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.