(Died 459 AD) (Feast January 5th)
If on a drive out into the country you should suddenly come upon a hermit living atop a 60-foot column, would you conclude that he was holy or daft?
In the fifth century, people crossing Syrian wastelands saw just such a hermit, and at first shook their heads about his sanity. But the man on the pillar was indeed a saint – St. Simeon the Stylite (i.e. the column-sitter). Those who got to know him, despite his unusual lifestyle, quickly reached that conclusion.
Simeon (or Simon), born near the border of Syria, tended sheep for his father until he was thirteen. Then one day in church he heard the beatitudes read. Of the eight, “Blessed are they that mourn” and “Blessed are the clean of heart” impressed him particularly. Moved by them, he decided to become a monk and commit himself to a life of prayer and mortification.
Having learned in a couple of monasteries the ways of monastic life, and having become adept at fasting and other forms of self-denial (for instance, he did not eat or drink at all during Lent), Simeon set up as a lone hermit living without shelter on a mountain top.
Before long, however, people began to hear of this “escapist”, and to visit him, whether out of devotion or curiosity. He cured many of their ailments, and gave counsel to those who asked. Many wanted just to touch him, an indication of their deep reverence.
Simeon was glad to help others, but he wanted to be free to carry on his prayers. Therefore in 423 AD he asked some masons to build him a column 15 feet high, with a five or six-foot-square platform on top. When it was finished, he mounted it, resolved never again to descend.
The column helped him both to achieve and to symbolize a greater detachment from the world, although he eventually replaced column No. 1 with higher columns: 20 feet high, 36 feet high, and finally 60 feet high. For the rest of his life, at any rate, he lived and prayed on these eyries, exposed to all the elements. Since he was not a priest, a neighboring priest or bishop would climb up to give him Holy Communion.
Now, at the time Simeon climbed his first pillar, the local bishops and abbots, to test his humility, sent word to him to come down “and cease this odd way of life.”
Simeon started at once to descend. That was enough for the delegate. “You have shown yourself obedient,” he told the hermit. “Stay where you are, and God be with you!”
The warm popularity that Simeon enjoyed thereafter was nothing short of marvelous. Twice a day he would give a gentle but firm exhortation to the pilgrims who visited him. He especially warned them against swearing and against dishonesty in business. He reminded them of the need of cultivating piety, and the importance of praying for the salvation of others.
Christians (including three emperors) were not the only visitors who sought his advice. Persians, Armenians, and Iberians of Caucasus journeyed far to hear his engaging addresses. Many were converted to Christianity by his words and miracles. Simeon died in the summer of 459.
It was a peaceful death. He simply bowed over as if in prayer, and passed away. The whole country honored him when he was buried in Antioch, and many were the miracles wrought on that occasion.
God usually directs souls along routine ways. Every now and then, however, He gives to chosen ones an apostolate or a grace so striking that the world takes notice. One of these chosen souls was Simeon, the “holy aerial martyr”. When people wanted to look at him, they had to look up.
We, too, should live so that others may look up to us.
–Father Robert F. McNamara