September 1: Sitting with Simeon the Stylite
I think I've found my new patron saint for this coming liturgical year. He and I, at first glance, appear to be very different. He is a fifth century monastic from Syria, strongly ascetic and a hearty faster. I am a homeschooling mom in suburban Pennsylvania who can hardly manage morning and evening prayer and who heartily struggles to keep her craving for chocolate at bay. Yet I identify with this saint very strongly. Like me, Simeon the Stylite didn't fit well in where he was situated. They actually asked him to leave the monastery because his strong devotion to prayer and fasting had intimidated the other monks. Can you believe that? Its one thing to be seen as a religious fanatic among the neighbors, but at the monastery too? Poor Simeon. It was clear that he was obedient; he didn't argue or preach to them but simply withdrew. It is so much easier to be alone with God than to be amid the chatter that distracts from Him anyway. This is where we agree, Simeon and I.
In order to become more alone with God and to be free to listen and hear His small, still voice, Simeon lived in isolation in an abandoned well at first. I imagine he was feeling rather "lowly" and his new home had reflected that.
When the monks repented and understood that his devotions were genuine, they begged him to come back to the monastery and he did. This time he changed his way of thinking and he built a cell for himself upon a ten-foot-high pillar where he could raise his heart and his thoughts to lofty things and pray undisturbed, carrying out his penitential practices alone with God. Gradually, Simeon's pillar grew taller and taller, about eighty feet in the air, and a wall was built around the pillar to keep curiosity seekers away. He liked it this way. However, if you are a modern-day curiosity seeker like me, you can visit St. Simeon Stylite Church in Syria and see the actual pillar, or at least the remnants of its ruins there today.
There are times I imagine myself in that same kind of cell on occasion, especially on very difficult days when it seems every single support has been removed from beneath me save One. My pillar, however, is not entirely self-imposed and for that fact, I am not usually as peaceful.
I'm reaching upward, toward Heaven, this is true, and my desire is to soar up higher and higher away from the banter and distraction, but then I look down and panic. Where is my support? I think of what it must have been like for Simeon in his lofty cell. I remember that he had no visible support in his tower either; he had just the strong One in the center that held him up. I wonder if he could see it or if he just "knew" that it was there. There are days that I can see no support beneath me either. The ones that I formerly knew to be there seem to have been removed gradually, one by one, some gently and even secretly, and some rather abruptly (almost violently, actually) until only One, central, magnificently mighty Pillar of Strength was left to hold me up. Often, like the saint, I can't see my Pillar when I look down around me. This is what scares me. I "know" It is there, but because I can't see it I must trust and believe. This is sometimes so very hard. I must also be like my new patron saint and either let go of the anxiety or learn to actually carry on while in this anxious state as well! Again, so very hard.
I wonder how often Simeon actually did look down.
Did he do so often, as I do, or did he prefer to look up?
This coming year I resolve to look up more often than I look down.