Saturday 12 January 2019

Extreme fasting - St Simeon the Stylite

by Antonia Senior

I am hungry. Really, really hungry. Yup, it's January diet time. Like countless other podgy, Mum-tummed dipsos I've started fasting. Christmas, and the evil trinity of craft beer, crisps and mince pies, pushed me, and my straining waist-band, over the edge.

Fasting is nothing new. Researching a book some years ago, (the one in the drawer), I became fascinated by early Christian ascetics. Pre-enlightenment Christian mind-sets are staggeringly weird to modern brains, but the bonkers brigade of fasters and scourgers seem particularly alien.

My favourite early Christian nutjob is St Simeon the Stylite. His life is well documented for the time. He was famous throughout the Christian world and beyond, and we have a contemporaneous account of his life from Theodoret's History of the Monks of Syria. Written in about 440AD, Theodoret of Cyrus writes profiles of some thirty holy men, who all practised some form of asceticism. 

Theodoret of Cyrus

The path to God was a troublesome, painful, hungry one. Theodoret's account is wonderful - full of detail and replete with anecdotes of his own meetings with many of the monks. Take Eusebius, who ate 15 dried figs over seven weeks and whose belt kept falling down over his skinny buttocks, forcing him to sew it to his tunic. Eusebius, not wanting his vision of God to be disturbed, rolled a stone over the entrance to his cave. Theodoret talked to him through a small hole, listening to his "sweet voice, dear to God". Theodoret tries to leave, but the starving, solitary monk won't let him go - talking relentlessly through the hole about heaven.

The demands of worship in this tradition all involve physical discomfort. The body must suffer to free the mind, turning it to God's vision. Maricanus and Bardatus, for example, lived in mountain huts which were too small for a man to stand or lie down - and they were entirely open to the elements.

This ascetic fanaticism was much admired in early Christendom - and it spread far. The Celtic Church, thousands of miles from arid Syria, developed its own tradition. The Culdees - medieval monks - lived in complete seclusion and sought God in silence and hardship.

The ascetic tradition is dominated by the story of Simeon, however. He was born in the late fourth century, and became deeply religious in his teens. As a young man, according to Theodoret, he heard the "gospel utterance which declares blessed those who weep and mourn, calls wretched those who laugh, terms enviable those who possess a pure soul.."

Simeon decided to join a community translated by RM Davis as an "ascetic wrestling school" where he spent ten years contending as a "contestant of piety". He annoyed everybody by being brilliant at piety - consistently going one week rather than a couple of days without any food. He tied a rough, palm cord about his waist and started to bleed from the copious chafing, refusing to take it off or tend to the lacerated wound. At this point, he was kicked out of the pious wrestling school in case weaker students tried to copy his mad feats of penance.

He left in a huff, heading for the mountains. He lowered himself into a cistern, where he stayed without eating or drinking for five days, before eventually being hauled out by some shepherds. He then decided to go 40 days without food, and had himself sealed into a cottage with a jug of water. When, at last, the sealed door was cracked open he was found barely alive. He was revived with a bit of lettuce.

The Godly flocked to the miracle man. People came from as far as Britain to see him, hear him, touch him. Eventually, fed up of being jostled by his admirers, he climbed up a pillar. And stayed there. And stayed. He ordered the pillar to be made higher, and higher - closer to heaven.

A sixth century icon of Simeon on his pillar

He stayed at the top of the pillar for thirty-seven years. Every so often, local boys would shimmy up to deliver food. Once a year, he would fast for forty days, lashing himself to a beam attached to the pillar when the weakness was too much to bear.

Some modern scholars believe that Simeon was following a local pagan tradition; On the Syrian Goddess, a treatise written in the second century AD by Lucian, refers to pillar-dwellers as part of the cult of the local Goddess. Regardless, Simeon's insane piety was a propaganda bombshell for the early church. Theodoret writes of hordes of converting Ishamaelites converging on Simeon's pillar, rejecting their ancestral Gods in the face of such superhuman feats. Indeed, our reporter from the Fifth century nearly gets crushed to death by a crowd of over-eager worshippers.

Simeon spent most of his time standing; to the point where he had a pus-oozing ulcer on his left foot. Theodoret adds the detail that he could bend over to touch his forehead to his toes, so empty was his stomach (I'd settle to being able to touch my toes with my hands).

Simeon had many copycats, but he was the first and the most famous stylite. A church was built around his pillar, almost as big as Hagia Sophia, and his pillar stood for more than fifteen hundred years - smaller each year as successive pilgrims chipped off slivers of stone as souvenirs. Sadly, in 2016, a stray missile caused extensive damage to the church and the pillar, according to a report in The Telegraph.

The remains of the pillar before the Syrian civil war

An extraordinary, barmy life. Simeon couldn't bear to give up his piety contest, even at the last. According to the awe-struck Theodoret, when his soul departed to heaven, his body remained standing upright, 'like an unbeaten athlete who strives with no part of his limbs to touch the ground'.

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