Abba Simeon The Stylite
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Simeon the Stylite?
Abba Simeon was given the name Simeon the Stylite because of the unprecedented form of monasticism that he pioneered. At the age of 13 he had a vision in which he was digging a deep pit in order to lay a foundation for a structure whose height he would determine as he pleased. This vision set the stage for a movement whose adherents would later be called pillar dwellers (the word stylite means pillar).
Abba Simeon the Stylite was born around the end of the 4th century to a shepherding family near Syria. When he was 13 years old he heard the beatitudes of Jesus read in church. He heart leapt at the statements,
“Blessed are those who mourn,” and, “Blessed are the pure of heart.”
Simeon sought wisdom on the meaning of these statements from an old man who was present. The elder told him that…
“…continual prayer, watching, fasting, weeping, humiliation and the patient suffering of persecution were pointed out by these texts as the road to true happiness; and that a solitary life afforded the best opportunity for the practice of virtue.”
Shortly afterwards Simeon fell asleep and had the aforementioned vision. He arose from his sleep and committed himself to a solitary life of seeking God at a nearby monastery. He spent two years there learning the words of Scripture in order to nourish his soul by the Divine utterance. He learned the book of Psalms by heart through recitation, embraced humility, and learned charity, so much so that he quickly gained the love of the other monks.
Over the next few years he tried numerous methods of harsh discipline to draw closer to God. Once, he tied a piece of cloth tightly around his body and left it there for some time until it began to eat away at his flesh. The infection left him near dead and he was removed from the monastery by the abbot of the monastery lest he influence the other monks to attempt the same thing.
Another time, he resolved to neither eat or drink during the whole of lent, a 40 day period. He survived, but just barely, and had to be nursed back to health by a priest who came to visit him and found him near death. He practiced this rigorous type of fasting for most of his life, especially during the lenten season.
He also enclosed himself in a structure on a mountain without a roof and fastened himself to a rock using a chain in order to endure the harsh weather and environment. A well respected leader in nearby Antioch named Meletius visited him in this enclosure and told him…
“a firm will, supported by God's good grace, would enable him to abide in his solitary enclosure without having recourse to any bodily restraint…”
If he was truly a spiritual man, he would rely on the grace of God and forsake the external moderation.
He continued to dwell on the mountain, alone with God, and news of the wisdom and grace he carried began to spread throughout the surrounding regions. Eventually, he was thronged with visitors desiring prayer, wisdom, and guidance. Wishing to forsake the distraction of the constant visitors and desiring nearness to God, Simeon the Great, became Abba Simeon the Stylite. In 423 AD, He erected a pole first six cubits (~9 feet) high, and eventually expanded to a height of 40 cubits (~60 feet) to remove himself from this world and embrace life with God.
There are certain people that God chooses to move uniquely through, and Simeon is no exception. What we can learn from Abba Simeon has more to do with his character than it does with his practice. The severity of his lifestyle is not to be imitated by most, if any, but the softness of his heart is to be embraced by all.
He was known as a man who had prophetic insight and spiritual discernment. He was once visited by a man who had a dispute with a holy man living the monastic lifestyle named Abba Gelasius. This man, Batacus, happened to be traveling through the region inhabited by Abba Simeon and desired to meet with the pillar dweller. Simeon, upon seeing him asked him what his purpose was. Batacus asked the monk for prayer. Simeon, discerning the heart of Batacus (who had seized some of Gelasius’s crop in order to drive him from the land), rebuked Batacus. He said,
“Wretch, you don’t want to say that you are going to act against the man of God. But your way is not favourable for you and you will not see your house again. If you will follow my advice, leave these parts and hurry to him and ask his pardon, if you are still alive when you reach that place.”
Batacus immediately fell ill with fever and died shortly thereafter.
Another time, a woman desired to see Simeon, but he was known for not entertaining women visitors. She disguised herself as a soldier and joined a group of men going to visit him. When the soldiers she had joined dismounted to visit the monk, she stayed behind with the horses. Simeon, upon seeing the group said,
”One soldier from among you stayed at the wall; when you return to him, tell him: 'The prayer of your soul has ascended to the ears of the Lord and the Lord God has blessed you, for He knows well the cares and thoughts of our hearts. You are blessed before the Lord, and since the goal of your journey has been accomplished, do not worry about coming up here.’"
Upon revealing her hidden identity to the soldiers they all marvelled at Simeon’s discernment.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Abba Simeon, and the thing that legitimized him in the eyes of the other desert fathers and mothers, was his incredible humility and submission. He never failed to heed a correction or rebuke, as we have seen in his removal from the monastery for the issue with the piece of cloth, or his willingness to forgo the chain he had adopted at the correction of Meletius. Simeon listened intently and adopted the discipline others offered. This can be seen most readily at the outset of his life dwelling atop the pillar.
When the nearby fathers caught wind of Simeon’s unprecedented form of asceticism (spiritual discipline), they sent delegates to call him down and rebuke him for the severity of what he had set out to accomplish. However, knowing they could be fallible and insensitive to the plan of God, they devised a simple test. If Simeon would respond to the rebuke, they would be confident that Simeon’s decision was orchestrated by God. A truly humble man would accept the reproof and listen to those offering correction, after all,
However, if he would not listen.
“…if he took umbrage and would not tolerate listening even for a short while to their advice, but doggedly and heedlessly followed his own will, it would become quite obvious that he was far removed from humility; in which case, who would not say that the Evil One had suggested this idea to him?”
If he listened to them, they could be sure that he had forsaken his own will for the will of God. But if he would not listen to their correction, he had fallen into his own will. Men who heed their own will find correction difficult, those who have embraced the will of God embrace correction.
When the delegates arrived and told Abba Simeon what the fathers had said,
“Saint Simeon, truly meek and humble of heart, listened to the reprimand without offering any objection; he neither grew angry nor argued nor said anything at all-neither a little nor a lot. He immediately accepted the reproof and, with eyes lowered and with a kindly countenance, gave thanks to God and expressed his gratitude to the Fathers for their concern for him; and without any hesitation, he undertook to descend from his pillar.”
As soon as he began his descent they knew he was following God. They immediately stopped him and implored Simeon to return to his pole and expressed the confidence the fathers had in his humility. The humility of his heart convinced those around him that what he had to say, do, or accomplish, would be from God.
At the age of 69, in the year 459, Abba Simeon the Stylite bowed as if in prayer and peacefully reposed. He left with him a legacy of humility and submission that has been an inspiration to many. Still there are others that adopted his strange form of ascetic discipline and became known as pillar dwellers. Simeon’s key to deep spirituality was not merely severity of discipline, it was the willingness to humble oneself and submit. As a result, he was counted with some of the greatest fathers of the desert.
“Of like kind were the preeminent Fathers: Saints Anthony the Great, Evthymios the Great, and other outstanding Fathers of the desert. They also, like Saint Benedict, did not have human Teachers, but God and their consciences; wherefore, they shone forth as luminaries of the world. Such also were Saint Apollo and the Holy Stylites Daniel, Alypios, and Simeon the Great.”