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Saint of the week

The hermit who lived on a pillar for 33 years

St Daniel the Stylite (December 11) was told that monastic discipline would be beyond him

By on Monday, 12 December 2011

Standing on top of a pillar all day left St Daniel with foul-smelling feet

Standing on top of a pillar all day left St Daniel with foul-smelling feet

Daniel (409-93) was a Syrian pillar-hermit, or stylite, who lived at the top of a column in order to escape the world. Naturally, the world flocked to see him.

When Daniel was 12 he was told that monastic discipline would be beyond him. Evidently he took this as a challenge.

Later, he went to see St Simeon, the doyen of stylites, who allowed him the rare privilege of columnar ascent. For some years thereafter, however, Daniel lived as a hermit outside Constantinople.

When Simeon died in 459 he left his cloak to the Emperor Leo I. Unsurprisingly, the disciple charged with its delivery was unable to gain access to the Emperor. He therefore gave the cloak to Daniel.

Daniel now determined to imitate Simeon’s way of life. Helpful friends provided a pillar, “about the height of two men”, and fitted with a balustrade. It seems that this was a permitted extra; certainly there are no reports of stylites taking a tumble.

The Emperor’s steward at first complained that Daniel was committing a trespass. When Daniel cured a sick boy, however, the steward rewarded him with a higher column and a broader platform.

The saint also interceded to satisfy Leo I’s desire for a male heir, after which he graciously permitted the Emperor to ascend and touch his feet. 

Leo discovered, in Fats Waller’s phrase, that the saint’s pedal extremities were just obnoxious. He ordered two more, rather higher, columns, linked by a bridge held together with iron.

Soon afterwards this new construction almost collapsed in a thunderstorm. While Daniel’s disciples, at the foot of the columns, gave themselves up to despair, the saint calmly pursued his prayers and survived the ordeal. 

Leo threatened to have the architect executed; Daniel, though, persuaded the Emperor to grant a pardon.

Inevitably the stylites suffered dreadfully from heat and cold. On one occasion Daniel’s followers had to ascend with warm water to thaw him out, after which the Emperor insisted that an iron shelter should be constructed on the top of the column.
Daniel remained a total of 33 years and three months on his pillar, attracting large crowds. Though the sick and troubled might be permitted to ascend to the saint, Daniel descended but once.

This was after Leo’s death, when one Basilicus usurped the imperial throne and lent his support to heresy. In his alarm Daniel returned to earth, albeit with the greatest difficulty, owing to the pain in his feet.

He remained on the ground for no longer than it took to administer a severe rebuke to Basilicus, and forthwith regained his perch. One is not amazed to learn that Basilicus’s affairs did not prosper. 

Daniel, however, survived to the age of 84, which shows what a waste of time it is to go to the gym.