St. Daniel

(Died 493 AD)

“Saints Alive” has already recounted the unusual austerities of the original stylite (“pillar”) saint, Simeon, who died in the mid-fifth century after having spent years living and praying on top of a narrow pillar. Pillar-living never appealed to western Christian hermits; Mideast Christians, however, were deeply moved by its symbolism and its warning against worldliness.

There were many eastern stylites, women as well as men, in the early medieval Roman epoch. Few of these were canonized. Among them was St. Daniel the Stylite.

Daniel, dedicated to God by his parents before his birth, showed a natural disposition to become a monk. Early in his monastic career in Syria, he was taken to see St. Simeon. This pioneer stylite let him come on top of his pillar. He blessed the young monk and told him that he would suffer much for Christ.

Only after several years as a hermit did Daniel take the first “step upward.” After Simeon’s death in 459, Daniel the Hermit settled near Constantinople, and had a friend build for him a broad-topped pillar. One night it was so cold that he almost froze on its summit. Therefore, the Roman Emperor undertook to build him a higher but better column. This time it was two pillars fastened together, and on top there was a covered shelter and a balustrade.

St. Daniel dwelt in this “penthouse” until he was 84. St. Gennadius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, even ordained him a priest on its summit. Daniel became and remained a favored spiritual counselor for the whole district. In 465 he warned the emperor and others that fire would strike the capital city unless the people said public prayers twice a week to avert it. The warning was ignored, and Constantinople was in large part destroyed by fire. The fact that St. Daniel had predicted this made him still more highly regarded by the people who had earlier paid no attention to his warnings.

Meanwhile, Daniel was giving other signs of social consciousness and influence. For instance he was able to establish an alliance between Emperor Leo I and the barbarian king of the Lazi in Colchis. He also allowed the sick to climb to his eyrie, and he cured many of them.

Leo’s successor, Emperor Zeno, who became ruler in 474, also relied on the prayers and counsel of St. Daniel. Not long afterwards, Basiliscus usurped the throne and declared himself in favor of the current heresy of Monophysism. When Basiliscus appealed to the pillar saint for backing, Daniel replied that God Himself would overthrow the usurper’s government. Constantinople became so disturbed that the patriarch, Acacius, asked St. Daniel to come into town and help restore order. Daniel reluctantly obeyed and descended from his dear perch. Because his feet had become somewhat atrophied, he had to be carried into town on a chair. But Basiliscus came around and renounced the favor he had shown to the Monophysite heretics. Then St. Daniel returned to his lofty home. Soon afterwards, Zeno, the legitimate emperor, defeated Basiliscus. On returning to the capital, Zeno made haste to visit the saint, who had foretold both his banishment and his restoration.

Despite his exotic way of life, Daniel had shown himself very level-headed in his sermons to the crowds that gathered for his advice. His teachings were respected and heeded. Finally, knowing he was to die, the saint celebrated a midnight Mass atop his pillar. The patriarch Euphemius was sent for. When Daniel died, he was buried at the foot of the pillar.

The best way to size up the world is to be able to view it with detachment. Like the astronauts in space, St. Daniel had a grand overview of this wonderful but silly world that made him a wise and helpful counselor to its inhabitants.

--Father Robert F. McNamara