Earlier I posted Theodoret’s account of the life of Simeon Stylites. Written while the saint was stil alive, and as an eyewitness of at least some of his life, it has considerable value as a historical source. The portions in square brackets represent later interpolation, it should be added.
Reading the life raised some uncomfortable questions in my mind.
Simeon’s life can be summarised very briefly. He is famous for making himself very uncomfortable indeed, in a variety of ways, until at last he found fame by standing upright(ish) on a pillar for many years. He became famous for this, and people flocked to see him and admire him, on the basis that making himself uncomfortable was the same as being holy. From these he received enough to live on, and admiration. In consequence of his reputation, he was able to address powerful people in direct language and give orders to them.
Medieval Europe is in the back of all of our minds. Castles and knights and Robin Hood and monks and hermits and the like are a ready source of ideas, even if taken mainly from Sir Walter Scott or Hollywood than a real historical knowledge. We are all familiar with the idea of the hermit who lives in poverty in a cave, as a “holy man”.
But it seems fairly questionable whether this idea is very like what the New Testament teaches about Christian living. In what way is such a man serving God?
That we are familiar with the idea of monks praying all day does not mean that it is a biblical idea. The idea of a man alone in the desert might derive from John the Baptist, from the life of Christ, and some Old Testament ideas. Yet … is this really what the bible teaches?
If our Lord could say that the law consisted of loving God, and loving your neighbour as yourself, then we may ask how this form of life, divorced from any normal neighbourly relationship, fulfils it.
While thinking in this way, I was uncomfortably reminded of the pagan philosophers, such as Diogenes the cynic. These too made themselves uncomfortable in public, in order to acquire a reputation as moralists, and to earn their living by donations from admirers. Once attained, they also had a reputation for direct speaking to powerful people.
There were many differences, of course. But the similarities are profound. Both involve strong healthy people who live by the donations of others, and sell an idea to them to do so.
The Greeks, indeed, were somewhat cynical about their philosophers. Both Diogenes and Plato were sold into slavery, as sturdy vagabonds. We may wonder about the fate of unsuccessful “holy men” in the 5th century, who somehow didn’t make the cut, and achieve enough notoriety to “break even”! There were numerous pillar saints in Syria after Simeon had shown the way.
Did the acceptance of hermits and asceticism in the late 4th century have anything to do with the mass “conversions” of pagans in the same period? Did the wandering philosopher turn into the stationary hermit?
We must recall that physical endurance was no great achievement to the peasants of antiquity. No education was required to be a “holy man”, unlike their philosophical predecessor. It merely required a knack for publicity; and if you started by entering a monastery and outshining the others (who might well resent your success!), you already had a pool of people willing to spread the word. Once in the groove, you worked out your special “trick”, just as the philosophers did, and so long as you could live with the ascetic life, you were essentially made.
Of course we need not suppose that the ascetics were duplicitous. They may well have believed sincerely in what they were doing. But that does not make it godly of itself.
When we look at the life of Simeon, we see a man whose main achievement was self-torment. But does making yourself tired and hungry and uncomfortable necessarily make you charitable, self-denying, good, kind, gentle and close to God? Mastering your body is equally likely to make you proud of yourself and contemptuous of others. Starving yourself may give you delusions, which you may mistake for visions; but there is no inevitable access to genuine visions of God just because you starve. Is there?
It is hard to say what Simeon’s life truly achieved. It feels wrong, on so many levels.