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.

 

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An Ineffable Fragrance

It is impossible to describe how exquisite and noble are the podvizhniki![1] These people—although they bear the traces of harsh struggles, although their bodies are so withered and emaciated—have a fragrance and grace imprinted on their wondrous souls.

1976. The month of August—July 22 Old Style. The Altar Feast (Panegyr) of St. Mary Magdalene in Simonopetra. How they love this saint in her monastery! Her left hand is kept here—her wrist, palm, and fingers—with the skin and tendons. Its temperature holds steadily at 98.6 °F/37° C—proof that this is the hand of a living witness of the Resurrected Christ, living proof of the fact that “death hath no more dominion over” her, either (Rom. 6:9).

At the All-Night Vigil[2], they showed me a stasidion[3] practically in the center. Next to me there was a grey-haired little starets.[4] He stood as straight as a candle, without stirring. During the course of the service he weakened—he was obviously tired. Most likely, he was sleeping. But not relaxed as people usually sleep. His state was distinct and interesting: his head was leaning on his hand, his eyes almost shut. From time to time you could hear him snore a little, gently and peacefully. But every time the singers would make a mistake, he would come into action and without delay correct it. And then return to … his rest. “The body sleeps out of nature’s need, but his heart keeps awake out of its great love.” And truly, his mind keeps vigil. This man, it seems, lives in another world.

We came to the exapostilarion.[5] All the fathers stood, took off their skufias,[6] and bowed low when the serving priest performed the litany over the relics of the great saint and protectress of the monastery, which were lying on a silver tray. Soon the veneration began—I was stunned… I watched what the others did, and I felt that I wasn’t with them. I tried to understand what to do and how to do it correctly, but I couldn’t touch the secret. Everyone around me, I felt, was experiencing an event that I had no idea about. The choir intensified the celebration. The monks showed by their whole appearance that they were experiencing something the likes of which I could not perceive. The only thing that I was able to do was to follow what was going on—superficially and with curiosity. Soon the starets standing next to me left his place and goes in his turn up to the relics. Making three prostrations, he kissed them, was anointed by the priest, and with deep emotion he returned to his stasidion.

“You go, too,” he says to me, “don’t be shy—today the Saint is fragrant. Receive some of her grace.”

I did what he said and went up to the relics. This is what, apart from everything else, the others had done, too. But my doubts stayed with me. I didn’t particularly believe in all this. I went up in a reverie. And I was astonished by the fragrance. I had an insatiable desire to confirm the statement of this fact from an investigative point of view and to venerate the relics again. But I felt awkward—it was an inappropriate time for experiments! I returned to my place—physically—but mentally I stayed with the Saint. My questions multiplied, but my faith did not increase. It was the “sign” that I had been asking for, but it wasn’t the “sign” that I needed. I couldn’t believe in it, but again, I couldn’t imagine that the monks were lying. They had such pure countenances, and they experienced what was going on without reasoning or arguments. I had no reason to suspect them of lying.

“Geronda[7], how does this happen?” I asked. “Maybe out of piety the fathers sprinkled a little perfume? Or are the relics themselves fragrant?”

“Here reverence is ruined as soon as you sprinkle perfume. Reverence is increased when you receive the ineffable fragrance in simplicity. The Holy Mountain is full of such occurrences.”

“What does ‘ineffable fragrance’ mean?”

“If we sprinkled a little perfume from a perfume store, then it would be “fragrance.” Now, when we don’t sprinkle anything but the fragrance pours out all by itself, that is called ‘ineffable fragrance’.

I bowed and kissed his hand. He himself also was fragrant, as if he had been handling incense. The all-night vigil continued—it lasted twelve hours.

A monk whom I knew came up to me:

“Did you get a blessing from Elder Arsenios?”

“Who is that?” I asked, not having any idea who he was referring to.

“The little old man who was standing next to you.”

“The little old man who was sleeping next to me,” I said to myself.

“He has the ‘gift of not washing’, added the monk. “It has already been ten years since he has washed his face and he is fragrant all over. He is as pure as a tear. He lives in Kalamitse, in a cell alone, an hour and a half walk from here. Run, before he leaves!”

I did not catch up with him. He had withdrawn to his cell before the beginning of the festive trapeza. He was filled with the Divine service. He didn’t need food or words in order to fill his soul. He stood, sat, drifted off for twelve hours, and still every second breathed in the sweetness of the all-night vigil. He hath chosen the good part, which will not be taken awayfrom him (Luke 10:42).

From: A Still Small Voice by Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, Phoni avras leptis, Athens 2006, pp. 139–144. Translated from the Russian version on Pravoslavie.ru.

Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki
Translation by Dimitra Dwelley

[1] Podvizhnik: a “spiritual athlete,” one who struggles spiritually, takes on podvigs. Podvig – a difficult spiritual task taken on voluntarily.—Trans.

[2] Agrypnia: the very long Divine service celebrated with great solemnity on Athos on Sundays, great feasts and feasts of the saints in whose honor churches are named, and likewise on days commemorating particularly revered saints.

[3] Stasidion: in Orthodox monasteries, a special wooden chair with high armrests and a seat that can be lifted up out of the way, so that a monk can stand up during the long vigils while being able to rest his arms on the armrests. When it is allowed or necessary out of weakness, the seat may be folded down so he may sit. —Trans.

[4] starets (here, “starchik”, an affectionate form): an elder, usually monastic, who through long experience, obedience, spiritual struggles, love and humility is given special spiritual gifts and to whom others come for spiritual guidance. —Trans.

[5] The Dismissal Hymn, the troparion that follows the Canon at Matins, near the end of the service. Sometimes called svetilen/photogogikon, because it sings of Christ the Light of the world. It is connected with the Matins Gospel.

[6] Skufia: priest’s or monastic’s hat.

[7] Geronda: Greek for “elder” or “starets.”

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Who is Metropolitan Nikolaos?
The Metropolitan of Messogea and Lavreotiki, Nikolaos, was born on April 13th 1954 in Thessaloniki, Greece. He studied physics at the University of Thessaloniki. He continued his studies at Harvard and MIT (USA) where he obtained postgraduate degrees and doctorates. He worked as a researcher and research assistant in the laboratory of angiology of the New England Deaconess Hospital (U.S.). At the same time he was a scientific associate of the United States Company NASA and the company Arthur D. Little.
He taught courses at Harvard and M.I.T, the Medical School of University of Crete and the Medical School of Athens University. He studied theology at the Theological School of the Holy Cross in Boston in the United States and was named honorary student of the Theological School of the University. He was the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and the President of the Synodical Bioethics Committee of the Church of Greece. He spent two years on Mount Athos, after which he became a monk on March 18, 1989 at the Holy Stomiou Konitsis Monastery, and the next day he was ordained deacon and then priest on September 10th of that year. Later he entered into the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra. Between 1990 and 2004 he served as a parish priest to the Athonite dependency (Metohion) of the Saviour’s Ascension (Simonopetra Monastery) in Byrona, a suburb of Athens. He was elected Metropolitan of Mesogaias and Lavreotikis on April 26th 2004. Listen to him at a recent Symposium at Madingley Hall, Cambridge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POCEGvMRGeA

 

In and Out of this World 

“One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery” is an acclaimed documentary directed by Sergei Yazvinsky featuring a typical day at the Monastery of St Simon in Novy Afon or “New Athos” in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, Georgia. …

Here is a link to the documentary. Enjoy!

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Dawn appears on the horizon at the monastery, which is dedicated to St Simon the Canaanite, one of Christ’s apostles who legendarily preached in Georgia and the surrounding regions. The monastery was built in the 1880s with donations from Russian Emperor Alexander III as a refuge for overflow monks. Russia’s Monastery of St Panteleimon on Mount Athos in Thessaly, Greece was overflowing with monks, so the Tsar assisted in the construction of this beautiful monastery to accommodate them.

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The monastery crowns the eastern edge of the Black Sea near the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi, which was an ancient Greek port in antiquity and a center of the medieval Georgian kingdom (საქართველო Sak’art’velo).

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Local villagers volunteer at the monastery to help the monks sweep the floors and courtyard, cook and prepare meals, and maintain the stunning grounds.

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Early morning: a monk lights the oil lamps which hang before the icons of Christ and the Theotokos on the iconostasis in the monastery chapel.

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A monk holds a Russian-language liturgical book for the chanting of the First Hour (06:00am) dawn prayers.

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A life of prayer: many people are amazed that locals come daily to help the monks cook and clean, but the monks ‘repay’ these services not only with their thanks and loving kindness, but with their constant prayer on behalf of the villagers, their country, and the world. The monk here is reading through names of villagers for whom he will pray in the daily services.

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Dawn breaks at the monastery.

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The Russian-style golden cupolas glimmer in the morning sunlight.

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The monks practice the Athonite discipline of hesychia, a Greek term meaning “stillness” or inner silence which developed most clearly from the writings of St Gregory Palamas. The goal is to cultivate a subconscious dedication to prayer so that one enters into transcendent prayer of the heart, through which one strives to become what St Peter called a “partaker of the divine nature”. Prayer is not “all the monks do”, however. This Russian monk is carving a cross which will be blessed and given to someone outside the monastery.

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A baker monk?: These freshly baked loaves will be consumed by visitors as well as the monks. Prosphora bread used for the Eucharist is baked separately using a simple ancient formula and then it is set apart and blessed (prior to the Liturgy) before its consecration begins during the Liturgy.

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The monastery’s central church dominates the courtyard, which is surrounded by the yellow-painted loggias in which the monks live in sparse cells. This part of Abkhazia, Georgia has a Mediterranean climate. You can see the cypress trees by the Black Sea.

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In the Russian tradition, the monastery’s bell-tower is a separate edifice from the central Neo-Byzantine church.

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Bells sound at different points of the Liturgy, bringing worshipers into a deeper spiritual frame and alerting those not present to specific points in the service. Bells also announce births or deaths and call the monks and the faithful to prayer. Bell-ringing is an ancient art in Russian lands, and the skills of the bell-ringer are highly prized because complicated poly-rhythmic, mechanical rotations are used rather than Western mathematically-determined melodies and “ringing” (turning the bell so that it rotates fully around). Bells serve as “singing icons” and just as people are chrismated into the Church, a unique chrismation ceremony brings new bell towers (kampan, from the Italian ‘campanile’) into the life of the Church.

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The pealing of the bells summons the faithful to prayer as the Divine Liturgy begins. Here is an example of Russian bell-ringing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzGbMWEl0Ys

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The Georgian priest proceeds toward the altar at the east end of the monastery church holding the Gospel aloft. Orthodox Christians consider the books of the Bible inspired of God and an icon of Christ. Only recently in the United States have some Orthodox communities introduced pews into their churches. Traditionally, the faithful consider it disrespectful to sit in a holy place, and so they stand attentively before God.

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All music in Orthodox churches is performed a capella without instrumental accompaniment. Russian chant incorporates polyphonic harmonies and often uses Western musical notation (influenced by sixteenth century Italian composers), whereas Byzantine chant maintains its own distinctive ancient notation.

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Orthodox clergy wear beautiful liturgical vestments which change throughout the seasons of the liturgical year. This tradition evokes the high priests in the Temple of Jerusalem who wore prescribed arrays of garments and vestry when serving in the temple sanctuary. Similar to the ancient Temple, every Orthodox church- especially so at monasteries- diligently tends an ‘eternal flame’ in the sanctuary which burns before the altar. Here the Tabernacle is kept (in which the elements used in the Eucharistic offering are stored) and the Gospel book rests.

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Look carefully and you will notice the sunlight playing across the gold leaf mosaics of the saints’ halos. . . these images took my breath away.

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In the Orthodox tradition, the monastery marks the end of the liturgical day at sunset.

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Source: https://ryanphunter.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/images-from-another-world/