The Pole Sitters

The Pole Sitters

Among the great ascetics of the past are found those who have risen up to attain its greatest heights. They have done this both certainly in a literal and perhaps in a figurative sense. In fact, these are saints, monks-hermits, which would ascend to the top of a column (pillar) and in some cases have spent decades (or their whole life) in constant prayer, even without descending to earth. Here are some examples:

“The Venerable Theodulus… Theodulus was an eminent patrician at the court of Theodosius the Great. After the death of his wife, he renounced the vanity of the world and withdrew from Constantinople to a pillar near Ephesus, where he lived a life of asceticism for thirty years.” (December 3)

“The Venerable Daniel the Stylite… Daniel embraced the monastic rank at the age of twelve, visited Simeon the Stylite, and was blessed by him. Desirous of solitude, Daniel left the monastery and withdrew to an abandoned pagan temple on the shore of the Black Sea… Afterward he climbed up on a pillar. There he remained until his death, enduring both heat and cold, and attacks from both men and demons… Having lived for eighty years, this holy angelic man entered into rest and took up his habitation in the Kingdom of Christ in the year 489.” (December 11)

“The Venerable Luke the Stylite… Luke scorned the vanity of the world and withdrew to a pillar near Chalcedon. There he lived a life of asceticism for forty-five years, cleansing his soul of all sinful desires and thoughts. Pleasing God, he entered into rest sometime between the years 970 and 980 and took up his habitation in a better life.” (December 11)

“The Venerable Simeon the Stylite of the Wonderful Mountain… At age six, he withdrew to the desert to a spiritual father John under whose guidance he submitted himself to a life of austere fasting and prayerful asceticism to the astonishment of all who saw him… He spent many years on a ‘pillar’ praying to God and chanting psalms… He at times lived without sleep for thirty days and even longer without food and received nourishment from the hands of angels.” (May 24)

“The Venerable Nikita the Stylite… Nikita left his home, wife, property and entered a monastery near Pereyaslavl, where he lived an ascetical life of difficult mortifications until his death. He wrapped chains around himself and enclosed himself in a pillar for which reason he was called a Stylite… Certain evil doers spotted the chains on him and, because of their brightness, thought they were made of silver. They killed him one night, removed the chains and carried them away.” (May 24)

The historian Will Durant in his History of Civilization also describes the life of one of the saints – a stylite who is revered today in Orthodoxy, and whose life modern Orthodox teachers (such as Justin Popovic and Bishop Nicholas) call us to emulate:

“The monastery founded by Martin of Poitiers in 362 was the first of many to appear in Gaul. Since the idea of monasticism came to Rome, thanks to The Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius and Jerome’s vigorous call to the ascetic life, the West first assumed the hardest and most austere forms of monasticism. The Western church applied a strict regime to monk who lived in less favorable climates than to those who basked in the Egyptian sun. The monk Wulfilaich lived for years, with bare legs and feet, on a column at Trier; in winter the nails fell from his toes, and icicles hung from his beard. St. Senoch, near Tours, enclosed himself so narrowly within four walls that the lower half of his body could not move; in this situation he lived for many years, an objection of veneration to the populace.”

“The Syrian desert was inhabited by anchorites (hermetic monks). Some of them, like the Hindu fakirs, tied themselves with chains to immovable rocks. Others abhorred permanent residencest and roamed the mountains eating grass. Simeon the Stylite (390?-459), we are told, used to go without food through the forty days of Lent; during one Lent he was, at his own insistence, walled up in an enclosure with a little bread and water; on Easter they knocked down the walls around him, and the bread and the water were found untouched. At Kalat Seman, in northern Syria, about 422, Simeon built himself a column six feet high and lived on it. Ashamed of his moderation, he built and lived on ever taller columns, until he made his permanent abode on a pillar sixty feet high. Its circumference at the top was little more than three feet; a railing kept the saint from falling to the ground in his sleep. On this perch Simeon lived uninterruptedly for thirty years, exposed to rain and sun and cold. A ladder enabled his disciples to take him food and remove his waste. He bound himself to the pillar by a rope; the rope became embedded in his flesh, which putrefied around it, stank, and teemed with worms; Simeon picked up the worms that fell from his sores, and replaced them there, saying to them, ‘Eat what God has given you.’… His ‘stature’ established a model of devotion for the ascetic Stylite that lasted for twelve centuries and in thoroughly secularized form persists to this day.”

After reading these excerpts from the lives of these saints, once again we see that their struggle to attain salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven is manifested through various non-biblical methods. Examples include monks climbing pillars, abandoning their homes and families to seek greater devotion to monasticism, and subjecting themselves to extremely inhumane living conditions, including hunger, thirst, and various climatic
conditions. Throw on top of that some masochism in tying oneself with chains. No explanation is needed the wide gap these practices compare to the true New Testament teaching on spiritual life and sanctification in Christianity. Moreover, such methods of sanctification through prayer and living on top of pillars resembles far more the practice of Buddhist monks and members of other Eastern religions, something that could not even remotely be considered Christian. Ernst Benz comments:

“The practice of Orthodox monasticism, particularly in its older form, still has very specific characteristics of oriental asceticism, which in many ways resembles non-Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist ascetic practices. Thus, Syrian monks developed the type of pillar sitting. On top of a pillar in the midst of a ruined temple sits a hermit who stays there in a position of ‘eternal prayer’. A state of constant meditation is also expressed in such a posture. Contemplative prayer accepts posture as a permanent position, so that at the end – at least so legends report – a few birds built their nests on the heads or outstretched arms of these Syrian saints.”

As for other practices by ascetic Orthodox saints seeking salvation apart from the way of salvation taught in God’s Word, Benz adds this commentary:

“And other ascetics on Russian soil performed extreme physical penitential practices not only in the form of continuous fasting for 40 days and prostrations repeated one thousand times, when the petitioner threw his entire body with outstretched arms and hit the ground with his forehead. They also carried huge iron chains and barbed heavy iron crosses on their bare body under the robes as an instrument of torture. These items can be seen in the museums of Eastern Orthodox monasteries.”

Will Durant also writes about this topic:

“Among the anchorites, there arose significant competition to be superior in asceticism. According to the abbot De Cheyne, Macarius of Alexandria ‘never heard of any deed in asceticism that could outdo him.’ If other monks ate no cooked food in Lent, Macarius ate none for seven years; if some punished themselves with sleeplessness, Macarius could be seen ‘frantically endeavoring for twenty consecutive nights to keep himself awake.’ Throughout one Lent he stood upright day and night, and ate nothing except, once a week, a few cabbage leaves; and during this time he continued to work at weaving trade… For six months he slept in a marsh, and exposed his naked body to poisonous flies. Some monks excelled in feats of solitude; so Serapion inhabited a cave at the bottom of an abyss into which few pilgrims had the hardihood to descend; when Jerome and Paula reached his lair they found a man almost composed of bones, dressed only in a loincloth, face and shoulders covered by uncut hair; his cell was barely large enough for a bed of leaves and a plank; yet this man had lived among the aristocracy of Rome. Some, like Bessarion for forty, Pachomius for fifty, years, never lay down while they slept; some specialized in silence, and went many years without uttering a word; others carried heavy weights wherever they went, or bound their limbs with iron bracelets, greaves, or chains. Many proudly recorded the number of years since they had looked upon a woman’s face.”

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