St. Symeon the Stylite (commemorated September 1) is one of my favorite saints. He is absolutely awesome.
To those who do not understand the purposes behind ascetic endeavor he appears a thorough-going kook. Indeed, he did even during his lifetime, the extremity of his asceticism challenging the people of his own day as much as it challenges us.
The purpose of his austerity, however, as with any Christian ascetical practice, is to bring the body into submission to the spirit. If I have no control over my body, there is no way I can meaningfully offer it to God; I may as well offer Him yours! St. Paul wrote that he beat his body, and not like a shadow-boxer, either, meaning he did it for real, he was serious about keeping his body under subjection. (I Corinthians 9:26-27) I think we must bear in mind that some people’s bodies are more stubborn than others. And some passions are just very difficult to defeat in all of us. Very stringent ascetics simply make the (correct!) judgment call that even to bleed is better than to sin. Or to be more blunt, certain temptations are hard to act upon when the body is in pain. Living atop that tower for many years in all weather, especially under the burning sun, St. Symeon offered his body a living holocaust to His Lord.
(In Orthodox spirituality, asceticism has nothing whatsoever to do with punishing oneself, a practice we consider morbid.)
St. Symeon lived in a cell on top of a tower that was anywhere from 30-80 feet high, depending upon which account is most accurate. (The height varied as the Saint from time to time built it higher.) Its purpose was to give him some physical distance from the crowds who came to seek his spiritual counsel, to have him settle their disputes, to receive physical healing from him. They came from as far away as the British Isles. St. Symeon always took time out of his prayer schedule to speak to the crowds, preaching and teaching.
Kings and queens, the Emperor and Empress, patriarchs and abbots, all heeded his teachings, and all were blessed.
This is from the OCA website:
Saint Simeon the Stylite was born in the Cappadocian village of Sisan of Christian parents, Sisotian and Martha. At thirteen years of age he began to tend his father's flock of sheep. He devoted himself attentively and with love to this, his first obedience.
Once, after he heard the Beatitudes in church, he was struck by their profundity. Not trusting to his own immature judgment, he turned therefore with his questions to an experienced Elder. The Elder readily explained to the boy the meaning of what he had heard. The seed fell on good soil, and it strengthened his resolve to serve God.
When Simeon was eighteen, he received monastic tonsure and devoted himself to feats of the strictest abstinence and unceasing prayer. His zeal, beyond the strength of the other monastic brethren, so alarmed the igumen [abbot] that he told Simeon that to either moderate his ascetic deeds or leave the monastery.
St Simeon then withdrew from the monastery and lived in an empty well in the nearby mountains, where he was able to carry out his austere struggles unhindered. After some time, angels appeared in a dream to the igumen, who commanded him to bring back Simeon to the monastery.
The monk, however, did not long remain at the monastery. After a short while he settled into a stony cave, situated not far from the village of Galanissa, and he dwelt there for three years, all the while perfecting himself in monastic feats. Once, he decided to spent the entire forty days of Great Lent without food or drink. With the help of God, the monk endured this strict fast. From that time he abstained from food completely during the entire period of the Great Lent, even from bread and water. For twenty days he prayed while standing, and for twenty days while sitting, so as not to permit the corporeal powers to relax.
A whole crowd of people began to throng to the place of his efforts, wanting to receive healing from sickness and to hear a word of Christian edification. Shunning worldly glory and striving again to find his lost solitude, the monk chose a previously unknown mode of asceticism. He went up a pillar six to eight feet high, and settled upon it in a little cell, devoting himself to intense prayer and fasting.
Reports of St Simeon reached the highest church hierarchy and the imperial court. Patriarch Domninos II (441-448) of Antioch visited the monk, celebrated Divine Liturgy on the pillar and communed the ascetic with the Holy Mysteries.
Elders living in the desert heard about St Simeon, who had chosen a new and strange form of ascetic striving. Wanting to test the new ascetic and determine whether his extreme ascetic feats were pleasing to God, they sent messengers to him, who in the name of these desert fathers were to bid St Simeon to come down from the pillar.
In the case of disobedience they were to forcibly drag him to the ground. But if he was willing to submit, they were to leave him on his pillar. St Simeon displayed complete obedience and deep Christian humility. The monks told him to stay where he was, asking God to be his helper.
St Simeon endured many temptations, and he invariably gained the victory over them. He relied not on his own weak powers, but on the Lord Himself, Who always came to help him. The monk gradually increased the height of the pillar on which he stood. His final pillar was 80 feet in height. Around him a double wall was raised, which hindered the unruly crowd of people from coming too close and disturbing his prayerful concentration.
Women, in general, were not permitted beyond the wall. The saint did not make an exception even for his own mother, who after long and unsuccessful searches finally succeeded in finding her lost son. He would not see her, saying, "If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come." St Martha submitted to this, remaining at the foot of the pillar in silence and prayer, where she finally died. St Simeon asked that her coffin be brought to him. He reverently bid farewell to his dead mother, and a joyful smile appeared on her face.
St Simeon spent 80 years in arduous monastic feats, 47 years of which he stood upon the pillar. God granted him to accomplish in such unusual conditions an indeed apostolic service. Many pagans accepted Baptism, struck by the moral staunchness and bodily strength which the Lord bestowed upon His servant.
The first one to learn of the death of the saint was his close disciple Anthony. Concerned that his teacher had not appeared to the people for three days, he went up on the pillar and found the dead body stooped over at prayer. Patriarch Martyrius of Antioch performed the funeral before a huge throng of clergy and people. They buried him near his pillar. At the place of his ascetic deeds, Anthony established a monastery, upon which rested the special blessing of St Simeon.
Apolytikion (First Tone):
You became a pillar of patience and did emulate the Forefathers, O righteous one: Job in his sufferings, Joseph in temptations, and the life of the bodiless [angels] while in the body, O Symeon, our righteous Father, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
Kontakion (Second Tone):
You sought the heights, though parted not from things below;
Your pillar became a chariot of fire for you.
You became thereby a true companion of the angelic host;
and together with them, O Saint, you ceaselessly pray Christ God for us all.
What's Left Today of St. Symeon's Tower