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Pillars To Heaven: Stylites in the Levant

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CIS:E.445-1965

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St. Symeon Stylites

By Lord Alfred Tennyson

 

Altho’ I be the basest of mankind,

From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,

Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet

For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,

I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold

Of saintdom, and to clamour, morn and sob,

Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer,

Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin.

Let this avail, just, dreadful, mighty God,

This not be all in vain that thrice ten years,

Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,

In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold,

In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,

A sign betwixt the meadow and the cloud,

Patient on this tall pillar I have borne

Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow…(1)

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Interview About Stylites (2)

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Qala’at Si’man. Ruins of the Basilica of St. Simeon the Elder, Deir Sim’an, Syria (3)

 

RTE: Lukas, will you describe your archeological work, and how you became interested in the stylites?

LUKAS: … My interest in monasticism in general has led me to a very particular interest in stylitism (stylos, in Greek, meaning “column”), the ascetics who stood on pillars. Although we often think of stylitism as a very unique and lonely calling, in its developed form it cannot be separated from monasticism. The stylite withdrew from the world, but in doing so in such a spectacular way, he attracted the world. And as soon as people began coming for advice or counsel, he needed dedicated friends or disciples to organize his life – to make sure he was protected, that he would be given the hours of silence he needed, and that the people coming to see him were taken care of.

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The stylite himself is generally seen as a Syrian-Mesopotamian phenomenon, a very severe attempt to follow Christ not only through self-mortification and fasting, but through standing on a tiny platform at the top of an exposed column or pillar – never coming down, and only rarely sitting or lying down. By exposing themselves to the harshest conditions any human can, they strove to be spiritually cleansed and to elevate their souls.

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What we know about the stylites comes from Greek and Syriac texts, some written when the stylites were still alive, and many of which relate the history of the most famous pillar saint, St. Simeon the Stylite (the Elder), who died in 459. Within twenty years after his death, the famous pilgrim- age sanctuary and later medieval fortress of Qal’at Si’man was built. As Christians, we would call it “The Martyrium of St. Simeon the Stylite.”

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St. Simeon the Elder is the prototype, he was the one who was imitated. Of his life we have very specific evidence in both Greek and Syriac sources, although it is the Syriac which give the best descriptions. They tell us that he was a very ascetic man, and that at a certain point in his life he joined a monastic community. At a very early stage, however, it became clear that he was much more rigorous than the other brothers and finally had to leave to pursue his calling.

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St. Simeon moved north of the mountain of Gebel Sheikh Barakat, to a village called Telanissos (now Deir Sim’an), at the foot of the mountain where his sanctuary was later built. (Gebel is “mountain” in Arabic, and it is now known as Gebel Sim’an.) The Syriac sources say that he lived a very basic life. We read of him taking a camel laden with goods up and down the road, and that wherever he went people were impressed by this humble, modest man. At a certain point he decided to go up the mountain to expose himself to the harshness of the wilderness.

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Don’t forget, we are in northern Syria where winters may be very, very cold and summers extremely hot with strong winds. Simeon was very aware that this place was exposed to harsh weather conditions year round. However, it is also a very beautiful place, with a 270o view in several direc- tions, and not far from the village and the Roman road. If you take the old north-south Roman road from Cyrrhus, forty or fifty kilometers north, down towards Telanissos (now Deir Sim’an) to the junction that links you to Antioch in the west, you’ve passed between Telanissos and Gebel Sim’an.

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So, we know that he was here not far from the main road, that he stood on the column without a break, summer and winter, for almost fifty years; that he was famous for his asceticism, for his suffering endurance, but also for the very social role he played in giving advice and counsel to the local population, to those who passed on the roads, to distant nomadic Arab tribes that came for his judgement and help, and even to the Byzantine emperor. We know he was constantly asked for personal, moral, and even legal advice (and this is important because legal matters in those days were very linked to religion, as in modern Islam.) So, St. Simeon was a man for everyone and everything.

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But he soon found himself in the dilemma of having withdrawn from the world, but now being too close to the world. Pilgrims, as we know from the sources, came from far and wide. They came from all over the Mediterranean: by boat to Antioch, then crossing the rough country to Simeon’s column. They came from Seleukia, from Asia Minor, from the Arabian peninsula, from Europe. As time went on, he decided to add anoth- er ten cubits to his column, and then another, until finally according to the Syriac text, he was standing at a height of forty cubits. (40 cubits = 60 feet or 18 meters)

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RTE: I remember from his Life that he didn’t begin with a pillar – perhaps he had gone up the mountain simply because it was isolated and he knew that other people couldn’t conveniently live there. But the moment they understood that he was a holy man they came anyway, as people do, until the crowds were trying to touch him, to grab pieces of his clothing. I’ve wondered if perhaps he had even taken a vow to remain there and the pillar was simply a necessary measure to get out of their reach.

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LUKAS: Yes. I think it was the universal dilemma of an isolated holy man. Once you are holy you often become known and can’t avoid people seeking bless- ings. The holy man is like a magnet. But permanent exposure to the world puts your monastic ideals at risk because you don’t have the time of reclusion, of absolute silence, of being alone with God. So, adding to the column’s height was perhaps an attempt to maintain his original ideal of a life of prayer.

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RTE: Also, the noise of a constant crowd – in St. Simeon’s case it was not a handful, but hundreds of people a day from different countries with horses, pack animals, campfires. Some stayed for weeks. It must have been overwhelming.

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(1) For the full poem go to http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/728/

(2) For the full two-day traveling interview through the Syrian desert, where Lukas’ command of archeological detail and his fascinating insights (both Christian and academic) into the daily lives of these great ascetics make the era come alive, its saints immediate, and their presence inescapable, go to http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_22/PILLARS_OF_HEAVEN.pdf

(3) The church of Saint Simeon Stylites dates back to the 5th century. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it a World Heritage Site in 2011.

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* Austrian archeologist Lukas Schrachner’s extensive fieldwork centers on early Christian monasteries and stylite sites in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. The Levant in the present context is the region occupied by Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and south-eastern Turkey.

 

Thin Places

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  • Thin Places: “Thin Places,” comes from a Celtic Christian concept. The Celts believed that physical locations existed in which God’s presence was more accessible than elsewhere, places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment, “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks GodFor such a ‘thin place’ for me visit my blog post on the Holy and Life-Givng Cross Orthodox parish at Lancaster.

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“This is a difficult post for me to write … I have always believed that Art and Nature are two vital ways to make our  prayer come to life, two ways to lead us ‘into’ knowing God.  And yet, I feel God has offered me such a rare gift at the end of a very tough year that I need to give myself time to allow it to sink in before I fully understand what I was given. … I was on a day-tour of the Grand Canyon.

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The sense of unmanageable Beauty one has before the wilderness of the Grand Canyon is just that: a true revelation of God, a true revelation of the correct relationship we are to have with Him. When I was there, facing this extraordinary demonstration of what authentic creativity is, all I felt was silence: a thick blanket of silence that covered my heart, my brain, my body… Before God’s presence, one goes numb, afraid to even breathe, afraid to approach it or draw near in any way. My eye-sight is not worthy to touch such beauty, my voice is not real, authentic enough to even whisper a prayer; all of one’s senses go silent, paralysed before such overwhelming power.

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And yet, my heart continued to pray in a different way. Deep down, my being seems to hide a different kind of worship, a different kind of relating to Christ. I don’t know when and how I learnt it; it just exists, the way instincts simply exist. Before such beauty, one discovers how different we are from what we’ve learnt to think we are – we are so much deeper, so much more beautiful, so much more able to worship and truly pray. It’s as if we were created with a set of spiritual senses and abilities, which we later – for some painful reason – fail to recognise in ourselves and fail to develop. We waste so much of our own being, we are so removed, so distant from our real selves… We learn to adapt to this world, and we end up replacing our spiritual senses with material ones.

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Then, in moments like these, we find ourselves face to face with His presence, and a sort of engine just starts working again in our hearts – all by itself, with no input, no doing of our own.

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I was simply present; I was in awe at the presence of my true self as much as I rejoiced in God’s presence. There was nothing but silence in me; yet, this silence was as alive, as ‘eloquent’ in its worship as the most grace-filled moments I’ve been blessed with the Holy Altar.”

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Draganescu Sistine Chapel

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The Romanian Orthodox Church is considering a Romanian monk persecuted by the communists and known as the “saint of Transylvania” for sainthood. … Boca, who became a monk in 1940, was harassed by the Securitate secret police, detained and did forced labor on the Black Sea Canal, a notorious labor camp where tens of thousands of political prisoners worked in the 1950s. In 1959, he was banned from leading worship and the Prislop monastery, where he is now buried, was converted into a retirement home. He was forced to retire from the church in 1968 and spent 15 years painting religious images and icons in the small church of Draganescu in southern Romania. The church’s interiors are now considered among the most beautiful in the country. Elder Arsenie Boca reposed in the Lord in early 1989, a month before Romania’s anti-communist revolt, aged 79. Though he is not yet canonized, Elder Arsenie’s grave, located in Prislop Monastery, is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, where many miracles occur. One miracle which everyone can see is that the flowers over his grave never die or wither , neither in the hot summer or the frigid winter.

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For his amazing life, the  documentary “Fr. Arsenie Boca – Man of God” is a MUST.  “His colleagues at the Theological Academy of Sibiu named him ‘The Saint’, he is considered a founding father of the Romanian Philokalia by father Dumitru Staniloaie, who thought of him as an unparalleled phenomenon of Romanian monasticism.

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Sought after and followed by thousands of believers eager to quench their spiritual thirst from his inexhaustible spring of serenity; legendary for his prophesying and healing gifts, painter of souls and painter of churches, man of culture, philosopher of sciences and religion, father Arsenie Boca was, just like Saint Basil as depicted by him in his essential work The Path of the Kingdom.

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A disciple calmly walking across the stormy seas, an unmoving pillar against the troubled waves, a man among people, providing guidance and strength with otherworldly serenity, unflinching in the belief that God alone is ruler of our world. An unequaled personality, a magnet for thousands of people in all walks of life, and also a target for suspicion for the authorities of his day, who failed to understand the source of his exceptional power to gather people around him.” 

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As one person interviewed in this documentary says: “Fr. Arsenie made Christ transparent to us.” He still does. His presence in the midst of us after his passing is a reminder of the proximity of Heaven. This film is an opportunity to (re)discover it for ourselves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptbTap5NHqw

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The Sistine Chapel of the Romanians: the Draganescu Church

Father Arsenie Boca lived in Draganescu for 20 years and in 1968 he began painting the parish church, a work that took him more than 15 years. As he wasn’t allowed to celebrate service, some of the priests who visited the church over the years claim that Arsenie Boca has actually painted the sermons he delivered at Sambata de Sus.

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Rainbow colors reverberating in frescoes, light flowing from Christ’s Resurrection, Heaven trickling down through the painting brush, that’s the way the murals painted by Orthodoxy beacon Arsenie Boca at the “St. Nicholas” Church of the Draganescu town – Giurgiu County can be translated and rendered into metaphor. …

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Prophetic Artist in Shackles

His frescoes are diaphanous, and the images are accompanied by metaphors referring to people’s weaknesses and sins, by aphorisms, quotations from the Holy Scripture, sometimes by teachings of the Father and biblical scenes: the Resurrection, a picture of hell, the Group of the Righteous. The paintings are said to have a visionary, prophetic content, as it is known that Father Arsenie Boca had the gift of spiritual far-sight: one of the scenes, two tall buildings engulfed in flames, is said to allude to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, not to mention those where items like a cell phone, a space shuttle, satellite dishes, all unusual things in that period, appear.

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For his paintings, the art documentary “Picturi ale pr. Arsenie Boca pe biserica din Drăgănescu” at https://vimeo.com/82791105 is a MUST. Also, go to http://www.themidlandhostel.com/the-sistine-chapel-of-the-romanians-the-draganescu-church/ and http://www.agerpres.ro/engleza-destinatie-romania/2014/11/22/destination-romania-the-draganescu-church-swathed-in-father-arsenie-boca-s-prophetic-paintings-18-04-37 and watch a short art film “Father Arsenie Boca, one of Romania greatest Saint”  at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r6ZX8M8vwY

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Morning prayer by Arsenie Boca
Lord Jesus Christ, help me let go of myself today, as I can create great problems from small and insignificant issues, and this way, caring for myself, I will lose You.

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Lord Jesus Christ, help me so that the prayer of Your Holy name will wander (work) through my mind more than lightning on the sky, so that I stay clear of even the shadow of bad thoughts as, look, I am sinning every minute.
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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we stumble as we are walking in the dark. Our temptations are closing the eyes of our mind, forgetfulness has become like a wall amongst us, turning our hearts to stone and all together have made the prison cell in which we keep You crippled, starving and naked, wasting our days.
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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us and set fire to this prison cell, light up the love in our hearts, burn the thorns of our temptations and make our souls bright.

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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, come and live within us, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prays through us with unspoken sighs, when word and mind don’t have the power.

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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we don’t realise how imperfect we are and how close You are to our souls; and how distant we become through our sins. Shine Your light over us, so that we see light through Your eyes and live eternally through Your life. Our light and joy, praise be to You!

Amen!

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