Chapter XXIV, Zebinas and Polychronius (continued), Book IX
The prefect was embarrassed and begged him to get up, at the same time promising to agree to his request, thinking that he probably wanted to ask a favour for someone over whom he had jurisdiction.
"Since you have made a promise," said the divine man, "and confirmed it with an oath, please offer fervent and vigorous prayer to God for me."
The prefect beat his forehead and begged to be released from his oath, as somebody who was not worthy to offer prayers for him to God. How can any amount of talking praise him enough to do justice to his wisdom and modesty and discretion?
Various different illnesses might attack him but had no effect on his zeal for the labours he undertook. His routine was exactly the same however many illnesses he suffered. It was only after a long argument with him soon after building his little dwelling that we succeeded in introducing a little heating into it, for his body was freezing cold. Many people offered him money, or left it behind with him as they went out, but he refused always to accept any of it. Instead he asked them to share it out to others. Later, the great Jacobus gave him a cloak which someone had given him, but he sent it back, saying it was too thick and elegant. He always wore the plainest and cheapest clothing. He rated so highly the poverty in which to seek the kingdom of heaven that often he did not even have enough food. I know I have often been there to seek his blessing and found that all he had was two figs. The honey of his words was highly sought after by those who came to see him, and was highly pleasant and full of joy for those who heard. I have never known anyone except the shallow and sarcastic who have ever been able to find fault with him. Everyone praises him and celebrates him, and when they come to see him are always reluctant to leave.
ASCLEPIUS AND JACOBUS, HERMITS
Asclepius was of this same category, and emulated his style of life ten miles away. He had similar food and clothing and habits of self-control, charity towards brothers and guests, gentleness and kindness, and conversation with God, extreme poverty and an abundance of virtues, the fruits of his search for wisdom, and all the other things which I have told you concerning Polychronius, that chief of men. They say that when he was numbered among the brothers living in community he embraced the monastic, ordered life, and never did anything wrong in spite of being in the midst of such a crowd of people. So then, he conducted himself so well in both lives, that is, the community life and the solitary life, that he is worthy of a double crown.
Later, many others followed his path of virtue. Not just our own state but neighbouring states and countries too are full of such seekers after wisdom. The divine Jacobus is one of them, enclosed in a little dwelling just outside a village called Duzan. Even towards the end of his life (he is ninety years old), he still lives alone within his ditch and rampart, shaped in a curve. He gives answers to people but will not allow himself to be seen, except that twice he has told me to break through the wall and come in, which was a great honour for me, to have him show me such good will.
People who are still living at this time do not need my writings; they can go and witness his search for wisdom for themselves if they want to. But what I have written should be sufficient for those who come after and who did not actually see him to be able to grasp the nature of his way of life. So I leave him now, and say no more, but asking the blessing of his prayers, go on to talk about someone else.
(who lived on a column for nearly forty years. There is another account of his life in Book I)
Every subject of the Roman Empire knows of the famous Simeon, the great wonder of the world. The Persians know of him as well, as do the Indians and Ethiopians; in fact his fame has spread even as far as the Nomads of Scythia, where they have learnt about his diligence and way of life. Let me say at once that if I did not have so many witnesses, I would hesitate to describe his battles, which are greater than it is possible to tell, lest posterity should hold them as mere fables destitute of all truth. For they are greater than you would think possible for human nature, and human beings, of course, are apt to judge of what they hear according to the limits of human nature. And if what they hear exceeds those limits, those who are not partakers of the divine mysteries judge it to be false. But the earth and sea are full of godly members of the true religion, well instructed in divine matters, who are aware of the grace of the holy Spirit and are so far from disbelieving what I am about to narrate that their faith will become even greater, and they will readily accept my tale with keen interest. It is on that basis that I will begin by describing how he was worthy of a vocation from above.
He was born in a village called Sefa on the border between our country and Cilicia, where his parents taught him to keep sheep. In this respect he was in the good company of the patriarch Jacob, the disciplined Joseph, the legislator Moses, the king and prophet David, and all those other divine men like them. Once when it had been snowing heavily the sheep had to be kept inside, and in this period of rest from active shepherding he went to church with his parents. His own holy tongue told me this next bit. For he said that he heard the voice of the gospel saying 'blessed are they who weep and mourn, wretched are they who mock, blessed are the pure in heart', and the rest of this passage. (Matthew 5.4ff). He asked one of those present what one should do to follow all these things, and was told about the solitary life and its high way of searching for wisdom.
He said that after receiving these seeds of the divine word, fruitfully planted in the deepest furrow of his heart, he went to a nearby shrine of the holy martyrs, bent his knees and touched the ground with his forehead, and prayed to him who 'wills all people to be saved' (1 Timothy 2.4), begging that he might be led into the perfect way of godliness and true religion. Not long after this he was sleeping peacefully when he had a dream.
"I seemed to be digging foundations," he said, "and I heard someone standing nearby telling me that I must dig much deeper. When I had dug deeper as he asked, I tried to have a rest, but he told me to keep on digging and not to cease from my labour. This happened three or four times, until at last he told me I was deep enough. He then told me to build but use no labour, for the labour had ceased, and the future building would appear without labour."
Future events proved this prediction to be true, for what happened was beyond the power of human nature.
When he awoke he went to a nearby house of monks. He stayed there for two years, seized by a deep desire to become perfect in virtue, then went to the village of Teleda, which we have already mentioned (see Chapter IV), where the great and divine men Ammianus and Eusebius had built their monastic dwelling. But he did not join them; he went instead to another house which was an offshoot, a training ground in the search for wisdom built by Eusebonas and Abiton after they had been sufficiently instructed by Eusebius. These two spent their whole life in harmony with each other in mind and deed. They were like one soul in two bodies, and had many others with them who were gripped by a love for this kind of life.
After they had departed this life, Heliodorus was in charge. He was greatly admired by his companions. At the age of sixty-five he had lived an enclosed life for sixty-two years, for his parents had looked after him for only three years before he entered this community, so that he had never set eyes on many things in this world. He used to say that he did not know what pigs looked like, or cockerels or other such animals. I often saw him, and I admired his simplicity of life and likewise valued his marvellous purity of soul.
That outstanding athlete of godliness, Simeon, fought the battle among them for ten years. There were eighty of them, but he overshadowed them all. Whereas the others ate every second day, he fasted for the whole week, which those superior to him by no means approved of. They argued with him, saying that he was upsetting the regular order of things, though nothing that they said made him change his mind, or succeeded in putting checks upon his spiritual zeal.
The present superior of this community told me that Simeon once made a rope out of palm leaves, which are the most sharp and prickly things, and wound it round his loins, not outwardly but next to his skin, and pulled it so tight that wherever it touched him he became quite ulcerous. After wearing it for ten days the ulcers began to bleed, and someone who noticed this asked him why he was bleeding. He said it was nothing, but his companion forcefully put his hand inside his clothing and discovered the reason. He reported it to the superior, who scolded him and entreated him and emphasised the cruelty of it, and managed to persuade him to desist only with great difficulty. Later on, when it was discovered that he was doing other things of this sort he was expelled from the monastery, lest others who did not have such bodily endurance should try to emulate him, to their great detriment.
He went to a more solitary place on the mountain where he found a very deep gully, without any water supply, into which he lowered himself down and began to offer to God his hymns of praise. Meanwhile the seniors in the monastery began to suffer a few pangs of conscience, and they sent two of the brothers out to find him and bring him back. They wandered over the mountain telling the shepherds what he looked like and how he was dressed and asking them if they had seen him. The shepherds pointed out the gully, and when they saw it they cried out in astonishment, and they had to get a rope in order to draw him out after a great deal of trouble, as it was a place much easier to get into than to get out of.
He stayed with them for a while longer before going to the village of Tellanessus, near Antioch, where he took possession of the mountaintop where he now lives. He found a little dwelling there in which he spent three years completely enclosed.
And then in an attempt to augment his store of virtue, he decided to fast completely for forty days like those divine men Moses and Elijah. He tried to persuade the admirable Bassus, who administered many communities in his capacity of leader among the ranks of the priesthood, to block up with clay the entrance to his dwelling, leaving nothing behind inside. Bassus objected that a self-inflicted death should by no means be accounted a virtue, but rather was a crime first and foremost.
"All right, father," said Simeon, "leave me ten loaves, and a jar of water, and if I see that my body is in need of some nourishment I will take some of it."
It was done as he asked. The food was brought in, and the entrance was blocked up with clay. At the end of the forty days, that admirable man of God, Bassus, came and removed the clay, went inside, and found the same number of loaves as before, the jar still full of water, and Simeon himself lying down, scarcely breathing, unable to speak or move. He found a sponge and moistened and washed his mouth with it, after which he brought him the elements of the divine Sacrament. Strengthened by this, he revived, and took a little food, some lettuce and watercress, which he ate a little at a time, and managed to swallow.
The great Bassus was astonished, and came back to tell his own flock of this great miracle. He had more than two hundred companions, who were allowed to possess neither a beast of burden nor a mill. They were not allowed to accept gold from anyone, not go out at all to buy what was necessary, but stayed in, content with what food was given them by divine grace. They maintain that rule to this day, and however much they may increase in numbers, they do not transgress against the rule they have been given. But let me return to the great Simeon.
From that time right up to the present day, that is, for twenty-eight years, he has practised fasting for forty days. For the first few days he would stand to praise God, but by keeping at it and as the time went by he had to modify that labour. Weakness of body would not permit him to keep standing. Then he would have to sit to say the divine office, and in the last few days he would lie down. And as little by little his natural forces got weaker and weaker, he had no option but to lie there half dead. But after he went up onto his column he never once thought of coming down and devised a means of remaining there standing. For he set up a large beam of timber on top of his column and fastened himself to it with ropes, and spent the whole forty days like that. From that time onwards his superiors tolerated what he was doing and accepted that he did not need any help. He stood for the whole forty days, taking no food, but with the liveliness of his soul strengthened by divine grace.
As we have said, he spent three years in that little dwelling before coming to the top of that mountain which has since been so famously celebrated. He caused a fence to be built around the place, and took a chain of twenty cubits length, one end of which he fixed to a large stone, and the other to his ankle, so that even if he wanted to, it was impossible for him to go beyond the limit he had set. There he stayed, seeking the vision of heaven, drawing strength from the contemplation of those things which are above the heavens, the flight of his mind in no way impeded by his chains of iron.
But later that admirable man Meletius was given the episcopal care of the city of Antioch and the region roundabout, a judicious man, famous for his prudence and adorned with unusual brilliance. He declared that Simeon's chain was superfluous, for it was quite enough that the mind should impose upon the body the limitation imposed by the chain. So in obedience to the bishop he agreed to cease using the chain. A smith was called and instructed to remove it. Now there was a piece of leather next to his shinbone sewn together round the chain for bodily protection, and when of necessity that was cut apart, they say that they found twenty great insects hiding in its folds. Meletius himself attested that that was what he saw. I have mentioned this to demonstrate what great fortitude this man had, for he could easily have turned back the leather and destroyed the insects. But he preferred to put up with their fierce bites, and aspire to higher things by enduring the small things.
His fame spread through all the region roundabout, and people came from near and far, some bringing with them people with paralysis, some seeking healing of their own illnesses, others asking to become patres [monks?], for what naturally they found hard to accept they willingly accepted from him. When all these people had obtained what they had asked for they went away rejoicing, telling every one about the benefits they had received, and sending back many more to seek for the same sort of things. All these people coming from everywhere were like rivers flowing down every road, and they gathered together in that place like a human ocean filling up with streams from all directions. There was a flood of people not only locally but there were Ishmaelites, and Persians and Armenians and Iberes, and Homerites, and others from further away still. Many came even from the far West, Spaniards and Britons, and Gauls. It is hardly necessary to add that they came also from Italy; they say that at Rome, by far the greatest city, he was so eulogised in sermons that people placed little images of him in all their porches and doorways, to make themselves safe through his protection.
People without number kept on coming to him, trying to touch him in order to receive a blessing from his clothing of skins. At first he just thought it was ridiculous and unnecessary for such high honour to be paid to him, but eventually he found that he could hardly bear all the extra vexation it caused. So he organised that column to stand on, at first ordering it to be of six cubits, then twelve, and later twenty, and finally thirty-six which is what it is today. It was part of his desire to fly away into the heavens and free himself from things of the earth.
I don't believe that the building of this column is contrary to the divine plan, and I urge those who delight in pouring scorn on it to hold their tongue and not let it wag so thoughtlessly. They should rather remember that the Lord has arranged many things like that for the benefit of the slothful. He ordered Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20.2), Jeremiah to put a girdle about his loins as a prophetic act for the benefit of the unbelieving (Jeremiah 13.1), and later to put yokes of wood and steel on his neck (Jeremiah 27.2). He ordered Hosea to take back his fornicating wife and show his love for that fornicating and adulterous woman (Hosea 1.2), and Ezekiel to lie on his right side for forty days, and then on his left side for a hundred and fifty days (Ezekiel 4.5-6), to dig through the walls (Ibid. 12.7), to go forth as of one going into captivity (Ibid.12.4), and even to take a sharp blade to shave his head, and divide his hair into four parts, giving some to these people and some to those, so that no one would be able to count them completely (Ibid. 5.1). The Ruler of the universe ordered all these things to be done in order to bring to their senses those who did not obey his word or listen to the prophets, convincing them by these extraordinary spectacles, and making them pay heed to the oracles of God. Who would not be utterly astonished at the sight of the divine man going naked? Who would not wonder why he was doing that? Who would not want to know how a prophet could allow a fornicating woman to live with him?
But the God of all ordered each one of these things to be done because of his great concern for those who were living disgracefully and slothfully. And so he provided this wonderful new spectacle [of Simeon on his column], drawing everybody to come and see it for its sheer novelty and wonder, making sure that those who came would get a lesson they could believe in. The novelty of the spectacle was in itself a pledge of true teaching, and anyone who came to see it went away having learnt something of the nature of God. For just as human kings from time to time change the images on their coins, putting a lion on some, stars on another, Angels on another, making the gold more valuable because of the image stamped upon it, so does the high King of the universe add to the godliness of the true religion many new ways of living, as if imprinting pictures and seals, not just for the sake of those who are of the household of the faith, but to encourage the tongues of all those who suffer under the disease of unbelief to turn towards the praise of God.
It was not just words that persuaded them of this, but the sight of the column itself, which itself spoke volumes. This simple fact of a man standing on a column enlightened countless thousands of Ishmaelites who had been slaves to a blind ungodliness. For just like a very bright candle placed on a lamp stand, he shed his rays all about like the sun, and, as I have said, he saw the Iberes, the Persians and the Armenians all coming to receive divine Baptism. The Ishmaelites also came in crowds, two or three hundred at a time, sometimes even a thousand, shouting their rejection of the errors of their forefathers. In the face of that great source of light they utterly did away with the idols they used to worship, and denounced the orgies of Venus, for they accepted that this was the worship of demons, as Simeon repeated from on high time after time. They received the divine Sacraments, and accepted the rules which that divine tongue laid down. They gave their assent to the rites of the fathers, and renounced the barbaric cult of asses and camels. I saw and heard all this myself, as they condemned the ungodliness of their native land and accepted the teaching of the gospels.
I once got into a very dangerous situation, for Simeon suggested to them that they should come to me for a priestly blessing, from which he said they would receive a great benefit. When this great mass of barbarians came rushing towards me a little later, some of them dragged me forwards, some backwards, some sideways. Those on the outskirts of the crowd pushed in, stretching out their hands to touch my beard or seize my garments, so that truly I would have been suffocated by the way they crowded around so violently, if Simeon had not shouted out for them all to move away. Such was the kind of power, ridiculed by the spiteful, which flowed from that column, as Simeon radiated the light of the knowledge of God into the minds of the barbarians.
There is another thing which I saw happening like this: one tribe of people present begged him to say a prayer and give a blessing to their leader, but the people of another tribe which was there objected, saying that he ought not to bless the leader of that tribe but give a blessing to the leader of their own tribe, for the other leader was a tyrant, whereas their own was absolutely just. The argument was so great and barbarous that they eventually began to attack each other. I stepped in with a prolonged appeal, and tried to persuade them to desist, on the grounds that the divine man was perfectly able to give a blessing to both of them. But some still continued to complain that the others should not be included, and the others still tried to prevent a blessing being given to their opponents. It was not until Simeon scolded them from above, likening them to baying dogs, that the quarrel subsided. I tell you this to show how deeply their belief had taken hold of their minds, for they would not have quarrelled among themselves if they had not believed in the great power of his blessing.
I saw another greatly celebrated miracle. The leader of one of the Saracen tribes came to ask help for one of his company whose limbs had been stricken with paralysis when they were in the great fortress of Callinicus in the course of their journey. The paralysed man was brought forward, Simeon asked him if he would renounce the ungodliness of his people, he freely consented and did what he was asked, Simeon asked him if he believed in the Father, the only-begotten Son and holy Spirit, and he replied that he did.
"By your belief in these names," said Simeon, "arise!"
He got up, and immediately offered to carry the leader of his tribe back to his tent on his own shoulders. The leader agreed, and they departed. All those present lifted up their voices in praise to God. It was in imitation of the Lord who ordered the paralysed man to pick up his bed that he did this (Matthew 9.6). Let no one call this action some sort of arbitrary power. For his own voice tells us, 'whosoever believes in me shall do the same works as I do, and even greater' (John 14.12). And we have seen the fulfilment of this promise. For whereas there were no miracles done by the Lord's shadow, yet the mere shadow of the great Peter broke the power of death, healed the sick and drove out demons (Acts 5.15). The Lord did miracles through his disciples, and now likewise the divine Simeon did many miracles by the use of the divine name.
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