In his 26th year atop a precarious pillar at desert’s edge, the anchorite Simeon Stylites was overcome by almost immobilizing fear. Fifteen meters above the looming ground, confined to a narrow platform, he braced his back against the center pole and wept his terror.
He wished fervently that he were tied fast to the upright, for the slightest inclination of his body brought him in view of the earth below, bringing dizziness and an upwelling of his innards. Each morning, when the faithful boys of the village came to bury his refuse, they found the contents of his stomach spewn upon the ground.
His dread was not of impact with the earth, but the act of falling, of being loosed from firm support, whirling like a leaf, untethered, unsupported.
It had been said by his acolytes and by those throughout the reaches of the Empire who had absorbed the wonder of his isolation, that he had ascended his pillar to move farther from earth and thus closer to God. In truth, his endeavor had been to face what most terrified him, and to offer that terror to the Lord. What greater act of sacrifice had he to offer?
Yet that offering had yet to be completed to his satisfaction. Over the slow evolution of time, his initial terrors had ebbed, and he relaxed into an unvarying existence close to contentment, without change but for the rare occasion of a storm. His would-be offering had transformed into a voiceless world constrained to contemplation and praise of the Lord, his diet restricted to the unmitigated taste of gruel and a hard paste formed from he knew not what, prepared by the women of the village. To another devotee, this removal of all impediment might have proved the devotional ideal; to Simeon it seemed a cheat that lessened the worth of his intention.
But of late his unvarying routine had shivered and fractured. Why, he could not comprehend, had all surety fled, the continuing certainty that tomorrow would align undiminished with today? When he stood to perform his twice-daily exercises, he bent his head almost to his toes above the abyss in blinding fright. During each fierce repetition of approach to the abyss, he determined to keep his eyes open as he swung downward, that he might absorb in full measure his overarching fear. Yet as the possibility of unrestrained tumbling swept through him, his eyes closed reflexively. Tears coursed his face as he whimpered apologies to the Almighty, awash in grief that he could not tame the reflexive mechanism of his mind.
One day, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and offered solace. “Your fear reflects your sense of unworthiness, as though you gazed into a mirror of condemnation. You see yourself not equal to serving God in exalted capacity, and the answering terror only expands your certainty of smallness.
“I say to you, reject this misplaced lack of worth, then the fear too may vanish. Once both are conquered, you will experience celebration and know, rightly, that God rejoices in your supreme devotion.”
“The Lord… He has sent you to tell me so?”
“He has appointed me your advisor, but has granted me the reserve to choose the method and substance of such advice that best fits your need.”
A wave of relief swept through the ascetic, as quickly tempered by the realization that he did not know how to uncover his true worth and so celebrate it. And truly, what worth in himself or another could rank higher than offering his fear directly to God, as he had vowed to do? Was not the paralyzing terror of these days what he had prayed for in early times, that the wrenching misery of his elevated situation might be his gift to the Lord? Would it not be more proper, therefore, to willingly abandon the cheat of unchanging days and accept instead today’s dread as his culmination, long delayed? No, nothing he might attempt to escape his terror could match the glory of its very strength and power, its magnificent affirmation!
So spoke Simeon to the Lord’s angel, who then enfolded him in gentle wings and sang praise of the ascetic for his acceptance of a glory bestowed by God that would but increase throughout eternity, that endlessness that measures no time yet holds everlasting reward. “For the Lord wants not your fear, nor requires your love,” the angle said, “He desires only your everlasting completion.”
The angel, now released from his charge, revealed to Simeon the eternal sadness of all the multitudes of the angelic hosts, that having been created already full and perfect, found no improvement to strive for, could experience no reward beyond the knowledge of an unwavering continuance. Yet this angel alone, he said further, through his mission to Simeon had been allowed the employment of choice, and thus experienced the delicious burden of reward.
Simeon, he concluded, was now free to invoke imminent death, or otherwise to continue life, without guarantee of respite, to its unforeseen end.
The anchorite weighed this balance for but an instant. He could accept with joy the shunning his constraining life, that he might see the face of God and thank Him for His gifts of pain and mercy. By contrast, he could remain earthbound, continuing to offer praise through unimaginable levels of suffering.
The path of immediate cessation, he told the angel, offered the sight of God, but the path of painful commitment led to the higher realm of praise and glory. To abandon the second path would be a sin, a direct offense against the Lord.
The angel acknowledged Simeon’s choice and left his presence. And so the anchorite continued for yet another decade in fearful isolation, his terror and its withdrawal alternating in unpredictable succession. He was finally granted entry into eternity in the 459th year following Christ’s arrival on Earth. The close-by city of Antioch accepted his body for burial, and Simeon was there celebrated as saint, in that town whose inhabitants were the first in the wide world to call themselves “Christians,” the inheritors by name of the Sacrifice of God’s Only Son.