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Ch. 7: Simeon Stylites

Of all such anchorites of the far East, the most remarkable, perhaps, was the once famous Simeon Stylites--a name almost forgotten, save by antiquaries and ecclesiastics, till Mr. Tennyson made it once more notorious in a poem as admirable for its savage grandness, as for its deep knowledge of human nature. He has comprehended thoroughly, as it seems to me, that struggle between self-abasement and self-conceit, between the exaggerated sense of sinfulness and the exaggerated ambition of saintly honour, which must have gone on in the minds of these ascetics--the temper which could cry out one moment with perfect honesty--

"Although I be the basest of mankind, From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin;"

at the next--

"I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold Of saintdom; and to clamour, mourn, and sob, Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer. Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin. Let this avail, just, dreadful, mighty God, This not be all in vain, that thrice ten years Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,


A sign between the meadow and the cloud, Patient on this tall pillar I have borne Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow; And I had hoped that ere this period closed Thou wouldst have caught me up into thy rest, Denying not these weather-beaten limbs The meed of saints, the white robe and the palm. O take the meaning, Lord: I do not breathe, Not whisper any murmur of complaint. Pain heaped ten hundred-fold to this, were still Less burthen, by ten-hundred-fold, to bear Than were those lead-like tons of sin, that crush'd My spirit flat before thee."

Admirably also has Mr. Tennyson conceived the hermit's secret doubt of the truth of those miracles, which he is so often told that he has worked, that he at last begins to believe that he must have worked them; and the longing, at the same time, to justify himself to himself, by persuading himself that he has earned miraculous powers. On this whole question of hermit miracles I shall speak at length hereafter. I have given specimens enough of them already, and shall give as few as possible henceforth. There is a sameness about them which may become wearisome to those who cannot be expected to believe them. But what the hermits themselves thought of them, is told (at least, so I suspect) only too truly by Mr. Tennyson--

"O Lord, thou knowest what a man I am; A sinful man, conceived and born in sin: 'Tis their own doing; this is none of mine; Lay it not to me. Am I to blame for this, That here come those who worship me? Ha! ha! The silly people take me for a saint, And bring me offerings of fruit and flowers: And I, in truth (thou wilt bear witness here), Have all in all endured as much, and more Than many just and holy men, whose names Are register'd and calendar'd for saints.

Good people, you do ill to kneel to me. What is it I can have done to merit this? It may be I have wrought some miracles, And cured some halt and maimed: but what of that? It may be, no one, even among the saints, Can match his pains with mine: but what of that? Yet do not rise; for you may look on me, And in your looking you may kneel to God. Speak, is there any of you halt and maimed? I think you know I have some power with heaven From my long penance; let him speak his wish.

Yes, I can heal him. Power goes forth from me. They say that they are heal'd. Ah, hark! they shout, 'St. Simeon Stylites!' Why, if so, God reaps a harvest in me. O my soul, God reaps a harvest in thee. If this be, Can I work miracles, and not be saved? This is not told of any. They were saints. It cannot be but that I shall be saved; Yea, crowned a saint." . . .

I shall not take the liberty of quoting more: but shall advise all who read these pages to study seriously Mr. Tennyson's poem if they wish to understand that darker side of the hermit life which became at last, in the East, the only side of it. For in the East the hermits seem to have degenerated, by the time of the Mahomedan conquest, into mere self-torturing fakeers, like those who may be seen to this day in Hindostan. The salt lost its savour, and in due tune it was trampled under foot; and the armies of the Moslem swept out of the East a superstition which had ended by enervating instead of ennobling humanity.

But in justice, not only to myself, but to Mr. Tennyson (whose details of Simeon's asceticism may seem to some exaggerated and impossible), I have thought fit to give his life at length, omitting only many of his miracles, and certain stories of his penances, which can only excite horror and disgust, without edifying the reader.

There were, then, three hermits of this name, often confounded; and all alike famous (as were Julian, Daniel, and other Stylites) for standing for many years on pillars. One of the Simeons is said by Moschus to have been struck by lightning, and his death to have been miraculously revealed to Julian the Stylite, who lived twenty-four miles off. More than one Stylite, belonging to the Monophysite heresy of Severus Acephalus, was to be found, according to Moschus, in the East at the beginning of the seventh century. This biography is that of the elder Simeon, who died (according to Cedrenus) about 460, after passing some forty or fifty years upon pillars of different heights. There is much discrepancy in the accounts, both of his date and of his age; but that such a person really existed, and had his imitators, there can be no doubt. He is honoured as a saint alike by the Latin and by the Greek Churches.

His life has been written by a disciple of his named Antony, who professes to have been with him when he died; and also by Theodoret, who knew him well in life. Both are to be found in Rosweyde, and there seems no reason to doubt their authenticity. I have therefore interwoven them both, marking the paragraphs taken from each.

Theodoret, who says that he was born in the village of Gesa, between Antioch and Cilicia, calls him that "famous Simeon--that great miracle of the whole world, whom all who obey the Roman rule know; whom the Persians also know, and the Indians, and AEthiopians; nay, his fame has even spread to the wandering Scythians, and taught them his love of toil and love of wisdom;" and says that he might be compared with Jacob the patriarch, Joseph the temperate, Moses the legislator, David the king and prophet, Micaiah the prophet, and the divine men who were like them. He tells how Simeon, as a boy, kept his father's sheep, and, being forced by heavy snow to leave them in the fold, went with his parents to the church, and there heard the Gospel which blesses those who mourn and weep, and calls those miserable who laugh, and those enviable who have a pure heart. And when he asked a bystander what he would gain who did each of these things, the man propounded to him the solitary life, and pointed out to him the highest philosophy.

This, Theodoret says, he heard from the saint's own tongue. His disciple Antony gives the story of his conversion somewhat differently.


St. Simeon (says Antony) was chosen by God from his birth, and used to study how to obey and please him. Now his father's name was Susocion, and he was brought up by his parents.

When he was thirteen years old, he was feeding his father's sheep; and seeing a church he left the sheep and went in, and heard an epistle being read. And when he asked an elder, "Master, what is that which is read?" the old man replied, "For the substance (or very being) of the soul, that a man may learn to fear God with his whole heart, and his whole mind." Quoth the blessed Simeon, "What is to fear God?" Quoth the elder, "Wherefore troublest thou me, my son?" Quoth he, "I inquire of thee, as of God. For I wish to learn what I hear from thee, because I am ignorant and a fool." The elder answered, "If any man shall have fasted continually, and offered prayers every moment, and shall have humbled himself to every man, and shall not have loved gold, nor parents, nor garments, nor possessions, and if he honours his father and mother, and follows the priests of God, he shall inherit the eternal kingdom: but he who, on the contrary, does not keep those things, he shall inherit the outer darkness which God hath prepared for the devil and his angels. All these things, my son, are heaped together in a monastery."

Hearing this, the blessed Simeon fell at his feet, saying, "Thou art my father and my mother, and my teacher of good works, and guide to the kingdom of heaven. For thou hast gained my soul, which was already being sunk in perdition. May the Lord repay thee again for it. For these are the things which edify. I will now go into a monastery, where God shall choose; and let his will be done on me." The elder said, "My son, before thou enterest, hear me. Thou shalt have tribulation; for thou must watch and serve in nakedness, and sustain ills without ceasing; and again thou shalt be comforted, thou vessel precious to God."

And forthwith the blessed Simeon, going out of the church, went to the monastery of the holy Timotheus, a wonder-working man; and falling down before the gate of the monastery, he lay five days, neither eating nor drinking. And on the fifth day, the abbot, coming out, asked him, "Whence art thou, my son? And what parents hast thou, that thou art so afflicted? Or what is thy name, lest perchance thou hast done some wrong? Or perchance thou art a slave, and fleest from thy master?" Then the blessed Simeon said with tears, "By no means, master; but I long to be a servant of God, if he so will, because I wish to save my lost soul. Bid me, therefore, enter the monastery, and leave all; and send me away no more." Then the Abbot, taking his hand, introduced him into the monastery, saying to the brethren, "My sons, behold I deliver you this brother; teach him the canons of the monastery." Now he was in the monastery about four months, serving all without complaint, in which he learnt the whole Psalter by heart, receiving every day divine food. But the food which he took with his brethren he gave away secretly to the poor, not caring for the morrow. So the brethren ate at even: but he only on the seventh day.

But one day, having gone to the well to draw water, he took the rope from the bucket with which the brethren drew water, and wound it round his body from his loins to his neck: and going in, said to the brethren, "I went out to draw water, and found no rope on the bucket." And they said, "Hold thy peace, brother, lest the abbot know it; till the thing has passed over." But his body was wounded by the tightness and roughness of the rope, because it cut him to the bone, and sank into his flesh till it was hardly seen. But one day, some of the brethren going out, found him giving his food to the poor; and when they returned, said to the abbot, "Whence hast thou brought us that man? We cannot abstain like him, for he fasts from Lord's day to Lord's day, and gives away his food." . . . Then the abbot, going out, found as was told him, and said, "Son, what is it which the brethren tell of thee? Is it not enough for thee to fast as we do? Hast thou not heard the Gospel, saying of teachers, that the disciple is not above his master?" . . . The blessed Simeon stood and answered nought. And the abbot, being angry, bade strip him, and found the rope round him, so that only its outside appeared; and cried with a loud voice, saying, "Whence has this man come to us, wanting to destroy the rule of the monastery? I pray thee depart hence, and go whither thou wiliest." And with great trouble they took off the rope, and his flesh with it, and taking care of him, healed him.

But after he was healed he went out of the monastery, no man knowing of it, and entered a deserted tank, in which was no water, where unclean spirits dwelt. And that very night it was revealed to the abbot, that a multitude of people surrounded the monastery with clubs and swords, saying, "Give us Simeon the servant of God, Timotheus; else we will burn thee with thy monastery, because thou hast angered a just man." And when he woke, he told the brethren the vision, and how he was much disturbed thereby. And another night he saw a multitude of strong men standing and saying, "Give us Simeon the servant of God; for he is beloved by God and the angels: why hast thou vexed him? He is greater than thou before God; for all the angels are sorry on his behalf. And God is minded to set him on high in the world, that by him many signs may be done, such as no man has done." Then the abbot, rising, said with great fear to the brethren, "Seek me that man, and bring him hither, lest perchance we all die on his account. He is truly a saint of God, for I have heard and seen great wonders of him." Then all the monks went out and searched, but in vain, and told the abbot how they had sought him everywhere, save in the deserted tank. . . . Then the abbot went, with five brethren, to the tank. And making a prayer, he went down into it with the brethren. And the blessed Simeon, seeing him, began to entreat, saying, "I beg you, servants of God, let me alone one hour, that I may render up my spirit; for yet a little, and it will fail. But my soul is very weary, because I have angered the Lord." But the abbot said to him, "Come, servant of God, that we may take thee to the monastery; for I know concerning thee that thou art a servant of God." But when he would not, they brought him by force to the monastery. And all fell at his feet, weeping, and saying, "We have sinned against thee, servant of God; forgive us." But the blessed Simeon groaned, saying, "Wherefore do ye burden an unhappy man and a sinner? You are the servants of God, and my fathers." And he stayed there about one year.


After this (says Theodoret) he came to the Telanassus, under the peak of the mountain on which he lived till his death; and having found there a little house, he remained in it shut up for three years. But eager always to increase the riches of virtue, he longed, in imitation of the divine Moses and Elias, to fast forty days; and tried to persuade Bassus, who was then set over the priests in the villages, to leave nothing within by him, but to close up the door with clay. He spoke to him of the difficulty, and warned him not to think that a violent death was a virtue. "Put by me then, father," he said, "ten loaves, and a cruse of water, and if I find my body need sustenance, I will partake of them." At the end of the days, that wonderful man of God, Bassus, removed the clay, and going in, found the food and water untouched, and Simeon lying unable to speak or move. Getting a sponge, he moistened and opened his lips and then gave him the symbols of the divine mysteries; and, strengthened by them, he arose, and took some food, chewing little by little lettuces and succory, and such like.

From that time, for twenty-eight years (says Theodoret), he had remained fasting continually for forty days at a time. But custom had made it more easy to him. For on the first days he used to stand and praise God; after that, when through emptiness he could stand no longer, he used to sit and perform the divine office; and on the last day, even lie down. For when his strength failed slowly, he was forced to lie half dead. But after he stood on the column he could not bear to lie down, but invented another way by which he could stand. He fastened a beam to the column, and tied himself to it by ropes, and so passed the forty days. But afterwards, when he had received greater grace from on high, he did not want even that help: but stood for the forty days, taking no food, but strengthened by alacrity of soul and divine grace.

When he had passed three years in that little house, he took possession of the peak which has since been so famous; and when he had commanded a wall to be made round him, and procured an iron chain, twenty cubits long, he fastened one end of it to a great stone, and the other to his right foot, so that he could not, if he wished, leave those bounds. There he lived, continually picturing heaven to himself, and forcing himself to contemplate things which are above the heavens; for the iron bond did not check the flight of his thoughts. But when the wonderful Meletius, to whom the care of the episcopate of Antioch was then commended (a man of sense and prudence, and adorned with shrewdness of intellect), told him that the iron was superfluous, since the will is able enough to impose on the body the chains of reason, he gave way, and obeyed his persuasion. And having sent for a smith, he bade him strike off the chain.

[Here follow some painful details unnecessary to be translated.]

When, therefore, his fame was flying far and wide everywhere, all ran together, not only the neighbours, but those who were many days' journey off, some bringing the palsied, some begging health for the sick, some that they might become fathers, and all wishing to receive from him what they had not received from nature; and when they had received, and gained their request, they went back joyful, proclaiming the benefits they had obtained, and sending many more to beg the same. So, as all are coming up from every quarter, and the road is like a river, one may see gathered in that place an ocean of men, which receives streams from every side; not only of those who live in our region, but Ishmaelites, and Persians, and the Armenians who are subject to them, and Iberi, and Homerites, and those who dwell beyond them. Many have come also from the extreme west, Spaniards, and Britons, and Gauls who live between the two. Of Italy it is superfluous to speak; for they say that at Rome the man has become so celebrated that they have put little images of him in all the porches of the shops, providing thereby for themselves a sort of safeguard and security.

When, therefore, they came innumerable (for all tried to touch him, and receive some blessing from those skin garments of his), thinking it in the first place absurd and unfit that such exceeding honour should be paid him, and next, disliking the labour of the business, devised that station on the pillar, bidding one be built, first of six cubits, then of twelve, next of twenty-two, and now of thirty- six. For he longs to fly up to heaven, and be freed from this earthly conversation.

But I believe that this station was made not without divine counsel. Wherefore I exhort fault-finders to bridle their tongue, and not let it rashly loose, but rather consider that the Lord has often devised such things, that he might profit those who were too slothful.


In proof of which, Theodoret quotes the examples of Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel; and then goes on to say how God in like manner ordained this new and admirable spectacle, by the novelty of it drawing all to look, and exhibiting to those who came, a lesson which they could trust. For the novelty of the spectacle (he says) is a worthy warrant for the teaching; and he who came to see goes away instructed in divine things. And as those whose lot it is to rule over men, after a certain period of time, change the impressions on their coins, sometimes stamping them with images of lions, sometimes of stars, sometimes of angels, and trying, by a new mark, to make the gold more precious; so the King of all, adding to piety and true religion these new and manifold modes of living, as certain stamps on coin, excites to praise the tongues not only of the children of faith, but of those who are diseased with unbelief. And that so it is, not only words bear witness, but facts proclaim aloud. For many myriads of Ishmaelites, who were enslaved in the darkness of impiety, have been illuminated by that station on the column. For this most shining lamp, set as it were upon a candlestick, sent forth all round its rays, like of the sun: and one may see (as I said) Iberi coming, and Persians, and Armenians, and accepting divine baptism. But the Ishmaelites, coming by tribes, 200 and 300 at a time, and sometimes even 1,000, deny, with shouts, the error of their fathers; and breaking in pieces, before that great illuminator, the images which they had worshipped, and renouncing the orgies of Venus (for they had received from ancient times the worship of that daemon), they receive the divine sacraments, and take laws from that holy tongue, bidding farewell to their ancestral rites, and renouncing the eating of wild asses and camels. And this I have seen with my own eyes, and have heard them renouncing the impiety of their fathers, and assenting to the Evangelic doctrine.

But once I was in the greatest danger: for he himself told them to go to me, and receive priestly benediction, saying that they would thence obtain great advantage. But they, having run together in somewhat too barbarous fashion, some dragged me before, some behind, some sideways; and those who were further off, scrambling over the others, and stretching out their hands, plucked my beard, or seized my clothes; and I should have been stifled by their too warm onset, had not he, shouting out, dispersed them all. Such usefulness has that column, which is mocked at by scornful men, poured forth; and so great a ray of the knowledge of God has it sent forth into the minds of barbarians.

I know also of his having done another thing of this kind:--One tribe was beseeching the divine man, that he would send forth some prayer and blessing for their chief: but another tribe which was present retorted that he ought not to bless that chief, but theirs; for the one was a most unjust man, but the other averse to injustice. And when there had been a great contention and barbaric wrangling between them, they attacked each other. But I, using many words, kept exhorting them to be quiet, seeing that the divine man was able enough to give a blessing to both. But the one tribe kept saying, that the first chief ought not to have it; and the other tribe trying to deprive the second chief of it. Then he, by threatening them from above, and calling them dogs, hardly stilled the quarrel. This I have told, wishing to show their great faith. For they would not have thus gone mad against each other, had they not believed that the divine man's blessing possesses some very great power.

I saw another miracle, which was very celebrated. One coming up (he, too, was a chief of a Saracen tribe) besought the divine personage that he would help a man whose limbs had given way in paralysis on the road; and he said the misfortune had fallen on him in Callinicus, which is a very large camp. When he was brought into the midst, the saint bade him renounce the impiety of his forefathers; and when he willingly obeyed, he asked him if he believed in the Father, the only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit. And when he confessed that he believed--"Believing," said he, "in their names, Arise." And when the man had risen, he bade him carry away his chief (who was a very large man) on his shoulders to his tent. He took him up, and went away forthwith; while those who were present raised their voices in praise of God. This he commanded, imitating the Lord, who bade the paralytic carry his bed. Let no man call this imitation tyranny. For his saying is, "He who believeth in me, the works which I do, he shall do also, and more than these shall he do." And, indeed, we have seen the fulfilment of this promise. For though the shadow of the Lord never worked a miracle, the shadow of the great Peter both loosed death, and drove out diseases, and put daemons to flight. But the Lord it was who did also these miracles by his servants; and now likewise, using his name, the divine Simeon works his innumerable wonders.

It befell also that another wonder was worked, by no means inferior to the last. For among those who had believed in the saving name of the Lord Christ, an Ishmaelite, of no humble rank, had made a vow to God, with Simeon as witness. Now his promise was this, that he would henceforth to the end abstain from animal food. Transgressing this promise once, I know not how, he slew a bird, and dared to eat it. But God being minded to bring him by reproof to conversion, and to honour his servant, who was a witness to the broken vow, the flesh of the bird was changed into the nature of a stone, so that, even if he wished, he could not thenceforth eat it. For how could he, when the body meant for food had turned to stone? The barbarian, stupified by this unexpected sight, came with great haste to the holy man, bringing to the light the sin which he had hidden, and proclaimed his transgression to all, begging pardon from God, and invoking the help of the saint, that by his all-powerful prayers he might loose him from the bonds of his sin. Now many saw that miracle, and felt that the part of the bird about the breast consisted of bone and stone.

But I was not only an ear-witness of his wonders, but also an ear- witness of his prophecies concerning futurity. For that drought which came, and the great dearth of that year, and the famine and pestilence which followed together, he foretold two years before, saying that he saw a rod which was laid on man, stripes which would be inflicted by it. Moreover, he at another time foretold an invasion of locusts, and that it would bring no great harm, because the divine clemency soon follows punishment. But when thirty days were past, an innumerable multitude of them hung aloft, so that they even cut off the sun's rays and threw a shadow; and that we all saw plainly: but it only damaged the cattle pastures, and in no wise hurt the food of man. To me, too, who was attacked by a certain person, he signified that the quarrel would end ere a fortnight was past; and I learned the truth of the prediction by experience.

Moreover there were seen by him once two rods, which came down from the skies, and fell on the eastern and western lands. Now the divine man said that they signified the rising of the Persian and Scythian nations against the Romans; and told the vision to those who were by, and with many tears and assiduous prayers, warded that disaster, the threat whereof hung over the earth. Certainly the Persian nation, when already armed and prepared to invade the Romans, was kept back (the divine will being against them) from their attempt, and occupied at home with their own troubles. But while I know many other cases of this kind, I shall pass them over to avoid prolixity. These are surely enough to show the spiritual contemplation of his mind.

His fame was great, also, with the King of the Persians; for as the ambassadors told, who came to him, he diligently inquired what was his life, and what his miracles. But they say that the King's wife also begged oil honoured by his blessing, and accepted it as the greatest of gifts. Moreover, all the King's courtiers, being moved by his fame, and having heard many slanders against him from the Magi, inquired diligently, and having learnt the truth, called him a divine man; while the rest of the crowd, coming to the muleteers and servants and soldiers, both offered money, and begged for a share in the oil of benediction. The Queen, too, of the Ishmaelites, longing to have a child, sent first some of her most noble subjects to the saint, beseeching him that she might become a mother. And when her prayer had been granted, and she had her heart's desire, she took the son who had been born, and went to the divine old man; and (because women were not allowed to approach him) sent the babe, entreating his blessing on it . . . [Here Theodoret puts into the Queen's mouth words which it is unnecessary to quote.]

But how long do I strive to measure the depths of the Atlantic sea? For as they are unfathomable by man, so do the things which he does daily surpass narration. I, however, admire above all these things his endurance; for night and day he stands, so as to be seen by all. For as the doors are taken away, and a large part of the wall around pulled down, he is set forth as a new and wondrous spectacle to all; now standing long, now bowing himself frequently, and offering adoration to God. Many of those who stand by count these adorations; and once a man with me, when he had counted 1,244, and then missed, gave up counting: but always, when he bows himself, he touches his feet with his forehead. For as his stomach takes food only once in the week, and that very little--no more than is received in the divine sacraments,--his back admits of being easily bent. . . . But nothing which happens to him overpowers his philosophy; he bears nobly both voluntary and involuntary pains, and conquers both by readiness of will.

There came once from Arabena a certain good man, and honoured with the ministry of Christ. He, when he had come to that mountain peak,--"Tell me," he cried, "by the very truth which converts the human race to itself--Art thou a man, or an incorporeal nature?" But when all there were displeased with the question, the saint bade them all be silent, and said to him, "Why hast thou asked me this?" He answered, "Because I hear every one saying publicly, that thou neither eatest nor sleepest; but both are properties of man, and no one who has a human nature could have lived without food and sleep." Then the saint bade them set a ladder to the column, and him to come up; and first to look at his hands, and then feel inside his cloak of skins; and to see not only his feet, but a severe wound. But when he saw that he was a man, and the size of that wound, and learnt from him how he took nourishment, he came down and told me all.

At the public festivals he showed an endurance of another kind. For from the setting of the sun till it had come again to the eastern horizon, he stood all night with hands uplift to heaven, neither soothed with sleep nor conquered by fatigue. But in toils so great, and so great a magnitude of deeds, and multitude of miracles, his self-esteem is as moderate as if he were in dignity the least of all men. Beside his modesty, he is easy of access of speech, and gracious, and answers every man who speaks to him, whether he be handicraftsman, beggar, or rustic. And from the bounteous God he has received also the gift of teaching, and making his exhortations twice a day, he delights the ears of those who hear, discoursing much on grace, and setting forth the instructions of the Divine Spirit to look up and fly toward heaven, and depart from the earth, and imagine the kingdom which is expected, and fear the threats of Gehenna, and despise earthly things, and wait for things to come. He may be seen, too, acting as judge, and giving right and just decisions. This, and the like, is done after the ninth hour. For all night, and through the day to the ninth hour, he prays perpetually. After that, he first sets forth the divine teaching to those who are present; then having heard each man's petition, after he has performed some cures, he settles the quarrels of those between whom there is any dispute. About sunset he begins the rest of his converse with God. But though he is employed in this way, and does all this, he does not give up the care of the holy Churches, sometimes fighting with the impiety of the Greeks, sometimes checking the audacity of the Jews, sometimes putting to flight the bands of heretics, and sometimes sending messages concerning these last to the Emperor; sometimes, too, stirring up rulers to zeal for God, and sometimes exhorting the pastors of the Churches to bestow more care upon their flocks.

I have gone through these facts, trying to show the shower by one drop, and to give those who meet with my writing a taste on the finger of the sweetness of the honey. But there remains (as is to be expected) much more; and if he should live longer, he will probably add still greater wonders. . . .


Thus far Theodoret. Antony gives some other details of Simeon's life upon the column.


The devil, he says, in envy transformed himself into the likeness of an angel, shining in splendour, with fiery horses, and a fiery chariot, and appeared close to the column on which the blessed Simeon stood, and shone with glory like an angel. And the devil said with bland speeches, "Simeon, hear my words, which the Lord hath commanded thee. He has sent me, his angel, with a chariot and horses of fire, that I may carry thee away, as I carried Elias. For thy time is come. Do thou, in like wise, ascend now with me into the chariot, because the Lord of heaven and earth has sent it down. Let us ascend together into the heavens, that the angels and archangels may see thee, with Mary the mother of the Lord, with the Apostles and martyrs, the confessors and prophets; because they rejoice to see thee, that thou mayest pray to the Lord, who hast made thee after his own image. Verily I have spoken to thee: delay not to ascend." Simeon, having ended his prayer, said, "Lord, wilt thou carry me, a sinner, into heaven?" And lifting his right foot that he might step into the chariot, he lifted also his right hand, and made the sign of Christ. When he had made the sign of the cross, forthwith the devil appeared nowhere, but vanished with his device, as dust before the face of the wind. Then understood Simeon that it was an art of the devil.

Having recovered himself, therefore, he said to his foot, "Thou shalt not return back hence, but stand here until my death, when the Lord shall send for me a sinner."

[Here follow more painful stories, which had best be omitted.]

But after much time, his mother, hearing of his fame, came to see him, but was forbidden, because no woman entered that place. But when the blessed Simeon heard the voice of his mother, he said to her, "Bear up, my mother, a little while, and we shall see each other, if God will." But she, hearing this, began to weep, and tearing her hair, rebuked him, saying, "Son, why hast thou done this? In return for the body in which I bore thee, thou hast filled me full of grief. For the milk with which I nourished thee, thou hast given me tears. For the kiss with which I kissed thee, thou hast given me bitter pangs of heart. For the grief and labour which I have suffered, thou hast laid on me cruel stripes." And she spoke so much that she made us all weep. The blessed Simeon, hearing the voice of her who bore him, put his face in his hands and wept bitterly; and commanded her, saying, "Lady mother, be still a little time, and we shall see each other in eternal rest." But she began to say, "By Christ, who formed thee, if there is a probability of seeing thee, who hast been so long a stranger to me, let me see thee; or if not, let me only hear thy voice and die at once; for thy father is dead in sorrow because of thee. And now do not destroy me for very bitterness, my son." Saying this, for sorrow and weeping she fell asleep; for during three days and three nights she had not ceased entreating him. Then the blessed Simeon prayed the Lord for her, and she forthwith gave up the ghost.

But they took up her body, and brought it where he could see it. And he said, weeping, "The Lord receive thee in joy, because thou hast endured tribulation for me, and borne me, and nursed and nourished me with labour." And as he said that, his mother's countenance perspired, and her body was stirred in the sight of us all. But he, lifting up his eyes to heaven, said, "Lord God of virtues, who sittest above the cherubim, and searchest the foundations of the abyss, who knewest Adam before he was; who hast promised the riches of the kingdom of heaven to those who love thee; who didst speak to Moses in the bush of fire; who blessedst Abraham our father; who bringest into Paradise the souls of the just, and sinkest the souls of the impious to perdition; who didst humble the lions, and mitigate for thy servants the strong fires of the Chaldees; who didst nourish Elisha by the ravens which brought him food--receive her soul in peace, and put her in the place of the holy fathers, for thine is the power for ever and ever."


Antony then goes on to relate the later years of the saint's life.

He tells how Simeon, some time after this, ascended the column of forty cubits; how a great dragon (serpent) crawled towards it, and coiled round it, entreating (so it seemed) to be freed from a spike of wood which had entered its eye; and how, St. Simeon took pity on it, he caused the spike (which was a cubit long) to come out.

He tells how a woman, drinking water from a jar at night, swallowed a snake unawares, which grew within her, till she was brought to the blessed Simeon, who commanded some of the water of the monastery to be given her; on which the serpent crawled out of her mouth, three cubits long, and burst immediately; and was hung up there seven days, as a testimony to many.

He tells how, when there was great want of water, St. Simeon prayed till the earth opened on the east of the monastery, and a cave full of water was discovered, which had never failed them to that day.

He tells how men, sitting beneath a tree, on their way to the saint, saw a doe go by, and commanded her to stop, "by the prayers of St. Simeon;" which when she had done, they killed and ate her, and came to St. Simeon with the skin. But they were all struck dumb, and hardly cured after two years. And the skin of the doe they hung up, for a testimony to many.

He tells of a huge leopard, which slew men and cattle all around; and how St. Simeon bade sprinkle in his haunts soil or water from the monastery; and when men went again, they found the leopard dead.

He tells how, when St. Simeon cured any one, he bade him go home, and honour God who had healed him, and not dare to say that Simeon had cured him, lest a worse thing should suddenly come to him; and not to presume to swear by the name of the Lord, for it was a grave sin; but to swear, "whether justly or unjustly, by him, lowly and a sinner. Wherefore all the Easterns, and barbarous tribes in those regions, swear by Simeon."

He tells how a robber from Antioch, Jonathan by name, fled to St. Simeon, and embraced the column, weeping bitterly, and saying how he had committed every crime, and had come thither to repent. And how the saint said, "Of such is the kingdom of heaven: but do not try to tempt me, lest thou be found again in the sins which thou hast cast away." Then came the officials from Antioch, demanding that he should be given up, to be cast to the wild beasts. But Simeon answered, "My sons, I brought him not hither, but One greater than I; for he helps such as this man, and of such is the kingdom of heaven. But if you can enter, carry him hence; I cannot give him up, for I fear him who has sent the man to me." And they, struck with fear, went away. Then Jonathan lay for seven days embracing the column, and then asked the saint leave to go. The saint asked him if he were going back to sin? "No, lord," he said; "but my time is fulfilled," and straightway he gave up the ghost; and when officials came again from Antioch, demanding him, Simeon replied: "He who brought him came with a multitude of the heavenly host, and is able to send into Tartarus your city, and all who dwell in it, who also has reconciled this man to himself; and I was afraid lest he should slay me suddenly. Therefore weary me no more, a humble man and poor."

But after a few years (says Antony) it befell one day that he bowed himself in prayer, and remained so three days--that is, the Friday, the Sabbath, and the Lord's day. Then I was terrified, and went up to him, and stood before his face, and said to him, "Master, arise: bless us; for the people have been waiting three days and three nights for a blessing from thee." And he answered me not; and I said again to him: "Wherefore dost thou grieve me, lord? or in what have I offended? I beseech thee, put out thy hand to me; or, perchance, thou hast already departed from us?"

And seeing that he did not answer, I thought to tell no one; for I feared to touch him: and, standing about half an hour, I bent down, and put my ear to listen; and there was no breathing: but a fragrance as of many scents rose from his body. And so I understood that he rested in the Lord; and, turning faint, I wept most bitterly; and, bending down, I kissed his eyes, and clasped his beard and hair, and reproaching him, I said: "To whom dost thou leave me, lord? or where shall I seek thy angelic doctrine? What answer shall I make for thee? or whose soul will look at this column, without thee, and not grieve? What answer shall I make to the sick, when they come here to seek thee, and find thee not? What shall I say, poor creature that I am? To-day I see thee; to-morrow I shall look right and left, and not find thee. And what covering shall I put upon thy column? Woe to me, when folk shall come from afar, seeking thee, and shall not find thee!" And, for much sorrow, I fell asleep.

And forthwith he appeared to me, and said: "I will not leave this column, nor this place, and this blessed mountain, where I was illuminated. But go down, satisfy the people, and send word secretly to Antioch, lest a tumult arise. For I have gone to rest, as the Lord willed: but do thou not cease to minister in this place, and the Lord shall repay thee thy wages in heaven."

But, rising from sleep, I said, in terror, "Master, remember me in thy holy rest." And, lifting up his garments, I fell at his feet, and kissed them; and, holding his hands, I laid them on my eyes, saying, "Bless me, I beseech thee, my lord!" And again I wept, and said, "What relics shall I carry away from thee as memorials?" And as I said that his body was moved; therefore I was afraid to touch him.

And, that no one might know, I came down quickly, and sent a faithful brother to the Bishop at Antioch. He came at once with three Bishops, and with them Ardaburius, the master of the soldiers, with his people, and stretched curtains round the column, and fastened their clothes around it. For they were cloth of gold.

And when they laid him down by the altar before the column, and gathered themselves together, birds flew round the column, crying, and as it were lamenting, in all men's sight; and the wailing of the people and of the cattle resounded for seven miles away; yea, even the hills, and the fields, and the trees were sad around that place; for everywhere a dark cloud hung about it. And I watched an angel coming to visit him; and, about the seventh hour, seven old men talked with that angel, whose face was like lightning, and his garments as snow. And I watched his voice, in fear and trembling, as long as I could hear it; but what he said I cannot tell.

But when the holy Simeon lay upon the bier, the Pope of Antioch, wishing to take some of his beard for a blessing, stretched out his hand; and forthwith it was dried up; and prayers were made to God for him, and so his hand was restored again.

Then, laying the corpse on the bier, they took it to Antioch, with psalms and hymns. But all the people round that region wept, because the protection of such mighty relics was taken from them, and because the Bishop of Antioch had sworn that no man should touch his body.

But when they came to the fifth milestone from Antioch, to the village which is called Meroe, no one could move him. Then a certain man, deaf and dumb for forty years, who had committed a very great crime, suddenly fell down before the bier, and began to cry, "Thou art well come, servant of God; for thy coming will save me: and if I shall obtain the grace to live, I will serve thee all the days of my life." And, rising, he caught hold of one of the mules which carried the bier, and forthwith moved himself from that place. And so the man was made whole from that hour.

Then all going out of the city of Antioch received the body of the holy Simeon on gold and silver, with psalms and hymns, and with many lamps brought it into the greater church, and thence to another church, which is called Penitence. Moreover, many virtues are wrought at his tomb, more than in his life; and the man who was made whole served there till the day of his death. But many offered treasures to the Bishop of Antioch for the faith, begging relics from the body: but, on account of his oath, he never gave them.

I, Antony, lowly and a sinner, have set forth briefly, as far as I could, this lesson. But blessed is he who has this writing in a book, and reads it in the church and house of God; and when he shall have brought it to his memory, he shall receive a reward from the Most High; to whom is honour, power, and virtue, for ever and ever. Amen.


After such a fantastic story as this of Simeon, it is full time (some readers may have thought that it was full time long since) to give my own opinion of the miracles, visions, daemons, and other portents which occur in the lives of these saints. I have refrained from doing so as yet, because I wished to begin by saying everything on behalf of these old hermits which could honestly be said, and to prejudice my readers' minds in their favour rather than against them; because I am certain that if we look on them merely with scorn and ridicule,--if we do not acknowledge and honour all in them which was noble, virtuous, and honest,--we shall never be able to combat their errors, either in our own hearts or in those of our children: and that we may have need to do so is but too probable. In this age, as in every other age of materialism and practical atheism, a revulsion in favour of superstition is at hand; I may say is taking place round us now. Doctrines are tolerated as possibly true,-- persons are regarded with respect and admiration, who would have been looked on, even fifty years ago, if not with horror, yet with contempt, as beneath the serious notice of educated English people. But it is this very contempt which has brought about the change of opinion concerning them. It has been discovered that they were not altogether so absurd as they seemed; that the public mind, in its ignorance, has been unjust to them; and, in hasty repentance for that injustice, too many are ready to listen to those who will tell them that these things are not absurd at all--that there is no absurdity in believing that the leg-bone of St. Simon Stock may possess miraculous powers, or that the spirits of the departed communicate with their friends by rapping on the table. The ugly after-crop of superstition which is growing up among us now is the just and natural punishment of our materialism--I may say, of our practical atheism. For those who will not believe in the real spiritual world, in which each man's soul stands face to face all day long with Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are sure at last to crave after some false spiritual world, and seek, like the evil and profligate generation of the Jews, after visible signs and material wonders. And those who will not believe that the one true and living God is above their path and about their bed and spieth out all their ways, and that in him they live and move and have their being, are but too likely at last to people with fancied saints and daemons that void in the imagination and in the heart which their own unbelief has made.

Are we then to suppose that these old hermits had lost faith in God? On the contrary, they were the only men in that day who had faith in God. And, if they had faith in any other things or persons beside God, they merely shared in the general popular ignorance and mistakes of their own age; and we must not judge those who, born in an age of darkness, were struggling earnestly toward the light, as we judge those who, born in an age of scientific light, are retiring of their own will back into the darkness.

Before I enter upon the credibility of these alleged saints' miracles, I must guard my readers carefully from supposing that I think miracles impossible. Heaven forbid. He would be a very rash person who should do that, in a world which swarms with greater wonders than those recorded in the biography of a saint. For, after all, which is more wonderful, that God should be able to restore the dead to life, or that he should be able to give life at all? Again, as for these miracles being contrary to our experience, that is no very valid argument against them; for equally contrary to our experience is every new discovery of science, every strange phenomenon among plants and animals, every new experiment in a chemical lecture.

The more we know of science the more we must confess, that nothing is too strange to be true: and therefore we must not blame or laugh at those who in old times believed in strange things which were not true. They had an honest and rational sense of the infinite and wonderful nature of the universe, and of their own ignorance about it; and they were ready to believe anything, as the truly wise man will be ready also. Only, from ignorance of the laws of the universe, they did not know what was likely to be true and what was not; and therefore they believed many things which experience has proved to be false; just as Seba or any of the early naturalists were ready to believe in six-legged dragons, or in the fatal power of the basilisk's eye; fancies which, if they had been facts, would not have been nearly as wonderful as the transformation of the commonest insect, or the fertilization of the meanest weed: but which are rejected now, not because they are too wonderful, but simply because experience has proved them to be untrue. And experience, it must be remembered, is the only sound test of truth. As long as men will settle beforehand for themselves, without experience, what they ought to see, so long will they be perpetually fancying that they or others have seen it; and their faith, as it is falsely called, will delude not only their reason, but their very hearing, sight, and touch.

In this age we see no supernatural prodigies, because there are none to see; and when we are told that the reason why we see no prodigies is because we have no faith, we answer (if we be sensible), Just so. As long as people had faith, in plain English believed, that they could be magically cured of a disease, they thought that they or others were so cured. As long as they believed that ghosts could be seen, every silly person saw them. As long as they believed that daemons transformed themselves into an animal's shape, they said, "The devil croaked at me this morning in the shape of a raven; and therefore my horse fell with me." As long as they believed that witches could curse them, they believed that an old woman in the next parish had overlooked them, their cattle, and their crops; and that therefore they were poor, diseased, and unfortunate. These dreams, which were common among the peasants in remote districts five-and-twenty years ago, have vanished, simply from the spread (by the grace of God, as I hold) of an inductive habit of mind; of the habit of looking coolly, boldly, carefully, at facts; till now, even among the most ignorant peasantry, the woman who says that she has seen a ghost is likely not to be complimented on her assertion. But it does not follow that that woman's grandmother, when she said that she saw a ghost, was a consciously dishonest person; on the contrary, so complex and contradictory is human nature, she would have been, probably, a person of more than average intellect and earnestness; and her instinct of the invisible and the infinite (which is that which raises man above the brutes) would have been, because misinformed, the honourable cause of her error. And thus we may believe of the good hermits, of whom prodigies are recorded.

As to the truth of the prodigies themselves, there are several ways of looking at them.

First, we may neither believe nor disbelieve them; but talk of them as "devout fairy tales," religious romances, and allegories; and so save ourselves the trouble of judging whether they were true. That is at least an easy and pleasant method; very fashionable in a careless, unbelieving age like this: but in following it we shall be somewhat cowardly; for there is hardly any matter a clear judgment on which is more important just now than these same saints' miracles.

Next, we may believe them utterly and all; and that is also an easy and pleasant method. But if we follow it, we shall be forced to believe, among other facts, that St. Paphnutius was carried miraculously across a river, because he was too modest to undress himself and wade; that St. Helenus rode a savage crocodile across a river, and then commanded it to die; and that it died accordingly upon the spot; and that St. Goar, entering the palace of the Archbishop of Treves, hung his cape on a sunbeam, mistaking it for a peg. And many other like things we shall be forced to believe, with which this book has no concern.

Or, again, we may believe as much as we can, because we should like, if we could, to believe all. But as we have not--no man has as yet- -any criterion by which we can judge how much of these stories we ought to believe and how much not, which actually happened and which did not, therefore we shall end (as not only the most earnest and pious, but the most clear and logical persons, who have taken up this view, have ended already) by believing all: which is an end not to be desired.

Or we may believe as few as possible of them, because we should like, if we could, to believe none. And this method, for the reason aforesaid (namely, that there is no criterion by which we can settle what to believe and what not), usually ends in believing none at all.

This, of believing none at all, is the last method; and this, I confess fairly, I am inclined to think is the right one; and that these good hermits worked no real miracles and saw no real visions whatsoever.

I confess that this is a very serious assertion. For there is as much evidence in favour of these hermits' miracles and visions as there is, with most men, of the existence of China; and much more than there, with most men, is of the earth's going round the sun.

But the truth is, that evidence, in most matters of importance, is worth very little. Very few people decide a question on its facts, but on their own prejudices as to what they would like to have happened. Very few people are judges of evidence; not even of their own eyes and ears. Very few persons, when they see a thing, know what they have seen, and what not. They tell you quite honestly, not what they saw, but what they think they ought to have seen, or should like to have seen. It is a fact too often conveniently forgotten, that in every human crowd the majority will be more or less bad, or at least foolish; the slaves of anger, spite, conceit, vanity, sordid hope, and sordid fear. But let them be as honest and as virtuous as they may, pleasure, terror, and the desire of seeming to have seen or heard more than their neighbours, and all about it, make them exaggerate. If you take apart five honest men, who all stood by and saw the same man do anything strange, offensive, or even exciting, no two of them will give you quite the same account of it. If you leave them together, while excited, an hour before you question them, they will have compared notes and made up one story, which will contain all their mistakes combined; and it will require the skill of a practised barrister to pick the grain of wheat out of the chaff.

Moreover, when people are crowded together under any excitement, there is nothing which they will not make each other believe. They will make each other believe in spirit-rapping, table-turning, the mesmeric fluid, electro-biology; that they saw the lion on Northumberland House wagging his tail; {203} that witches have been seen riding in the air; that the Jews had poisoned the wells; that-- but why go further into the sad catalogue of human absurdities, and the crimes which have followed them? Every one is ashamed of not seeing what every one else sees, and persuades himself against his own eye sight for fear of seeming stupid or ill-conditioned; and therefore in all evidence, the fewer witnesses, the more truth, because the evidence of ten men is worth more than that of a hundred together; and the evidence of a thousand men together is worth still less.

Now, if people are savage and ignorant, diseased and poverty- stricken; even if they are merely excited and credulous, and quite sure that something wonderful must happen, then they will be also quite certain that something wonderful has happened; and their evidence will be worth nothing at all.

Moreover, suppose that something really wonderful has happened; suppose, for instance, that some nervous or paralytic person has been suddenly restored to strength by the command of a saint or of some other remarkable man. This is quite possible, I may say common; and it is owing neither to physical nor to so-called spiritual causes, but simply to the power which a strong mind has over a weak one, to make it exert itself, and cure itself by its own will, though but for a time.

When this good news comes to be told, and to pass from mouth to mouth, it ends of quite a different shape from that in which it began. It has been added to, taken from, twisted in every direction according to the fancy or the carelessness of each teller, till what really happened in the first case no one will be able to say; {204} and this is, therefore, what actually happened, in the case of these reported wonders. Moreover (and this is the most important consideration of all) for men to be fair judges of what really happens, they must have somewhat sound minds in somewhat sound bodies; which no man can have (however honest and virtuous) who gives himself up, as did these old hermits, to fasting and vigils. That continued sleeplessness produces delusions, and at last actual madness, every physician knows; and they know also, as many a poor sailor has known when starving on a wreck, and many a poor soldier in such a retreat as that of Napoleon from Moscow, that extreme hunger and thirst produce delusions also, very similar to (and caused much in the same way as) those produced by ardent spirits; so that many a wretched creature ere now has been taken up for drunkenness, who has been simply starving to death.

Whence it follows that these good hermits, by continual fasts and vigils, must have put themselves (and their histories prove that they did put themselves) into a state of mental disease, in which their evidence was worth nothing; a state in which the mind cannot distinguish between facts and dreams; in which life itself is one dream; in which (as in the case of madness, or of a feverish child) the brain cannot distinguish between the objects which are outside it and the imaginations which are inside it. And it is plain, that the more earnest and pious, and therefore the more ascetic, one of these good men was, the more utterly would his brain be in a state of chronic disease. God forbid that we should scorn them, therefore, or think the worse of them in any way. They were animated by a truly noble purpose, the resolution to be good according to their light; they carried out that purpose with heroical endurance, and they have their reward: but this we must say, if we be rational people, that on their method of holiness, the more holy any one of them was, the less trustworthy was his account of any matter whatsoever; and that the hermit's peculiar temptations (quite unknown to the hundreds of unmarried persons who lead quiet and virtuous, because rational and healthy, lives) are to be attributed, not as they thought, to a daemon, but to a more or less unhealthy nervous system.

It must be remembered, moreover, in justice to these old hermits, that they did not invent the belief that the air was full of daemons. All the Eastern nations had believed in Genii (Jinns), Fairies (Peris), and Devas, Divs, or devils. The Devas of the early Hindus were beneficent beings: to the eyes of the old Persians (in their hatred of idolatry and polytheism), they appeared evil beings, Divs, or Devils. And even so the genii and daemons of the Roman Empire became, in the eyes of the early Christians, wicked and cruel spirits.

And they had their reasons, and on the whole sound ones, for so regarding them. The educated classes had given up any honest and literal worship of the old gods. They were trying to excuse themselves for their lingering half belief in them, by turning them into allegories, powers of nature, metaphysical abstractions, as did Porphyry and Iamblichus, Plotinus and Proclus, and the rest of the Neo-Platonist school of aristocratic philosophers and fine ladies: but the lower classes still, in every region, kept up their own local beliefs and worships, generally of the most foul and brutal kind. The animal worship of Egypt among the lower classes was sufficiently detestable in the time of Herodotus. It had certainly not improved in that of Juvenal and Persius; and was still less likely to have improved afterwards. This is a subject so shocking that it can be only hinted at. But as a single instance--what wonder if the early hermits of Egypt looked on the crocodile as something diabolic, after seeing it, for generations untold, petted and worshipped in many a city, simply because it was the incarnate symbol of brute strength, cruelty, and cunning? We must remember, also, that earlier generations (the old Norsemen and Germans just as much as the old Egyptians) were wont to look on animals as more miraculous than we do; as more akin, in many cases, to human beings; as guided, not by a mere blind instinct, but by an intellect which was allied to, and often surpassed man's intellect. "The bear," said the old Norsemen, "had ten men's strength, and eleven men's wit; "and in some such light must the old hermits have looked on the hyaena, "bellua," the monster par excellence; or on the crocodile, the hippopotamus, and the poisonous snakes, which have been objects of terror and adoration in every country where they have been formidable. Whether the hyaenas were daemons, or were merely sent by the daemons, St. Antony and St. Athanasius do not clearly define, for they did not know. It was enough for them that the beasts prowled at night in those desert cities, which were, according to the opinions, not only of the Easterns, but of the Romans, the special haunt of ghouls, witches, and all uncanny things. Their fiendish laughter--which, when heard even in a modern menagerie, excites and shakes most person's nerves--rang through hearts and brains which had no help or comfort, save in God alone. The beast tore up the dead from their graves; devoured alike the belated child and the foulest offal; and was in all things a type and incarnation of that which man ought not to be. Why should not he, so like the worst of men, have some bond or kindred with the evil beings who were not men? Why should not the graceful and deadly cobra, the horrid cerastes, the huge throttling python, and even more, the loathly puff-adder, undistinguishable from the gravel among which he lay coiled, till he leaped furiously and unswerving, as if shot from a bow, upon his prey--why should not they too be kindred to that evil power who had been, in the holiest and most ancient books, personified by the name of the Serpent? Before we have a right to say that the hermits' view of these deadly animals was not the most rational, as well as the most natural, which they could possibly have taken up, we must put ourselves in their places; and look at nature as they had learnt to look at it, not from Scripture and Christianity, so much as from the immemorial traditions of their heathen ancestors.

If it be argued, that they ought to have been well enough acquainted with these beasts to be aware of their merely animal nature, the answer is--that they were probably not well acquainted with the beasts of the desert. They had never, perhaps, before their "conversion," left the narrow valley, well tilled and well inhabited, which holds the Nile. A climb from it into the barren mountains and deserts east and west was a journey out of the world into chaos, and the region of the unknown and the horrible, which demanded high courage from the unarmed and effeminate Egyptian, who knew not what monster he might meet ere sundown. Moreover, it is very probable that during these centuries of decadence, in Egypt, as in other parts of the Roman Empire, "the wild beasts of the field had increased" on the population, and were reappearing in the more cultivated grounds.

But these old hermits appear perpetually in another, and a more humane, if not more human aspect, as the miraculous tamers of savage beasts. Those who wish to know all which can be alleged in favour of their having possessed such a power, should read M. de Montalembert's chapter, "Les Moines et la Nature." {209} All that learning and eloquence can say in favour of the theory is said there; and with a candour which demands from no man full belief of many beautiful but impossible stories, "travesties of historic verity," which have probably grown up from ever-varying tradition in the course of ages. M. de Montalembert himself points out a probable explanation of many of them:--An ingenious scholar of our times{210} (he says) has pointed out their true and legitimate origin--at least in Ancient Gaul. According to him, after the gradual disappearance of the Gallo-Roman population, the oxen, the horses, the dogs had returned to the wild state; and it was in the forest that the Breton missionaries had to seek these animals, to employ them anew for domestic use. The miracle was, to restore to man the command and the enjoyment of those creatures, which God had given him as instruments.

This theory is probable enough, and will explain, doubtless, many stories. It may even explain those of tamed wolves, who may have been only feral dogs, i.e. dogs run wild. But it will not explain those in which (in Ireland as well as in Gaul) the stag appears as obeying the hermit's commands. The twelve huge stags who come out of the forest to draw the ploughs for St. Leonor and his monks, or those who drew to his grave the corpse of the Irish hermit Kellac, or those who came out of the forest to supply the place of St. Colodoc's cattle, which the seigneur had carried off in revenge for his having given sanctuary to a hunted deer, must have been wild from the beginning; and many another tale must remain without any explanation whatsoever--save the simplest of all. Neither can any such theory apply to the marvels vouched for by St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, and other contemporaries, which "show us (to quote M. de Montalembert) the most ferocious animals at the feet of such men as Antony, Pachomius, Macarius, and Hilarion, and those who copied them. At every page one sees wild asses, crocodiles, hippopotami, hyaenas, and, above all, lions, transformed into respectful companions and docile servants of these prodigies of sanctity; and one concludes thence, not that these beasts had reasonable souls, but that God knew how to glorify those who devoted themselves to his glory, and thus show how all Nature obeyed man before he was excluded from Paradise by his disobedience."

This is, on the whole, the cause which the contemporary biographers assign for these wonders. The hermits were believed to have returned, by celibacy and penitence, to "the life of angels;" to that state of perfect innocence which was attributed to our first parents in Eden: and therefore of them our Lord's words were true: "He that believeth in me, greater things than these (which I do) shall he do."

But those who are of a different opinion will seek for different causes. They will, the more they know of these stories, admire often their gracefulness, often their pathos, often their deep moral significance; they will feel the general truth of M. de Montalembert's words: "There is not one of them which does not honour and profit human nature, and which does not express a victory of weakness over force, and of good over evil." But if they look on physical facts as sacred things, as the voice of God revealed in the phenomena of matter, their first question will be, "Are they true?"

Some of them must be denied utterly, like that of St. Helenus, riding and then slaying the crocodile. It did not happen. Abbot Ammon {212a} did not make two dragons guard his cell against robbers. St. Gerasimus {212b} did not set the lion, out of whose foot he had taken a thorn, to guard his ass; and when the ass was stolen by an Arabian camel-driver, he did not (fancying that the lion had eaten the ass) make him carry water in the ass's stead. Neither did the lion, when next he met the thief and the ass, bring them up, in his own justification, {212c} to St. Gerasimus. St. Costinian did not put a pack-saddle on a bear, and make him carry a great stone. A lioness did not bring her five blind whelps to a hermit, that he might give them sight. {212d} And, though Sulpicius Severus says that he saw it with his own eyes, {212e} it is hard to believe the latter part of the graceful story which he tells--of an old hermit whom he found dwelling alone twelve miles from the Nile, by a well of vast depth. One ox he had, whose whole work was to raise the water by a wheel. Around him was a garden of herbs, kept rich and green amid the burning sand, where neither seed nor root could live. The old man and the ox fed together on the produce of their common toil; but two miles off there was a single palm-tree, to which, after supper, the hermit takes his guests. Beneath the palm they find a lioness; but instead of attacking them, she moves "modestly" away at the old man's command, and sits down to wait for her share of dates. She feeds out of his hand, like a household animal, and goes her way, leaving her guests trembling, "and confessing how great was the virtue of the hermit's faith, and how great their own infirmity."

This last story, which one would gladly believe, were it possible, I have inserted as one of those which hang on the verge of credibility. In the very next page, Sulpicius Severus tells a story quite credible, of a she-wolf, which he saw with his own eyes as tame as any dog. There can be no more reason to doubt that fact than to ascribe it to a miracle. We may even believe that the wolf, having gnawed to pieces the palm basket which the good old man was weaving, went off, knowing that she had done wrong, and after a week came back, begged pardon like a rational soul, and was caressed, and given a double share of bread. Many of these stories which tell of the taming of wild beasts may be true, and yet contain no miracle. They are very few in number, after all, in proportion to the number of monks; they are to be counted at most by tens, while the monks are counted by tens of thousands. And among many great companies of monks, there may have been one individual, as there is, for instance, in many a country parish a bee-taker or a horse-tamer, of quiet temper and strong nerve, and quick and sympathetic intellect, whose power over animals is so extraordinary, as to be attributed by the superstitious and uneducated to some hereditary secret, or some fairy gift. Very powerful to attract wild animals must have been the good hermits' habit of sitting motionless for hours, till (as with St. Guthlac) the swallows sat and sang upon his knee; and of moving slowly and gently at his work, till (as with St. Karilef, while he pruned his vines) the robin came and built in his hood as it hung upon a tree: very powerful his freedom from anger, and, yet more important, from fear, which always calls out rage in wild beasts, while a calm and bold front awes them: and most powerful of all, the kindliness of heart, the love of companionship, which brought the wild bison to feed by St. Karilef's side as he prayed upon the lawn; and the hind to nourish St. Giles with her milk in the jungles of the Bouches du Rhone. There was no miracle; save the moral miracle that, in ages of cruelty and slaughter, these men had learned (surely by the inspiration of God) how--

"He prayeth well who loveth well Both man and bird and beast; He prayeth best who loveth best All things, both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all."

After all, let these old Lives of the Fathers tell their own tale. By their own merits let them stand or fall; and stand they will in one sense: for whatsoever else they are not, this they are--the histories of good men. Their physical science and their daemonology may have been on a par with those of the world around them: but they possessed what the world did not possess, faith in the utterly good and self-sacrificing God, and an ideal of virtue and purity such as had never been seen since the first Whitsuntide. And they set themselves to realize that ideal with a simplicity, an energy, an endurance, which were altogether heroic. How far they were right in "giving up the world" depends entirely on what the world was then like, and whether there was any hope of reforming it. It was their opinion that there was no such hope; and those who know best the facts which surrounded them, its utter frivolity, its utter viciousness, the deadness which had fallen on art, science, philosophy, human life, whether family, social, or political; the prevalence of slavery, in forms altogether hideous and unmentionable; the insecurity of life and property, whether from military and fiscal tyranny, or from perpetual inroads of the so- called "Barbarians:" those, I say, who know these facts best will be most inclined to believe that the old hermits were wise in their generation; that the world was past salvation; that it was not a wise or humane thing to marry and bring children into the world; that in such a state of society, an honest and virtuous man could not exist, and that those who wished to remain honest and virtuous must flee into the desert, and be alone with God and their fellows.

The question which had to be settled then and there, at that particular crisis of the human race, was not--Are certain wonders true or false? but--Is man a mere mortal animal, or an immortal soul? Is his flesh meant to serve his spirit, or his spirit his flesh? Is pleasure, or virtue, the end and aim of his existence?

The hermits set themselves to answer that question, not by arguing or writing about it, but by the only way in which any question can be settled--by experiment. They resolved to try whether their immortal souls could not grow better and better, while their mortal bodies were utterly neglected; to make their flesh serve their spirit; to make virtue their only end and aim; and utterly to relinquish the very notion of pleasure. To do this one thing, and nothing else, they devoted their lives; and they succeeded. From their time it has been a received opinion, not merely among a few philosophers or a few Pharisees, but among the lowest, the poorest, the most ignorant, who have known aught of Christianity, that man is an immortal soul; that the spirit, and not the flesh, ought to be master and guide; that virtue is the highest good; and that purity is a virtue, impurity a sin. These men were, it has been well said, the very fathers of purity. And if, in that and in other matters, they pushed their purpose to an extreme--if, by devoting themselves utterly to it alone, they suffered, not merely in wideness of mind or in power of judging evidence, but even in brain, till they became some of them at times insane from over-wrought nerves--it is not for us to blame the soldier for the wounds which have crippled him, or the physician for the disease which he has caught himself while trying to heal others. Let us not speak ill of the bridge which carries us over, nor mock at those who did the work for us as seemed to them best, and perhaps in the only way in which it could be done in those evil days. As a matter of fact, through these men's teaching and example we have learnt what morality, purity, and Christianity we possess; and if any answer that we have learnt them from the Scriptures, who but these men preserved the Scriptures to us? Who taught us to look on them as sacred and inspired? Who taught us to apply them to our own daily lives, and find comfort and teaching in every age, in words written ages ago by another race in a foreign land? The Scriptures were the book, generally the only book, which they read and meditated, not merely from morn till night, but, as far as fainting nature would allow, from night to morn again: and their method of interpreting them (as far as I can discover) differed in nothing from that common to all Christians now, save that they interpreted literally certain precepts of our Lord and of St. Paul which we consider to have applied only to the "temporary necessity" of a decayed, dying, and hopeless age such as that in which they lived. And therefore, because they knew the Scripture well, and learned in it lessons of true virtue and true philosophy, though unable to save civilization in the East, they were able at least to save it in the West. The European hermits, and the monastic communities which they originated, were indeed a seed of life, not merely to the conquered Roman population of Gaul or Spain or Britain, but to the heathen and Arian barbarians who conquered them. Among those fierce and armed savages, the unarmed hermits stood, strong only by justice, purity, and faith in God, defying the oppressor, succouring the oppressed, and awing and softening the new aristocracy of the middle age, which was founded on mere brute force and pride of race; because the monk took his stand upon mere humanity; because he told the wild conqueror, Goth or Sueve, Frank or Burgund, Saxon or Norseman, that all men were equal in the sight of God; because he told them (to quote Athanasius's own words concerning Antony) that "virtue is not beyond human nature;" that the highest moral excellence was possible to the most low-born and unlettered peasant whom they trampled under their horses' hoofs, if he were only renewed and sanctified by the Spirit of God. They accepted the lowest and commonest facts of that peasant's wretched life; they outdid him in helplessness, loneliness, hunger, dirt, and slavery; and then said, "Among all these I can yet be a man of God, wise, virtuous, pure, free, and noble in the sight of God, though not in the sight of Caesars, counts, and knights." They went on, it is true, to glorify the means above the end; to consecrate childlessness, self-torture, dirt, ignorance, as if they were things pleasing to God and holy in themselves. But in spite of those errors they wrought throughout Europe a work which, as far as we can judge, could have been done in no other way; done only by men who gave up all that makes life worth having for the sake of being good themselves and making others good.


Charles Kingsley