Faithfully Sitting on a Pole: Saint Daniel the Stylite and Early Christian Asceticism

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Greetings to my readers! I hope all of you are doing well and had a wonderful holiday season. As evidenced by the previous sentence, it has been a minute since I have posted a blog. For this, I apologize. I found it tricky to pick the blog back up in January, and watched January turn into the end of February. Next week, however, I hope to begin a new series on the history of missions through which we will explore movements and missionaries around the world throughout history. I am very much looking forward to it. As for today, I ran across a passage in my reading that I wanted to post about, so today’s post will not figure in with our new series.

The main source for this post is Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. It is, so far, a very interesting read about authority in regard to the bishops of late antiquity. Rapp has a brief section in the beginning of her work (pp. 3-5) in which she discusses Daniel the Stylite, a fifth-century ascetic.

St. Daniel the Stylite first became a popular figure in a suburb around Constantinople (Rapp, 2005, 3). The archbishop of Constantinople even gave Daniel’s ministry his seal of approval. Rapp notes that he became “a personal saint for Emperor Leo I (457-474) and for his successor, Zeno (474-491), who depended on Daniel to soothe restless crowds on the verge of rebellion… Leo rewarded Daniel’s cooperation with public gestures of recognition, especially by donating a large pillar, topped by an enclosed platform on which Daniel would live” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

In my experience, many Protestant students of church history usually begin to scoff when they read sentences like the previous quotation. Often, you will hear something like, “Wow he can really do a lot of good ministry from up on a post;” or maybe something like, “This is just extremism or fame-mongering.” Unfortunately, such flippant dismissals of ancient holy men and women can overlook some of the more intriguing elements of church history. Many Protestant denominations today do not know enough of their own faith heritage. It is often as if they think the Apostles all died out and then the Reformation popped up, with a whole bunch of “Catholic happenings” in the interim.

Now, I am fully aware that as one who is writing a dissertation on the early church, such a statement might seem self-serving. But I do also think that there is validity to the ministries and actions of even the early ascetics. In the case of St. Daniel the Stylite, you have a man who lived on top of a pillar. Now it might seem odd, but he was actually ordained to the priesthood while he was on top of the pillar, with the “laying on of hands” being affected by God “from above” (Rapp, 2005, 4). Rapp further notes that “Daniel’s ordination had no effect on his way of life or daily routine, since he never exercised any priestly duties. His ordination to the priesthood served the exclusive purpose of recognizing, confirming, and enhancing Daniel’s position as a holy man” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

So what is the point of him being ordained if he never descends from his pillar? Well, Rapp does describe a time when he climbs down from his pillar in order to mediate a crisis between the Archbishop of Constantinople and a rebel emperor over orthodoxy. Rapp even notes that in the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the two individuals fall at Daniel’s feet which are “crippled and worn down to the bone—a tangible token of his ascetic achievement” (Rapp, 2005, 5).

The man on a pillar shows that he was not above (pun intended) the crises of the city to which he ministered. He willingly climbed down to intercede, a task that no doubt caused him excruciating pain. Daniel is one of many “holy men” from the early church who practiced extreme asceticism. John Chrysostom, the bishop on whom I am focusing in my dissertation, spent a couple of years of his early ecclesiastical career in a cave in Syria where he didn’t really sleep or sit down for about 2 years. Such a practice left permanent damage upon his body.

Many readers today will see these types of stories as extreme actions embarked upon to gain a following. However, Christians need to embrace the fact that these individuals are a part of their own faith heritage. These holy men and women were a product of their era, exhibiting devotion and commitment to the Christian faith. It is easy to say that they could have been more effective ministers if they had lived among the people, but that is to sell their asceticism short. Eschewing the comforts of the world, including a comfortable place to sit or sleep, was done in order to show their devotion to a faith which set them apart from the masses. They were admired for their piety and dedication to Christianity. I, for one, have to admit that I admire their courage to fully live out their faith in such a way. I have to also admit that I think they probably experienced their faith on a deeper level than I ever have. I would urge you, if you haven’t before, to study the ancient holy men like St. Daniel the Stylite.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you agree? Is there validity to this type of asceticism? Should these men and women be viewed with or even overtly given ecclesiastical authority?

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