14 September 2009

'Thy Pillar Became a Chariot of Fire for Thee'—St Symeon the Stylite

This may have to be a two-part post. I was planning to discuss a few features of today’s Saint in terms of modern perceptions of his particular ascesis, but I’m afraid I won’t have time if I want to get something up today. So for now, here is a rather bare-bones post, with just a few comments about the Stylite’s unique podvig.

Today, 1 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Symeon the Stylite, the Elder (†459). St Symeon is one of the greatest ascetics the Church has ever known. Theodoret of Cyrrhus begins his account of St Symeon, Historia Religiosa 26, with the following words, ‘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’ (A History of the Monks of Syria, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985], p. 160). Here is the account of St Symeon’s life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], pp. 275-6):

Born in Syria of peasant parents, he fled from them at the age of eighteen and became a monk. He gave himself to the strictest asceticism, sometimes fasting for forty days. After that, he followed a particular ascesis, until then unknown: standing day and night on a pillar in unceasing prayer. His pillar was at first three metres high, then one of six metres was built for him, then eleven, eighteen and finally twenty. His mother, Martha, came to see him twice, but he would not receive her, saying to her from his pillar: ‘Don’t disturb me now, Mother dear, if we are to be worthy to meet in the next world.’ St Simeon endured innumerable assaults from demons, overcoming them all by prayer. He worked great miracles, healing the sick by his prayers and his words. People from all sides gathered around his pillar: rich and poor, kings and slaves. He helped them all, restoring bodily health to some, giving comfort and instruction to others and denouncing some for their heretical faith. The Empress Eudocia was thus turned from the Euthychian heresy back to Orthodoxy. Simeon lived in asceticism during the reigns of the Emperors Theodosius the Younger, Marcian and Leo the Great. This first Christian stylite and great wonderworker, St Simeon, lived for seventy years, and entered into rest in the Lord on September 1st, 459. His relics were taken to Antioch, to the church dedicated to his name.

In her wonderful Foreword to the English translation of the three primary hagiographies of St Symeon, Susan Ashbrook Harvey notes, ‘Whatever one may think of Simeon’s asceticism, one thing is clear: his contributions to society were concretely constructive, and belie the apparent ‘uselessness’ of a life of self-mortification’ (Foreword, The Lives of Simeon Stylites, trans. Robert Doran [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, ], p. 9). As evidence, Harvey cites the Syriac Life 77:

How many oppressed were delivered from their oppressors at his word. How many bonds were torn up through the efforts of the saint. How many afflicted were relieved from their coercers. How many slaves were freed and their documents torn up before the saint. How many orphans and widows, by our Lord’s design, were brought up and nourished through the saint’s stance only his Lord knows. (Doran, p. 159)

In this, of course, St Symeon was only acting on the basis of a commission he had been given by the Prophet Elijah:

42. After this as he was standing and praying in the middle of the day, he saw a wondrous and fearsome vision. When he saw it he was afraid, trembled and was terror-struck. He hid his face in his garment from fear. For he saw a fiery chariot with flaming horses and blazing wheels, its deck aflame and flashes of blazing rays. On it rode a man who came and stood before the victorious Mar Simeon on that chariot and said to him, ‘Do not fear or be afraid, but be strong and act bravely, play the man and succeed. Do not fear mortal man, but more than anything be concerned about the poor and oppressed. Rebuke the oppressors and the rich because of their possessions and their injustices. For the Lord is your helper and there is no one who can humble or harm you. Your name is written in the book of life, and a crown and a glorious garment are prepared for you among the patriarchs and your brothers the Apostles. For I am Elijah the prophet who in my zeal shut up the heavens and gave Ahab and Jezebel as food to the dogs and killed the priests of Baal.’ After saying this Mar Elijah disappeared and ascended with the chariot. (Doran, p. 126)

But Harvey reminds us that St Symeon ‘left home to seek the religious life, not to change other people’s lives. Those who saw Simeon attest that he sought first and foremost to live a life of prayer, of worship’ (Doran, p. 10). In his Introduction, Doran observes, ‘The attempt to stand constantly is the attempt to pray always (Mk 11:25; Lk 18:1; Azariah at LXX Dn 3:25), to resemble those who stand before God, as Elijah had (I Kgs 17:1; 18:15), as Joshua is described in Sir 46:3, and as the tribe of Levi had been set aside to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless his name (Dt 10:8; 18:5.7)’ (p. 32). Hopefully I’ll have the chance to say more about the nature of St Symeon’s ascesis, including a reference to Tennyson’s poem on the Saint, in Part II of this post.

Here are the Troparion and Kontakion for St Symeon, in the 1st and 2nd Tones respectively (The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: HTM, 1997], pp. 239, 240):

Thou becamest a pillar of patience and didst emulate the Forefathers, O righteous one: Job in his sufferings, Joseph in temptations, and the life of the bodiless while in the body. O Symeon, our righteous Father, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.

Thou soughtest the heights, though parted not from things below; thy pillar became a chariot of fire for thee. Thou becamest thereby a true companion of the angelic host; and together with them, O Saint, thou ceaselessly prayest Christ God for us all.

In conclusion, I offer the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Symeon from the Prologue:

Simeon the Stylite, the first of the pillar-dwellers,
An illuminated elder, with the radiance of an immortal,
Bound himself to the pillar as a willing sacrifice;
He was fully alive to heaven, and dead to the earth.
Fasting and prayer and all-night vigils—
By this hard path he sought salvation.
Early one morning, his mother came by:
‘O Son, come down and let your mother see you!’
Thus she spoke, but Simeon was silent.
The mother repeated her plea again and again….
Simeon at last replied to his mother:
‘I am in the service of the Heavenly King.
This life is a struggle and a preparation.
There is no time for empty conversation here.
But go, Mother, and choose the pure path—
Take care for your soul and live according to Christ!
After the present struggle is the next world;
If Christ finds us worthy,
You will see your son there, Mother,
And your son will delight in his mother's face.’

1 comment:

Ian Climacus said...

A Blessed Feast Day! One of my most beloved Saints.

Thank you for all the information, and look forward to Part II should you have the time. I pray all is well.