By David Denny - Cupertino, California, USA - 29 November 2011
Atop a fifteen meter pole, standing on a one-square-meter platform ringed by a baluster, tied to a stake to keep him upright, Simeon could see, when the winds were mild, a great ways off. Today there blew a low, cool, salty breeze, and the desert sand moved only in small ripples, like thousands of water snakes on the surface of a lake. He could see in the distance a brown dust cloud approaching. There came his mother’s corpse, laid in the back of a cart, pulled by a single horse.
She came along the same route the bishop and elders had traveled when they arrived three decades ago to test his calling. They had stood that day at the base of his pillar and inquired whether he was motivated by piety or pride. Only one year earlier, he had been asked to leave the monastery. His extreme acts of penance and privation frightened and intimidated the other monks. In his year as a hermit, he had been on the move almost constantly from the crowds of supplicants and gawkers who had followed him into the wilderness and set up a small camp nearby.
“Brother Simeon,” the bishop had asked, “what is the nature of your vocation?”
“Excellency, it is a call to purity,” he replied, “to deep penance.”
“And why does not a humble cell suffice? It served St. Anthony well.”
“Although I cannot compare with the great father of hermits, I find myself in a dilemma that St. Anthony also faced. Pursued by disciples, heckled by enemies, jeered at by wayward children, I could find no solitude on earth, and so,” he motioned with open hands to indicate his presence atop the pillar, “with much help, I chose to be suspended between heaven and earth.”
Simeon thought he saw a sympathetic grin upon the bishop’s lips but in the glare of the midday sun he could not be sure. The bishop and the elders interviewed some of the pilgrims who sought guidance from Simeon. For there were many in the region who had exhausted their own spiritual resources and come to invoke his. They also interviewed the local boys who daily raised one bucket of flat bread and goat’s milk and received down another bucket containing Simeon’s meager waste. Then the holy men convened, prayed, took some tea, and reapproached Simeon’s pillar.
The bishop announced sternly, “Simeon Stylites, you have made a shameful spectacle of yourself. Come down.”
Shocked, confused, wounded, Simeon gripped the balustrade tightly. He looked heavenward. A large bird circled overhead. A vulture? He squinted as the vast wings crossed in front of the sun.
“You see,” whispered a tormenting spirit in his ear, “they have discovered your duplicity. The rank odor of your hypocrisy has soured their nostrils. Now all will know that your faith is mere chicanery.” The voice was like a sharp stone scraping across an iron shield. “Descend,” hissed the voice, “descend.”
Glancing down at his hands, he saw that the blood had drained from his knuckles. The words of the psalmist came to mind: “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” Defeated, he loosened his grip. Perhaps it had been pride after all, only pride that caused him to set himself apart. He would return home in utter shame. “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.” He looked down at the esteemed party. “I will obey,” he finally said, hearing his own voice toll like a cracked, distant bell. He began to unfasten the leather strap that tethered his body to the stake.
Once the bishop and the elders saw that Simeon was willing to descend his perch, they rescinded the order. “Stay,” the bishop called up. “You must remain faithful to your vocation. You do so with the blessing of Mother Church.” He made the sign of the cross. “Simeon Stylites, may your words be as cool, flowing water, and may your presence be an oasis in this wilderness.” The bishop and his entourage departed, satisfied that Simeon’s motives were pure, that he still saw himself in alignment with his vows, that at least he could do no harm from such a height, and that at best he might in fact serve as an exemplar for the penitential life. As the brown cloud of dust arose in the wake of his departing, the bishop’s words rang in Simeon’s ears: Your words cool, flowing water. An oasis in the wilderness. And then the other voice contradicting: The rank odor of hypocrisy. Descend, descend.
For thirty years now he had waged war atop his pillar -- praying, teaching, speaking with all who approached him, despite the doubts, the regrets, and despite the yearning of his legs to stand upon the firm earth again instead of constantly bracing against the wavering pillar as it listed in the wind. Simeon wrote letters, advised priests, princes, and peasants. He endured taunts, the hot sirocco, and intense loneliness. He was bone-thin, wrinkled, leathery, and radiant.
He had been joined one morning by a decrepit raven, who encircled him six times and lighted upon his baluster, then hopped to his arm, and perched finally on his shoulder. Thereafter, the bird assailed him daily, sitting on the sage’s shoulder, cawing out across the desert wilderness. He did not lift his hand against it; rather, he accepted it as a kind of holy scourge, his thorn in the side. Simeon steeled himself against its repulsive manner: “But I call upon God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice. He will redeem me unharmed from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me.”
Simeon shielded his eyes as he watched the brown cloud turned up by his mother’s plain wooden hearse approach. And for the first time in many years, he felt the sting of tears roll from his eyes. The cart rocked to a stop at the base of his pillar and, as the dust cloud settled and the tarpaulin was removed from the cart, the whiteness of his mother’s shroud was revealed. The raven alighted on the edge of the cart. With all his heart he wished he had a rock to heave at the foul scavenger.
The driver looked up toward Simeon and bowed awkwardly. This man had come to him some years ago to ask for Simeon’s intercession on behalf of his sick wife. “Brother Simeon, you have blessed me with your strong prayers. My wife is restored to me. And so I asked if I might be the one to deliver your mother to you . . . as a token of my gratitude.”
“I am glad to hear your wife is well.”
“She is more than well. She nags and heckles me each and every day and beats me when she can catch me.”
“I will pray that God restrain her spirit and bring you some peace.”
“I had enough peace when she lay dying. Let her rail against me as she may. I prefer a lively, nagging wife to a sick, silent one.”
“Has she given you any children?”
“Two boys. The youngest wants to be a priest. But Brother Simeon, I came not to speak of these things. I have the sad privilege of presenting to you the body of your dear mother. She died peacefully, as the virgins stood vigil about her. They released her body to me yesterday. She smells of holly and lemon balm, sage and periwinkle. The virgins have warned me not to leave her body in the midday sun for long. She is to be buried in the nunnery garden at sunrise tomorrow.”
“Thank you for bringing her to me.” The stinging of his tears caused him to blink excessively. He welcomed the pain as an old friend. He had suffered much in his joints and in his limbs, as well as in his stomach. He had relished the pain in remembrance of the Lord’s passion, as his small contribution to the redemption of mankind through penitential suffering. But the depth of grief that now overcame him was a new sort of pain. He felt it course through his entire body, from neck to chest, to groin, to knees and feet. The stinging sensation rang like a bell through his nervous system and he felt himself lurch forward at the sight of the man unwinding the shroud, exposing the head of his mother.
The voice of the raven spoke in his mind: “Your mother, too, was a failure and an imposter. Instead of praying for the sisters in her charge, she loitered in her precious garden, humming nonsense to the worms. And now those worms will devour her bit by bit.” In his thoughts, Simeon countered the voice of the raven with the voice of the psalmist: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
His mother had been his rock -- friend, advisor, confessor. In the years before he had taken his vows, they had lived together in the city until the noise, vice, and nuisance of getting and spending began to smother their devotion. When Simeon received the call to the monastery, his mother went to live with the virgins, first as their gardener, cook and maid, and eventually as holy sister and, many years later, reverend mother.
After three decades atop his pillar, Simeon’s body had grown stiff and dry as salted meat in his gradual mortification of it. Soon, he thought, it would cease to serve his spirit altogether and it would drop one day, as his mother’s body had, among the herbs of her beloved garden in the home of the virgins. Just where, he wondered, would his body fall? Would he slump over one day like a spent animal, here, atop his pillar, his leather thong holding him in place? How long would it take the crowd under the canvas to realize he was dead, not just praying? A vision flashed into his mind of vultures pecking at his eyes, pulling his hair from the roots, tearing at the skin about his head and neck. Or would he sink into a soft bed somewhere, down there, on the ground again, in the home of the cart driver perhaps, or in the straw bunk of the parish priest who came four times a year to hear his confession and share the Eucharist?
For two days and nights since he had been told of her death, Simeon had imagined his mother wrapped in a shroud, according to custom. He had prepared himself to be confronted by its aroma, its whiteness, its finality. Yet somehow he had not prepared himself for the wave of emotion that would break over him when her face was revealed and he gazed upon her features, now lifeless and leaden. As the driver unwrapped his mother’s head and lay it on a pillow he brought for the occasion, Simeon felt his breath stolen from his lungs and heard, as if from a great distance, a cry go up like the sudden pitch of an animal in the night. It was his own voice, of course. He had untied his leather harness in his grief and now felt himself leaning over the small rail of his baluster, reaching out with one hand toward his mother’s body and holding the rail with the other. The heaving sobs that emerged were grotesque and selfish, distinctly unholy.
The driver joined a silent and awestruck throng of supplicants who stood beneath their canopy next to a small spring some ways from Simeon. In the decades of Simeon’s ministry, this small camp had been pitched and maintained by the regulars for the comfort of those who traveled long distances to seek the prayers and guidance of the sage. They huddled now, trying in vain to divert their eyes from the spectacle of Simeon as he wailed, wept, and moaned.
For a moment Simeon thought he would abandon his calling. Why not surrender? He had stood watch here long enough. What had he accomplished, after all? He was a mere curiosity, the mad hermit of the Syrian desert -- why not admit it and be finished? He was merely a stubborn old monk who might now just as well bow to the elements. There would never be a better time. He wanted desperately to hold his mother again, to cradle her in his arms as she had so often cradled him in sickness or childhood fear. In his mind he heard himself call for the boys to bring the ladder. Yet his body continued to stand like a reed in the rising wind. He stared off into the distance.
The raven lighted on the hand that gripped the rail. The raven pecked at him, as if feeding upon the wrinkled skin on the back of his hand. Instinctively, he loosened his grip. The great black bird hopped up his arm and rubbed its beak in the folds of his tunic. “Look closely at her,” the raven spoke. “All her prayers rose and fell to the dust, unheard and unheeded, just as yours. And now her body begins to rot and the flesh to melt from her bones. Soon yours,” the raven lisped. “You should have spent your life in pleasure while you had the chance. You might as well descend. Perhaps there is still time to taste --“
The psalmist in his mind blocked out the voice of his tormentor: “Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in Him. Let all the upright in heart glory.” Upon looking back at his mother’s body, he realized that there was no need for him to descend his perch. Below lay only her body, the shell that her soul had once animated. Her soul was now at peace in the bosom of the Lord. At this thought, his sentimental attachment to his mother’s face subsided and so, slowly, did his tears. Soon he leaned back and stared at her in silence, turning his attention to the slow movement of his breath, as he had trained himself to do these many years. Then he stood upright, wiped his face, reattached his leather harness, and said a prayer for his mother’s soul. It wasn’t long before the driver apologetically rewrapped his mother’s head, covered her shroud with the tarpaulin, and drove slowly away.
As he watched the cart grow smaller and the dust cloud lift around the wheels of the cart, swirling and trailing, billowing and settling in her wake, he understood that he would never descend from his pillar. Here would be the place of his final breath when the time came. “Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”
A dry, harsh sirocco began to blow in from the east. He lifted the edge of his tunic, tucked his chin, and sank into the posture that had become his only weapon against the extremities of the desert wilderness. The raven lifted from his shoulder, encircled him six times, and screeched as he flew west, chasing the quickly dropping sun as it made its way toward the ocean.
Simeon unfastened his leather harness, grabbed hold of his stake, and began a new form of devotion: as he prayed, reciting the names of the holy family so that they might be heard by those huddled beneath the canopy, he bowed deeply, touching his forehead to his knees. Up he rose, inhaling mightily, stretching as tall as he could. There he paused. Exhaling slowly, bending at the waist, down he bowed. A boy under the canopy watched in amazement and began to keep count, as the saint breathed and bowed and prayed. Even as the hot wind tugged at his frayed tunic, and even as darkness began to sweep across the desert, he could still see a great ways off. Simeon felt as though he were gliding, suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.