It is the 2nd of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
We’ve often discussed the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity in the 300s as one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the Church. One of the aspects that we have not pointed out is how this eliminated a lot of the fuel that helped the church grow: martyrs.
Don’t get me wrong, Christians can both make martyrs and play martyrs when wholly inappropriate but this was akin to your favorite independent band suddenly signing with a major label and now they have their music played in car commercials.
And the church-going “corporate” was too much for the original spiritual hipsters- the ascetics.
Asceticism is a kind of severe religious self-discipline that is often tied to Monasticism (and note, this is not only a “Christian thing” as many world religions have ascetics and monks).
Follow me here: All monastics are ascetic but not all ascetics are monastic. Some start in monasteries but then find that even that is too worldly and thus they move on- in the 4th and 5th centuries they would often move to the desert in imitation of St. Antony.
This is all background to tell you about one of the stranger stories, and characters, in all of Christian history. It was on this, the 2nd of September in 459 the St. Simeon the Stylite died. What’s a “stylite”, you ask? It’s someone that lives on a pillar. And Simeon had been doing that for 37 years. This guy has some serious David Blaine energy, but this wasn’t just a publicity stunt. And unlike a number of ‘saints stories’ stretching the truth, there is decent evidence that this guy actually did it.
Simeon was a shepherd boy who is said to have converted at the age of 8 after hearing a sermon on the Beatitudes. He joined a monastic community but found it not challenging enough. He began his path to the pillar by refusing to sit, eating only what was absolutely necessary, and praying. After a few miraculous stories about him started to circulate crowds began coming to see this man standing alone in a desert. The crowds became so big he began to seek out an appropriate pillar from which he could be left alone. But he did not want to be completely alone. His six-foot pillar on which he prayed became a site of pilgrimage and soon Simeon needed a bigger pillar. The 50-foot pillar that he spent almost 40 years on had a kind of thatched floor, railings, and a pulley system by which he could receive food and also gently and carefully remove his waste (this was really the question I was trying to find the answer to). Simeon became something of a celebrity which led to many coming to him to seek advice. His story was written by a contemporary and confirmed in other contemporary sources. The pillar itself still exists but today is a fraction of its initial height on account of pilgrims breaking off part of the rock to crush, put in water, and drink. You know, like Jesus told us to.
As you might guess, Simeon is not the only stylite, with that kind of fame it’s not surprising that we have at least 3 more Stylites taking the name Simeon in the next century or so. The practice would eventually be taken up in the “Holy fool” tradition in the eastern churches and we find stylites sprinkled through church history from the time of Simeon to the 19th century. Today we remember the first stylite, Simeon who died on the 2nd of September in 459.
The last word for today comes from Jesus in Matthew 6:
“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who is 3 parts Holy and 1 part Fool, he is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man 1 part Holy and 3 parts Fool, I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.