In 578AD, John Moschos, and his pupil Sophronios the Sophist, set off from a monastery on a rock just outside Bethlehem to head for Alexandria on foot. It was the start of a journey that took them all over the Eastern Byzantine world. Their aim, quite simply, was to collect the wisdom of the sages and mystics of the Byzantine East, a world which was already decaying and soon to be overtaken, a world which centred upon Constantinople and was dominated by Orthodox Christianity before the early Muslim conquests of the 7th Century AD. John Moshos’ travels resulted in one of the great travel books called the The Spiritual Meadow, a collection of stories well known for 1,000 years, but pretty much lost today.
A second book has been written though, by a modern day travel writer called William Dalrymple, who decided to find the earliest manuscript of John Moschos in Northern Greece, and then set off on a trip to find the places which Moschos himself had visited. Dalrymple’s book is a gem and I have been reading it this weekend. He has just reached the ancient city of Antioch, one of the three great Christian cities of the 6th Century, modern day Antakya in Turkey, where Jon Moshcos came across an old priest called Symeon the Younger. Symeon the Younger was an ascetic and a stylite. Asceticism was a way of life that shunned all luxury, renounced all material and bodily pleasures, and fasted, eating only the bare minimum to survive, in order to concentrate on spiritual matters. Asceticism exists in a number of areas today, but probably most obviously for Muslims during Ramadan. Symeon was also a stylite, which meant that he lived his entire life at the top of a pillar. He climbed his pillar at about the age of eight, having set it up next to another stylite, John, who was his mentor and master. When John died only eight years later, Symeon spent the rest of his life, 60 more years, at the top of this pillar pursuing the life of a hermit and an ascetic. He is said to have only come down three times in those 68 years, and on one of those occasions he was made a priest, so that he could give Holy Communion to those who climbed up the pillar to receive it.
William Dalrymple, visiting Antioch 1,400 years later, got a cab out to the local hilltop and visited the place where Symeon preached. The lower part of the pillar is still there, and Dalrymple took time to sit on the stones in the precincts of the ruined church which had been built around it, to read Moschos’ original text and to try to imagine what those worshippers were thinking all those years ago. They were clearly in awe of Symeon, who was said to have lived his entire life on only a single shrub from a local bush, and who had undergone extreme hardship at the top of his pillar in the name of Christ. The church had been set up to face the pillar, rather than the altar, and it must have seemed as if Symeon, way up on high, delivering his pronouncements to his followers below, had a direct line to the Almighty. The most amazing stories abounded; one ancient biographer wrote, rather brilliantly, that the dust from Symeon the Younger’s clothes was “more powerful than roasted crocodile, camel dung, or Bithynian cheese mixed with wax” – apparently the usual contents of a Byzantine doctor’s medicine chest. This dust, relates Dalrymple, could cure constipation, cast leprosy on an unbeliever, bring a donkey back to life and restore sour wine to sweetness. It was also useful at sea. Apparently a certain Dorotheus, a cleric at Symeon’s monastery, went on a voyage by sea in the middle of winter, highly inadvisable in the ancient world, but entrusting himself to the protection of Symeon the Younger. However, way out to sea, the ship ran into a furious storm and it looked like this would be the end of Dorotheus. The captain was in despair, but Dorotheus remembered he had some of the blessed dust from Symeon’s clothes and he sprinkled the ship with it as a last resort. It is said that “a sweet fragrance filled the air, the churning sea was pacified, a fair wind filled the sails and the ship was brought safely to its destination.”
This last story got my curiosity going, too. There have been many stories throughout the ages of seas being miraculously calmed after a show of faith. In the Gospel of St Mark, in the most obvious of these stories, as we heard in Chapel last night, Jesus calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee, simultaneously urging his friends to maintain faith. However, these are not just Christian stories. Poseidon calmed the seas for Agamemnon to set sail to Troy, after Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigeneia, in a show of faith. And, something I find amazing, in an old tale from my wife’s family, still read out every year at Passover, Sir Moses Montefiore was said to have found himself in a terrible storm off Malta. Fearing the worst, he said a prayer to God and threw overboard a piece of unleavened bread from the previous year’s Passover. The storm is said to have abated, the sea flattened and by the evening they witnessed one of the finest nights they had ever seen. Even now, sailors who cross the Equator or international date lines for the first time perform all sorts of ceremonies, attempting to keep Neptune, ancient God of the Sea, happy.
So, back to Symeon the Younger on the top of his pillar, dressed in dusty rags and calling out pronouncements to his followers below. Is it really as mad as we might think? It seems, to use the maritime metaphor, that for all time mankind has tried to find a calm way through choppy waters. This can be seen in terms of epoch-changing times, like possibly we have currently with Brexit, or in times of personal crises, the likes of which we all have at various times in our life. We all deal with these in different ways, but there is a thread of survival and a desire for understanding woven through them. We all try to find our own calm. Symeon’s answer to life was to get physically and spiritually nearer to God, and who are we to mock that?
Further reading: From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple