Thursday, November 25, 2021

Desert Heritage

Simon of the Desert

I have never been a fan of monks claiming God has called them to live the life of an ascetic hermit.

Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” and “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” To me, this sounds very different from “Go hang out in a cave.” Or “Go sit on a tall platform.”

Sitting on a platform is what Simeon Stylites the Elder did for over three decades in the third century in the country now known as Syria. As a teenager, Simeon joined a monastery, but he was booted out for his extreme practices of austerity. He shut himself up in a hut for a year and a half, it was said without food or water, and his survival was hailed as a miracle. He then went to live on a rocky mountain slope, but too many people sought him out, which is when he came up with the idea of living on a platform.

He found a platform ten feet off the ground in Taladah, where he allowed local boys to use a ladder to bring him food. As the years went on, he moved to taller platforms, eventually settling on one 50 feet off the ground. He allowed letters to be passed to him and would occasionally teach the crowd below, but he strove to stay away from people as much as possible.

Nothing about this sounds appealing to me. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel made the saint's life a mockery in the 1965 film, Simon of the Desert. Buñuel believed everything about the Church and the Christian faith to be subjects for mockery, but in this case, he may have a point.

The film begins with a middle-aged Simon being presented with a new, taller column from a benefactor who was healed by Simon’s prayers. Simon’s mother comes to see him while he is momentarily on the ground, but he refuses to hug her, saying, “My love for you must not come between my love for my Savior and His servant.”

Simon is also offered holy orders by a bishop of the church, but he refuses that as well, saying, “I am not worthy of holy orders. I am an unworthy sinner.”

After ascending the new platform, Simon asks people to leave him alone to pray, but they continue to gather below the platform. Some say they are hoping to see one of Simon’s miracles, which does come about. A man whose hands were cut off for stealing comes to Simon with his wife and two children. He asks Simon to heal him so he can provide for his family. Simon prays and the man’s hands appear. The man uses one of those hands to cuff his daughter’s ears as they walk home.

Some monks approach him as well. One young monk asks Simon to mentor him, but Simon tells the monk to leave and that the monastery is not a good place for him. He tells the man that he is very clean. He thanks Simon, but Simon isn’t complimenting him. “You look very clean. But remember that cleanliness in body and clothing, innocent enough in ordinary men, is a sin to those dedicated to God.” (Reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Why settle for second best?”)

A woman comes among the monks, and Simon asks the monks to drive the woman away. They refuse. Simon says the woman has an evil eye and tells them to remember the commandments, “Lay not your eyes on a woman” and “Be thou not seduced by a woman’s gaze.” (I’m not familiar with these commandments.)

Turns out, Simon's right: the woman is trouble. She's the devil in human form, and throughout the rest of the film, the devil tempts Simon to deny God. In a surrealistic conclusion, she takes Simon to a discotheque in 1960’s Mexico. She shows him the latest dance craze, “The Radioactive Flesh,” hoping to make him despair in the state of the world. Which he pretty much does. The End.

Simon as depicted in this film is a surly misanthrope. He seems to hate people. He says he cares about God, but Jesus said that people would know His disciples by their love for one another. Simon doesn’t demonstrate that love, but because of the healings, I’m not going to give him our lowest Movie Church rating. I hope the real Simeon Stylites was more gracious and loving, but Buñuel’s Simon receives a Two Steeple rating.

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