The first ascetic practice in Christianity started with Antonius who lived in Egypt in the third century. Antonius chose himself a deserted castle for his practice of isolation from all the worldly things for twenty years. Since then, several ascetics occurred and carried out this extreme religious practice in various places such as tree hollows, a simple hut, on top of a rock, or even on a pillar. This text will focus on the ones that chose pillars, aka the stylites.
The first known stylite was St. Simeon the Elder (379/386- 449) who lived in northern Syria. According to the writings of Theodoret, a Church historian who knew Simeon when he was alive, Simeon initially tried fasting among the rocks. However, people found him there and brought their sick to be healed miraculously and cut off pieces from his clothes as relics. Not wanting to be disturbed, Simeon thought of the idea that he could isolate himself from other people by ascending a pillar (Thurtson 585- 587).
According to the sources, Simeon the Elder climbed his first pillar (ten feet high) in 412. While on top of the pillar, he mainly practiced two main forms of penance that are standing upright and deep inclinations. These practices lasted years, and even the harsh weather conditions and starvation could not deter him. Theodoret also wrote that Simeon spent a whole Lent (40 days of fasting) without eating and drinking which almost cost him his life (Thurtson 586).
The main idea of standing upright on a pillar was the statis (restricted movement) despite severe cold or heat as a way of penance. Maybe the example of Saint Kevin of Glendalough can help us understand the seriousness of statis better: According to a hagiographer’s narration, Saint Kevin stood erect on a stone for six weeks so firm that a blackbird built a nest in his hand and remained there until her eggs hatched (Thurtson 587-588).
Simeon the Elder spent 37 years on a pillar by being exposed to sun, rain, wind, and snow. As for Simeon the Younger, he is told to become a stylite as a child and spent 68-69 years on a pillar until he died in 592 at the age of 75. One another Syrian stylite called St. Daniel (409-493) spent his life in Constantinople and died at the age of 84. It is surprising how stylites lived so long in spite of constant starvation, prolonged restriction of movement, and exposure to harsh weather conditions. There were even older stylites such as Alypius who lived until his 99, and St. Luke who lived more than a century (Thurtson 589).
Moreover, there are narrations saying that Simeon the Younger spent 30 days without sleeping; Alypius had so severe ulcers in his legs tat he could not walk; a blizzard blew away St. Daniel’s coat, leaving him almost naked in the middle of drifting snow, and St. Luke almost froze to death in the 120-day frost of 933-944. In all these cases, the stylites depended on their disciples to bring them food, heal them, and build a temporary shelter on their pillars when they were about to die. This was why they also had to get along with their helpers unlike St. Lazarus who almost died of thirst because he upset his water pitcher (Thurtson 591,592).
Despite all these dangers, becoming a stylite became popular in Near East to reach perfection as a Christian, and most of them had their own biographers which makes their extreme lifestyles more believable today. According to records, the last stylite lived in Georgia in mid-19th century. As for the West, there is only one record of an attempt to become a stylite by a deacon named Wulflaicus in 585. However, his attempt turned out to be a fiasco because he was not appreciated as the ones in the East, and he was taxed for copying St. Simeon Stylites, and his column was thrown down after he descended (Thurtson 592, 593).
The Church of Saint Simeon Stylites was built on the site of Simeon stylites in the 5th century. It is one of the oldest surviving church complex in the world.
For more information: Thurston, Herbert. “Stylites or Pillar-Saints.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 12, no. 48, 1923, pp. 584–96. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30093422. Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.