In the first three centuries after Christ, communities in the middle east had many wise mystics who made their insights public to Coverts, pilgrims and seekers. Stylite towers were about six to ten feet high, erected in the center of town. The eccentric local mystic sat for long hours, waiting, doing nothing. A pillar saint or mystic would sit on a platform a few meters square, preaching, fasting and praying. His conversations were open debate and available to anyone willing to listen. These ascetic pillar Stylites were not given permission or authority by the ancient church. Wise men dedicated themselves to this extreme lifestyle and contemplating the unseen mystery of being. While others listened, those passing by might shout questions. I laugh thinking, contemplatives like pillar Saints are interesting. We could use a few more contemplatives, eccentrics and people who ask and listen these days.
Spiritual learning happens by osmosis. To sit quietly for a long time stirs up concepts that come right out of nowhere. Books, teachers, seminars, or exposure to rhetoric is not needed. Stylite pillar saint icons make me joyful. Imagine being driven to sit on a small platform, in the sun and rain, for months. One mystic called St Simon the Elder sat for 40 years waiting for God, giving spiritual advice from his lofty nest.
Rituals and spiritual traditions have the power to teach us who we are. Byzantine Iconography is an ancient format, finely tuned to invite the viewer into the world of mystery. They documented Stylite pillar saints in iconography to honor those who question and dedicate themselves to spiritual insights. Sitting in a Stylite tower would distort the created order just enough to provoke visions and wisdom. Imagine today. if we had Greek hermit saints in the public square. Their strange presence would stimulate our minds to go outside the normal confines of logic and intellect. We might ask, why would any human adopt a lifestyle like this? Other icons.
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