St. Simeon Stylite II

(Died A.D. 592)

Some decades ago, when “marathoning” of various types was a summer fad, many Americans tried to see who could outlast each other perched on the top of a pole.

“Pole-sitting” was a secular contest, for fun, for “fame”, and sometimes for prizes. But history tells us that there was in the ancient Church a spiritual “pole-sitting” undertaken by some hermits as a lifelong penance. Although it did not appeal to monks in the more “practical” West, in the more mystical East it was fairly widespread. They called it “Stylitism” (“columnsitting”). As long as the stylites were humble men, they were venerated for all their forms of asceticism, offbeat as well as traditional.

Most famous of the aerial saints was St. Simeon the Stylite, a hermit of Asia Minor who died in 549. Second only to him was another St. Simeon, of the next generation. No kinsman of his namesake, he is referred to as St. Simeon the Younger.

Simeon II was a native of Antioch. His father died when he was a small child. He learned piety, no doubt, from his mother Martha, who is venerated as a saint. A precociously spiritual child, Simeon wandered off one day into the Syrian mountains. There he encountered a stylite now known as St. John. John quickly discerned that this boy showed spiritual promise. He therefore began to instruct him in the ways of the spirit, and won him over to the stylite mode of religious life. He first took him upon his own pillar. Later he gave him a pillar for himself. Simeon, therefore, began his lifelong career of column-sitter before “he lost his baby teeth”, as the church historian Evagrius would write.

Well known as a monk by age 30, Simeon felt called by God to set up in the vicinity of his pillar a monastery for the many who asked to become his disciples. On the new site he had the builders erect a new column; and when it was ready, two bishops solemnly installed him on its summit. Three years later he was ordained a priest. Even then he did not descend for the rite; the bishop climbed up to him for the laying-on of hands.

By now a widely-respected figure, Simeon welcomed the crowds of people from many lands who kept coming to seek his counsel. Apparently, the platform atop his column was fairly large. This enabled him to celebrate Mass “in excelsis” (“close to heaven”.) Those who attended his Masses would mount his ladder to receive Communion from his hands. In the course of this unusual apostolate he exercised the gifts of both physical and spiritual healing. Among his spiritual gifts were those of foretelling future events and reading the secrets of people’s souls. Meanwhile, he gave them constant good example by praying much, sleeping little, and dining frugally, on vegetables only.

St. Simeon’s influence was not restricted to his own horizon. He urged Emperor Justin II to protect the Christians of the Holy Land against persecution by the Samaritans. Likewise, during the controversy over iconoclasm, he wrote to St. John Damascene in defense of the use of sacred images. Many of the records of his actions and his miraculous powers can be verified from sources other than his major biography.

Simeon Stylite the Younger died peacefully on this dear column 1400 years ago. His long sojourn on pillars was no mere gimmick. Pillar-sitting was for him and others a symbolic reminder that we should all be, as Jesus told us, “in the world but not of the world.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara