Newsletter Subscribe
Australian Catholics Subscribe

Saints for all seasons: St Simeon Stylites the Elder

Peter Fleming |  01 November 2017

A saint who found true freedom by refusing to go anywhere at all.

Christmas is a reminder of a profound humility. At its heart is the strangest act of self-denial imaginable: the Creator of galaxies came to earth in the form of the littlest creature, dependent upon mother’s milk. As one-time English Poet-Laureate John Betjeman wrote:

And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all …

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me?

The ancient world understood the spirit of Christmas even when it did not yet celebrate the Christian festival; the Roman Empire had its values turned upside down by it; old institutions of self-aggrandizement were infiltrated by the notion that power was in fact service, that to be exalted was to become like a little child. Sometimes, the new approach became a bridge too far; to make a central point, disciples went out on a limb. Simeon Stylites the Elder, one of the strangest saints we might ever hear of, did not go out, he went up; in fact, so far up that nobody could miss the point he was trying to make.

Simeon, whose feast is celebrated in the Western Church 5 January, fell in love with Christianity upon reading the Beatitudes at 13 years of age. He joined a monastery at 16, but his desire for asceticism was so great that even the monks didn’t know what to do with him, so he went to live by himself, first in a small hut, then in a small cave, but finally on a platform, one square by one square metre on top of a pillar. There he remained for the next thirty-seven years.

Apparently, Simeon simply wanted to be left alone, although in his case, alone with God. Hut and cave had, it seems, been too accessible; Simeon thought that a small platform, fifty feet in the air, might deter prying pilgrims. It didn’t, alas for him, as the ancient world had already invented the ladder. Small boys challenged each other to shimmy up the pole and feed Simeon. From this rather precarious pulpit, he preached; eventually he conducted correspondence with emperors, popes and even other saints, when he wasn’t praying with arms outstretched, crucifix-like, doing his daily exercise or suffering from ulcers.

Simeon inspired imitators – for the next century, pillar sales soared. Nowadays, we would think Simeon a lunatic or, worse, an extremist; we’re not heavily into self-denial as a virtue. But he is a peculiarly Christian sort of extremist – he did to himself what he would never think to inflict on others. And when he was tested by local church authorities as to his sincerity, when they wanted to know if he were doing it out of humility or pride, and they ordered him to come down, Simeon proved an obedient and humble servant. So they let him go back up!

We approach Christmas as a time of personal freedom – a Holy Day has become mere holiday; so we often get away; travel; expand our horizons. Simeon, admittedly at an extreme, from a tiny space on high, perhaps was able to broaden his horizon limitlessly.

 

 

Topic tags: saints, thecatholictradition, feastdays

Request permissions to reuse this article


Comments

Submitted feedback is moderated. Please read our comments policy. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Similar articles

Online exclusive: A taste of a world without boundaries

Brenna Dempsey | 30 Nov 2017

How is it that we can be a different person when we go on holidays? One of our young writers, Brenna Dempsey, reflects on her overseas adventure in June this year, and pines for those days again. 


Young but mighty: One student helps thousands of homeless

Clare Deignan | 02 Nov 2017

A fluffy pillow, a warm blanket, a fresh towel and a toothbrush – these are just a list of everyday items that most of us take for granted. But Year 7 student at Sacred Heart College in Sorrento, WA, Vincent Pettinicchio knows to those sleeping rough, a few simple objects can make all the difference.


Slavery’s continued impact

Kate Mani | 02 Nov 2017

Australians are shocked when they discover slavery still exists today even in their home country, says Sr Stancea Vichie MSS.


The heart speaks to the heart 

Kaitlyn Fasso-Opie | 02 Nov 2017

James Kerr is the kind of person who will greet you as though he’s always known you and make you a cup of tea — before you’ve even had a chance to shake his hand. At just 30 years of age, he’s one of Australia’s youngest Catholic priests.


Escaping the poverty trap

Jemimah McMurray | 02 Nov 2017

Thérèse Nichols is co-founder and director of OnePlate, an Australian charity that partners hospitality industry to alleviate child hunger through sustainable food projects. She is one of the special guest speakers at the Australian Catholic Youth Festival from 7 – 9 December in Sydney. 

 


Newsletter Subscribe
ACBC social justice