Saint Symeon Stylite the Elder
Our holy Father Symeon was born about 390, in a village of Sissa on the borders of Syria and Cilicia. When he was a boy, his devout parents would send him into the wilderness to find pasture for the sheep. One day, when the snow lay so deep it was impossible to find anything for his flock, the young boy went into a church and heard these words read: Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart . . . and the rest of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5). Having found out what to do in order to fulfill these commandments of Christ, Symeon abandoned his family and every worldly tie and entered a nearby monastery where he stayed for two years. Then, as he wanted to lead a more ascetic life than he found there, he made his way to the Monastery of Teledea near Antioch, where the monk Heliodorus directed more than eighty brethren with great wisdom and strict observance. Symeon spent ten years there, but from the beginning of his stay he overtook everyone in ascetic rigor. Whereas the other monks ate every two days, Symeon took a meager repast but once a week. So great was his wish to suffer for Christ that he wore a belt of palm leaves under his clothes so tightly girded that it bit into his flesh. Seeing that his warfare was above human strength and could be harmful to others, who taking it as a model, might attempt labors above their ability, the elders of the Monastery ordered the blessed man to leave them. Symeon accordingly made his way to the wildest part of the neighboring mountain and, finding a dry well, went down into it and stayed there singing the praises of God day and night. After five days, the monks of Teleda felt sorrow at having driven him away and wanted to bring him back; but they had a long search, for he was in a place avoided by everyone as it was the haunt of demons.
Symeon returned to the monastery out of obedience, but did not stay long because he sought something beyond the ordinary measure. He went to a village called Telanissos, where he found a little house in an isolated place. There he stayed in complete seclusion for three years, working constantly to acquire the heavenly virtues. Like Moses, Elias and our Savior Christ, he wanted to spend the forty days of Lent without eating anything at all, so he asked his friend Blassus to wall up the entrance of his cell. The latter would only agree on condition the athlete of Christ took a little bread and water with him lest he be reduced to the last extremity of hunger. At the end of the forty days, Blassus entered the cell full of anxiety. He found the bread and water just as he had left them and the Saint lying motionless on the ground, too weak to utter a single word. He only regained some strength after partaking of the holy Mysteries. Trained by experience, Symeon spent every Lent after that without eating and, strengthened by grace, remained on his feet throughout the time with incomparable liveliness of spirit.
After spending three years in this cell, Symeon went up to the summit of a mountain and had himself bound by a heavy chain until Meletius, a country-bishop of the Church of Antioch, pointed out to him that the will of a man enlightened by reason ought to show itself stronger than any chain in preventing his thoughts straying here and there. This argument convinced Symeon, who knew that the ascetic struggle is praiseworthy only to the extent that it restores the image of God in our nature to its original beauty. He obeyed the Bishop and had his bonds of iron broken. Large worms emerged from the wounds made by the chain, clearly showing that the patience of the Saint had in every way been equal to that of the Martyrs, and if possible, even greater, for he had subjected himself to these torments of his own will for the love of Christ.
So widely did the fame of his holiness spread that a constant stream of the faithful began to come for his blessing and the healing of soul and body, not only from the surrounding region but also from distant lands like Persia, Armenia, Georgia, Italy, Gaul and Britain. But Symeon sought for nothing but solitude to draw nigh to Heaven in pure contemplation. He decided to build a pillar with a little platform on the top where he could install himself so as to escape from troublesome adulation. His first pillar was ten feet high; he made a second of nineteen feet and a third of thirty-six feet. He settled finally on a column fifty-eight feet high, where he remained for twenty years until his death, living nearer heaven than earth. The increase in height of each of these stations was the visible sign of the ascensions of his spirit into the divine light. Open to the gaze of all, Symeon attracted yet greater crowds and, like a brilliant light on a high lamp-stand, illumined with the light of faith many of the barbarians who came to wonder at the extraordinary sight.
Alone with the one God upon his lofty pillar, the Saint was an instrument, none the less, of the divine loving-kindness. He wrought many miracles and healings and forewarned of natural disasters. Everyone regarded him as a haven of salvation and of spiritual consolation. Crucified to the world and concealing nothing of his life, Saint Symeon offered himself, in the words of the Apostle, as a spectacle to angels and to men (1 Cor. 4:9). Clothed in this mortal body, he led the life of the bodiless angels; but his humility was still more wonderful for, after attaining such virtues and working so many miracles, he sincerely regarded himself as the least of men. Delivered from anger and every other passion, he kindled only against heretics out of godly zeal for their amendment.
Saint Symeon fell asleep in the Lord while deep in prayer, in 459 at the age of sixty-nine, having spread all around him the peace that reigned in his heart. His precious relics were taken to Antioch accompanied by a huge crowd, and continued to accomplish many miracles for those who approached them with faith. In 467, at the request of Saint Daniel the Stylite (11 Dec.), who rivaled the exploits of Symeon, the Emperor Leo I had his holy relics translated to Constantinople, where a church was built to receive them not far from Saint Daniel’s pillar. The Monastery of Mandra, which had grown up around Saint Symeon’s pillar, developed to an extraordinary extent after his death, with the column at the center of four basilicas set in the form of a cross. It remained a great place of pilgrimage, although it soon fell into the hands of the Monophysites. It was destroyed by the Arabs in 985, although the impressive ruins of the Monastery surrounding the base of the pillar can still be seen at Qalat Seman.
Portions of the preceding text are from “The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church” by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, and translated from the French by Christopher Hookway
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