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I think Simeon's on the left.

I think Simeon’s on the left.

I have a serious weakness for the ascetic saints, probably because I think they mine the depths of insanity much more than any others. I mean, helping the poor and all that is just what Christians are supposed to do, right? But starving yourself in the desert while living in a cave on top of a pillar and only standing for forty years really shows a commitment.

The ascetic movement in the early Christian church really started where the martyrdoms left off. There are books and books and books on this topic, but the essential gist of most of them is this: martyrdom was considered a way for the faithful to emulate Christ. Once Christianity was the law of the land–meaning the fifth and sixth centuries–the extremely faithful wanted a new way to emulate Jesus, and thus asceticism was born. There are lots of specific passages in the New Testament that led to specific types, but in all them, one suffered daily, and therefore daily imitated Christ in his last hours on earth.

St. Simeon, fool-for-Christ, was an ascetic. He was of Syrian descent, born in Edessa, and had a lifelong friend named John. Simeon lived with his elderly mother, John was married with a child, and both were from wealthy families. Together they had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on the way home, were struck by the overpowering desire to become a monk when they saw the monastery of Abba Gerasimus on the way home. Thanks to a minor miracle, they found the gates opened, and were welcomed by Igumen Nikon, the leader of the monastery. Igumen is some sort of title.

After a while, the two decided to go into the desert to live their chosen life even more rigorously. There they fought constantly with demons, who tempted them ceaselessly. Eventually, after lots of praying and fasting, the torments stopped. They stayed on in the desert thirty more years, until Simeon had a calling to go to nearby Emesa, to help the people.

John elected to stay in the desert, and the two bid farewell. On the way, Simeon prayed that God would give him a way to help people that they might not acknowledge him, which, I guess, is a pride thing, or some other sin.

Clearly, the solution to this problem was to enter the city gate dragging a dead dog tied to a length of rope. He acted a madman for the rest of his life: he threw nuts at women in church, blew out the holy candles, ate huge quantities of beans on fast days, dragged himself around on his buttocks, and sexually harassed dancing girls in the streets during festivals. He once punched a man in the jaw, breaking it, allegedly to keep him from the sin of sleeping with a married woman.

According to Wikipedia, though I can’t find another source, he tried to cure a man of leucoma by smearing mustard on the man’s eyes. Instead, the man went blind but eventually was saved. I should make a LOLsaint that says, “Miracles: ur doin it wrong!”

Simeon wasn’t seen on the streets of Emesa for three days before his death, as he shut himself in a cabin with only firewood. When he died and the people carried him to the graveyard, they heard sweet singing but couldn’t place its source. Eventually they began to realize all the saintly good Simeon had done them. This was about 570 CE.

I really wish a psychiatrist would take a good look at some of these ascetic saints, the way Oliver Sacks did with Hildegaard of Bingen. It would be fascinating, if heretical. My best guess about what really went on here is that Simeon was actually just a madman who lived in Emesa–the mentally ill homeless are nothing new. After a while people decided that he was so crazy he must have been holy, and started attributing miracles and the like to him, meanwhile conflating his story with that of the desert ascetic John. I don’t have any proof for that, of course.

As far as I can tell, Simeon, fool-for-Christ is only revered in the Eastern churches (not the Roman Catholic church), where foolishness-for-Christ is much more prevalent anyway. He’s the patron saint of fools and puppeteers. Put your underwear on your head in rememberance every July 1.

Ship of Fools

The Holy Fool of Emesa

Wikipedia

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