Simeon was the son of poor parents, who in early times had learned to forsake their heathen gods and had become pious followers of the new religion of Christ. The little boy was engaged as a shepherd to tend the sheep of a farmer, who lived near his home. He was very careful of his sheep, keeping them from wild beasts by day and driving them safely home at night. When the winter came he herded his sheep carefully into their fold, and then he had much time to do as he liked.
One day Simeon entered a church, and after listening to the words of the good priest, he knelt down to pray. As he prayed, a vision came to him of the life of a saint. He arose, determined to devote himself entirely to good deeds. He spoke to the priest about it. The good father counseled him, "Enter a monastery, my son, where you will forget the world, and spend your life in peace and prayer."
Simeon bowed his head and went home very thoughtfully and quietly, but said nothing to his mother about what had happened. That night in his sleep, he had a dream in which he thought he was digging the foundation of a great building. A voice said to him, "Dig deep, dig wide, so that the building may be large and strong."
All night long the boy thought he was digging and digging till at last the voice cried, "Stop, you have dug enough; now build your house."
When he awoke he arose and put on his clothes and stole out of the cottage and ran off to the monastery, where he told the priest he had come to stay, though he was only a boy. The priest, after hearing his story, told him he might remain in the monastery on trial. Simeon moved to the monastery and became very devout. He soon trained himself to do without food and remain upon his knees for two or three days at a time. This astonished the good father so much that he thought the boy must be inspired by God, for none of the priests could fast so long or pray so long as the boy Simeon.
After staying two years in the monastery he said to the good priest, "I am going to leave the monastery and go into the desert and live there by myself. I do not need much food and as for clothes, I have enough to last me for a long time." Accordingly he went into the mountains near by and built a small stone house for himself and began the life of a hermit.
At the end of three years Simeon had trained himself to stand all day in one spot and to keep awake all night with his mind intent upon one thing, and to do without food for days at a time.
Then he decided to leave his hut and go farther into the mountains, so he took with him a chain thirty feet long. Two men met him on the way and asked, "Brother Simeon, what will you do with that chain?"
Simeon replied, "I intend to tie myself to the mountains, so that I cannot get away, even if I should so desire."
After he reached the spot that he had selected, he built another hut of stone and fastened his chain to a big boulder. He was still a young man, but he looked very strange to the people who passed that way, chained to a stone and preaching all the time. Some one brought him a little goat's milk every day, and in the winter time others brought a few fagots to make a fire. His hair grew long and his clothes grew ragged and he became dirty, but he did not care. All this was to him the sign of a very holy life.
At last a bishop came by and saw the crowd standing around to hear the wild-eyed young man preach. The bishop asked him, "Brother Simeon, why are you chained to a rock?"
Simeon answered, "So that I cannot move from this place."
The bishop replied, "If you need a chain to keep you from going astray, you are not a real Christian, for real Christians need no chains to bind them."
Simeon thought a moment and said, "Bishop, you are right, I have not thought of it in that way; my own will should be stronger than any earthly chains. I pray you to send a man to remove these bonds."
Therefore, the bishop sent a man from the village to strike off the chains so that Simeon could depend upon his own will thereafter to keep him from going astray.
The crowds kept coming to see the strange young man and to hear him preach. At last they became so large that Simeon decided to build a pillar upon which he could stand. At first the pillar was only nine feet high and on top was a platform three feet square, just big enough to stand on but not big enough to lie down on.
Simeon climbed upon this platform and stood there day and night, never sitting down. What little sleep he had he took standing.
After a while, he decided to build his pillar higher than nine feet, and so he built it up, stone by stone, until at last it reached thirty feet, and some even say it went as high as sixty feet. Probably it did not reach as high as that, but we know that it was a high pillar upon which Brother Simeon stood. People gave him the name of Simeon Stylites, which means Simeon of the Pillar.
"Now," said Simeon to himself, "I shall stand here till I die. I am above the earth and no one can reach me, but everybody can hear me."
How he managed to live upon the top of this platform and to sleep standing up, and how much agony of body he suffered, nobody ever knew, but there he stood, month after month and year after year, getting older, wilder and more and more ragged. The hot sun by day, the cold winds by night, even the rain did not disturb him nor alter his purpose.
"I am here to preach the word to all who come," said he; "I am sustained by the Lord and upon this spot I shall stand until the end."
On one occasion a man who came to hear him pray sat and listened at the foot of the pillar all day until he grew tired and slept. In the morning when the man awoke the saint was still praying. The man said he counted twelve hundred vows made by the saint before he himself fell asleep.
One day the saint on the pillar thought he saw a chariot come down from heaven as if to take him away. The chariot was borne upon a cloud of fire and in it were angels. The saint exclaimed, "At last the angels have come to take me away." So as the chariot came near the pillar, he lifted his foot to step in. But the chariot vanished, leaving the saint with his foot uplifted.
"Ah! the heavenly vision has gone," Simeon exclaimed, "but I will live here on this pillar and stand upon one foot till the vision comes again." And so he stood with one foot uplifted, balancing himself as best he could upon the pillar.
The sun and the rain did not make him alter his position. Thus he stood for a whole year with one foot uplifted waiting for a chariot, but the chariot did not come. What torture he endured no one will ever know, for his mouth uttered no word of complaint.
The story of the saint spread far and wide. Crowds came to the pillar to hear him preach and prophesy. His brother hermits became jealous of his fame. A body of them came out of the desert, ragged and foot-sore, to see him and to hear what he had to say. They decided to trap him if they could and see if he were an impostor. After listening to him prophesy, the leader said, "Brother Simeon, the Lord has sent us here to tell thee to come down from thy pillar and dwell on the ground."
The saint, standing with uplifted foot and face turned to heaven, thought a while and replied, "If it is the Lord's will that I come down from this pillar I will do so."
But as he put his foot to the platform as if he would descend, the hermits exclaimed, "No, Brother Simeon, we but jest with thee. The Lord sends thee no such message through us. Stay where thou art and preach thy word."
Simeon stayed on. He was now an old man, for he had been upon the pillar for thirty years. His hair was long and matted, his clothes were in rags. His body was brown with exposure and dirt; still he did not complain or show any intention of coming down. Every morning he lifted up a little basket of food and a bottle of milk for his daily sustenance. At last he grew so weak that he could not raise the basket to his pillar and those who came to hear him preach could not hear his voice.
One day the watchers at the foot of the pillar saw the feeble form totter and the eyes close. The legs that had become stiff from standing now began to tremble and the old saint swayed upon his pillar. While those who were watching held their breath in awe, the venerable old saint tottered upon his platform, his form crumpled, and he fell to the ground dead.