The Flagpole-Sitting, Maggot-Infested Saint of the Desert
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
Monasticism isn’t as popular as it used to be, and a lot of Protestants don’t really understand it at all, but at the time it first arose in the Church, there was a very good reason for it: you couldn’t get martyred anymore.
For centuries, Christianity had been illegal in the Roman Empire, and Christianity had been persecuted, on and off, by the various levels of government. To die at the hands of government for your faith was seen as the highest honor possible—but then Constantine came in and ruined everything by making Christianity legal. What was an aspiring martyr to do? Martyr himself, obviously.Protip: when you’re too pious for monks, it might be time to dial it back a bit.
I’m not talking about suicide—what are you, crazy?—no, I’m just talking about selling everything you have, giving the money to the poor, and moving to the wilderness to starve yourself. Some of the earliest men to popularize the monastic life were known as the Desert Fathers, because they exiled themselves to the Scetis Desert in Egypt in order to devote themselves to quiet contemplation and prayer. This was a great idea for the first handful of them, but as the practice got more and more popular, there was less and less solitude to be found in the desert. (As St. Athanasius put it, “the desert had become a city”—and even that understates the problem a bit, since cities are, y’know, functional. They’re not exclusively populated by crazy hermits who do nothing but pray all day.)
This was especially a problem when you consider all the pilgrims constantly traveling to the desert. It turns out that when you devote yourself to prayer and meditation, you get pretty wise—or at least the sort of crazy that passes for wise, anyway—and before long, the desert was swarming with people seeking their wisdom. This sort of celebrity can have its advantages, of course, but when you’re constantly mobbed with pilgrims, how are you supposed to find time to seek the wisdom they’re there for in the first place?
One man found a workable solution to this: basically, he invented flagpole sitting.
I’m speaking, of course, of the cumbersomely named “St. Simeon Stylites the Elder” (c. A.D. 390–459), who began his career as a normal monk in a monastery, until—as the Catholic Encyclopedia hilariously puts it, “his brethren judged him, perhaps not unwisely, to be unsuited to any form of community life.” Some of his more obnoxious ascetic habits involved standing upright until he collapsed from exhaustion and abstaining from literally all food and drink during Lent—which would kill any normal human being, but as we’ll soon see, St. Simeon Stylites the Elder was no normal human being. Eventually these eccentricities began to grate on the other monks (protip: when you’re too pious for monks, it might be time to dial it back a bit), and they helpfully suggested that Simeon might be happier starving himself and destroying his knees if he did it as a hermit in a desert wasteland. He said sure.
Simeon initially confined himself to a small hut in the desert, where he would lock himself inside and accept no food for months at a time, but unfortunately huts are fairly easy to find, and so the pilgrims wouldn’t stop interrupting his prayers. His next attempt at solitude was to hide in a crevice in the mountains described by many sources as “no more than twenty yards in diameter”—which honestly sounds wildly extravagant for a hermit with no earthly possessions, but on hot, humid days, I imagine he was glad to be able to get twenty yards away from his poop corner. Still, the pilgrims kept finding him there, and so it was time to move again.
He finally found his home in the ruins of the ancient city Telanissa, which, by the time he came across it, was little more than a handful of stone pillars. Figuring no one would want to bother climbing all the way up one of them just to talk to a crazy desert hermit, he took up residence at the top of a nine-footer—and, when that proved too climbable to pilgrims, eventually worked his way up to a perch that was fifty feet off the ground. Local boys would bring him occasional meals from a nearby village, which, according to some sources, they would send up to him via a pulley system, which you should feel free to imagine as some sort of needlessly complicated Rube-Goldberg-esque contraption, because that would be hilarious.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: The guy lives at the top of a fifty-foot pole, and he’s also fond of standing around until his legs give out. How in the world is he going to keep from falling to his death? And this is where things start to get really… icky.
Apparently, Simeon kept himself tied to the pillar with a particularly coarse rope (which was nothing new to him—he had been previously known for wrapping himself in rough ropes as a form of penance, back in the monastery). This was an okay idea, until the rope started eating into his flesh, leaving a gaping wound that was soon putrefying and crawling with maggots. Most people would have not been particularly excited about this development, but Simeon welcomed his new larval pals as the will of God, going so far as to pick up the ones that fell out and put them back into his wound, telling them, “Please, eat what the Lord has given you.”
Actually, apart from living at the top of a pillar, Simeon was mainly known for dropping maggots everywhere he went. According to his original biography, written by his disciple Antony, when King Basilicus of the Syrians came to visit him, a maggot felt out of his wound while he was deep in prayer. By the time the king had picked it up (because, obviously, when you see a maggot fall out of someone’s gaping wound, the first thought in your head is I should pick that up), it had transformed into a pearl. So, apparently holy maggots transform into pearls sometimes. Now you know.
Anyway, St. Simeon apparently lived—somehow—to almost 70, though at that point he was presumably more maggot than man. Antony claims to have discovered his body bent over in prayer and emitting a perfumed odor (which is a common claim made about the corpses of saints, but is particularly impressive coming from a guy who had smelled like a corpse even in life). To commemorate him, they built a church around his pillar, and his memory will stand forever to remind us that Paul’s command to “offer up your bodies as living sacrifices” is one that, um, some people take more literally than others.
Ah, but you left out my favorite part! Satan takes the form of a serpent, climbs the pillar, and bites his foot! The wound festered, and St. Simeon amputated his own foot. But before (ahem) disposing of the severed part, he preaches a sermon to his foot, concerning their reunion in the resurrection. Having completed the homily, he flings his foot into the wilderness.
Church history is awesome.
St. Symeon the Stylite is among the most popular saints venerated in the Orthodox Church. I suspect he is well revered by Roman Catholics too. Am I missing the joke here? If I am, I suspect it is not a funny one anyway. So I wonder, does it concern you at all that an essay such as this might be outrageous to some hundreds of millions of Christians who commemorated St. Symeon, as they do every year, just a few weeks ago? One wonders how we conservative Orthodox may find friendship and union with conservative or traditional or otherwise secular-culture-confronting Protestants who delight in openly mocking the saints whose lives we cherish and find edifying.
Apologies if you found the tone here to be mocking, Virgil. No mockery was intended—or ever is, in this column.
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