Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/09/2009

“…but a vigilant man would cut it off and get up to pray…”


S. Simeon Stylite

The Desert Fathers and I have a special relationship. That I even know who they are probably puts me in a category of what—shall I guess?—1% of the world’s population. So that gives us a special relationship already. 

Those guys have an eccentric and fantastic (in the sense of “fanciful”) understanding of religious experience. My favorite is Saint Simeon Stylites (AD 388-459). The “Stylite” means he was a pole-sitter, that is, he sat in a little cubicle on top of a pillar (the last one erected for him was apparently over 50 feet tall). He lived there without ever coming down (!) for thirty-six years. 

You have to be pretty sure you know who or what God is to sit on top of a pole for thirty-six years. Or maybe he had no idea who or what God is and thought he’d find out by doing something really bizarre. But I guess we can assume old Simeon Stylite was certain he knew God. He took on the whole church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, writing to the Emperor Leo that, “the church of God was disturbed by the innovation and false teaching of accursed and perverse heretics.” I’ve read some of his stuff, and the Creed of Chalcedon, but I can’t figure out what the hullabaloo was all about. Something regarding the nature of Christ, God or Man, or both at once, or having two distinct natures, or. . . .? Whatever the Council decided, St. Simeon didn’t approve of the language:

[Christ] was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God. . . .[He] is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person. . . . **

I wish something in my life (I won’t say my “religious experience” because, as I have written before [10/25/2009], my “religious experience” is confusing and fantastic—as in “fantasy”) was as certain as Simeon’s faith. If I had the courage of my convictions, I’d say outright that I don’t believe a word of “the faith.” However, I’d have one of my Temporal Lobe oddities, and all bets would be off. My body would float away, and I’d be left holding my mind in my hand and wishing I knew where my body went. Most people would call that an out-of-body experience or ecstasy, or meeting with God somewhere, but I’d say it’s just damned inconvenient.300px-W_E_F__Britten_-_Alfred,_Lord_Tennyson_-_St__Simeon_Stylites

Today I wish I could put two thoughts together back-to-back that made sense to me—much less anyone else. The reason I can’t is that the “leadership team” of my church had a marathon meeting yesterday to decide whether or not to sell the property and go out of business. Now you’d think (I’d think, anyway) that I would go along with this. Close another institution. Go with spiritual doubt. Get my reality out of anyone else’s mind. Stop being “disturbed by the innovation and false teaching of accursed and perverse heretics.” I admit it. I belong to a church, not only belong, I’m one of the “leaders.” That’s not so strange as it seems because I am, after all, an organist, and there are precious few places to practice my art (I do have a pipe organ in my living room, but it’s for my solitary use).

Here’s my dilemma. I believe all the teachings of the church. And I don’t believe any of it. Of course, I could hardly help but have some sort of “other-worldly” associations. My poor TLE-harried brain guarantees it—actual physical experiences. Or God speaking to me? Or born from my desire to “feel” and “experience” all of that stuff my church teaches me about “God” (I’m a Lutheran, so there’s a LOT to believe). Lutherans live in their heads, which is why I’m drawn to them.

My little parish can’t decide whether or not there’s any way to continue struggling with fifteen or twenty people communing every Sunday. I’m not going to discuss the ins-and-outs outs of that decision. Except I, for reasons known only to the divine mind (if there is one), find myself adamantly opposed to closing the church and selling the property to the city for their new state-of-the-art fire station. Why? Oh, Why?

What is this weirdness? Does it have anything to do with “religion,” or am I at heart really a conservative old fart who can’t abide the thought of change? Or is there something in that (not spectacularly beautiful—or even architecturally interesting) building that makes me comfortable enough to engage in the great debate/mystery of my life/body/spirit?

There’s almost nothing in me that would put up any kind of fight over “[He] is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation” or any other “theological” concept. If God exists in any form (Yahweh, God, Shiva, Paramatman, Allah, Shangdi, Khakhabaisaywa, Odudua, Thor, Loki, or Juno), all of this matters. If God does not exist, than none of it should matter. Here’s the problem from my perspective:

As I wrote on October 25, “I have a special relationship with my Temporal Lobe (or some mysterious part of my brain) that most folks don’t with theirs. If I do begin to have “religious experiences,” someone better pay attention. The Holy Grail won’t appear to me, or Our Virgin of Somewhere Else or even a Baptist prayer meeting. I will know the essence of reality. Starting with the Big Bang.”

I  bravely declare that “I will know the essence of reality” (whatever that means). I’m not sure I want to know the “essence of reality.” What I want is a moment of peace. A moment of neither fear nor delirium, neither disinterest nor obsession at the prospect that I am now alive and that, even if my individual life has no “meaning,” I am part of some natural reality into which it is possible for me to fit comfortably.

Neither in this life nor any other do I have courage to sit on top of a pole for thirty-six years to find or do what “God” wants me to do. I have much more in common with Theodore of Scetis,  who said,

A thought comes to me which troubles me and does not leave me free; but not being able to lead me to act, it simply stops me progressing in virtue; but a vigilant man would cut it off and get up to pray.***

. . .Let this avail, just, dreadful, mighty God,
This not be all in vain that thrice ten years,
Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,
In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold,
In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,
A sign betwixt 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. . .
          from “Saint Simeon Stylites” by Alfred Lord Tennysonmural-simeon-600

**The Life of Saint Simeon Stylites from Bedjan’s Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Vol. IV (1915). Translated by Rev. Frederick Lent, PhD. Merchatville NJ: Evolution Publishing, 2009.
***The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Benedicta War, SLG, Editor. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.1975, 79.


  1. Where do you get your great pictures?


    • Here and there. Scan some (the etching is from an old copy of Tennyson poetry), take some, copy some from the internet.



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