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St. Simeon the Stylite and Living “Under Law”

In a previous article I spoke about what it means to live “under grace” in the sense in which Paul used the phrase in Romans 6:14. But what does it mean to live “under law”? Perhaps a story from church history will provide an answer to our question.

This is a story about an exceedingly odd Christian man. He is known to history as St. Simeon the Stylite. Simeon was born in 390 a.d. and died in 459. At the age of 13 he heard a sermon on the Beatitudes of Jesus from Matthew 5. He immediately cast himself down at the door of a monastery, begging to be granted entry. He lay there several days and refused to eat or drink. He grew accustomed to eating only on Sundays.

Simeon would punish his body by lacing it so tightly with cords that it pressed through to the bones. This extreme asceticism got him kicked out of the monastery. There is a limit to which even the most devoted monks might go.

Following his departure from the monastery, Simeon spent time on a mountain, living as a hermit. Countless people would make the arduous trek up the mountain to see this strange man and marvel at his dedication. But this did not bring peace or satisfaction to his soul, so Simeon traveled to an isolated area about 40 miles east of Antioch and spent the next 36 years on the top of a pillar. The Greek word for pillar is stylus, hence Simeon the Stylite.

The first pillar he constructed, on which he lived for four years, was some 9 ft. high. He eventually moved to a pillar 18 ft. high, then to one that was 33 ft. high. The last pillar on which he perched himself and lived for twenty years was 60 ft. tall. There was a small platform on the top of the pillar, 3 ft. in diameter. It was surrounded by a railing against which Simeon could lean if he got tired, and of course, against which he would rest his body in order to sleep. The ever-increasing height of the pillar was supposedly an indication of how much closer to God Simeon was rising. His followers and admirers would carry food up to him by means of a ladder.

While on top of the pillar, from which he never departed, he could never lie down or sit, but only stand, or lean against the railing. He would often spend entire days genuflecting, or bowing devoutly to the point that his head almost touched his feet. One observer counted no fewer than 1,244 such genuflections in one day and then quit counting. Simeon wore a covering of the skins of beasts and had a chain around his neck.

There he stood, exposed to the scorching heat of the desert, sometimes drenching rain, and even excessively cold weather. All the while he remained atop that pillar he groaned and moaned over his sin, striving after holiness but never achieving the peace and joy he so desperately desired.

If you wonder what in the world he did each day for those twenty years on top of the pillar, he preached and prayed. People would come from far away distances to marvel at him. There was a wall on the ground that surrounded the pillar, inside of which all were welcome, except for women. Evidently, he was fearful of seeing a woman and falling prey to the sin of lust. He preached about repentance, served as judge in the settling of disputes, defended orthodox theology, prayed for the sick, allegedly performed miracles, and by his proclamations led thousands of people to a saving knowledge of Christ.

He died in 459 at the age of 69, most likely from a cancer of some sort that formed on his leg. Before his death he was visited and admired by both Christians and pagans, church leaders and state officials. Even three Roman Emperors, Theodosius II, Leo, and Marcian, made the journey to seek his blessing. If there was one sin with which he struggled incessantly, not surprisingly, it was pride.

Simeon was not the only Stylite, but he was the most famous. Another, named Simeon the Younger, born in 592 a.d. is said to have spent 68 years on a pillar.

I know the question burning in your minds is: Why? Why would anyone choose to spend his earthly life atop a pillar, cut off from society, punishing his body? Aside from the fact that he was obviously a nut (!), he evidently believed that only by depriving himself of all physical comfort and pleasure could he ultimately conquer the power of sin in his life. If he withdrew from the surrounding world, he would not be tempted by what he might see or hear.

The bottom line is that Simeon was living “under law,” enslaved to the delusional belief that his asceticism and self-denial could win him favor with God. His life was the opposite of what Paul means when he speaks of living “under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Instead of striving to gain God’s approval, Simeon should have put his trust and hope in the sinless, saving life of Jesus and his death for sinners, like Simeon, on the cross. There is nothing to be found in living “under law” beyond misery, self-doubt, self-loathing, and perpetual frustration and guilt. Living “under grace”, on the other hand, brings joy and freedom and hope. Which of the two options will you choose?

 

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