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Monk takes devotion to new heights
August 4, 2013 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Maxime the monk lives on a pillar. When he wants to step down out of the clouds, the 59-year-old scales a 131-foot ladder, which takes him about 20 minutes. Photographer Amos Chapple heard about Maxime while working in the country of Georgia, and when he first arrived and asked to go up, he was told no. Chapple stayed and prayed with the men at the base for four days before he was told he could ascend the pillar.

Some history of Simeon Stylites, and pillar saints.
posted by nevercalm (43 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
A bit more background and additional images, including a dizzying look at the ladder.

And still more details on the monk who lives there and how this iteration of the chapel came to be.
posted by notyou at 8:47 AM on August 4, 2013


I feel a strong urge to romanticize his life and to think of how wonderful it would be to live so simply, to have so much time just to think.

And then I see that ladder and realize that there is no way in hell, I'd ever climb that. No. No. No. Not happening. Nope.
posted by oddman at 8:55 AM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


In order to get away from the ever increasing number of people who frequently came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived amongst ruins, formed a small platform at the top, and upon this determined to live out his life. It has been stated that, as he seemed to be unable to avoid escaping the world horizontally, he may have thought it an attempt to try to escape it vertically.

Ahh the 5th century equivalent of "Get off my damned lawn".
posted by nathan_teske at 8:57 AM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I note no women are allowed up there.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:08 AM on August 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Interesting trivia: according to the Guiness Book of World Records, Simeon Stylites holds the world record for the longest pole sit (37 years) and it's the longest-held record of any type by anyone (about 1554 years).
posted by stbalbach at 9:10 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


"How may I best serve you during my corporeal existence, oh lord?"

"Go sit on this pillar, I don't know, what the fuck."

"Shouldn't I help orphans and cripples, oh lord?"

Crickets.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:12 AM on August 4, 2013 [37 favorites]


St. Alia of the Bunnies: "I note no women are allowed up there."

Simeon wouldn't let women near the base of his pole, not even his mother. Actually he did allow his mother - after she died they laid her body there.
posted by stbalbach at 9:13 AM on August 4, 2013


Interesting trivia: according to the Guiness Book of World Records, Simeon Stylites holds the world record for the longest pole sit (37 years) and it's the longest-held record of any type by anyone (about 1554 years).

Until I looked at the pictures and read the article, I thought the practice of pillar monks being described was pole-sitting.
posted by Unified Theory at 9:14 AM on August 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hearing that no women are allowed up makes me want to climb it just to thumb my nose at their patriarchal nonsense.

I understand faith and sacred places - and the need for silence. But why the hell do my ovaries matter in such a place? Why am I - or people like me - less worthy?
posted by jb at 9:18 AM on August 4, 2013 [20 favorites]


St. Ungulant sneers at this guy's cushy digs.
posted by The otter lady at 9:22 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Immediately thought of Simon of the Desert.

Then, I read the article & notyou's awesome additions and realized that this monk seems to be almost the opposite of Bunuel's character. The pictures of him at the dinner table just seem so joyous.

Great post!
posted by rock swoon has no past at 9:24 AM on August 4, 2013


It must be neat to stand in a deep valley for once and be able to say "I can see my house from here."
posted by Spatch at 9:29 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ethiopia is pretty great for this kind of thing: building a stupidly hard to reach hole of a monastary and then spending fifty years there is a great way to prove your devotion. Debre Damo is the best known one.

One of my favorite Ethiopian religious tales: A well known saint decides to pray for forty years, standing continuously, coz why not, right? He goes for about twenty years, then one of his legs falls off from lack of use. He finishes up the next twenty years standing on one leg. After he dies, the leg that fell off becomes a religious icon. At a yearly religious festival, a bunch of holy water is poured over the quasi-mummified remains, which people come from miles around to drink. That's right: the cure for what ails you is water poured over the four-hundred-year-old leg of a dead guy. yum!

(The story of how they got (and still have!) the Ark of the Covenant is pretty great, too. I'm pretty sure Speilberg moved it to Egypt for Raiders just to keep the actual Ark safe and include more Nazi fight scenes.)
posted by kaibutsu at 9:48 AM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


His tip for the pizza guy was “The way to do is to be.”
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:57 AM on August 4, 2013


That view is absolutely splendorous. I can see why someone would want to spend their life up there. I'd like to think this is how the unnamed trapeze artist from Kafka's "First Sorrow" ended up.
posted by byanyothername at 9:59 AM on August 4, 2013


Part of what I find compelling about the idea of living on that thing for forty years, isn't being alone with my thoughts. I'd lose my mind up there, just sitting around, letting my addled brain talk itself silly, like a four year old with a case of Pixie Stix.

No, what's compelling is that, to avoid going nuts, I'd need some task to focus on--something where the individual actions are small and easy and infinitely repeatable, like knitting. What could be accomplished over forty years, just meditatively cranking out row after row of a Doctor Who scarf, using whatever wool the acolytes send up, because who gives a shit, it's a devotional, not a garment?
posted by fatbird at 10:19 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Since my son is Orthodox I will ask him why the proscription on women-but I am guessing they'd be "a distraction."

FWIW there are monasteries for women in Orthodoxy-apparently there is one in NC not all that far from where I live.

(When I went to Thailand there were some places sacred to Buddhism that women were not supposed to enter either. Oh, the temptation. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:21 AM on August 4, 2013


His tip for the pizza guy was “The way to do is to be.”

...and his order was "Make me one with everything."

ba dum chhh
posted by fairmettle at 10:32 AM on August 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


Speaking of St. Simeon Stylites, Tennyson's rather cynical take.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:32 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I understand faith and sacred places - and the need for silence. But why the hell do my ovaries matter in such a place? Why am I - or people like me - less worthy?

Being able to futz off and sit on an idyllic pillar where people winch you up food requires people who do not sit on idyllic pillars, who can, ideally, procreate more people who can sit on pillars, and also who can take care of all the mundane tasks such as preparing the food and clothing that one needs in order to sit on an idyllic pillar. A realistic view would indeed see that, since not all men want to sit on pillars, nor would all women... but what if they did?? Much easier to preemptively set women up to be unholy, thus guaranteeing any men who want to futz off onto pillars a surefire support system and continuation of the species/belief system. Binary views are easy. No annoying details and questions. Just "men, autonomous [except for the whole needing a support system thing that we'll conveniently not mention], women, pff whatever [shhhh pay no attention to how they're doing all the work that keeps people alive, anyway it's lowly work, see, it all fits together, lowly work for lowly people, haughty work for haughty people... shhhh ignore that you can't be haughty without the lowly]."

Reminds me of how much that darned Buddhist story about a monk carrying a woman across a stream irks me. "I'm so holy, I objectify women to the point where I don't give a shit about them once they're off my back." I mean, if a woman's at a stream she knows she can't cross, yet waits there and is distressed to the point where she'll climb on an unknown man's back, it's probably because she's got something major going on, right? Did anyone even think to ASK HER what she was dealing with? No! Because OVARIES! "I'm not carrying her any more, what about you?" It's like, the actual moral person was more the trainee monk who was all "omigod you have women cooties on you" because at least he was actually viewing the woman as a human being who had impacted his life.

But I digress.
posted by fraula at 11:50 AM on August 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


This is an interesting life choice, for sure, but he's hardly living a solitary life. It takes a whole bunch of devotees on the ground to keep him alive every single day. (How long does it take to hand-crank the supply basket up there? The path looks over 2000 ft. long, being diagonal from the ground to the 1300 ft. top, and they do it 2-3 times daily....) He basically has a whole team of free labor working day after day, enabling his desire to sit around and pray all day with a gorgeous view.

(Sorry to be cynical, but it seems kind of a self-indulgent way to show devotion or service.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:51 AM on August 4, 2013 [15 favorites]


It seems there is a supply of people who would rather be the enablers than actually do the sitting.

On non-religious note my wife and I once snagged a free hot air balloon ride by posing as journalists the first year the balloon race was hosted in Baton Rouge, LA. Normally the real journos would get all the cool swag like spots on the PR balloons, but it happened that they had one of the very rare accidents that year and a balloon fell out of the sky, killing its pilot, and a lot of folks got cold feet. Our balloon was not racing, it was the Budweiser PR balloon. There was free beer in the chase vehicle for the ride back, yay. Spent about 4 hours in the air, plus a couple of landings. It was awesome.

Anyway we had a nice ride back (with free beer!) with the chase crew who had to find us and fold the balloon back up to pack it on the trailer when we were done, and I noted with amazement that two of the chase crew members had never actually ridden in the balloon because they were afraid to. They thought the balloons were beautiful and loved the chase and watching them soar and even doing what I thought was the shit work of launching and packing up, but actually riding in them? No, that was for other people.

I suspect the folks who care for the pole sitters are similar.
posted by localroger at 12:02 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Women are not allowed to climb to the top.

Well at lest they're not being all coy about it like the US, where women aren't allowed to climb the ladders of pay equity.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:29 PM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Prior to clicking the links, I had a mental image of a rag-clad penitent out in all weathers on a ten by ten rock, more like ol' Simon. They were hard-core in those days.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:46 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd much rather help from the bottom than sit at the top. At the base of the pillar, you're in a community of devotees - it's a social thing - and you don't have to give up everything else. You can do it like a summer internship, for 3-4 months, maybe climb the pillar a few times and get that small taste of holy life, and then do something else with your life afterward.

Of course this is all hypothetical, since I'm a woman. Incidentally women aren't allowed to ascend the pillars that house the Greek monasteries of Meteora, either.
posted by subdee at 1:33 PM on August 4, 2013


I note no women are allowed up there.

Try Mount Athos.

Until I looked at the pictures and read the article, I thought the practice of pillar monks being described was pole-sitting.

In a way, I know! Many contemporary or at least medieval depictions show them on top of a Greek or Roman column of stone, on a platform over the capital.

But from having seen the Meteora in the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only (some of it depicted by sets, other parts done with the full opposition of the monks in residence who tried to disrupt filming), and some adult experience with retreats and monastic approaches to faith, it seems much more interesting and attractive than I thought as a child. Not only do I "get" this in a way that I never could have when younger, it seems attractive and something potentially well within normal behavior.
posted by dhartung at 1:41 PM on August 4, 2013


Forbidding the presence of women is an expression of the practioner's religious freedom.
posted by Gin and Comics at 1:48 PM on August 4, 2013


Rather than think of it as a place where no women are allowed, I consider it a convenient, out-of-the-way spot to store men who can't deal with ovaries. Keeps them out of my face, which is likely better for both of us.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 2:01 PM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


fraula: "I'm not carrying her any more, what about you?" It's like, the actual moral person was more the trainee monk who was all "omigod you have women cooties on you" because at least he was actually viewing the woman as a human being who had impacted his life.

That has nothing to do with the point of the story though.
posted by sneebler at 2:04 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess I'm the only one tittering about not allowing women to climb the monk's pole?

Because you know, innuendo. Pole. Penis.
posted by zoo at 2:08 PM on August 4, 2013


That has nothing to do with the point of the story though.

I think that is precisely the point being made in the comment. The carried woman is background to the background. Though the character's role in the story is absolutely central, she is no more than a plot device - a thing to be acted upon.

Also not the central lesson of the story, but since when does a wow of chastity forbid helping someone across a river. (You know, unless a party involved has some sort of river crossing fetish going on... But this is why actually talking to the woman might have been beneficial to getting things sorted out.)
posted by booksarelame at 3:07 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nothing makes me more cynical than stories of religious miracles.
posted by telstar at 3:57 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Gender relations and expectations in Georgia are a mixed bag in my experience. It is a very conservative culture and seems to me to be what I generally imagine the 1950's in the us were like. Women do most if not all domestic tasks and girls are especially relied upon to support the domestic life of the family. However, there are two exceptions. women are much more likely to go to university and during the 1990s many families survived on the grey market work of the females in the family while the men lost there factory jobs. Also, younger boys tend to do all the serving at the big funeral celebrations. Georgia is a crazy, beautiful place and their issues with gender inequality made me very sad when I lived there. This story is the most benign example of gender inequality I have heard from there.
posted by nestor_makhno at 4:06 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah it does seem less impressive when you see it's not a pillar as you might think in the architectural sense. He's got a nice cottage up there, with plenty of shade, probably a nice little garden, and minions sending up crossword books.
posted by Brocktoon at 4:07 PM on August 4, 2013


When I first heard of St Simeon Stylites I thought he was St Simeon Stylin, the patron saint of snappy dressers.
posted by octobersurprise at 4:08 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


when does a wow of chastity forbid helping someone across a river

You're kidding, right? I can understand that the point of the story is non-obvious if you're unfamiliar with the genre, but this one is the Free Introductory Lesson. Hint: it has nothing to do with wows of chastity or the status of women.
posted by sneebler at 4:13 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Atlas Obscura was such a cool site until it was sold and got a flashy interface. Why do designers do this? It's like, you want pizza? Here, I made a green one in a cup! It squeaks at you! No. I want pizza. Or in a non-metaphorical way, I want a web page with text and images, not a scrolly thing that's hard to read.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:16 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Wows of Chastity is totally going to be the name of my androgynous post-punk noise metal recording collective.
posted by nevercalm at 5:14 PM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


ZEN FABLE: The river crossing
posted by homunculus at 5:49 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Orthodox stance on women and monks is more complicated than No Girlz Cooties. St Herman of Alaska is an interesting example - a monk who kept moving further away from people to become a hermit and later in life had a young woman, who from the accounts was likely a native woman who had been a temporary wife to a Russian trader, turn up and after a week decide that she was going to stay with him to run his household and teach the orphans he looked after, and St Herman to his great surprise after praying decide to accept this very unusual arrangement. Different monks and monasteries have different guidelines.

There are women saints who were also hermits. The most famous, remembered annually during the Lenten liturgies, is St Mary of Egypt, and I know I've read accounts of nuns who asked to be walled up in their cells or took off to the forests. There are of course the Desert Mothers, but often they lived in very small communities rather than solitary.

And speaking of buckets: Former Patriach of Jerusalem has food and supplies brought to him by a Muslim grocer through a bucket out of his window.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:59 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


A missed opportunity to use the "anchorite" tag.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:39 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


A missed opportunity to use the "anchorite" tag.

Not anymore!
posted by nevercalm at 5:18 AM on August 6, 2013


But from having seen the Meteora in the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only

Heh, I just saw some of this again tonight for the first time in years (they're doing a Labor Day Marathon, I guess in solidarity with all the people who bought new mattresses and dream of Bond girls). I had no recollection that young Tywin Lannister was one of the thugs chasing Bond on skis.
posted by homunculus at 9:21 PM on September 2, 2013


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