Among all the so-called Desert Fathers, Simon Stylites (390 – 459) is often regarded as the most bizarre. His claim to fame was his perch on a pillar in a Syrian desert for nearly forty years. Today his celebrity has faded, but in his own day pilgrims came from great distances to hear him preach and offer counsel.
Simon grew up a shepherd boy profoundly influenced by his pious mother, Martha. By the age of thirteen he was fasting and denying himself the normal pleasures of life. At sixteen he entered a monastery but found monastic life too comfortable. He left the community and began a regimen of self-mutilation and starvation. Indeed, he was close to death before he was discovered and nursed back to life. As time passes, his ways became still more eccentric—even among the desert monks themselves. He escaped to a tiny hut, now not only starving himself but also forcing himself to stand upright until he would faint and fall to the ground.
After three years he moved to a narrow mountain crevasse, where he expected to be left alone. But pilgrims were on his trail, eager that his holiness rub off on them. He had no place to hide, until he came up with an ingenious idea. With the help of sympathizers, he devised a pillar that grew in stages to rise, eventually, several stories high. His platform offered him no more floor space than a small bedroom. Now even more tourists arrived. Every afternoon he spoke to the crowds, though never encouraging them to follow him in his extreme asceticism. He maintained a wide-ranging correspondence and gained the respect of common people and emperors, including Theodosius and his wife, Eudocia. His support for the Council of Chalcedon was much sought after by Emperor Leo.
During his lifetime and after his death, living on pillars as “stylite” monks became the rage among the desert ascetics. Indeed, the desert was said to be dotted with pillars.