I received an email from Marilyn today with an update on what is happening in Syria. This one is not about what is happening to people there, but what the people there are trying to do to preserve and protect their history. So much has been lost! This is an ancient place where many civilizations have come and gone, each leaving those traces of history for us to learn about who and where we came from. It’s tragic. It’s awful. You can read about it here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28191181
It was heartbreaking to read about this cultural loss. I have been to some of those places mentioned here like the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Citadel in Aleppo, and the marvelous maze of the old souk in Aleppo. The last has
been bombed and burned and is no more. I brought home saffron for Steve from one of the spice vendors. I look at that jar and remember the man who sold it to me. He sat me in his booth, brought me tea and sweets and smiled as he waited for someone to fill my order. Centuries of stories like that simple transaction are now just memories.
As I read the stories of damage and the people who are working to save what is left, I took heart at their courage and effort to preserve this for others who will live there one day. I also remembered another special site that we visited and wondered if it was still standing. Of course it was ruins when we visited, but the remains of the place will always mark the story of Saint Simeon the Stylite and how he lived out his faith. His story reminds me that Christians walked these lands from the beginning and they are responsible for my being able to hear the good news.
Simeon was born around 390 CE in what is now Turkey, the son of a shepherd. The story goes that he was converted to Christianity, convicted of the truth of Jesus after reading the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ sermon on the mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)
He joined a monastery at the age of 16 and disturbed his brothers when he chose to live a very austere lifestyle. He even spent two or three years in a hut by himself, fasting through that Lent – no food or water – and miraculously survived.
He left the confines of the monastery to be alone with God, choosing a solitary existence to deepen his prayer life and relationship with the Lord. People would seek him out for his counsel and help, and to escape all those clamoring after him, he climbed a stone outcropping, large enough for him, but barely. He would spend hours and hours in prayer in awkward, uncomfortable positions, for instance holding his arms out for long periods of time as if crucified like Jesus. His superiors decided to test him in his obedience (and sanity I think) by demanding that he come down. If he was obedient he would submit. And he did. Passing this test, they let him be and his story spread. More came to see him and over the course of years he moved to higher and higher pedestals. It was said when he died, the pedestal was over fifty feet off the ground. He wrote letters, he preached to those gathered below. He prayed. He spent 47 years up there and died September 2, 459. His feast day is celebrated on September 1.
The Roman emperor was so taken with his faith that a beautiful church was built around his pillar. Four basilicas meet at the center where the pillar stood, and the remnant of which is still there. The remains of that place are what we walked through and explored that hot day in August, 2010. It was so peaceful. You could look for miles in every direction. It was a place where you could feel the closeness and accessibility of God, even without being fifty up on a pillar. I don’t know what has happened to this place where St. Simeon inspired so many, including other ascetics who followed him and became stylites, needing little but to be close to God. I don’t know what has happened to the family who ran the little gift shop, supplying cold drinks for us on that hot day. I know what I read in the BBC news today and it angers and saddens me. I pray for them all and I hope their courage and fortitude will allow them to continue to preserve and protect this history and these stories so that others may hear and believe. But this I know: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.