Story type: Literature
The church has aureoled and sainted the men and
women who have fought the Cosmic Urge. To do nothing
and to be nothing was regarded as a virtue.
The church has aureoled and sainted the men and women who have fought the Cosmic Urge. To do nothing and to be nothing was regarded as a virtue.
As the traveler journeys through Southern Italy, Sicily and certain parts of what was Ancient Greece, he will see broken arches, parts of viaducts, and now and again a beautiful column pointing to the sky. All about is the desert, or solitary pastures, and only this white milestone marking the path of the centuries and telling in its own silent, solemn and impressive way of a day that is dead.
In the Fifth Century a monk called Simeon the Syrian, and known to us as Simeon Stylites, having taken the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience, began to fear greatly lest he might not be true to his pledge. And that he might live absolutely beyond reproach, always in public view, free from temptation, and free from the tongue of scandal, he decided to live in the world, and still not be of it. To this end he climbed to the top of a marble column, sixty feet high, and there on the capstone he began to live a life beyond reproach.
Simeon was then twenty-four years old.
The environment was circumscribed, but there were outlook, sunshine, ventilation–three good things. But beyond these the place had certain disadvantages. The capstone was a little less than three feet square, so Simeon could not lie down. He slept sitting, with his head bowed between his knees, and, indeed, in this posture he passed most of his time. Any recklessness in movement, and he would have slipped from his perilous position and been dashed to death upon the stones beneath.
As the sun arose he stood up, just for a few moments, and held out his arms in greeting, blessing and in prayer. Three times during the day did he thus stretch his cramped limbs, and pray with his face to the East. At such times, those who stood near shared in his prayers, and went away blessed and refreshed.
How did Simeon get to the top of the column?
Well, his companions at the monastery, a mile away, said he was carried there in the night by a miraculous power; that he went to sleep in his stone cell and awoke on the pillar. Other monks said that Simeon had gone to pay his respects to a fair lady, and in wrath God had caught him and placed him on high. The probabilities are, however, Terese, as viewed by an unbeliever, that he shot a line over the column with a bow and arrow and then drew up a rope ladder and ascended with ease.
However, in the morning the simple people of the scattered village saw the man on the column.
All day he stayed there.
And the next day he was still there.
The days passed, with the scorching heat of the midday sun, and the cool winds of the night.
Still Simeon kept his place.
The rainy season came on. When the nights were cold and dark, Simeon sat there with bowed head, and drew the folds of his single garment, a black robe, over his face.
Another season passed; the sun again grew warm, then hot, and the sandstorms raged and blew, when the people below almost lost sight of the man on the column. Some prophesied he would be blown off, but the morning light revealed his form, naked from the waist up, standing with hands outstretched to greet the rising sun.
Once each day, as darkness gathered, a monk came with a basket containing a bottle of goat’s milk and a little loaf of black bread, and Simeon dropped down a rope and drew up the basket.
Simeon never spoke, for words are folly, and to the calls of saint or sinner he made no reply. He lived in a perpetual attitude of adoration.
Did he suffer? During those first weeks he must have suffered terribly and horribly. There was no respite nor rest from the hard surface of the rock, and aching muscles could find no change from the cramped and perilous position. If he fell, it was damnation for his soul–all were agreed as to this.
But man’s body and mind accommodate themselves to almost any condition. One thing at least, Simeon was free from economic responsibilities, free from social cares and intrusion. Bores with sad stories of unappreciated lives and fond hopes unrealized, never broke in upon his peace. He was not pressed for time. No frivolous dame of tarnished fame sought to share with him his perilous perch. The people on a slow schedule, ten minutes late, never irritated his temper. His correspondence never got in a heap.
Simeon kept no track of the days, having no engagements to meet, nor offices to perform, beyond the prayers at morn, midday and night.
Memory died in him, the hurts became callouses, the world-pain died out of his heart, and to cling became a habit.
Language was lost in disuse.
The food he ate was minimum in quantity; sensation ceased, and the dry, hot winds reduced bodily tissue to a dessicated something called a saint–loved, feared and reverenced for his fortitude.
This pillar, which had once graced the portal of a pagan temple, again became a place of pious pilgrimage, and people flocked to Simeon’s rock, so that they might be near when he stretched out his black, bony hands to the East, and the spirit of Almighty God, for a space, hovered close around.
So much attention did the abnegation of Simeon attract that various other pillars, marking the ruins of art and greatness gone, in that vicinity, were crowned with pious monks. The thought of these monks was to show how Christianity had triumphed over heathenism. Imitators were numerous. About then the Bishops in assembly asked, “Is Simeon sincere?” To test the matter of Simeon’s pride, he was ordered to come down from his retreat.
As to his chastity, there was little doubt, his poverty was beyond question, but how about obedience to his superiors?
The order was shouted up to him in a Bishop’s voice–he must let down his rope, draw up a ladder, and descend.
Straightway Simeon made preparation to obey. And then the Bishops relented and cried, “We have changed our minds, and now order you to remain!”
Simeon lifted his hands in adoration and thankfulness and renewed his lease.
And so he lived on and on and on–he lived on the top of that pillar, never once descending for thirty years.
All his former companions grew aweary, and one by one died, and the monastery bells tolled their requiem as they were laid to rest. Did Simeon hear the bells and say, “Soon it will be my turn”?
Probably not. His senses had flown, for what good were they! The young monk who now at eventide brought the basket with the bottle of goat’s milk and the loaf of brown bread was born since Simeon had taken his place on the pillar.
“He has always been there,” the people said, and crossed themselves hurriedly.
But one evening when the young monk came with his basket, no line was dropped down from above. He waited and then called aloud, but all in vain.
When sunrise came, there sat the monk, his face between his knees, the folds of his black robe drawn over his head. But he did not rise and lift his hands in prayer.
All day he sat there, motionless.
The people watched in whispered silence. Would he arise at sundown and pray, and with outstretched hands bless the assembled pilgrims?
And as they watched, a vulture came sailing slowly through the blue ether, and circled nearer and nearer; and off on the horizon was another–and still another, circling nearer and ever nearer.