In the history of Judaism and Christianity, God has sometimes accomplished his purpose through the strange behavior of his saints. The Old Testament prophets risked condemnation and ridicule (and sometimes death) to bring the message of repentance to the people through their strange behavior. The article on the prophets in the Orthodox Study Bible states: “The prophets vividly demonstrated their willingness to obey the Lord when asked to do unusual things in dramatized prophecies. Ezekiel drew a picture of Jerusalem on a clay tablet and pretended to besiege it; he was also asked to take a sword and cut off his hair and beard and burn part of it. Jeremiah buried a linen sash by the Euphrates River; Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years; Hosea was commanded to marry a harlot.”
St. John the Baptist was the last of these prophets who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah. His strange clothing (made of camel’s hair) and food (locusts and honey) and, especially, his strange message (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”) brought many closer to God, but also resulted in his being killed by Herod.
Prophetic witness through unusual behavior continued as the Church was founded and grew. First the martyrs and then the monastics were seen as expressing their faith and devotion through behavior that was different from the norm. The Church even established a category of saints called “fools for Christ.”
In the fifth century, St. Symeon the Stylite was one of the most unique saints, whose strange behavior led many to repent and strengthen their faith. Symeon was the son of a poor shepherd in Syria. As a young boy he kept his father’s sheep, but around the age of 13, Symeon began to wonder how he could respond to the Gospel message. Having heard the Beatitudes in church, he asked a wise man to explain the meaning and he was told that he could best be one of those who mourn or who are pure in heart or who hunger and thirst for righteousness through solitude and constant prayer.
So Symeon petitioned to enter the nearest monastery and be accepted as a servant. His petition granted, the boy learned to recite the Psalter from memory and to practice the normal asceticism of monastics – eating but one meal a day (which included no meat), spending many hours in silence and prayer. After several years, he moved to another monastery and then to a hermitage. In each of these residences, the monk increased his ascetic practices, which in turn increased his fame in the area, and many people came to meet him and ask for his guidance.
Finally, around the year 423, Symeon went to an area of Syria between the cities of Aleppo and Antioch and built a high pillar with a small chamber at the top to accommodate only himself, standing or sitting, but not lying down. Here, the monk spent all of his time in fasting, praying, and singing of the Psalms. He sometimes (especially during Lent) ate only occasionally. Here also, as people flocked to him – some to simply gawk at this novelty, but others to seek his spiritual counsel – Symeon became the instrument of healing for many. His miracles of healing, both physical and spiritual, were numerous.
In more than 40 years atop his 60-foot pillar, Symeon was never persuaded (even by his mother, who visited him twice) to come back down and enjoy the comforts of living a “normal” life. He returned to earth only upon his death around the year 459.
St. Symeon’s followers built a magnificent church around his pillar, a church whose dome rivaled that of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Through the centuries since the 5th, earthquakes and the conquest of Islam have reduced this church to ruins, but these ruins are visited by many today.
In our day, strange behavior is not easily tolerated. Anyone who falls outside the borders of “normal” is usually diagnosed with some syndrome or condition that is treatable with drugs and/or counseling. But we should remember that God has – and still can -used even strange behavior to bring about his purposes.
May we remember St. Symeon and strive to follow God’s will no matter what the consequences may be; may we pattern our behavior on whatever is necessary for following God’s will and not on the expectations of others; and may we ask for the intercession of St. Symeon the Stylite as we journey toward Heaven.