models of holiness.
Asceticism is the practice of denying various comforts to oneself and even inflicting upon oneself various occasions of discomfort. Most religions endorse ascetic discipline in the belief that physical hardship is a sure path to spiritual maturity.
Through the ages, the really dedicated ascetics declined all comforts.
Ascetics lived on tasteless foods. They rejected fashionable clothing and wore intentionally uncomfortable clothes. They bathed infrequently. They spent less time or no time with the opposite sex. They disdained sexuality. They had no children and avoided the company of children. They absented themselves from adult society too. They had no property. They had no money. They had no bells, books or candles. Actually, they tended to hoard the candles.
Some of these spiritual experts went the added half-mile and bravely sought out pain by inserting jagged pebbles into their sandals for the long walk home, or wrapping themselves in razor-sharp nettles, or chaining themselves to boulders or trees, or burying themselves in soft sand, or whipping themselves to a ruddy pulp, or holding an arm aloft until it withered, or sitting long years atop cold, bare ruined marble pillars.
Simeon was the first of the pillar sitters and became the very model of a pre-modern major saint. Nod approval, Mr. Alfred Lord Tennyson. You wrote a poem to Mr. Simeon Saint Stylite in the third decade of the nineteenth century.
Simeon started the pillar trend in fifth century Syria. He lived on a pole top nearly forty years, descending only once to attend his own burial, necessitated by his slipping and falling at a very high velocity from atop the pole.
Since the human eye is naturally drawn to a large object sitting fifty feet high, Simeon achieved considerable fame and was even admired by the Roman emperor of his day. Simeon’s celebrity produced numerous imitators for the next few hundred years.
And so the world received a new ascetical hue in the Stylites. Adepts of a new Christian religion were perched on the temple ruins of an old Roman religion. Holy pillar sitters were born.
We have to grant that Stylites performed asceticism with burlesque muscularity, and only those ascetics who buried themselves up to their nether lip or tethered themselves to boulders or wrapped themselves in bramble bushes even came close to the theatricality of the pillar saints.
But we have to ask: What is the origin of self-mortification in religions? Why the contrarianism, the rejection of normalcy? Why is holiness harsh?
There is a false dichotomy at work here. Body vs. soul. Worldliness vs. other-worldliness. To feed the soul one must punish the body. To win the other world one must disdain this world. Wrong, all wrong.
Wouldn’t it have been holier even in the age of Stylites to have kept your feet flat upon the ground and worked for a living and raised a family?
And yet in our day many still believe holiness is defined by otherworldly asexual asceticism. What wee one digit percent of any religion’s saints was ever married with children?
It’s a wonder the average layman or laywoman didn’t long ago press the case for the unmatched rigors of what might be called domestic holiness and the hardships of home and hearth: marriage, child-rearing, home cooking, home repairs, home work, paying debts, paying respects, and the congenial industry of making and keeping neighborly friends.
If we could begin right now to elevate world-embracing people as spiritual exemplars, in two hundred years our religions would have altogether new communions of saints to admire and write biographies about.
Saints of the future will be commonplace, worldly family types, too busy with the real asceticism of daily life to ever consider the pious antics of addled angels like Saint Simeon.
Here’s a peek at a biography, not a hagiography, to be written in the year 2222:
Saint Doris arose pre-dawn each day to cook breakfast for her clutch, prepare their lunches, dress them, and ferry them off to various schools before she herself commenced her medical rounds at Dandelion Hospital in Neo-Rochelle. Her husband, Saint Travis, took the train into The City to labor among the tired huddled masses gathered there every day of the world—to work.
Featured image ‘Church of Saint Simeon Stylites’ by Arian Zwegers via Flickr