“Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize be delighting in self-abasement and the worship of angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head from whom the entire body being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why as if you were living in the world do you submit yourself to decrees such as ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!…in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.’” Colossians 2:18-23.
“Come rain or snow or sleet or ice, nothing will keep Symeon from his appointed pole” could have easily been the motto for St. Symeon Stylites, the famed fifth century Syrian ascetic. Symeon, originally a shepherd, when as a thirteen year old boy was deeply moved by the beatitudes which he had heard read in the church, at which time he chose to embrace the life of a monk. Entering the monastery he would eat but one meal per week and would fast for forty days during Lent, once nearly costing him his life. To further suppress his body, he would wrap his limbs with cord so tightly that it would press against the bone and could be cut off only with the greatest amount of pain. These extremes caused his eviction from the cloister. He then went to the mountains as a hermit. Having chained his feet together, he became a spectacle for the frequent throngs that admired his “spirituality.” When he grew dissatisfied with this approach to holiness, he devised a new type: in 423 he erected a pillar, nine feet high, with a platform and banister large enough to permit him to stand or lean, but not to sit or lay. Four years later, he erected an eighteen foot high pillar; later, a thirty-three foot one and, finally, a fifty-four foot pillar. This last pillar was his home for twenty years. The height of the pillar was raised in proportion to his increased spirituality. In total he spent thirty-six year son his pole. He wore the skins of animals and a chain was wrapped around his neck. He was delivered his single weekly meal by a disciple using a ladder. He would hang over the banister in exhaustion to sleep. His gaunt body would so bend that his head nearly touched his feet. Often, in the course of a day, he would devoutly bow before God. One spectator counted over twelve hundred such bows in a single day. Thousands of admirers, heathen and Christian alike, flocked to Symeon and his pillar where twice daily he would preach repentance. Kings, Emperors and Popes all sough his blessing. Yet women he did not permit in his view.
“Once an angel appeared to him in a vision, with a chariot of fire, to convey him, like Elijah, to heaven, because the blessed spirits longed for him. He was already stepping into the chariot with his right foot, which was hurt, when the angel, who was in reality Satan, was chased away by the sign of the cross.” (History of the Christian Church, Schaff, Eerdmans.) This incident possibly was created to explain the source of the infected sore on his right leg which eventually claimed Symeon’s life. With all his self-abasement and supposed humility, spiritual pride was very much alive. In spite of the word of the cross which removes sin from those who trust and have faith in the once-for-all time blood sacrifice of the God-man Jesus Christ, St. Symeon felt obligated to gain approval and forgiveness through dramatic and ostentatious self-sacrifice. The spirit of Gnosticism which had invaded the church even during the Apostolic period, was a major philosophical undercurrent in defining spirituality. The premises of Gnosticism, which is mirrored in Plato’s writings, held the material world a essentially corrupt an evil, denying that the God of all goodness created it. The material world, food, relationships between husband and wife, nature itself was all suspect. Instead of subduing creation, it was to be avoided. As this undercurrent, which was common in the Greek-speaking world, seeped into the church and was mingled with Christian thought, the product was a grace defying super spirituality with accompanying legalism.
The truth is that as regenerate, born from above, blood-washed people, we are now in possession of God’s love, approval and acceptance. That is not to say that there is not more outworking of His character needed in our lives. It is saying that the blood of His Son, which is applied tour lived by faith, has already brought us near and His presence in our lives is an accomplished reality not subject to our feelings or our failures.
Dear St. Symeon, despite all his seemingly impressive repression of fleshly considerations, for some reason could not take the risk of having women in his audience. Also, he was easily swept into spiritual delusion by supposing his spiritual estate was so elevated. In presuming his own humility, he became prey to spiritual pride: the fruit of legalism and hyper-spirituality. I recall a man who boasted to me that he no longer had an ounce of pride left in him, “that man embarked on a course of self aggrandizing actions that was fueled by a self-evaluated lofty opinion of his own standing and calling in contrast to those “lesser” Christians and leaders around him. The sad outcome was fixed self perceptions that would not respond to reason, the Word or the Spirit, thereby causing those saints naively loyal to him to be led into divisiveness and later disillusionment.
In our pursuit of Biblical spirituality, we undoubtedly will fast, pray without ceasing, consistently mediate upon the Word, yet it will be done from a foundation of grace. We can wholeheartedly seek God because we already are approved and accepted by virtue of redemption and the work of Jesus on the cross. Today the only pole we need is the one on which our Saviour hung, pouring out His life, a ransom for many. Thanks, but not thanks, no other poles for me.