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23.10.14 Parker, Symeon Stylites the Younger and Late Antique Antioch

23.10.14 Parker, Symeon Stylites the Younger and Late Antique Antioch

Lucy Parker has written a lucid and useful study of how a pillar-saint, one of the sanctified celebrities of the sixth century, was perceived and presented not so much practising asceticism as establishing his authority as a mediator between God and men. As I finished her book, I realized that the niggling complaint that had been in the back of my mind while I read it, that she never discussed the practicalities of living atop a column for years on end, let alone leading a monastic community from that perch, was altogether beside the point. For Symeon Stylites’ monks, for visitors and supplicants, for the wider world, and perhaps especially for his hagiographer, he existed ascended and isolated, that much closer to God, visibly and spiritually, with no consideration for bodily impediments--and that is how we must try to understand him. Parker’s book is an immense help in that effort, indicating the purposes and problems behind our sources, the sermon collection attributed to Symeon, the Life of the Saint, and the Life of his mother Martha, and assessing the context and reliability of these sources that give us access to a remarkable sixth-century figure and his society.

Parker judiciously begins her study by sketching the history of Antioch and its surrounding countryside in the sixth century. But this is not merely a perfunctory backdrop to a recital of the life of Symeon Stylites the Younger (c. 521-592). Parker emphasizes the natural and military disasters that beset Antioch over the course of the saint’s life. These are difficult to correlate with the signs of economic prosperity or decline, she shows, and so have come to be discounted as causal factors in contemporary social conflicts. These disasters, however, exacerbated tensions between rich and poor, rulers and ruled, as well as ideological disputants, and raised questions beyond people’s livelihood about the reasons disasters occurred and the ability of holy men to intercede with God on their public’s behalf. And, as Parker goes on to demonstrate throughout the rest of her book, these are the questions addressed by the saint and his hagiographer throughout their written work.

For most late antique holy men, we must depend on saint’s lives to gain a picture of them, but in the case of the Younger Symeon we also have a collection of thirty sermons ascribed to him. Parker reviews the arguments for and against their authenticity and cautiously concludes that even if the sermons were not certainly written by Symeon, which is a strong possibility, that at the very least they were composed early and by an individual whose trustworthiness and commitment to Symeon’s monastery and cult were accepted by his hagiographer. Her analysis of the content of the sermons is even more incisive and instructive. She underscores three themes in particular: the ceaseless combat between monks and demons that characterizes the ascetic life, the stark contrast between heaven and hell as ultimate destinies and present realities, and the opposition between rich and poor not only on the economic plane, but also as representatives of paganism and Christianity respectively. Symeon laid claim to special insight on these themes--and so to the attention of his audience--through the visions vouchsafed to him by God. But his treatment of each also demonstrates his capacity to imbue his sermons with an urgency found in all effective preaching and, far from a desire to act as a peacemaker, his willingness to exploit social and cultural divisions to bolster his own position.

The themes Parker identifies in the sermons recur in the Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger, the longest saint’s life to survive from before the Arab conquest. Parker is undaunted by the sheer bulk of the Life or the special problems it presents, and an excellent study of this neglected work is the core of her book. She deftly handles questions of authorship and date at the outset, giving reasons for seeing the Life as the work of a member of Symeon’s monastery written fairly shortly after the saint’s death. She also shows that the Life is not chiefly concerned with the preeminent figures of the day, emperors and patriarchs--perhaps a disappointment to political historians--or with the Christological controversies that dominate our retrospective view of Christian life and thought in this period. Rather, the Life emerges from her study as a response to criticisms of the saint, challenges to his authority, and especially doubts about his capability as an effective intercessor between God and his supplicants, all occasioned by the invasions, earthquakes, and plagues that befell the region of Antioch in the sixth century. These concerns highlight the new and different position that the holy man had assumed since Antony’s withdrawal from the world. Symeon Stylites the Younger had assumed responsibility, on account of his special relationship with God, for the safety and well-being not only of individual petitioners, but also of his home city and the whole region that included Antioch and his Wonderful Mountain. When disaster struck, the mercy and justice of God, Symeon’s compassion for his people, his relationship with God, and his identity as a holy man could all be called into question. Parker shows that it was these questions that dictated the content and structure of the Life, involving the author, no less than Symeon himself, in complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations of theodicy, prayer, and the nature of holiness. Even the miracles attributed to Symeon--the Life contains so many that it has been read as a miracle collection rather than hagiography--are seen as a counterargument against accusations of Symeon’s ineffectiveness. The hagiographer is revealed as intent on depicting Symeon positioned between God and man, his position atop a pillar receding into the background of a conversation conducted on the spiritual plane, one fraught with peril for the saint’s reputation.

The Life of Martha is an adjunct to the Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger, much as the cult of its subject, the saint’s mother, was an adjunct to Symeon’s own cult. As a saint, even a female saint, Martha was somewhat anomalous, since her story did not depend on the usual tropes of harlot turned saint, pious lady bountiful, or cloistered nun. Her saintliness was nevertheless assured by the miracles associated with her, especially after her death. These miracles stood as proof of the efficacy of her life of dutiful and reverent liturgical observation, upon which she posthumously insisted in the performance of her own cult. In Parker’s reliable handling, the emphasis on the liturgy, sacraments, and healing miracles--notably for individuals rather than whole populations--represents a reorientation of the paradigm of personal sanctity, another response to doubts and questions raised by a time of crisis. The saint’s devotees are offered not only multiple avenues to salvation, but also a model of holiness that is easier for them to imitate. Rather than the impossibly rigorous asceticism of her son, Martha’s example offered reassurance to those who dutifully attended to the liturgy and clung to the sacraments.

Parker ends by setting the two Lives in their hagiographical context. Hagiographers had advanced increasingly extravagant claims for their saints’ power and so made them responsible, no less than the emperors, for the safety of the Empire. Consequently, the natural disasters and battlefield defeats that came thick and fast in the sixth and seventh centuries brought about accusations that they had failed to protect the faithful. As Parker puts it, “disasters provoked questions about causation, divine providence, and the special status of the empire, which Christian authors from diverse backgrounds sometimes struggled to answer. Hagiographers, however, faced particular challenges, since they had not only to tackle the question of theodicy but also to show how their saints were positioned between the will of God and the will of their supplicants” (195). She presents the Life of Symeon and the Life of Martha as two different responses to these challenges. Symeon’s hagiographer, apparently taking his cue from the saint himself, assumes a combative stance, exculpating his hero by blaming the sinfulness of the people for their suffering, identifying scapegoats in the wealthy elite of Antioch with their pagan ways, as well as other outsider groups, and experimenting with different--and not always consistent--modes of Old Testament exegesis. The author of the Life of Martha, by contrast, reduced the scope and ambitions of his claims for the saint and concentrated on individual healing miracles and liturgical practice. Either approach might offer an effective answer to the doubts raised about the role of holy men and women in an empire in crisis.

Lucy Parker deals with difficult and involved concepts in clear, comprehensible prose, free of jargon. She does not lean on theories, banging square pegs into round holes, or on potentially inappropriate approaches borrowed from other disciplines. She starts with the textual evidence and brings forward more evidence to explain its peculiarities and salient features. Parker has written a novel book that comprehensively surveys the topic and its problems and blazes new trails toward understanding it. But she has also written a sturdy book that will stand the test of time and remain the principal work on Symeon Stylites the Younger for the foreseeable future.