Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Saint on the Pillar

If anyone had told Simeon the shepherd boy who was following his flocks over the Syrian mountains in the early part of the fifth century, that he was by his own choice to spend most of his life on a pillar, and die standing on it, he would have laughed in scorn. What! give up wandering about the hills, and throwing sticks into the rivers that came so swiftly down after the melting of the snows? Give up the games with his friends and the winter evenings in the cottage, when his mother sat and mended his clothes while he gazed idly into the fire? Oh, it was absurd! He might go away perhaps to be a soldier, or join one of the merchant's caravans that went to Persia or India, and brought back the wonderful things which his father had seen, though of course he  never had. Yes, he might do that!  but stand on a pillar!—yet it was this, and nothing else, which came to pass.

'Would you like to know how it happened? Well, I will tell you.'

Simeon's parents were Christians, like most of the people about them, but were terribly poor, and glad enough they felt when a farmer, who lived near by, offered the boy a place as his shepherd. The child was delighted, and as soon as he held his first week's pay in his hand, felt himself a man, and hastened proudly home to give it to his mother. He was most careful of the sheep, and drove them away from the edges of ravines where they might fall and break their legs, and from marshy places which were apt to make their feet sore, and from thorny bushes where they might get entangled, and kept them on the rich dry grass of the upland meadows, where the flowers grew. And the farmer thought he had never had such a good shepherd, and resolved that when the boy grew older he would give him work on the farm.

Thus passed the summer and autumn, and as winter drew near, the sheep were led into the lower pastures, and grazed in the fields near Simeon's home. Then the snows began, and fell so thickly that they had to remain in the fold, safe from the wolves that were driven by hunger down the mountains, and Simeon was free to do as he liked. It sounded very pleasant; but in truth, when he had done all he could to help his mother, he did not know how to employ himself. He strolled outside, but there was no one to be seen and nothing to be heard—nothing, that is, except the church bell. Ah! that was a good idea! Why should not he go to church? At any rate he would be warm there, and it would pass away the time.

So he waded through the snow and entered the church and stood—for in the Greek church they either stand or kneel—in a corner not far from the pulpit.

Perhaps he did not listen very much at first. His thoughts may have wandered as children's thoughts—and grown-up people's too—are apt to do, and he gazed idly up at the priest, who was an old friend of his father's, as he gave out his text from the Sermon on the Mount.

'Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.' And as Simeon listened, something seemed to awake inside him: the trappings of the soldier, the vision of the caravan of camels moving across the Syrian desert, fell away from him. He did not want outside things any more, and when the sermon was ended, he shook himself as if to make sure he was awake, and followed the priest into the sacristy, and with bowed head asked how he  could grow pure in heart, and some day 'see God.'

'Go into a monastery, my son,' answered the priest, 'where the world will be shut out; and if you spend years in fasting and prayer, all evil desires will gradually pass from you, and your heart will become pure.'

Simeon bowed his head again, and went slowly out, not knowing where he was going. He wanted to think over the counsel given him by the priest, for though he was only a boy, he felt that he was deciding the question of his whole life. Which was right, to obey the priest, or to stay at home and work for his father and mother? It was very difficult; and he did not feel able to settle the matter himself. Suddenly, he looked up, and saw that he had walked a long way, and quite near him was the little church of the next village. Quickening his steps he entered the door, and flinging himself on his knees, prayed that he might be shown what to do.

After that he returned home, and said nothing of what had happened. But his mother saw that he looked very tired and sent him to bed early.

Simeon was soon fast asleep, and in his sleep he dreamed that he was digging the foundations of a building when a voice spoke to him, saying 'Dig deeper, dig boldly; for the pit is not deep enough.' So he dug and dug with all his might, and thrice the voice bade him go on; then it called him to cease, crying:

'Enough, erect the building, and now you will find it easy to build, for you have conquered yourself.'

Then Simeon awoke, and lay on his bed a long time, wondering what could be the meaning of the dream—for he was sure it had one. At last he interpreted the dream for himself, and said that until he had dug out all evil and worldly things from his mind, he could build nothing that would stand against temptation. Now, he was certain he had received a sign that the priest had been right, so dressing himself softly he stole out of the cottage, and ran off to the monastery.

Hardly able to speak from the haste he had made, he knocked timidly at the door, and was admitted by one of the monks. After telling his story, he was left alone for a while, and then he was received on probation, as it was called, for a number of weeks, so that the monks could find out if he was suitable to the life or not. But watch as they might, they could discover nothing in the boy to cause them to reject him. For several days he fasted, and they looked on astonished that a being, not yet full grown, could go so long without food, and spend so many hours on his knees. He studied the Psalms, too, till he could say them off without a mistake. At last he was told that he was accepted as a monk, and great was his joy.

For two years he remained in the monastery, and then one evening, when the monks came out from chapel, he asked the Superior if he might speak to him in his cell. When the door behind them was closed, Simeon told how he longed to follow the example of many holy hermits, and go himself into the desert, where he could have no distractions from prayer, such as had beset him since he entered the convent. Only thus could he become 'pure in heart' he said; when he entered the monastery he had thought it would be easy to shut out temptations—as easy as his dream had promised him—but he had found it was not so. In the desert, surely, he would have peace, and he looked up hopefully at the Superior, for he was young, and did not know that our temptations go with us wherever we may be. The Superior was wiser, but he understood that Simeon must discover this for himself, and that it was better not to put hindrances in his way.

A few days later, Simeon bade farewell to the monastery—perhaps also to his parents—and took up his abode on Mount Corypheus, in the lonely monastery over which Heliodorus ruled as Abbot. Here, by his own wish he was given the lowest place, doing the work of a servant, and only eating as much as served to keep him alive, for he fasted as long and as often as ever, and saved part of the food allowed him for the poor. But he persisted besides in scourging himself so violently, that the Abbot was afraid he would kill himself, and after many warnings sent him away for a time, declaring he would not answer for his life.

After a while brother Simeon returned to the monastery, but in a few months he again grew restless, and went off to another mountain and built himself a small stone hut where he could live entirely alone, and do exactly what he chose. Fasting became his rule and eating his exception, and at the end of three years he vowed he had become so strong, that he could stand all day and keep awake nearly all night. When things had reached this point, he left his hut and climbed to the very top of the mountain, carrying with him a chain thirty feet in length.

'What can brother Simeon be going to do with that?' thought one or two men whom he met on his way, but brother Simeon never heeded them if even he knew they had passed by, so full was his mind of what he was about to do.

On the mountain side was a sort of flat shoulder, which was exactly the place which Simeon had been seeking. It took him a long time to collect all the stones he wanted, for many of them had to be brought from a distance, but at length he decided that he had enough for his purpose, and gazed at the two heaps he had made with something like a smile of content. 'Now I can begin,' said he, and he, set about building a rough wall round an enclosed green space. His back was aching and his hands sore before he had finished, but he did not care for that, and picking up the chain from where it lay, he fastened it round his waist, and fixed the ends to each side of the enclosure, putting great stones over them, sufficiently heavy to hold them down.

He thought that by thus cutting himself off from mankind, and all that made life pleasant, he would grow closer to God and nearer to perfection, and everyone else thought so too. The fame of his holiness spread throughout Northern Syria and Asia Minor, and pilgrims to Jerusalem turned out of their way to receive Simeon's blessing. Among his visitors one of the earliest was the Bishop of Antioch. The sight of the wild-eyed young man with long, matted hair made a great impression on the Bishop. Simeon was of course very dirty, nothing but rain ever washed him—but in those days dirt was usually considered necessary to the holy life. He was also very thin, for he ate only a little goat's milk and bread brought him daily by a herdsman who lived on the other side of the mountain, but his face gleamed with joy as he told the Bishop the story of his past life, and how much he had longed for solitude, so that he might become holy. His listener was deeply interested. He had seen many hermits before, but they  had been merely men living apart, in deserts, and none of them had dreamed of tormenting his body after the manner of brother Simeon. Only one thing was lacking to him, in the mind of the Bishop, and before he bade the hermit farewell, he spoke: 'You have chained yourself, I perceive,' he said; 'but why? Only wild beasts need chains, lest they should escape into the forests; it is of your own free will that you remain where you are. Surely that will is enough?'

'You are right,' answered Simeon; 'I had not thought of that,' and he begged the Bishop to send him a man from the village as he went down the mountains, to strike off his chains, and leave him to stand there unfettered by anything save the vows he had made to himself and God.

As time passed on, the throngs of people who came to him daily increased. Some hoped to be cured by his touch or his prayers from the diseases which tormented them; others sat on the wall and poured out to him their troubles and asked his advice, which they always followed, thinking it was inspired by God. At first Simeon was pleased at their coming, but he soon began to tire of them, and longed to push the crowd away from him, when it pressed too closely. It was then that he bethought himself of making a column which would raise him above their heads, and it was thus he obtained the surname of 'Stylites,' by which he is known, from a Greek word meaning 'pillar.'

His earliest column was nine feet high, and on top was a platform three feet across, so that it was quite impossible for him, even had he wished, to lie down on it. Everyone believed, Simeon himself first among them, that he never sat at all, and even slept standing. No doubt in course of time he was able from habit to balance himself more easily than other men, but we also know now that when people scarcely eat or sleep, and do not use their minds, they get into strange conditions, and fancy many things that are not true.

However, Simeon was satisfied with the life he had chosen, and never for a moment suspected that he could have served God better in some other way.

We can tell how he spent his days from a history given of him by Theodoret, one of his most devout admirers. In the evening he began, so said Simeon, his long course of prayer, which continued all through the night till noon the next day. On one occasion a man, filled with awe and devotion, sat at the foot of the pillar, his eyes fixed on Simeon, who, if he saw him, paid no heed to his presence. The watcher counted 1244 bows made by the saint—it must have been a moonlight night—in the course of his prayers, and then he himself grew tired of counting, or perhaps he fell asleep. When Simeon's prayers were ended he preached to the crowds around the base of the pillar, and argued about his Faith with men of other religions, or with heretics.

He prophesied too, and gave warnings of disasters which would come as punishment for sin, and Bishops and Kings, who journeyed from far to ask his advice, rode away with bowed heads and shame in their hearts when he accused them of misdeeds they had thought were known only to themselves.

Yet even to a man on a pillar temptations will come, and there was one which sorely beset the hermits of old, perhaps more than other men—that of thinking themselves holier than their fellows, because of the dreariness of their lives. It was natural enough, when they found their lightest word obeyed and their reproof taken by those whose right to give life or death to their own subjects was quite unquestioned; when, for instance, heathen monarchs such as Varanes, King of Persia, sent public marks of his esteem to the saint upon the pillar, which by this time was thirty-six feet high. But the sin of self-righteousness was, according to Theodoret, quickly brought home to Simeon, and swift was the penalty.

'I am not as other men are,' he had said proudly to himself, and when he thought of the manner of his death, he was convinced that it also would not be in the manner of other men or even of other hermits.

One day when he was quite alone, for his listeners had just left him, a chariot suddenly appeared before him, and so real was the vision, and so confident was the saint that death would take strange shape for him, that he lifted one leg in order to step into it. As he did so, he made the sign of the cross and the chariot vanished, but his foot still remained in the air, and for a year he stood on one leg on the pillar, himself a warning against the deadly sin of pride.

Now it happened that the hermits scattered about the neighbouring deserts did not look upon the saint upon the pillar with the same eyes as the multitudes of his disciples, who flocked to see and hear him. However much they might call their feeling by other names, these hermits were jealous of his fame, and declared that he was no holier than the rest of them. So they fixed a meeting place where large numbers assembled and talked over the matter, discussing the best plan to expose Simeon, and to show the world what an impostor he really was. Of course they were all aware that no one would listen to any tales of theirs, but a trap must be laid which he himself would fall into, and this was not so easy to find. First one thing was proposed, and then another, and each had some objection. At length a very old hermit stood up and said, 'Brothers, I know what to do: let us choose out two or three among us and let them go to the mountain and bid Simeon come down from his pillar. If he is willing to do so, we shall feel that he is a true man, if not—'and he paused, and the brethren nodded their heads and answered 'It is well,' being quite sure in their own minds that Simeon would not obey them.

At sunrise the three hermits who had been selected by the rest started on their journey. It took them a long while, as for many years they had scarcely left the caves in which they lived and their legs were very stiff, while their feet soon grew tired. But they comforted themselves by remembering that after all the delay did not matter, as whenever they got there Simeon would still be on the top of his pillar, and their message would be delivered. So they did not hurry.

The saint was standing on his pillar one hot day preaching to a greater crowd than usual, when three men, even more ragged and dusty than hermits generally were, appeared round the shoulder of the mountain, and halted, watching and waiting till the sermon should be ended, and they could say their say before the people departed to their homes—they would take care of that! Of course they protested to each other—and themselves—that they were only anxious the world should no longer be deceived, but their triumphant faces told a different tale! Relinquish the faith that shone in those hundreds of eyes, and the admiration that overflowed in those hundreds of hearts, and confess himself a mere mortal like the rest, by leaving his post where he stood like a beacon, and mix unnoticed with those whom he now commanded! Was it likely Simeon would do this? And, hermits and recluses though they were, they judged aright. But the minutes seemed to drag till the sermon was ended; then whispering 'It is time,' the three strangers pressed forward to a little knoll above the heads of the people, where they could be seen by all.

St. Simeon Stylites

"The delusion of the Saint."

'Simeon, we are sent by the hermits of the desert to command thee to leave thy pillar and come down and be as one of us,' so they cried, and paused; and the crowd held its breath, waiting.

'Am I here for my own glory ? Of course I will come down. Let some one bring me a ladder; these were the words that rang out in answer from the pillar. The crowd gave a low gasp, and the hermits gazed at each other. This was not the reply they had expected; the man was a true man and servant of God after all; or else—for suspicion and jealousy are hard to kill—he was stronger than they. In either case the victory lay with him, and with a sigh they made answer:

'No, it is enough. Stay on thy pillar and may thy preaching prosper.'

The story of that day's event spread far and wide, and Simeon was held in greater reverence than ever. Visions he beheld, too, of coming disasters, and was thus enabled to warn both kings and people to repent, while there was yet time. Sometimes they listened, and the threatened punishment was averted; more often they contented themselves with saying how wonderful were his words, and how terrible were the sins of which he spoke.

As to the rod that he had seen that night hanging over the earth, foretelling, as the saint declared, the scourge of famine and pestilence, why he described it all so beautifully that you felt as if you had beheld it yourself! And the warning was neglected and the sermon forgotten, till in two years the plague which he had prophesied came to pass.

Another time he predicted that grasshoppers, numerous as the locusts in Egypt of old, would darken the face of the country, but that they would only devour the grass of the fields, leaving untouched the food of man. And just as he had foretold, fifteen days afterwards the air grew black with grasshoppers; and people sat in their houses trembling with fear, till a strong wind arose and blew them away, and only the bare earth, where once the grass had been, bore witness to their passing.

Henceforward till his death the life of the saint was divided between preaching and prayer, and people never grew weary of hearing him. But at length men began to notice that the little basket he let down daily for them to fill with food often remained for hours without being drawn up, and though he preached as before, his voice grew weaker, and sometimes he seemed to forget the words he wished to speak. 'The chariot will come for him soon,' they whispered, remembering the story of days gone by; and a few days later he died in their midst, standing on his pillar. (January 5, 459.)

Great was the cry that echoed over the mountains when the news was told, and it resounded, men said, for seven miles round, so deep was the grief at his loss. His body was taken to Antioch and there buried, while a church was set up to his memory on the site of the pillar.