In light of the recent news in my city (Tulsa, OK), I have decided to postpone writing at Katherine von Bora (Luther’s wife) for one week. As most of you know, #towerman has been dominating the lead stories in Tulsa. A troubled young man spent nearly a week a top of large broadcasting tower in Tulsa without food or water during most of it. He endured severe storms, strong winds, and scorching heat. Fortunately for all involved, the standoff with the Tulsa “towerman” ended peacefully through some outstanding rescue efforts and he was not hurt. According to the earliest reports, the “towerman” just wanted to get away from people and “do some thinking.”
What would drive a person to climb a tall tower in order to withdraw from the world? In the fifth century AD, there several who chose the monastic lifestyle who came to be known as “pillar saints.” Let’s be honest. What does the Tulsa “towerman” have in common with ancient Christian monks? Well, I suppose just the obvious.
The Pillar Saints
In most cases, the “pillar saints” lived on top of towers that were exponentially higher than they were wide. The tower of Simeon, who is profiled below, was reportedly 70 feet high but only 3 feet in circumference at its top. Many of these monks, who were also called “stylites,” endured a significant amount of suffering on top of their towers. Some faced harsh weather conditions, including wind, rain, snow, and heat. The weather conditions were so treacherous at times, that many of the “stylites” build protective walls and covering over their towers. Others added to their own suffering by practicing contortionist prayer rituals or wearing apparel that increased their suffering. Some early descriptions of the “stylites” talk about two small pails on ropes – one for food/drink to be delivered up to the monk on the tower, and one for the monk to relieve himself and send back down from the tower. I have always assumed the pillar saints had an intricate system to ensure they never confused those two pails!
The most well-known of these anchorites was a man named Symeon of Antioch, who came to be known as Simeon Stylites (AD 388-459). As far as we know, Simeon retains the record for the longest tower sit in history – 37 years on various towers of varying sizes (The second longest streak came from Simeon’s successor Daniel who lived on towers for 33 years). Simeon did more than just sit on his towers, however. He wrote and translated several important works. His prayer rituals became famous for their posture and language. He participated in several acts of self-inflicted suffering on top of the tower, which sometimes included putting on heavy animal skins or tying weights around his neck, which were intended to display his unshakeable commitment to the Spirit above the flesh. Multitudes came to observe Simeon and hear his sermons from the tower. Some came on pilgrimage from great distances. Simeon died while still living as a “stylite,” from a disease that had developed in his leg. According to an ancient Syrian biographer who likely wrote just after Simeon’s death in AD 469:
What should we say about the blessed Saint Simeon, of whom no one can tell his ascetic practices, unless it is God who knows and is acquainted with his toil and his service! For he wearied himself and struggled and toiled before his God in mighty fasts untold, and in mighty prayers unconquerable. In hunger and thirst, in heat and cold, continually, unceasingly, in supplication without interruption, and standing at all times; who gave no sleep to his eyes nor repose to his body…He loved his Lord with all his heart, more than himself and his life; for he surrendered his soul and put it into the hands of his Lord. So his Lord, who saw his diligence, gave him favor in the eyes of all men and magnified the fame of his exploits from one end of the creation to the other, and granted him besides that thing which his soul earnestly desired. For many times he asked and besought his Lord in prayer, saying thus: “O Lord God of Hosts, Let not thy servant come to stand in need of mortal help, and let me not descend from this place, and men see me on the ground. But upon this stone, on which I have stood at thy command and at thy word, grant me to finish the days of my life. Then from it take the soul of thy worshipper, according to the will of thy Lordship.” (translation Frederick Lent; www.ccel.org)
WHAT MERIT WAS THERE IN THIS LIFESTYLE?
The “pillar saints” were very popular for nearly a century. In the end, however, this lifestyle became not much more than a fad and a temporary attraction to the general public. They were a peculiar group of people in their practices and motivations. On the one hand, it would seem that they moved from one tower to the next in an almost “Babel fashion” in order to get closer to God. On the other hand, their anchorite lifestyle was not dissimilar to that of many ascetics who lived in late antiquity. Though many chose isolation, they often did so in public venues. Some lived in cells attached to churches where people could observe them or seek their counsel, others lived in communities within walking distance of the city centers so that people could visit them or study in their monasteries, others lived on top of pillars and towers.
Many Christians, who relish the teaching of the Reformation that salvation comes not by works, but by grace through faith classify behavior like that of Simeon Stylites as extreme and unnecessary. According to the great historian Philip Schaff,
One knows not whether to wonder at their unexampled self-denial, or to pity their ignorance of the gospel salvation…There St. Symeon stood many long and weary days, and weeks, and months, and years, exposed to the scorching sun, the drenching rain, the crackling frost, the howling storm, living a life of daily death and martyrdom, groaning under the load of sin, never attaining to the true comfort and peace of soul which is derived from a child-like trust in Christ’s infinite merits, earnestly striving after a superhuman holiness, and looking to a glorious reward in heaven, and immortal fame on earth.
At the same time, however, who are we to judge the obedience of a man like Simeon Stylites some nearly 1600 years later? His Syrian biographer, who may have known Simeon personally, said it this way:
But perhaps there is someone who says, “What need did he have, or was this required, that he should stand upon a pillar? For on the ground or in that corner could he not please our Lord?” . . . it pleased his Lord to have him stand on a pillar in these days and last times, because He saw the creation as though it were asleep, that by the distress of His servant he might arouse the world from the heaviness of its lethargy of sleep, and that the name of His divinity might be praised through the instrumentality of His believer.
Did you catch that? Perhaps God did call men like Simeon to this type of lifestyle because, in a way not dissimilar to our day, people were no longer paying attention to God’s spoken Word. Perhaps Simeon’s call reflects the call God has for his believers in the Christ-saturated Western world of today; that our faith would be genuine and authentic and our behavior would reflect our commitment to Christ above our commitment to self.
Schaff, whose quotes above seem to question the appropriateness of Simeon’s lifestyle, affirmed the stylite’s motivation and efficacy. Indeed it would appear that many men and women benefited from the message of Christ being preached from Simeon’s tower:
Yet Symeon was not only concerned about his own salvation. People streamed from afar to witness this standing wonder of the age. He spoke to all classes with the same friendliness, mildness, and love; only women he never suffered to come within the wall which surrounded his pillar. From this original pulpit, as a mediator between heaven and earth, he preached repentance twice a day to the astonished spectators, settled controversies, vindicated the orthodox faith, extorted laws even from an emperor, healed the sick wrought miracles, and converted thousands of heathen Ishmaelites, Iberians, Armenians, and Persians to Christianity…