previous sub-section
Introduction: John's World
next sub-section

Ascetism and Society

During the fourth century monasticism flowered across the Christian realm, and with it a critical role for the ascetic—the holy man or woman—to play in society. By their discipline and their conscious imitation of biblical models, especially from the Gospels, the ascetics enacted


the image of Christ. To the public this was more than imitation: in the image of Christ, the holy one could do what Christ had done. The ascetics could intercede for divine mercy, and they could be instruments of divine grace in this world; they were a channel between humanity and God that worked in both directions. The ascetic was the point at which the human and the holy met.[92]

Moreover, the ascetics blurred the lines separating the temporal and spiritual realms. Just as they could intercede effectively with the divine, so too could they intercede with the worldly powers below. It did not take long for the Christian community, great and small, to turn to the holy men or women for cures, exorcisms, advice, justice, and judgments in affairs private and public, personal and civil. Often seen as an attempt to leave the worldly for the spiritual, asceticism in fact carried heavy responsibilities in relation to the larger Christian society.[93]

The wider empire showed developments that paralleled the basic models of Syrian asceticism.[94] In the late third and early fourth centuries Antony had paved the route out to the Egyptian desert as anchorite, and back into the temporal world when he reentered Alexandria on behalf of the Bishop Athanasius.[95] In so doing, he sharpened the task of the ascetic vocation. There had been others before him of devotional practice, recluses who lived the life of prayer. In the desert Antony redefined the ascetic as one who fought the Adversary face-to-face, in the desolate and un-Christianized wilderness. Antony made "the desert a city," sanctifying a place where God had not been present. And he did more: he brought that strength back into Christian society. Indeed, as the prophets of old—Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist—and as Christ himself, Antony faced the wilderness as prelude to a career that involved much public ministry.[96] Soon after, in Cappadocia, Basil of Caesarea both established a form of devotional community dependent on corporate discipline—his monastery / hospice / hospital complex—and caused his friend Gregory of Nazianzus to leave his retreat and enter the church's battlegrounds.[97] It was not a far step from either position to that of the monastic forces utilized by Cyril of Alexandria early in the fifth century.[98]

The Syrian terrain and its vulnerable position as border country between the Roman and Persian Empires made it necessary for the early Syrian anchorites either to remain near to fortified towns or villages, as Jacob of Nisibis had done, or to bond together as a community, however loosely, as in the case of Julian Saba.[99] These factors marked Syrian asceticism with its own distinctive style. In Egypt, clear distance from the outside world was the desert's claim. Although sources indicate continual contact between the ascetics and society, both sides upheld the


ideal of that distance as a crucial element for the ascetic's vocation. In the Syrian Orient, proximity to the temporal society was a given. Even in texts describing anchorites, the dramatic isolation eulogized in Egyptian (as well as Palestinian) hagiography is rarely to be found. Furthermore, unlike Cappadocia, the structural patterns of different communities were rarely coordinated and their arrangements with the ecclesiastical organization were less elaborate.

The fifth century brought the full articulation of Syrian asceticism and established its place in relation to Christian society. Again, two figures mark the key developments: Simeon the Stylite (c. 386–459) outside Antioch, and the legendary Man of God in Edessa at about the same time. These two represent the poles of traditional asceticism, the wilderness and the city; and they represent the range of relationships possible for asceticism and society, in the huge cult following of Simeon and its antithesis in the anonymity of the Man of God.

Simeon was the unparalleled star of Syrian asceticism, known in his own day (and perhaps ever after) as the great wonder of the inhabited world.[100] Born in Syria of Christian parents and baptized as a child, Simeon grew up tending his father's flocks. A chance encounter led to his conversion to the ascetic life, and he left his home at once. Simeon passed through two monasteries in Syria, at Tel'ada and Telneshe, in his search for his true vocation, but his propensity for severe and eccentric practice led him into conflict with the developing Syrian monastic structure. Eventually he went his own way, first as a recluse and then, around 412, as stylite, mounting the first of three pillars, each higher than the one before. On the pillar he took up his stasis , his stance of continual prayer. The final pillar, on which he spent roughly the last forty years of his life, was about forty cubits high (sixty feet?). It had a platform on top about six-feet square, with a railing to keep him from falling off. Exposed on the mountain with no shelter of any kind, Simeon stood on his pillar midway between heaven and earth until his death at the age of more than seventy years. His career as holy man was spectacular. During his life, his fame had spread from Britain to Persia; the pilgrims who flocked to see him crossed the spectrum of late antique society from peasant to emperor, bringing him problems as mundane as cucumber crops and as complex as foreign policy.

On top of his pillar, Simeon lived exposed to heat, sun, ice, rain, and snow. Once he nearly died from a gangrenous ulcer on his foot. He followed a rigid schedule of stationary prayer, genuflexion, and attention to the pilgrims below. He was tended by disciples who climbed the pillar by ladder to bring him the sparse food he ate once each week when he


was not fasting. A monastic community grew up around the pillar base, which served not only the stylite but also the pilgrims who came. Twice a day Simeon would interrupt his prayer routine to hear problems and address exhortations to the crowds below. He judged disputes, addressed the affairs of the Church, proclaimed against heresy, and sent advice to the emperor, foreign kings, and other high officials; he preached, healed, exorcised, prophesied, and blessed the endless crowds.[101]

We possess three contemporary vitae for Simeon. Although we have nothing from his own words that explains why he climbed the pillar, these three sources offer different perspectives on what he was doing and why. Their differences are instructive. Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote about Simeon in his Historia religiosa while the saint was still alive (c. 444), when he had been on the pillar twenty-eight years and his cult was in full glory.[102] Theodoret uses the frame of Hellenic tradition to present Simeon as one for whom body and soul are mutually antagonistic in a battle of wills that forms the central focus for Simeon's career. To seek the resolution of the conflict, Simeon adopted a life of discipline and virtue in order to subjugate his body to his will. He represents the true philosopher, one who seeks the life of virtue by turning his mind wholly to the spiritual world above. In subduing his body to his soul, Simeon achieves an inward harmony through which he can turn the whole of his heart to God. Theodoret calls this the "angelic life"; for him, Simeon's ascent on the pillar represented his search for escape from the physical world. It was the "fatigue," the "unbearable toil"[103] from the weight of the world that drove him to be apart up on his pillar: he sought to "fly heavenward."[104]

Theodoret also takes the time to draw from an apologia apparently prepared by Simeon's monastic community and utilized also by the writers of Simeon's Syriac vita.[105] From this he defends Simeon's career as one that follows the Old Testament prophets: in seeking to reveal the will of God, the prophets often resorted to shocking behavior, which was as essential for their work as the message they spoke. But this is not where Theodoret finds the real key to Simeon's vocation; he focuses instead on the achieved discipline of the virtuous life.

In another vein altogether is the Syriac vita composed by the saint's disciples soon after his death.[106] It represents the saint's official story, the "authorized" version put out either by the community that continued to tend his shrine in its context as a major pilgrimage site or by those close to this community. Here there is no division of body and soul. Here, Simeon's conversion to the religious life is an act of love, the giving of himself into the very hands of God. "[He] cared for nothing except how


he might please his Lord. . . . [And] he loved his Lord with all his heart."[107] In Theodoret's story, the capacity to work miracles was something that Simeon gained over time; it accrued to him gradually, as he attained an ever purer discipline. By contrast, in the Syriac vita Simeon was capable of miracles from the moment he gave himself over to God. This was not a grace symbolically earned or achieved; it was the mark of his unity with God.

In the Syriac text, much more space is given to the apologia for Simeon's vocation on the pillar. Major prophets whose actions had shocked their communities—Isaiah walking naked, Hosea marrying the harlot, Jeremiah wearing yoke and thongs—are cited as so many precursors to Simeon's action, and his work is presented specifically as prophetic behavior.[108] Moses and Elijah figure most prominently in this presentation, both as models and as spiritual guides for the stylite.[109] The pillar is climbed because this is what God calls him to do.[110] Here Simeon becomes a stylite not in penitence, not to deny his body nor to discipline it, but because God requires it to fulfill his purpose.

The Syriac text places much emphasis on Simeon's cruciform prayer. But as earlier in the Odes of Solomon , this image is not likened to Christ's suffering on the cross. It is used to connote Christ's victorious stance in his triumph over Satan, a victory displayed again through the activity of Simeon on the pillar. The pillar itself is likened to a number of images. It is the high place from which the prophet speaks the word of God; it is the new Mount Sinai from which the new Law is dispensed; it is the crucible that purifies Simeon as gold through fire; it is the altar upon which Simeon is the incense rising heavenward as prayer; it is the mountain on which Simeon is transfigured as Christ himself was once transfigured; but Calvary it is not.[111]

It is only in our third text, the Greek vita written by Antony, an alleged disciple of Simeon, that we hear of Simeon's vocation as one of penance.[112] For Antony, the extremity of Simeon's practice represents his response to his sinful nature as fallen man, and it is sin that holds the focus of this text. Here even the saint's capacity to work miracles does not indicate his victory over sin; it is rather a grace despite Simeon's humanity. In this text Simeon's actions are only the search to achieve adequate repentance through ceaseless abasement and punishment. Unlike the other two sources, this one presents the ugliness of the saint's vocation as exactly that, with no attempt to mitigate its brutality.

The variations in these texts reveal that even the most extreme ascesis did not represent a clear religious stance; the notion of a dualism fundamental to Christian culture can neither account for Simeon's voca-


tion nor convey its meaning.[113] Rather, we are presented with a kaleidoscope of imagery, one that carries echoes from the entire spectrum of early Syrian Christianity, heterodox or orthodox.

Simeon's story illustrates another feature of the cult of saints. When he died, his body was moved to Antioch in an extraordinary procession. Seven bishops, the military governor of Syria, and an escort of six hundred soldiers accompanied the body to its resting place in the cathedral. The crowds en route were enormous. The procession took five days to reach Antioch, a distance of roughly forty miles. After his death, his cult continued to grow, with particular glory accruing to his shrine at Qal'at Sim'an housing the relic of his pillar, but figuring also at religious sites across Christendom, as far away as Gaul.[114] There came, too, the glory of those who followed Simeon's model: stylites became an important feature of Byzantine spirituality; imitators can be found as late as the mid-nineteenth century.[115]

Contemporaneously with Simeon's life and cult, the story of the Man of God appeared in Edessa.[116] The story itself is set in the years when Rabbula was Edessa's bishop (411–435) and was written perhaps between 470 and 475, the dates for the composition of the Syriac Life of Simeon . The two stories appear antithetical.

The story of the Man of God is a simple one. We do not know his name, nor the names of his parents, a noble Roman family. Born to a childless couple after many years, this son was from the beginning "an instrument chosen by God." His humility, even as a youth, was unsettling; in an effort to help him conform to the ways of the world, his parents finally arranged a marriage for him. But the Man of God fled, and making his way to Syria, he settled in Edessa as a beggar. The way of life he took on as his vocation was as simple as it was severe. He lived among the poor in the vicinity of the church, fasting and praying. He would accept a little money from the almsgivers, from which he purchased a very little food and gave the rest to others in need. At night he staved among the poor, standing in cruciform prayer all night while they slept.

Eventually the caretaker (paramonarius ) of the church discovered his practice, and one night begged, "Who are you and what is your work?" The saint gestured to the poor who lay sleeping around them, "Ask those in front of you, and from them you will learn who I am and whence I am, for I am one of them."[117] It was only with the greatest difficulty that the caretaker learned the saint's story, and only after the holy man had bound him to secrecy and refused when the caretaker asked to become his disciple. But the caretaker began to imitate the Man of God, secretly


following an austere prayer practice of his own and watching over the holy man. One day while the caretaker was away, the saint died; anonymous in death as in life, he was buried in the cemetery of the poor. In great distress, the caretaker poured out the story to Bishop Rabbula, begging that the body be taken back from the graveyard and with proper burial laid "in a known place,"[118] to be granted due veneration. But the saint's body could not be found, only the rags in which he had lain.

We have no way of knowing whether or not there is a historical basis to this story. It may have been inspired by such an ascetic, or it may have been a simple didactic tale; either way, the message remains the same. In the story we are shown two responses to the life of this saint. First, the Bishop Rabbula is spurred by the meaning of the saint's presence in the city to undertake service to the poor and destitute, in honor of the saint's identity with them (and indeed, Rabbula was famed for his work with the needy).[119] As for the paramonarius, he undertook the continuation of the saint's prayer practice and the telling of the saint's story. But so well did he understand it that he preserved the humility of his master even then. Himself anonymous, he wrote a story that gives us a saint with no teachings, no miracles, no body, no tomb, and no name.[120]

A greater contrast to Simeon would be hard to imagine. On his pillar, Simeon was both in the world and above it. Further, he lived in a space well separated from the urban world; up in the mountains, the world came out to Simeon to seek his aid. As his cult grew, the enclosure built around him and his attendant monastic community created a buffer between the saint and his suppliants that was far more efficient than the height of his pillar. Simeon's practice made him visible to all and thus gave the sense that he was accessible to all.[121] But despite the generosity of his works, Simeon could be reached only by his chosen few. One obtained intercession from Simeon through the intercession of his disciples. The separation was sharp enough to confuse his pilgrims as to whether he was human.[122]

A clear-cut relationship between ascetics and society in the Syrian Orient was emerging, along with a fusion of the eremitic and cenobitic vocations, as the individual virtuosi found their practices increasingly conducted within monastic communities. Rabbula himself published canonical literature for monks and for the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant, dealing with situations both inside the religious community and out in the public sphere.[123] For both groups, in both spheres, he demanded a life of strict separation. There was to be little if any contact with the laity, and no contact between sexes; monastic garments and chaperones helped to demarcate the boundaries of religious life in an ur-


ban context. In the monasteries themselves, structures became clear. Both seclusion as a hermit and the use of chains or other "spiritual aids" were restricted to the most worthy in a monastery. Rabbula's legislation was strengthened by civil laws such as those exempting stylites from court appearances, which served to reinforce the practical order of religious and societal interaction.[124]

The Man of God's life would seem to undermine this entire picture. He does not withdraw from the world: he goes to it. He enters the harsh reality of the destitute in a major urban center, "For I am one of them." He lives among men and women, unmarked by clothing, company, or conduct. Without even a name, he has no identity as a holy man. Where the physical separation of the holy was an essential ingredient in the work that Simeon and others like him performed for society, and where the cult of such a saint flourished both during life and after death, the Man of God was invisible in life and death, indistinguishable from the poor in the streets or in the cemetery. Alive he was no one in particular; he could have been anyone, and thus he became everyone. When his body disappeared in death, he was nowhere; he could have been anywhere, and so he was everywhere. The Man of God had just this task as his work: to reveal the presence of the holy in the midst of human life. This he did by the power of his presence alone, sanctifying the world itself and causing good works to be done by those around him—not miracles, but actions of concrete import in human society and possible for any person to perform.

In this text, too, the image of cruciform prayer is crucial. Here again, our saint is given no images of trial, testing, or punishment.[125] Rather, we are once more presented with images of transformation: from the greatness of his noble birth, to the humbleness of the poor, to the holiness of the empty tomb. The holy was where the Man of God was—in the world.

Thus at a time when popular spirituality evoked fervent followings for holy men and women and accorded their monasteries great power and influence, the Man of God provided a balancing voice. Where could the life of true devotion be lived? Where could the holy be found? And who was truly free from the cares of the world? In his story, the Man of God showed no disrespect for either city or monastery. For him, they were one and the same; life itself was vocational. This is in fact the consequence of the story. Simeon presented the holy one as sharply marked out from the general Christian community, by space, behavior, food, and intercessory activity. The Man of God took this division and forged an integration between society and the holy, for the holy could operate anywhere.


The career of Simeon and the story of the Man of God articulate the paradigm of Syrian asceticism as both an external expression and an internal reality. They reflect the variety of earlier ascetic activity in the Syrian Orient, presenting different aspects of its behavior and offering its meaning anew. Directly in their wake came John of Ephesus and the ascetics he celebrates in his Lives of the Eastern Saints .

previous sub-section
Introduction: John's World
next sub-section