Faith is a funny thing. Ideas that are laughable on any other level become absolute truth and sacred with the addition of religion. Picture yourself as an alien, or someone unaccustomed to civilization on Earth–how would the stories of some of the major religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, etc.) sound? Likely, at least some of them sound implausible to you already.
Similarly, man in his worship of the gods has done some strange things. Horrible things, too, of course, but setting those aside, the devout have concocted ideas that are simply bizarre. One of the oddest acts, perhaps, that man has performed to be closer to the gods is memorialized in the Byzantine ruins of Qalaat Samaan, or the Church Complex of St. Simeon, outside of Aleppo.
St. Simeon “Stylites” (390-459) was born in Syria and entered a Christian monastery at age 16. From the start of his monastic career, he showed a taste for athletic asceticism, including fasting for extended periods of time and fitting himself into tight spaces in which he could only stand upright (note the similarity to forms of torture!). Eventually his feats of privation led to fame, which he tried to escape by climbing and living atop a pillar. As his fame grew, so did his pillar, which grew to a peak height of 15 meters, at the top of which sat a railed platform that was his entire living space. From his pillar, he would speak to his adoring crowds, who made pilgrimage by the thousands to his pillar outside Aleppo. St. Simeon by the end of his career was famous throughout the Roman world, even the Emperor seeking his advice on theological matters. By his death, he had lived 37 years (!) on his pillar, and sparked hundreds of copy-cat stylites, or pillar-living ascetic monks.
The rock visible through the left central door is said to be what remains of the pillar, which has been cut down by souvenir-hunters. The large church complex was built around the pillar after St. Simeon’s death.
My introduction to this post aside, I like to think that had I been born in a different time and place, I might have been a monk, and asceticism appeals to me. It makes perfect sense to me that to seek retreat into the nonphysical realm one must withdraw from the physical, including by refraining from pleasures of the body, which act as distractions, focusing one’s attention on the senses and placing one more in the body than within the mind. For a shorter-term example, think about the darkness and silence that is standard for many places of worship, or libraries, for that matter. I have never been in a sensory deprivation tank, but I think the fundamental idea is the same–by placing yourself in darkness, as far as the inputs of the material world are concerned, you concentrate on the mental/spiritual. Asceticism also contributes to the spiritual life in terms of longer-term life goals. Vows of chastity and poverty, for example, seek to eliminate from a person’s agenda perhaps mankind’s two greatest personal pursuits, leaving more time for contemplation and the life of the mind. Asceticism, by shifting priorities, creates time and energy for different kinds of accomplishment.
Original floor tiling in the main basilica.
The asceticism of St. Simeon, however, seems to me somewhat different than the monastic ideal that I describe in the previous paragraph. Rather than mere withdrawal from pleasure, this is a type of asceticism that is focused on the creation of pain. Instead of quieting bodily signals, in order to focus on thoughts disconnected from the body, this second type of asceticism seeks to generate a bodily response, to a spiritual end. Living on top of a narrow and exposed pillar, starving for extended periods of time, wearing deliberately uncomfortable clothing, whipping oneself–these are all methods of this second kind of asceticism. Why? Doesn’t this have the opposite effect, distracting oneself with pain and discomfort, similar to the distraction of bodily pleasure? One might answer that the pain punishes the body, which is essentially evil, or that the discomfort acts to stimulate/guide thoughts as a reminder of the power of god (and perhaps his ability to damn us to eternal pain should we not conform to his teachings) or the suffering of martyrs. Or, in the case of shorter-term discomfort, such as the daytime fast of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the breaking of the fast each night can serve to heighten our appreciation for god’s gifts to us (of life and food). [I also suppose in an anticlerical mood one could argue that certain individuals actually derive perverse pleasure from the self-generated pain.]