Lost in prayer
Simeon — whose mother Martha is also a saint in the Eastern churches — is one of a group of holy men (and some sources say holy women as well) called stylites, from the Greek word for “pillar” (stylos). These people lived most of their lives on top of a pillar, lost in prayer and contemplation of God.
Simeon was the first of these “pillar saints” or “pillar hermits.” For the last 37 years of his life — he lived to be 70 — Simeon lived on top of various pillars in Syria, near the modern city of Aleppo. The last of his pillars was at least 55 feet tall. (Some Eastern sources say it was 80 feet tall.) The pillar was about three feet square and Simeon stood there, day in and day out. Eventually, a sort of wall was built around him to help him stay upright, but he was constantly exposed to the elements.
Simeon was an ascetic, following a form of religious life that is not unique to Christians but which was in the pattern of St. Paul, John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Asceticism comes from Greek history and originally referred to a regimen or form of exercise. Ascetics disciplined their bodies for various reasons — for Christian ascetics, the reason was to imitate Christ who had denied himself the joys and glories of heaven to come to earth for the salvation of humanity. Ascetics also sought to atone for their sins and the sins of others, as well as to avoid attachment to this world, and to practice humility.
St. Paul describes some of this in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (9:25-27).
Ascetics also became hermits, often in the deserts of the Middle East, and eventually began what became the monastic tradition. St. Anthony of Egypt (d. 356), considered the “Father of All Monks,” is the prime example of the lifestyle of the Desert Fathers. (Anthony’s feast day is Jan. 17.)
Not an end in itself
While many saints practiced austere living, it should be remembered that austerity was not an end in itself. Mortification of the body — whether by denying it food or shelter, by standing on a pillar, or by kneeling for hours in the cold — is not something that is good in and of itself. Besides being uncomfortable and even dangerous — Simeon collapsed at least twice — it can be a danger to one’s soul.
St. Jerome (d. 420), who was also ascetic by nature, wrote to a friend, advising him to be careful of such severe practices: “Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection” (“The Catholic Encyclopedia”).
A ladder nearby
While Simeon — and other stylites such as St. Luke the Younger (d. 953) and St. Daniel the Stylite (d. 493) — was an ascetic and lived on a pillar, he actually was not isolated from others. A ladder was kept near his pillar so that people could climb up beside him for counsel. He would also preach from his pillar and write letters to various people, including St. Genevieve in Paris. Simeon even counseled the Byzantine Emperors Theodosius II and Leo I.
People sought out Simeon, hoping he could direct them on how to live a better Christian life. Since he, like other ascetic saints, was not focused on the things of this world, Simeon was not as easily trapped by the worries of this world. Thus he could more clearly see what was important for eternal life. Just like a fire ranger in a tower can see the fire and not just the trees.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Orthodox Church in American at oca.org; “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.”