Today is the feast day in the Roman Catholic communion of Saint Simeon Stylites or Symeon the Stylite (Classical Syriac: ܫܡܥܘܢ ܕܐܣܛܘܢܐ Koine Greek Συμεών ὁ στυλίτης, Arabic: سمعان العمودي) (c. 390 – 2nd September 459), a Syriac ascetic saint who achieved notability for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo (in modern Syria). Several other stylites later followed his model (the Greek word style means “pillar”). He is known formally as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger, Simeon Stylites III, and Saint Symeon Stylites of Lesbos.
Simeon was the son of a shepherd. He was born in Sis, now the Turkish town of Kozan in Adana Province. Sis was in the Roman province of Cilicia. After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, Cilicia became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Christianity took hold quickly there. According to Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, Simeon developed a zeal for Christianity at the age of 13, following a reading of the Beatitudes. He entered a monastery before the age of 16. From the outset, he gave himself up to the practice of an austerity so extreme and to all appearance so extravagant, that his fellow monks judged him to be unsuited to any form of community life, and asked Simeon to leave the monastery.
He shut himself up in a hut for one and a half years, where he purportedly passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. When he emerged from the hut, his achievement was hailed as a miracle (which it certainly would have been if he had lived over 40 days without drinking). He later took to standing continually upright so long as his limbs would sustain him. After one and a half years in his hut, Simeon sought a rocky eminence on the slopes of what is now the Sheik Barakat Mountain, part of Mount Simeon. He chose to live within a narrow space, less than 20 meters in diameter. But crowds of pilgrims invaded the area to seek him out, asking his counsel or his prayers, and leaving him insufficient time for his own devotions. This eventually led him to adopt a new way of life.
In order to get away from the ever-increasing number of people who came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived among ruins in nearby Telanissa (modern-day Taladah in Syria), and formed a small platform at the top. He determined to live out his life on this platform. For sustenance small boys from the nearby village climbed up the pillar and passed him parcels of flat bread and goats’ milk. He may also have pulled up food in buckets via a pulley.
When the monastic Elders living in the desert heard about Simeon, who had chosen this new and strange form of asceticism, they wanted to test him to determine whether his extreme feats were founded in humility or pride. They decided to order Simeon under obedience to come down from the pillar. They decided that if he disobeyed, they would forcibly drag him to the ground, but if he was willing to submit, they were to leave him on his pillar. St Simeon displayed complete obedience and humility, and the monks told him to stay where he was.
The first pillar that Simeon occupied was little more than nine feet high. He later moved his platform to others, the last in the series reportedly more than 15 meters (50 ft) above ground. At the top of the pillar was a platform, which is believed to have been about one square meter and surrounded by a baluster. Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes Simeon’s life as follows:
In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.
Even on the highest of his columns, Simeon was not withdrawn from the world. If anything, the new pillar attracted even more people, both pilgrims who had earlier visited him and sightseers as well. Simeon was available each afternoon to talk with visitors. By means of a ladder, visitors were able to ascend within speaking distance. It is known that he wrote letters, the text of some of which have survived to this day, that he instructed disciples, and that he also lectured to those assembled beneath. He especially preached against profanity and usury. In contrast to the extreme austerity that he practiced, his preaching conveyed temperance and compassion, and was marked with common sense and freedom from fanaticism. Much of Simeon’s public ministry, like that of other Syrian ascetics, can be seen as socially cohesive in the context of the Roman East. In the face of the withdrawal of wealthy landowners to the large cities, holy men such as Simeon acted as impartial and necessary patrons and arbiters in disputes between peasant farmers and within the smaller towns.
Reports of Simeon reached the church hierarchy and the imperial court. The Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Aelia Eudocia greatly respected the saint and listened to his counsels, while the Emperor Leo I paid respectful attention to a letter he sent in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. Simeon is also said to have corresponded with St Genevieve of Paris. Patriarch Domninos II (441–448) of Antioch visited the monk, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the pillar. Once when Simeon was ill, Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down and allow himself to be attended by physicians. But Simeon preferred to leave his cure in the hands of God, and before long he recovered.
A double wall was raised around him to keep the crowd of people from coming too close and disturbing his prayerful concentration. Women, in general, were not permitted beyond the wall, not even his own mother, reportedly telling her, “If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come.” She submitted to this, remaining in the area, and embraced the monastic life of silence and prayer. When she died, Simeon asked that her coffin be brought to him.
Simeon spent 37 years atop the pillar. He died on 2nd September 459. A disciple found his body stooped over in prayer. The Patriarch of Antioch, Martyrios performed his funeral before a huge throng of clergy and people. They buried him not far from the pillar.
Simeon inspired many imitators. For the next century, ascetics living on pillars, stylites, were a common sight throughout the Christian Levant. He is commemorated as a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church, where his feast is on 29 Pashons. He is commemorated on 1st September by the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, and 5th January in the Roman Catholic Church. A contest arose between Antioch and Constantinople for the possession of Simeon’s remains. The preference was given to Antioch, and the greater part of his relics were left there as a protection to the unwalled city. The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honor and known in Arabic as the Qalaat Semaan (“the Fortress of Simeon”) can still be seen. They are located about 30 km northwest of Aleppo.
A recipe to commemorate a celebrated austere ascetic is always a challenge. We know that Simeon ate flat bread and goat milk, so you could go in that direction. Depends how austere you want to be. Syriac Christians, on the other hand, have a wide variety of recipes you could follow. I have been making some version of their stuffed eggplant and zucchini for over 45 years. You make a mix of cooked rice, ground lamb, and spices, hollow out the vegetables, stuff them with the rice/meat mix, and bake in a hot oven for 30 minutes. I usually added a small amount of broth and tomato paste to the pan for added flavor and juiciness.
Syriac Christians also make a soup with lentils, noodles, and spinach. I am fond of this one too, and it is austere enough even for a stylite. Place a cup of dried lentils in a large pot with abundant broth. Add several handfuls of washed spinach with the toughest stems removed. Bring to a boil and then simmer covered for 30 minutes. Check periodically to make sure the soup does not dry out, and add more broth as needed. Meanwhile, peel and slice an onion and sauté it over medium heat in a skillet in a little olive oil until it is evenly browned on all sides. Doing this well takes more time than you might think – 20 to 25 minutes at a minimum (and you need to stir regularly to avoid burning and to brown evenly). When the lentils start to soften add a cup of uncooked egg noodles broken into short strips. Continue to simmer until the lentils are fully cooked and the noodles are also cooked through. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the browned onions and stir them in thoroughly. Ideally the soup should be thick rather than watery. Serve in deep bowls with lemon wedges (for guests to add a splash of juice if they desire), and flatbread.