Theodoret on Simeon Stylites

Earlier we looked at the Life of Abraham as presented in Theodoret’s Lives of the Monks, written in 444 AD, and one of our best historical sources for an area generally represented by hagiographical texts.

While reading the volume, in the same excellent translation by R.M. Price, I found myself reading the Life of the famous pillar-saint, Simeon Stylites.  I will give it here, and then we can discuss it.

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1. THE FAMOUS SYMEON, the great wonder of the world, is known of by all the subjects of the Roman empire and has also been heard of by the Persians, the Medes, the Ethiopians; and the rapid spread of his fame as far as the nomadic Scythians has taught his love of labor and his philosophy. I myself, though having all men, so to speak, as witnesses of his contests that beggar description, am afraid that the narrative may seem to posterity to be a myth totally devoid of truth. For the facts surpass human nature, and men are wont to use nature to measure what is said; if anything is said that lies beyond the limits of nature, the account is judged to be false by those uninitiated into divine things. But since earth and sea are full of pious souls educated in divine things and instructed in the grace of the all-holy Spirit, who will not disbelieve what is said but have complete faith in it, I shall make my narration with eagerness and confidence. I shall begin from the point at which he received his call from on high.

2. There is a village lying on the border between our region and Cilicia; they call it Sisa. Originating from this village, he was taught by his parents first to shepherd animals, so that in this respect too he might be comparable to those great men the patriarch Jacob, the chaste Joseph, the lawgiver Moses, the king and prophet David, the prophet Micah and the inspired men of their kind. Once when there was much snow and the sheep were compelled to stay indoors, he took advantage of the respite to go with his parents to the house of God. I heard his sacred tongue recount the following: he told how he heard the Gospel utterance which declares blessed those who weep and mourn, calls wretched those who laugh, terms enviable those who possess a pure soul, and all the other blessings conjoined with them. He then asked one of those present what one should do to obtain each of these. He suggested the solitary life and pointed to that consummate philosophy.

3. Therefore, having received the seeds of the divine word and stored them well in the deep furrows of his soul, he hastened —he said —to a nearby shrine of the holy martyrs. In it he bent his knees and forehead to the ground, and besought the One who wishes to save all men to lead him to the perfect path of piety. After he had spent a long time in this way, a sweet sleep came upon him, and he had the following dream: ‘I seemed,’ he said, ‘to be digging foundations, and then hear someone standing by say that I had to make the trench deeper. After adding to its depth as he told me, I again tried to take a rest; but once more he ordered me to dig and not relax my efforts. After charging me a third and a fourth time to do this, he finally said the depth was sufficient, and told me to build effortlessly from now on, since the effort had abated and the building would be effortless.’ This prediction is confirmed by the event, for the facts surpass nature.

4. Getting up from there, he repaired to the dwelling of some neighboring ascetics. After spending two years with them and falling in love with more perfect virtue, he repaired to that village of Teleda which we mentioned above, where the great and godly men Ammianus and Eusebius had pitched their ascetic wrestling-school. The inspired Symeon, however, did not enter this one, but another which had sprung from it; Eusebonas and Abibion, having enjoyed sufficiently the teaching of the great Eusebius, had built this retreat of philosophy. Having shared throughout life the same convictions and the same habits, and displayed, as it were, one soul in two bodies, they made many love this life as they did. When they departed from life with glory, the wonderful Heliodorus succeeded to the office of superior over the community. He lived for sixty-five years, and spent sixty-two years immured within; for it was after three years of rearing by his parents that he entered this flock, without ever beholding the occurrences of life. He claimed not even to know the shape of pigs or cocks or the other animals of this kind. I too had often the benefit of seeing him; I admired his simplicity of character and was especially amazed at his purity of soul.

5. After coming to him, this all-round contestant in piety spent ten years contending. He had eighty fellow contestants, and outshot all of them; while the others took food every other day, he would last the whole week without nourishment. His superiors bore this ill and constantly quarreled with it, calling the thing lack of discipline; but they did not persuade him by their words, nor could they curb his zeal. I heard the very man who is now superior of this flock recount how on one occasion Symeon took a cord made from palms —it was extremely rough even to touch with the hands — , and girded it round his waist, not wearing it on the outside but making it touch the skin itself. He tied it so tightly as to lacerate in a circle the whole part it went round. When he had continued in this manner for more than ten days and the now severe wound was letting fall drops of blood, someone who saw him asked what was the cause of the blood. When he replied that he had nothing wrong with him, his fellow contestant forcibly inserted his hand, discovered the cause and disclosed it to the superior. Immediately reproaching and exhorting, and inveighing against the cruelty of the thing, he undid the belt, with difficulty, but not even so could he persuade him to give the wound any treatment. Seeing him do other things of the kind as well, they ordered him to depart from this wrestling-school, lest he should be a cause of harm to those with a weaker bodily constitution who might try to emulate what was beyond their powers.

6. He therefore departed, and made his way to the more deserted parts of the mountain. Finding a cistern that was waterless and not too deep, he lowered himself into it, and offered hymnody to God. When five days had passed, the superiors of the wrestling-school had a change of heart, and sent out two men, charging them to look for him and bring him back. So after walking round the mountain, they asked some men tending animals there if they had seen someone of such a complexion and dress. When the shepherds pointed out the cistern, they at once called out several times, and bringing a rope, drew him out with great labor—for ascent is not as easy as descent.

7. After staying with them for a short time, he came to the village of Telanissus, which lies under the hill-top where he now stands; finding a tiny cottage in it, he spent three years as a recluse. In his eagerness to be always increasing his wealth of virtue, he longed to fast forty days without food, like the men of God Moses and Elijah. He urged the wonderful Bassus, who at the time used to make visitations of many villages, as supervisor of the village priests, to leave nothing inside and seal the door with mud. When the other pointed out the difficulty of the thing and urged him not to think suicide a virtue, since it is the first and greatest of crimes, he replied: ‘But you then, father, leave me ten rolls and a jar of water; and if I see my body needs nourishment, I shall partake of them.’ It was done as he bade. The provisions were left, and the door was sealed with mud. At the end of the forty days, Bassus, this wonderful person and man of God, came and removed the mud; on going in through the door he found the complete number of rolls, he found the jar full of water, but Symeon stretched out without breath, unable either to speak or to move. Asking for a sponge to wet and rinse his mouth, he brought him the symbols of the divine mysteries; and so strengthened by these, he raised himself and took a little food—lettuce, chicory and suchlike plants, which he chewed in small pieces and so passed into the stomach.

8. Overwhelmed with admiration, the great Bassus repaired to his own flock, to recount this great miracle; for he had more than two hundred disciples, whom he ordered to possess neither mounts nor mules, nor to accept offerings of money, nor to go outside the gate whether to buy something necessary or see some friend, but to live indoors and receive the food sent by divine grace. This rule his disciples have preserved to this day. They have not, as they become more numerous, transgressed the injunctions that were given them.

9. But I shall return to the great Symeon. From that time till today —twenty-eight years have passed —he spends the forty days without food. Time and practice have allayed most of the effort. For it was his custom during the first days to chant hymns to God standing, then, when because of the fasting his body no longer had the strength to bear the standing, thereafter to perform the divine liturgy seated, and during the final days actually to lie down —for as his strength was gradually exhausted and extinguished he was compellled to lie half-dead. But when he took his stand on the pillar, he was not willing to come down, but contrived his standing posture differently: it was by attaching a beam to the pillar and then tying himself to the beam with cords that he lasted the forty days. Subsequently, enjoying henceforward still more grace from above, he has not needed even this support, but stands throughout the forty days, not taking food but strengthened by zeal and divine grace.

10. After spending three years, as I said, in this cottage, he repaired to that celebrated hill-top, where he ordered a circular enclosure to be made. After procuring an iron chain of twenty cubits, nailing one end to a great rock and fixing the other to his right foot, so that not even if he wished could he go outside these limits, he lived all the time inside, thinking of heaven and compelling himself to contemplate what lies above the heavens—for the iron chain did not hinder the flight of his thought. But when the wonderful Meletius, who had at that time been appointed to supervise the territory of the city of Antioch and was a wise man of brilliant intelligence and gifted with shrewdness, told him that the iron was superfluous, since the will was sufficient to impose on the body the bonds of reasoning, he yielded and accepted the advice with compliance: And bidding a smith be called, he told him to sever the chain. When a piece of leather, which had been tied to his leg to prevent the iron injuring his body, had to be torn apart (for it had been sown together), people saw, they said, more than twenty large bugs lurking in it; and the wonderful Meletius said he had seen this. I myself have mentioned it in order to show from this example as well the endurance of the man: for though he could easily have squeezed the leather with his hand and killed them all, he steadfastly put up with their painful bites, welcoming in small things training for greater contests.

11. As his fame circulated everywhere, everyone hastened to him, not only the people of the neighborhood but also people many days’ journey distant, some bringing the paralysed in body, others requesting health for the sick, others asking to become fathers; and they begged to receive from him what they could not receive from nature. On receiving it and obtaining their requests, they returned with joy; and by proclaiming the benefits they had gained, they sent out many times more, asking for the same things. So with everyone arriving from every side and every road resembling a river, one can behold a sea of men standing together in that place, receiving rivers from every side. Not only do the inhabitants of our part of the world flock together, but also Ishmaelites, Persians, Armenians subject to them, Iberians, Homerites, and men even more distant than these; and there came many inhabitants of the extreme west, Spaniards, Britons, and the Gauls who live between them. Of Italy it is superfluous to speak. It is said that the man became so celebrated in the great city of Rome that at the entrance of all the workshops men have set up small representations of him, to provide thereby some protection and safety for themselves.

12. Since the visitors were beyond counting and they all tried to touch him and reap some blessing from his garments of skins, while he at first thought the excess of honor absurd and later could not abide the wearisomeness of it, he devised the standing on a pillar, ordering the cutting of a pillar first of six cubits, then of twelve, afterwards of twenty-two and now of thirty-six —for he yearns to fly up to heaven and to be separated from this life on earth. I myself do not think that this standing has occurred without the dispensation of God, and because of this I ask fault-finders to curb their tongue and not to let it be carried away at random, but to consider how often the Master has contrived such things for the benefit of the more easygoing. He ordered Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot, Jeremiah to put a loincloth on his waist and by this means address prophecy to the unbelieving, and on another occasion to put a wooden collar on his neck and later an iron one, Hosea to take a harlot to wife and again to love a woman immoral and adulterous, Ezekiel to lie on his right side for forty days and on his left for one hundred and fifty, and again to dig through a wall and slip out in flight, making himself a representation of captivity, and on another occasion to sharpen a sword to a point, shave his head with it, divide the hair into four and assign some for this purpose and some for that — not to list everything. The Ruler of the universe ordered each of these things to be done in order to attract, by the singularity of the spectacle, those who would not heed words and could not bear hearing prophecy, and make them listen to the oracles. For who would not have been astounded at seeing a man of God walking naked? Who would not have wanted to learn the cause of the occurrence? Who would not have asked how the prophet could bear to live with a harlot? Therefore, just as the God of the universe ordered each of these actions out of consideration for the benefit of those inured to ease, so too he has ordained this new and singular sight in order by its strangeness to draw all men to look, and to make the proffered exhortation persuasive to those who come—for the novelty of the sight is a trustworthy pledge of the teaching, and the man who comes to look departs instructed in divine things. Just as those who have obtained kingship over men alter periodically the images on their coins, at one time striking representations of lions, at another of stars and angels, and at another try to make the gold piece more valuable by the strangeness of the type, so the universal Sovereign of all things, by attaching to piety like coin-types these new and various modes of life, stirs to eulogy the tongues not only of those nurtured in the faith but also of those afflicted by lack of faith.

13. Words do not testify that these things have this character, but the facts themselves proclaim it; for the Ishmaelites, who were enslaved in their many tens of thousands to the darkness of impiety, have been illuminated by his standing on the pillar. For this dazzling lamp, as if placed on a lampstand, has sent out rays in all directions, like the sun. It is possible, as I have said, to see Iberians and Armenians and Persians arriving to receive the benefit of divine baptism. The Ishmaelites, arriving in companies, two or three hundred at the same time, sometimes even a thousand, disown with shouts their ancestral imposture; and smashing in front of this great luminary the idols they had venerated and renouncing the orgies of Aphrodite—it was this demon whose worship they had adopted originally —, they receive the benefit of the divine mysteries, accepting laws from this sacred tongue and bidding farewell to their ancestral customs, as they disown the eating of wild asses and camels.

14. I myself was an eyewitness of this, and I have heard them disowning their ancestral impiety and assenting to the teaching of the Gospel. And I once underwent great danger: he told them to come up and receive from me the priestly blessing, saying they would reap the greatest profit therefrom. But they rushed up in a somewhat barbarous manner, and some pulled at me from in front, some from behind, others from the sides, while those further back trod on the others and stretched out their hands, and some pulled at my beard and others grabbed at my clothing. I would have been suffocated by their too ardent approach, if he had not used a shout to disperse them. Such is the benefit that the pillar mocked by lovers of mockery has poured forth; such is the ray of divine knowledge which it has made descend into the minds of barbarians.

15. I know another case of such behavior by these men. One tribe begged the man of God to utter a prayer and blessing for their chieftain; but another tribe that was present objected to this, saying that the blessing ought to be uttered not for him but for their own leader, since the former was extremely unjust while the latter was a stranger to injustice. A long dispute and barbarian quarrel ensued, and finally they went for each other. I myself exhorted them with many words to stay calm, since the man of God had power sufficient to give a blessing to both the one and the other; but these said that that man should not get it, while those tried to deprive the other of it. By threatening them from above and calling them dogs, he with difficulty extinguished the dispute. I have told this out of a wish to display the faith in their understanding; for they would not have raged against each other, if they did not believe the blessing of the inspired man to possess the greatest power.

16. On another occasion I witnessed the occurrence of a celebrated miracle. Someone came in —he too was a tribal chieftain of Saracens — and begged the godly person to assist a man who on the road had become paralysed in the limbs of his body; he said he had undergone the attack at Callinicum — it is a very great fort. When he had been brought right to the center, Symeon bade him disown the impiety of his ancestors. When he gladly consented and performed the order, he asked him if he believed in the Father and the only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit. When the other professed his faith, he said: ‘Since you believe in these names, stand up!’ When he stood up, he ordered him to carry the tribal chieftain on his shoulders right to his tent, and he was of great bodily size. He at once picked him up and went on his way, while those present stirred their tongues to sing hymns to God.

17. He gave this order in imitation of the Master, who told the paralytic to carry his bed. But let no one call the imitation usurpation, for His is the utterance, ‘He who believes in me will himself do the works that I do, and greater than these will he do’. Of this promise we have seen the fulfilment; for while the Lord’s shadow nowhere performed a miracle, the shadow of the great Peter canceled death, drove out diseases, and put demons to flight. But it is the Master who through His servants performed these miracles too; and now likewise it is by the use of His name that the godly Symeon performs his innumerable miracles.

[18.It happened that another miracle occurred in no way inferior to the preceding. A not undistinguished Ishmaelite, who was one of those who had found faith in the saving name of Christ the Master, made prayer to God with Symeon as the witness, and a promise as well: the promise was to abstain thereafter till death from all animal food. At some time he broke this promise, I know not how, by daring to kill a bird and eat it. But since God chose to bring him to amendment by means of a reproof and to honor His servant who had been the witness of the broken promise, the flesh of the bird was changed in nature to stone, with the result that not even if he wanted to was he now able to eat —for how was it possible, since the body which he had got hold of for eating had been petrified? Astounded by this extraordinary sight, the barbarian repaired to the holy man with great speed, bringing to light his secret sin, proclaiming his transgression to all, asking from God forgiveness for his offence and calling the saint to his aid, that through his all-powerful prayers he might free him from the bonds of sin. Many have been eyewitnesses of this miracle by touching the part of the bird by the breast, which is composed of bone and stone. ]

19. I have been, not only an eyewitness of his miracles, but also a hearer of his predictions of the future. The drought that occurred, the great crop-failure of that year and the simultaneous famine and plague that followed, he foretold two years beforehand, saying that he had seen a rod threatening mankind and indicating the scourging it would cause. On another occasion he revealed beforehand an attack of what is called the grasshopper, and that it would not cause serious harm, for the mercy of God would follow hard on the punishment. When thirty days had passed a countless swarm so swooped down as to intercept the rays of the sun and create shade; and this we all saw distinctly. But it harmed only the fodder of the irrational animals, while causing no injury to the food of human beings. Also to me, when under attack from someone, he disclosed the death of my enemy fifteen days in advance, and from experience I learnt the truth of his prediction. [He also saw on one occasion two rods descend from the sky and fall on the land both east and west. The godly man explained it as a rising of the Persian and Scythian nations against the Roman empire; he declared the vision to those present, and with many tears and unceasing prayers stopped the blows with which the world was threatened. Certainly the Persian nation, when already armed and prepared for attack on the Romans, was through the opposition of divine power driven back from the proposed assault and fully engaged in domestic troubles within.]

20. Although I know very many other occurrences of this kind, I shall omit them, to avoid length in the account —and the preceding are sufficient to show the spiritual perception of his mind. His reputation is also great with the king of the Persians. As the envoys who came to see Symeon related, he wished to inquire carefully about the man’s way of life and the nature of his miracles; and his spouse is said to have asked for oil honored by his blessing and to have received it as a very great gift. All the king’s courtiers, struck by his reputation, and despite hearing from the Magians many calumnies against him, wished to inquire precisely, and on being informed called him a man of God. The rest of the crowd, going up to the muleteers, servants and soldiers, offered them money, begging to receive a share in the blessing attached to the oil.

21. The queen of the Ishmaelites, being sterile and longing for children, first sent some of her highest officials to beg that she become a mother, and then when she obtained her request and gave birth as she had wished, took the prince she had borne and hastened to the godly old man. Since women are not allowed access, she sent the baby to him together with a request to receive blessing from him. ‘Yours,’ she said, ‘is this sheaf; for I brought, with tears, the seed of prayer, but it was you who made the seed a sheaf, drawing down through prayer the rain of divine grace.’ But how long shall I strive to measure the depth of the Atlantic Ocean? For just as the latter cannot be measured by men, so the daily deeds of this man transcend narration.

22. More than all this I myself admire his endurance. Night and day he is standing within view of all; for having removed the doors and demolished a sizeable part of the enclosing wall, he is exposed to all as a new and extraordinary spectacle —now standing for a long time, and now bending down repeatedly and offering worship to God. Many of those standing by count the number of these acts of worship. Once one of those with me counted one thousand two hundred and forty-four of them, before slackening and giving up count. In bending down he always makes his forehead touch his toes —for his stomach’s receiving food once a week, and little of it, enables his back to bend easily.

23. As a result of his standing, it is said that a malignant ulcer has developed in his left foot, and that a great deal of puss oozes from it continually. Nevertheless, none of these afflictions has overcome his philosophy, but he bears them all nobly, both the voluntary and the involuntary, overcoming both the former and the latter by his zeal. He was once obliged to show this wound to someone; I shall recount the cause. Someone arrived from Rabaena, a worthy man, honored with being a deacon of Christ. On reaching the hill-top, he said, Tell me, by the truth that has converted the human race to itself, are you a man or a bodiless being?’ When those present showed annoyance at the question, Symeon told them all to keep silence, and said to him, ‘Why on earth have you posed this question?’ He replied, ‘I hear everyone repeating that you neither eat nor lie down, both of which are proper to men—for no one with a human nature could live without food and sleep.’ At this Symeon ordered a ladder to be placed against the pillar, and told him to ascend and first examine his hands, and then to place his hand inside his cloak of skins and look at not only his feet but also his severe ulcer. After seeing and marveling at the excess of the wound and learning from him that he does take food, he came down from there, and coming to me recounted everything.

24. During the public festivals he displays another form of endurance: after the setting of the sun until it comes again to the eastern horizon, stretching out his hands to heaven he stands all night, neither beguiled by sleep nor overcome by exertion.

25. Despite such labors and the mass of his achievements and the quantity of his miracles, he is as modest in spirit as if he were the last of all men in worth. In addition to his modest spirit, he is extremely approachable, sweet and charming, and makes answer to everyone who addresses him, whether he be artisan, beggar, or peasant. And he has received from the munificent Master the gift also of teaching. Making exhortation two times each day, he floods the ears of his hearers, as he speaks most gracefully and offers the lessons of the divine Spirit, bidding them look up to heaven and take flight, depart from the earth, imagine the expected kingdom, fear the threat of hell, despise earthly things, and await what is to come.

26. He can be seen judging and delivering verdicts that are right and just. These and similar activities he performs after the ninth hour—for the whole night and the day till the ninth hour he spends praying. But after the ninth hour he first offers divine instruction to those present, and then, after receiving each man’s request and working some cures, he resolves the strife of those in dispute. At sunset he begins his converse from then on with God.

27. Although engaged in these activities and performing them all, he does not neglect care of the holy churches — now fighting pagan impiety, now defeating the insolence of the Jews, at other times scattering the bands of the heretics, sometimes sending instructions on these matters to the emperor, sometimes rousing the governors to divine zeal, at others time charging the very shepherds of the churches to take still greater care of their flocks.

28. I have proceeded through all this trying from a drop to indicate the rain, and using my forefinger to give readers of the account a taste of the sweetness of the honey. The facts celebrated by all are many times more numerous than these, but I did not promise to record everything, but to show by a few instances the character of the life of each one. Others, doubtless, will record far more than these; and if he lives on, he will perhaps add greater miracles. I myself desire and beg God that, helped by his own prayers, he may persevere in these good labors, since he is a universal decoration and ornament of piety, and that my own life may be brought into harmony and rightly directed in accordance with the Gospel way of life.

[After a further span of life with many miracles and labors — having alone of men of any time remained unconquered by the flames of the sun, the frosts of winter, the fierce blasts of the winds and the weakness of human nature — since he had henceforth to be with Christ and receive the crowns of his immeasurable contests, he proved by his death, to those who disbelieved it, that he is a man. And he remained even after death unshakable, for while his soul repaired to heaven, his body even so could not bear to fall, but remained upright in the place of his contests, like an unbeaten athlete who strives with no part of his limbs to touch the ground. Thus, even after death does victory remain united to the contestants according to Christ. Certainly cures of diseases of every kind, miracles, and acts of divine power are accomplished even now, just as when he was alive, not only at the tomb of the holy relics but also by the memorial of his heroism and long contending—I mean the great and celebrated pillar of this righteous and much-lauded Symeon —, by whose holy intercession we pray both that we ourselves may be preserved and made firm in the true faith, and that every city and country upon which the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is invoked may enjoy protection, untried by every kind of damage and injury from both the sky and their enemies. To Him be glory for ever and ever.]


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