|St. Daniel the Stylite|
The cold, and the pillar-like tree stump in our backyard brought to my mind the lives of the stylites, those early saints who would live atop pillars for their whole lives. The most famous of them is St. Simeon, but St. Daniel also is fairly well-known. On these pillars, these men would live without shelter, totally exposed to the harsh elements of the desert - and desert nights are some of the most brutally cold of all. Little food, little anything - perhaps, to borrow a phrase from Death to the World, these stylites really were the "Hardest of the Hardcore".
In the life of St. Daniel the Stylite, we read the following passage:
"In the following year a storm of unbearable violence took place and caused the saint's leather tunic to become like a bit of tow under the searing blast of the winds, and then the wind tore off even that wretched rag from the holy man and hurled it some distance away into a gully and the holy man was exposed to the snow all night long. And as the bitterest winds dashed against his face, he came to look like a pillar of salt."1
It makes me wonder - could we in our own modern era ever still do such a thing? My friend David over at Splendour and Form once pointed out that I tend to view the saints in a pagan way, heroicising them. But when I read about them, it is hard not to fall into thinking about some of the more ancient ones as almost quasi-mythical heroes - the very notion that a man could even survive atop a pillar in the desert, exposed and half-starving for years upon years, is hard to even imagine nowadays. To me, the very thought of going about barefoot in the manner of a Discalced Carmelite would be hard enough - I would find myself craving some wooly socks fairly quickly.
|St. Simeon Stylites|
So where are the stylites of today? It seems that they are non-existent - indeed, if they were to exist, their pillars would be probably crammed between condominiums and office buildings, and the only attention they would get was from sensationalist news-outlets. In effect, it seems that that kind of ascetical life has died out - perhaps because of the extremity of it all. Even in their own lifetime, the stylites were viewed as bizarre: "The solitaries of Egypt were suspicious of a life so new and so strange,"2 relates Rev. Butler.
I wonder if any among us could handle a stylite-styled retreat even - I know I couldn't. But can you imagine retreats where Catholics could go atop a pillar to pray for even just 24 hours? I can't. All I can picture is hospital-waiver forms and legal fine print being filled out for a year beforehand, and an ambulance standing by should the retreatant suffer hypothermia or dehydration. It all seems otherworldly to think about in the end.
What can a person even make of lives lived in such a manner?
1 - qtd. in Anne Fremantle, A Treasury of Early Christianity, pg. 451
2 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, "St. Simeon Stylites", 1894 ed.