Monday, September 01, 2003

You think you're going crazy

Today is the feast of St. Simeon Stylites, the first great pillar saint. I read a contemporary biography of him some years ago; young Simeon was driven to ascetical practices, and was thrown out of a monastery because they were so severe. He had tied a rope around his waist under his robe as tightly as he could, and it cut into his flesh. Eventually the stench of gangrene was so pungent that his brothers threw him out.

Not to be deterred, Simeon continued in his attempts to die to this life so he could live in Christ. Eventually he built a pillar and lived on the top, on a space about six feet wide, for thirty six years. His first pillar was only nine feet high, but as the demands of the people on him grew, he built higher and higher, ultimately reaching fifty feet. He still engaged in spiritual direction, but now the directee would have to climb fifty feet up a ladder. He ate no food and remained standing during all of Lent, except for prostrations asking "Lord have mercy!"

You may be saying to yourself, "What a nutball!" There are many saints whose stories provoke similar reactions: why did Augustine think stealing a few pears was so bad? Why did Teresa of Avila think she was such a great sinner? What possessed Francis to strip naked in the Bishop's house, to throw himself into thorn bushes to conquer lust, or to walk on foot into the Sultan's camp? Nuts, all of them. Simeon is just a bit nuttier.

I suggest you think again. Look at this passage from the version of the Sermon on the Mount that Luke presents us: And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

We think these saints are crazy because, after all, things aren't that bad. Sure, we should go to church and be good people and all, but live on a pillar? Look at what Jesus says to us: "Woe to you!" Woe to us who are content with the world as it is. It is the mark of the saint that he mourns, both for the state of the world and for his own sins. Simeon, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and Francis all had the right idea.

In a world gone mad and corrupted by sin, it's more sane to be crazy.

P.S. I'm indebted to ideas from Walker Percy, whom you should read right now, especially in The Thanatos Syndrome.

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