Life on a pillar: environmental thought and the odor of sanctity

by Liam Heneghan

The saint on the pillar stands,/The pillar is alone,/He has stood so long/That he himself is stone. Louis MacNeice, Stylite, 1940 [i]

In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s anachronistically recognized ecological masterpiece, a calculation is presented that on a three or four year voyage a seaman manning one of the mast-heads of a whaleship would spend several entire months aloft his pillar above the ship. A whaleship like the Pequod, Ishmael informs, was not provided with a crow’s-nest as was the case with the Greenland ships – the mast-man on the southern whaler was exposed to the elements and to the mesmerizing crawl of the oceans far below him. Our narrator cautions the ship-owners of Nantucket to be especially wary of taking on philosophical lads given to “unseasonable meditativeness”. Whaling could be an asylum for romantic souls, youngsters that are “disgusted with the carking cares of earth”. The cost could be high. Such a youth can lose his identity in his ocean reverie and “[take] the 520px-Simeon_Stylite_Louvre mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that, deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man and nature…” In such a meditation one misplaced step and “your identity comes back in horror” and perhaps “with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” Ishmael concludes the observation thus: “Heed it well, ye Pantheists.” By which I take it that he is talking to dreamy youth and latterly to us environmentalists.

In chronological sequence Melville mirthfully compares the solitary, watchful, deprived life on the mast to that of other motionless dwellers, starting with Egyptians who climbed the pyramids to gaze at the stars and concluding with stone or metal men atop columns, figures unresponsive to the beseeching yells of those below them, that is, statues of Washington, Napoleon and Nelson. Included in this evolutionary sequence – for the land-locked lofty paved the way according to Melville to maritime mast-men – is Saint Stylites of whom he says “in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads…[he] literally died at his post.”

A helpful footnote in my copy of Moby-Dick declares Melville’s entertaining claim about pyramids as astronomical pillars implausible, and of course, statues, though they may remain impressively motionless for quite some time, have the benefit of being lifeless[ii]. In Melville’s roster, Saint Stylites stands out, so to speak, having spent almost forty years on his pillar.

About him I have a few things I’d like to say.

Just as Melville’s masterpiece can retrospectively be read as an ecological classic – a tale of resource consumption; a disquisition on our relationship with something upon which we both monomaniacally depend and that which will be the death of us: I speak here of nature – there are things we can learn from the asceticism of Simeon Stylites valuable to us as environmentalists. The magnetic force of an ascetic impulse that drew the Stylite up the pillar, and that skewed the balance of his life towards denial rather than affirmation also draws environmental writers to their proverbial mountain tops, and oftentimes swerves our environmental instincts towards chastisement rather than celebration. The cooler air on the pillar-top and on the piney mountain trail is languidly scented with the odor of sanctity. Saint Simeon’s life is so brutal, so macabre, that a close reflection is self-revelatory in the way that microscopy turned on the human body exposes within us both the teeming good and the pathologically bad.


Simeon Stylites installed himself on a pillar constructed on a site of his choosing near Antioch, Syria, and lived there for thirty-six years until his death in 459 AD. This can be regarded as one of the more terrifying historical examples of a modest ecological footprint. Simeon remains a revered saint, though it is clear that he shocked many of his contemporaries. Today he serves as an example of the bewildering nature of the early Christian ascetic impulse. Nevertheless, his self-renunciation was so extreme and his self-mortification so unsavory that most modern commentators disavow him. To suggest that the modern environmental movement shares this same ascetic impulse may seem gratuitous. I try to show that the comparison is useful, and do so not in a bid to scupper environmentalism (I am, in fact, a committed environmentalist) but rather to contribute to a more honest discernment of our environment motives.

I start by recounting in modest detail the extraordinary and ghastly details of Simeon’s life.[iii]

Simeon was born in 388 AD in Sis near the northern border of Syria in what is now modern Turkey. His early interest in Christianity was stimulated, some say, by hearing a talk on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He entered into monastic life quite young, perhaps around the age of sixteen. Asceticism was especially prevalent in Syria in early Christian times where eremitic monasticism (solitary anchorites) was more common than in Egypt where coenobitic, that is communal forms of monasticism were favored. Accounts of Simeon's initial feats of austerity and the responses of his fellow monks remind us that he was extreme at a time when spiritual rigor was already quite pronounced. In addition to more conventional forms of asceticism: fasting, sleep deprivation, standing for lengthy periods and not washing, he invented a range of self-mortification techniques that put him in an ascetic class of his own much. For instance, when others in the community finished their nocturns he would hang a heavy stone around his neck as penance while his brothers slept. One night he fell asleep with this apparatus about his neck and injured his head. To prevent this from happening again, he procured a “certain round piece of wood” which would roll from beneath him if he nodded off. [iv] In addition to the asperities already mentioned he also innovated by tying a rough fiber around his waist (in one account, it was the rope from the monastery’s well that he wore) which abraded the skin and produced noisome smells, and had him shedding worms into his bed. Stylites0001_1

Many of the stories told about Simeon can be classified as hagiographic nonsense. For instance, he was challenged by some of the monks to test his faith and trust in God by grasping a red-hot poker which he did with without harm to his hands. Perhaps the moral of the story is that what protected him from incinerating his hand was that “he despised them (i.e. his hands).” Even his abbot, to whom his chagrined and apparently jealous brothers complained, found his fervor disconcerting (though the community may have been irritated by his flaunting of the monastic rule; indeed, more simply it may have been the smell of putrefaction that so disconcerted them). When the abbot asked the youthful Simeon to account for the vigor of his practice the young monk replied, quoting scripture: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 50:7).

Ultimately Simeon was forced out of the monastic community and became a hermit living for three years in a hut at Tell-Neschin. There he spent the whole of Lent without eating or drinking, a practice that became habitual for him. He broke his Lenten fast with the Eucharist host which returned him to vigor. Another austerity from this period was standing in prayer for as long as his legs could hold him. He perfected this and the claim is that he would stand in prayer for the duration of lent. From the hut in Tell-Neschin he moved to a rocky platform near Antioch and spent five years standing there. After this he moved to his series of pillars. His first pillar was nine feet high, but it was replaced by a series of others, each taller than the last. Ultimately, the progressively ascending Simeon lived fifty feet or so from the ground and was visible throughout the region, attracting a large congregation of the faithful and the curious.

The list of his spiritual services performed from the rocky platform and from his successively more prodigious pillars is a long one; harlots were transformed into vessels of virtue, the blind saw the light, hunchbacks were straightened, heathens were converted to Christianity, lepers were healed, the exsanguinating possessed were relieved of their demons. All the while our hermit is strenuously attacked by satanic forces which came in all forms, including that of a lustful camel!

One final nauseating story: as the “king of the Arabs” (more correctly, a Saracen) approached our saint’s pillar, a worm fell from a necrotizing tumor on Simeon’s thigh and the king picked it up. He touched it to his eyes and heart. The saint declared, appropriately enough, that it is “a stinking worm, fallen from stinking flesh” and in consternation asks why the king was soiling his hands. The king however regarded the worm as a blessing and on opening his hand found the worm transformed into a pearl.” This allegory prompts to ask how we might manufacture a pearl from the tortured life of Simeon. What is the meaning of all of this? What general principles can be deduced?

Ascetic deprivation is a price paid in flesh for metaphysical rewards

Simeon’s turned his back on this world so that he could gain access to that other world: a heavenly one with the angels. In his early monastic life Simeon submitted to the coenobitic rule of the house (though not without chafing at the rule as we have seen), praying in common, celebrating the Eucharist together – the typical trade of earthy freedoms for heavenly reward. The pillar was something different. It is hard not to see in the pillar a more direct emulation of the Christ’s passion. The pillar can be seen as representing the mountainous heights of Christ in the wilderness and the ultimate stasis of Christ on the cross – an emulation that one can term “the prophecy of behavior”, a term coined by Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University to illustrate the significance of Simeon’s actions as powerful in their symbolism.[v] Simeon on the pillar can be seen as an aggressively literal form of standing before God. In his introduction to the translation of the lives of Simeon, Robert Doran locates this practice within the exercises of Gnosticism[vi]. Gnostics, Doran, reports have been referred to as “the immovable race”. Standing before God result in what is termed “immovability”, achieved by means of a visionary ascent to the transcendent realm. For this removal to the heavenly realm Simeon acquitted his debt with ulcerated feet and maggoty flesh. The suggestion is not, I think, that Simeon was a Gnostic, it is just that in his ascetic ascent and his aggravated immobility, he reinvented gestures that hitched him to another world beyond the tears and tribulations of ordinary mortal cares. Asceticism is reproduced both by emulation and by the types of intuitive rediscovery found in the life of Simeon.

We know of Simeon through what was written about him by his contemporaries and those who came after him, but other than the few snatches of conversation reported by his biographers (often regarding his worms, it might seem) we do not have his direct account of what motivated him. A clue though from the Antonius biography: as a youth in church Simeon inquires of an old man about what is being read and learns that it concerns “the control of the soul”. Pressing his elder further, he is told to:

“reflect on these things in your heart, for you must hunger and thirst, you must be assaulted and buffeted and reproached, you must groan and weep and be oppressed and suffer ups and downs of fortune; you must renounce bodily health and desires, be humiliated and suffer much from men, for you will be comforted by angels.”[vii]

Asceticism relies upon the acquisition and application of expert knowledge

Ascetics are called to special vocation – the life in the desert is not everyone’s cup of tea. Thomas Merton, a monk and occasional anchorite of more recent times, writes of the special nature of desert hermits’ lives in the early Christian centuries in the introduction to “The Wisdom of the Desert” his slim but compelling volume of the sayings of the desert fathers.[viii] Those more loquacious fellows had more to say than Simeon about the application of spiritually expert knowledge towards to end of achieving closeness with God. A dramatic account of the purpose of ascetic knowledge is given by Abbot Joseph: when Abbot Lot asked him what he should do in addition to keeping the rule, and applying himself to prayer and contemplative silence, Abbott Lot rose, his hands extended towards the heavens and his fingers “became like ten lamps of fire.” He said: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”[ix]Stylites0001_6

Merton calls the wisdom of the desert “a very practical and unassuming wisdom that is at once primitive and timeless.”[x] This wisdom concerns self-discovery regarding the spiritual journal – discoveries that Merton describes as “more important than any journey to the moon.” The wisdom of the desert is simple in philosophy but is quite voluminous: I will give just a few examples. Abbot Hyperichius instructs that it “is better to eat meat and drink wine, than by detraction to devour the flesh of your brother.”[xi] Less obscurely Abbot Pastor said that “a life of ease drives out the fear of the Lord from man’s soul and takes away all his good work.”[xii] Again, Abbot Pastor” “[if] you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? And judge no one.” Perhaps you had to be there.

A more technical account of ascetic wisdom can be found in the Philokalia, a collection of texts written from the 4th to 15th centuries, deemed especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy.[xiii] There, a more complex theological lexicon is employed. In order to achieve the end of “being comforted by angels”, or achieving a greater closeness with God, the desert father marshals the following skills: “discrimination”, the spiritual gift of discriminating between the types of thought entering the mind, with the purpose of achieving “discernment of the spirits” – which thoughts come from God and should be cleaved to, and which from the devil; “intimate communion”, the freedom of approach to God; “Watchfulness”, a state of attentiveness where one carefully watches over one’s inward thoughts and fantasies – the state is linked with purity of heart and the rigorous application of the virtues and results in stillness (hesychia) in which one listens to God and can open to Him.

Ascetic deprivation secures a measure of temporal power

The hagiographical exuberance of Simeon’s vitae with their massive iteration of Simeon’s improbable miracles becomes tedious in its pietistic adulation; nevertheless the examples testify to the intercessionary power of our saint, and provide a roster of critical community needs. Surrounding Simeon on his pillar was a fairly dense agricultural population, reliant on reliable irrigation systems. This was a community concerned about disease, drought, crop productivity, and the depredations of large predators. A saint should be able to regulate the elements and master nature.

The equations of ascetic algebra typically balance the significant intercessionary power of the holy man against the self-mortification of his body. Great power is equated with great corporeal contempt. One wins a spiritual war not by inflicting the most violence, but by sustaining the most damage. For Simeon to accumulate the reputation that he did one should expect staggering penance of this flesh. And this, as we have already seen in part is what we find.

Ironically, each incremental rise of Simeon on his pillars, motivated, according to some biographical authorities, by a desire to get away from the throngs and closer to an airy solitude, increased his visibility and attracted more onlookers. Nevertheless, Simeon served this community through his miracle-working, and his fame and influence spread throughout the Christian world.

The ascetic then is marked by i) a commitment to rewards in another realm, by ii) the deployment of an expert’s knowledge in achieving esoteric goals, and by iii) the achievement of certain temporal authority, despite the ascetic’s declared intent. My list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. The problem to which asceticism is the proposed solution is solved by a suite of regularly recurring behaviors that we should also note – an initial departure followed by a commitment to immobility in another place; a rejection of civilization, through a commitment to a new rule; a distain of the city; physical austerity; a preference for raised ground, though ascetics often start their career at lower altitudes (Simeon, for instance, lived down a well for a while after leaving the monastery).


If asceticism was simply a matter of self-mortification then we could claim that we have never lived in more ascetic times. We diet to shed those dozens and dozens of unsightly pounds; some voluntarily submit to a surgical ablating of the flesh for the purposes of fabricating the perfect nose; our star athletes allegedly undergo a period of sexual continence before the big game; some of you may even gallop on scorching days for distances in excess of twenty-six miles, for no better reason than to replicate the achievement of the first person to die from that feat. And in general terms the definition of the ascetic as a person who practices “rigorous self-discipline, severe abstinence, austerity”, might tempt us to smuggle the more excessive of these modern deprivations under the definitional bar. However, the OED qualifies the definition by pointing out that asceticism aims are achieved “by seclusion or by abstinence from creature comforts”. Furthermore, the term derives etymologically from the Greek asketikos, meaning monk or hermit and more generally the root term is ascesis – the practice of self discipline, or exercise. If, in the final analysis, the contemporary mortifications listed above seem to fall short of being ascetic, why might we, in contrast, regard environmentalism as fundamentally so?

To use the life of Simeon Stylites as a point of comparison with environmental thought and practice may be a challenging place to start to make a case that environmentalism is foundationally ascetic. Certainly there are more temperate ascetics, ones who like St Antony of Egypt (231-356 AD) traveled to the wilds there to meditatively dally, but after decades alone returned to society, at least in the sense of taking many disciples under his care. In other words, there are ascetics whose practice might be more appropriately compared to Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond. Perhaps one might compare tree-stylites like John Muir perched in a storm-tossed Douglas Fir or Julia Butterfly Hill residing in her California Redwood to the ascetic sadhus of India, who, practicing what is called urdhamukhi, dangle out of trees. In the case of Hill, she lasted two years; as for the Muir and the sadhus, the latter who dangle upside-down, their tree dwelling lasted a matter of hours. And so on; one might look for a milder ascetic counterpart for Robinson Jeffers dyspepsia concerning his fellows, preferring you’ll recall, to “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk”; one for Ed Abbey’s hilarious but curmudgeonly defense of inaccessibility for Arches National Monument in Desert Solitaire; one for Paul Ehrlich’s discomfort in an ancient Indian taxi (“People visiting, arguing and screaming…. defecating and urinating”) prompting his writing of The Population Bomb; counterparts even for the simple-living needed for ecological footprint reduction, for the belt-tightening required by sustainability, and for the meat-eschewing dicta of environmental vegetarianism. In all of these examples there is a whiff of asceticism but none requires the foot ulcerating commitment of standing on a pillar for decades. So why Simeon?

As we have seen most definitions of asceticism are vague to the point of admitting too many members into the ascetic fold –skipping a meal or two does not the ascetic life make. The vitae of Simeon Stylites, however, distill his life to the point where there is little toStylites0001_4 notice other than ascetic fervor. As discussed, the examination of his life allowed us to enunciate some principles, and to register the suite of dispositions associated with the ascetic. These included a commitment to rewards in another realm, a deployment of an expert’s knowledge in achieving esoteric goals, and the gaining of certain temporal authority, often despite the ascetic’s declared intent. The dispositions include a departure from “home”, followed by a commitment to immobility in another place, a rejection of civilization which is typically accompanied by a distain of the city, often physical austerity, and a preference for raised ground. The life of an ascetic is the life of critique. In this we not only see the odd particulars of our saint’s life, but also, I think, if one squints a little, the life of the environmental movement.

Space prohibits a full treatment here of how the ascetic drive underpinning environmental thought and action unfolded over the past century or so. Using the principles and dispositions just enunciated some of this should be fairly obvious; other points are more obscure. Sustainability measures, fairly obviously, call (justly) for a deferment of pleasures right now, for an equitable world in the future; Paul Shepard and David Abram mourn the passing of the Pleistocene or indigenous worlds; nature-lovers almost everywhere incline towards inhospitable places; John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ed Abbey, Charles Darwin (even): all left though some returned to tend their flock; the mountains beckon to Gary Snyder, David Brower, and to Arne Næss; Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and Bill McKibben all demand reproductive self-limitation; Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Al Gore are outraged by what our times have wrought; eight biosphereans spent two years in the bubble of Biosphere 2 (like Simeon they had their support “disciples”); Aldo Leopold and Martin Heidegger had a great fondness for the nostalgia of shack-dwelling. And those not in shacks prefer, like Melville's mast-men, and Simeon, life en plein air – leave absolutely no one inside!

And I agree with them all, in many ways at least. My point, and it seems curiously feeble to me to say it, is not that the ascetic impulse is always wrong, though most contemporary writers disapprove of the Simeon’s vigor, or that environmental thought is wrong when it tends towards asceticism (it certainly is not, but our priorities need to be refined). Rather, I am interested in a more straightforward accounting of the motivations and the behavioral Stylites0001reflexes of environmentalism – where it is ascetic let us call it so; and when our ascetic impulses lead us astray let us reconsider. At its worst the ascetic disposition of environmental thought has translated into calamitous action – for instance, inhumane population policies, unjust removal of peoples from their traditional lands. Less tragically, but still detrimentally, the comfortableness of the environmentalists’ ascetic disposition coaxes the “eco-cete”, the everyday ecological monk, into an unbalanced preoccupation with conservation in wilderness areas, a neglect, until quite recently, of the city as a site for conservation, an often ruthless demarcation of the human from the wild, a nostalgia for worlds that have passed if they ever existed at all, a great nausea towards domesticated humanity – that is, most of us, an over-confidence in an expert knowledge of the natural world, a puzzling relationship with technology, and finally (for now) a snooty distain of those who cannot articulate the environmental convictions in the professional lingo of the movement.

Now, an objection to my claim (one of many, no doubt) may be that there is, quite obviously, no direct link between the life of Simeon and other pillar saints and the mainstream of environmental thought. However, the ascetic impulse is an ineradicable component of who we are – the human without some ascetic impulse (even if it is expressed in a diminished key) has not been born. We do not simply copy ascetic gestures, we all seem capable of ascetic innovation. In some movements – religious, philosophical, environmental –they may simply express themselves more blatantly. To illustrate the idea that ascetic gestures can converge, consider this. There is evidence of a phallus worshiping cult in Northern Syria sometime before Simeon’s time and centered about 180 km east of Simeon’s pillar. According to the Greek author Lucian, men would climb the phalli two times a year for a period of a week and “commune with the gods” and bring good fortune to the community. Though the period aloft was not reckoned in years, nevertheless the phallus dweller remained awake for the duration. If he fell asleep, a scorpion climbs up the column and “treats him unpleasantly.” [xiv] So, long before Simeon’s time worshipful clambering up phalli was commonplace. This has led some to suggest that his ascetic practice was merely an emulation of pagan practice. Several Simeonists are outraged and take pains to deny the connection. The issue is moot from my perspective. It seems that when a saint sees a phallus or a pillar he knows just what to do. That, my friends, is the ascetic impulse. And if environmentalists are up there with them, hoisted up their own proverbial pillars, at the very least the view should be clear; it may be time for us to clamber on down, and lead the community as many ascetics have also done.

Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.

[Photos in order: Plate showing Saint Simeon; Sixth century AD. Salle de Qabr Hiram (Wikipedia); Hermit's cave, East of Luxor, 1986 (Heneghan); “Top of the City”, Evanston, Illinois (Vassia Pavlogianis); Hanuman, Karnataka (Randall Honold); Box Stacker, Walgreens, San Francisco (Randall Honold); Bibliographic photo (Heneghan)].
Thanks to Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey for comments on her useful term “prophecy of behavior”.

[i] MacNeice, Louis (1940) Stylite, Poetry, Vol. 56, No. 2, p. 68

[ii] Melville, H Moby-Dick, W. W. Norton & Company; Second Edition (October 2001)

[iii] There are three accounts of Simeon’s life available, one written by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, a contemporary of our saint, one by his disciple Antonius, and the so-called Syriac Text, the longest account of his life. Translations are available in a convenient volume by Robert Doran (1989, The Lives of Simeon Stylites Cistercian Publications). There are conflicts between the accounts and not all of the stories are shared between all of them. Indeed, there are some accounts in the broad literature on Simeon that I draw on but which may not be canonical.

[iv] Frederick Lent (1915)The Life of St. Simeon Stylites: A Translation of the Syriac Text in Bedjan's Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Vol. IV: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 35 (1915), pp. 103-198

[v] S. Ashbrook Harvey (1988) The Sense of a Stylite: Perspectives on Simeon the Elder Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 376-394

[vi] Doran, 33.

[vii] Doran, 88.

[viii] Merton, Thomas (1960) The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions

[ix] Merton, 50.

[x] Merton, 11.

[xi] Merton, 32.

[xii] Merton, 62.

[xiii] Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Philip, Ware, Kallistos (translators) (1979)The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1 – 4); Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Markarios of Corinth. My paraphrasing of the definitions of technical terms relied upon the glossary from these volumes.

[xiv] Frankfurter, David T. M. (1990) Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria. Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 168-198