Simon: the Saints
St. Simeon Stylites the Elder
St. Simeon was the first and probably the most famous of the long succession
of stylitoe, or "pillar-hermits", who during more than six centuries acquired by
their strange form of asceticism a great reputation for holiness throughout
If it were not that our information, in the case of the first St. Simeon and
some of his imitators, is based upon very reliable first-hand evidence, we
should be disposed to relegate much of what history records to the domain of
fable; but no modern critic now ventures to dispute the reality of the feats of
endurance attributed to these ascetics.
Simeon the Elder, was born about 388 at Sisan, near the northern border of
Syria. After beginning life as a shepherd boy, he entered a monastery before the
age of sixteen, and from the first gave himself up to the practice of an
austerity so extreme and to all appearance so extravagant, that his brethren
judged him, perhaps not unwisely, to be unsuited to any form of community life.
Being forced to quit them he shut himself up for three years in a hut at Tell-Neschin,
where for the first time he passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking.
This afterwards became his regular practice, and he combined it with the
mortification of standing continually upright so long as his limbs would sustain
him. In his later days he was able to stand thus on his column without support
for the whole period of the fast.
After three years in his hut, Simeon sought a rocky eminence in the desert and
compelled himself to remain a prisoner within a narrow space less than twenty
yards in diameter. But crowds of pilgrims invaded the desert to seek him out,
asking his counsel or his prayers, and leaving him insufficient time for his own
This at last determined him to adopt a new way of life. Simeon had a pillar
erected with a small platform at the top, and upon this he determined to take up
his abode until death released him. At first the pillar was little more than
nine feet high, but it was subsequently replaced by others, the last in the
series being apparently over fifty feet from the ground.
However extravagant this way of life may seem, it undoubtedly produced a deep
impression on contemporaries, and the fame of the ascetic spread through Europe,
Rome in particular being remarkable for the large number of pictures of the
saint which were there to be seen, a fact which a modern writer, Holl,
represents as a factor of great importance in the development of image worship
Even on the highest of his columns Simeon was not withdrawn from intercourse
with his fellow men. By means of a ladder which could always be erected against
the side, visitors were able to ascend; and we know that he wrote letters, the
text of some of which we still possess, that he instructed disciples, and that
he also delivered addresses to those assembled beneath.
Around the tiny platform which surmounted the capital of the pillar there was
probably something in the nature of a balustrade, but the whole was exposed to
the open air, and Simeon seems never to have permitted himself any sort of cabin
or shelter. During his earlier years upon the column there was on the summit a
stake to which he bound himself in order to maintain the upright position
throughout Lent, but this was an alleviation with which he afterwards dispensed.
Great personages, such as the Emperor Theodosius and the Empress Eudocia
manifested the utmost reverence for the saint and listened to his counsels,
while the Emperor Leo paid respectful attention to a letter Simeon wrote to him
in favour of the Council of Chalcedon.
Once when he was ill Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to descend and
allow himself to be attended by physicians, but the sick man preferred to leave
his cure in the hands of God, and before long he recovered. After spending
thirty-six years on his pillar, Simeon died on Friday, 2 Sept., 459 (Lietzmann,
p. 235). A contest arose between Antioch and Constantinople for the possession
of his remains. The preference was given to Antioch, and the greater part of his
relics were left there as a protection to the unwalled city.
The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honour and known as Qal `at Sim `ân
(the mansion of Simeon) remain to the present day. It consists of four basilicas
built out from an octagonal court towards the four points of the compass. In the
centre of the court stands the base of St. Simeon's column. This edifice, says
H.C. Butler, "unquestionably influenced contemporary and later church building
to a marked degree" (Architecture and other Arts, p. 184). It seems to have been
a supreme effort of a provincial school of architecture which had borrowed
little from Constantinople.
St. Simeon Stylites the Younger
Born at Antioch in 521, died at the same place 24 May, 597. His father was a
native of Edessa, his mother, named Martha was afterwards revered as a saint and
a life of her, which incorporates a letter to her son written from his pillar to
Thomas, the guardian of the true cross at Jerusalem, has been printed.
Like his namesake, the first Stylites, Simeon seems to have been drawn very
young to a life of austerity. He attached himself to a community of ascetics
living within the mandra or enclosure of another pillar-hermit, named John, who
acted as their spiritual director.
Simeon while still only a boy had a pillar erected for himself close to that of
John. It is Simeon himself who in the above-mentioned letter to Thomas states
that he was living upon a pillar when he lost his first teeth. He maintained
this kind of life for 68 years. In the course of this period, however, he
several times moved to a new pillar, and on the occasion of the first of these
exchanges the Patriarch of Antioch and the Bishop of Seleucia ordained him
deacon during the short space of time he spent upon the ground.
For eight years until John died, Simeon remained near his master's column, so
near that they could easily converse. During this period his austerities were
kept in some sort of check by the older hermit. After John's death Simeon gave
full rein to his ascetical practices and Evagrius declares that he lived only
upon the branches of a shrub that grew near Theopolis. Simeon the younger was
ordained priest and was thus able to offer the Holy Sacrifice in memory of his
mother. On such occasions his disciples one after another climbed up the ladder
to receive Communion at his hands.
As in the case of most of the other pillar saints a large number of miracles
were believed to have been worked by Simeon the Younger. In several instances
the cure was effected by pictures representing him (Holl in "Philotesia", 56).
Towards the close of his life the saint occupied a column upon a mountain-side
near Antioch called from his miracles the "Hill of Wonders", and it was here
that he died. Besides the letter mentioned, several writings are attributed to
the younger Simeon.
St. Simeon Stylites III
Another pillar hermit, who also bore the name Simeon, is honoured by both the
Greeks and the Copts. He is hence believed to have lived in the fifth century
before the breach which occurred between these Churches. But it must be
confessed that very little certain is known of him.
He is believed to have been struck by lightning upon his pillar, built near
Hegca in Cicilia.
With thanks to
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton
Company Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight Nihil Obstat, February
1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D.,Censor Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop
of New York