Sunday, December 2, 2012

Can You Imagine Living as a Stylite?

St. Daniel the Stylite
6:30 in the morning - after several awakenings at approximately 10PM, 3AM, and now 6AM by my giant Golden Retreiver puppy Molly, I figured I would just get up.  Outside at 6 in the morning, even on Vancouver Island at this time of the year, is a little chilly. 

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
But to return - this is precisely why these figures were heroic, is that they were real people, not heroes, not super-humans, just men and women who gave their all in service to Christ. 

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.


  1. I love the stylites too. Bunel did a film Simone of the Desert - you should try to fine it and watch it. It's surreal - but insightful

    I think of the Stylite's in connection with Today's Gospel, "be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape (endure) the tribulations that are imminent and - to stand before the Son of Man.'"

    The saint stands, like a pillar, amidst the storms, his head held high, before Christ. We keep that image in our hearts to give us courage amidst the difficulties of modern life. In these days we are proved by sufferings - it is our perseverance which counts, our confidence in Christ, in and through the storms.

  2. The stylites have always been a source of wonder for me as well. I also agree that those examples, along with the Egyptian solitaries, seem so remote from our experience.

  3. Hi Jason,
    A couple of thoughts to ponder:
    Though we may not be able to subject ourselves to the seeming hardships of a stylite, I think that it may have been God's will and call for them. I believe we can all make reparation and pay homage to God in this way, but is our will strong enough.
    A friend of mine, now deceased, would make a week-long hardship retreat to a poustinia he had built on his property. Sure, not far from the comforts he daily enjoyed, but, nonetheless removed. Certainly we have these means available to us, but is the will there and are we responding to the silent call within.
    I once had the opportunity to make a silent retreat only with the modern comforts and amenities of a retreat house. For sure the elements were not scourging me, but enduring the solitude...the deafening silence... was one of the hardest things I've done. Will I even try a day on a pillar? Perhaps not. But I am called, I think we are all called, to give up ourselves completely to our Lord and Savior, because He gave everything for me.
    Peace to you,

  4. I have mixed feelings about the stylites (I know very little about them but just from what Ive read here, and Ive heard in the past of those in anceint times living these kinds of lives)I acknowledge that we are called to give everything to the Lord, and life is an ongoing challenge and journey in learning how to do so....and I also acknowledge that I'm the biggest wimp of all time, so this might be part of why I have mixed feelings....but are we not also supposed to have joy in the lord - and joy in each other? Isn't the life of Jesus one of great sacrifice and pain but also one of great fellowship and community? I'm just not sure I agree that to show complete living for the Lord, we also have to complete suffering...

  5. I think you might be a little short sighted when saying you doubt there is anyone today making the sacrifices that the Stylites did. Many Saints that I've studied (St Gemma, for example) did not want the publicity. They went to great lengths to get away from the world. St Daniel might have spent time on top of a pillar, but that is very public, and his motivation could be questioned. Today, there are many Catholics who toil in private in monasteries, convents, even in every day homes. They suffer through the little and big difficulties of the day, offering everything to Jesus, devoting their entire lives to serving the Lord. They are not showmen as St Daniel might have been, but they are true Saints and will be greeted by the Lord Jesus when they pass away from this life.