Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Odd Ducks: A Kinda-Sorta Rumination

     Today is a multiple feast day: i.e., a day dedicated to several figures the Church celebrates as saints. One of them is Simeon Stylites, a figure of the Fifth Century whose fame rests upon his adoption of one harsh practice after another:

     [Simeon] shut himself up for one and a half years in a hut, where he passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. When he emerged from the hut, his achievement was hailed as a miracle. He later took to standing continually upright so long as his limbs would sustain him.

     After one and a half years in his hut, Simeon sought a rocky eminence on the slopes of what is now the Sheik Barakat Mountain and compelled himself to remain a prisoner within a narrow space, less than 20 meters in diameter. But crowds of pilgrims invaded the area to seek him out, asking his counsel or his prayers, and leaving him insufficient time for his own devotions. This at last led him to adopt a new way of life.

     In order to get away from the ever increasing number of people who frequently came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived among ruins in Telanissa (modern-day Taladah in Syria), formed a small platform at the top, and upon this determined to live out his life. It has been stated that, as he seemed to be unable to avoid escaping the world horizontally, he may have thought to attempt to try to escape it vertically. For sustenance small boys from the village would climb up the pillar and pass him small parcels of flat bread and goats' milk

     If the above leaves you entirely without the impulse to live out your life at the top of a tall pillar, congratulations! You’re normal. Which is more than anyone could have said of Simeon Stylites.

     I take no position on this person’s sainthood. Indeed, the Church’s practice of canonization has always left me uneasy. Christ told us to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” To declare a man a saint – i.e., guaranteed to have been granted entrance to heaven – is quite as much a judgment as the reverse. Certainty about matters beyond the veil of Time should be emphatically discouraged.

     No, what fascinates me about Simeon Stylites is his odd attitude toward others. He was plainly anxious to get away from people. Apparently, one weird living situation after another failed him in this regard. Indeed, throughout his life he mounted ever-higher pillars; the last one was reputed to be over fifty feet tall. Yet pilgrims flocked to him from many corners of the world. Whether they came for his spiritual instruction or to gawk at the oddest human habitat known to Man is unclear.

     I suspect that the latter reason was a stronger draw than the former. Mankind’s fascination with odd ducks has never slackened. That’s why like the poor, they’ve always been with us.


     But this is a Rumination. (I did say so right at the beginning. No refunds!) So many of the Church’s early saints were as odd as Simeon Stylites that one must wonder whether an ordinary Christian man who lived a life of marked devotion and goodness would have been recognized for it. The Hagiography contains so much about self-denial, harsh self-inflicted penances and mortifications, and general renunciation of the world and all in it that we have reason to ask: In elevating such persons to sainthood, does the Church mean to condemn the life God designed for us – the life we have every reason to believe He wants us to live? Indeed, is the Church even aware of that implication of many of its canonizations?

     I’ll go further still – girls, hold on to your boyfriends – and ask: By celebrating self-denial, mortification, et cetera does the Church mean to say that to be acceptable to God, we must yearn for death? Wouldn’t that constitute a rejection of the gift of life – practically an embrace of suicide, which the Church condemns as the one unforgivable sin?

     Christ did not demand self-denial from His disciples:

     At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick the grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry—how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

     [The Gospel According To Matthew, 12:1-8]

     He famously ate and drank with every sort of despised person, including officials of the Roman occupation who had oppressed the Jews for decades. He condemned no one – which in and of itself the Pharisees deemed a mark against His stature. He reserved His harshest criticism for the Pharisees and the self-proclaimed “experts in the law:”

“Woe to you experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the other. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!
     “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too!
     “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
     “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors! You snakes, you offspring of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

     [The Gospel According To Matthew, 23:23-33]

     I cannot discern from any smallest part of the Gospels a desire, expressed by the Son of God, Redeemer of Man, and Founder of Christianity, that any man should deny himself the comforts and fulfillments of a normal life – much less that anyone who loves Him should live out his days at the top of a pillar.


     I’ve been accused of being a “cafeteria Catholic” by others for my insistence that Jesus is the sole Authority. The words of Jesus trump all other considerations. He did not grant His disciples the authority to add further prescriptions or proscriptions to His decrees. Moreover, He forgave anyone who came to Him seeking forgiveness, including an adulteress caught in the very act! This is not a portrait of a Deity who desires that we practice any self-abnegation not explicitly forbidden by the Commandments he commended to the “rich young man:”

     Now a man came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself.” [The Gospel According To Matthew, 19:16-19]

     He never gave any indication that the self-abnegations of Simeon Stylites, the comparable self-denials of other early saints, or the mortifications urged upon us of today by Opus Dei conduce to a greater acceptability to God. Repentance of one’s sins as delineated by the Ten Commandments? Yes, of course. The penance clerically prescribed for such sins? Again, of course. Charity toward a neighbor in need through no fault of his own? Definitely. But beyond that no man is required to go. I reject the life-denying practices of the odd ducks root and branch. I exhort other Christians to do the same.

     Christ’s words should be foremost in our thoughts at all times – most emphatically including these, which He uttered not once but twice:

“I want mercy and not sacrifice.”

     Besides, imagine what so many pillars would do to the landscape.

6 comments:

  1. Beginning with an aside: I'd always thought that canonization was based on Matthew 16:18:

    "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."

    I'm not saying I've reflected on it deeply and can defend it theologically.

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  2. When our Curmudgeon Emeritus writes "what fascinates me about Simeon Stylites" isn't there also a bit of professional courtesy involved? :D

    FWIW, I always viewed your moniker as tongue in cheek, because you are far more caring than you often let on. You may not be aware of it, but it shows up most when you've been criticized. Is it saintly that it doesn't drive you out of the world as it has done to others?

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  3. Was sitting on the top of a pole the only thing he was good at?

    Didn't God admonish us to use the gifts he gave us to the best of our abilities?

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  4. Weet: That's one plausible interpretation, though there are others. However, according to Christ, we're supposed to leave all moral judgment to God.

    Pascal: These days, most of what I care about is getting to Mass in the morning, losing my extra 15 pounds, and whatever BLEEP!ing novel I'm struggling to complete. Besides, as I started out "out of the world," there isn't much further "out" I could be driven.

    Arthur: I hold no brief for old Simeon, but he did manage to stay up there for more than 30 years, which is probably still the record. As for using our gifts to the hilt, I'm with you, which is a big part of my reason for rejecting the self-flagellators, self-mortifiers, and other aficionados of death-in-life.

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  5. I can understand why the "early church" wanted to include Paul and other texts in the New Testament. And even why they may have chosen to incorporate pagan or other religions' festival days. . . and to proclaim saints and martyrs to help people through horrible times

    But times DO change. Let's assume God's message through the Redeemer does not. . .

    I can't help but think that a modern Pope speaking with the infallible voice at his command might revisit Paul's "stuff" without having to tell priests they can absolve abortion for a year starting on what must be seen as an arbitrary date.

    I'm left with the impression that, while Jesus did proclaim Peter and his Church as "the rock," all the councils that added chapters to the gospel, and all the popes who added their "stuff" were not only NOT Peter, they were not speaking through the Holy Spirit.

    It's true that the 4 original gospels can be read different ways. But, given history and the infallibility of man, I do not believe the additions and interpretations have cleared things up or made them better.

    Those 10 commandments were clear enough that we can teach them to 5 year olds. Everything else seems like wriggle room, doesn't it?

    I've broken all but one of them, I think. But I think all the stuff about confession and even the Eucharist is "Woo-Woo." That is, it's great if the Holy Spirit came to you, during that. And yeah, it's great if God and Christ exist across time during the Eucharist.

    But every moment in time *IS* different. Maybe I lied yesterday, and ogled the next door neighbor's wife this morning. But *NOW* is a new moment and I can choose to do what I have been taught and KNOW is right this time. All that stuff about confession is just a way to get people to listen to their conscience again without the nagging idea of, "Well, I screwed up once and it seemed ok, why not do it again?"

    This morning I was laying in bed and didn't want to get up. I knew I was being cowardly. Then, in an unrelated context, I was reminded to say, "Thank you." That very thought "made" me hop out of bed. Just recognizing that "right thing" for a moment gave me - not the courage or duty - but the desire to do the right thing.

    I think an early episode of "The West Wing" had the President's adviser ay something like, "Act as if you have faith and it'll be given to you."

    The miracle is this life and our place in it. I won't say Christ isn't real. And I won't say the gospels are fantasy. But popes and doctrine can be inimical to the things they profess to espouse. It's really hard to find fault with the 10 commandments, however. Particularly the shortened version you've often quoted.

    There are no miracles or wonders - or even hope and a promise of justice in afterlife - in those commandments. The commandments just make good sense. The wonder, hope, miracles and justice are what WE can experience, create, espouse and hope for.

    Tim Turner

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  6. Forgive me for waxing scatological, but who cleaned up after old Simeon during his years of "elevated" consciousness? Were the slaves/followers who brought him food and drink responsible for cleaning up his dung and urine? Must have been quite an inspiration to others to observe him urinating and defecating from on high. A real class act.

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