Saint Thalelaios lived during the fifth century. He was a native of Cilicia (Asia Minor), became a monk at the Monastery of St Sava the Sanctified, and was ordained presbyter there. Later on, he moved to Syria, not far from the city of Habala, he found a dilapidated pagan temple surrounded by graves, and he settled there in a tent. This place had a rough reputation, since the unclean spirits residing there frightened travellers and caused them much harm.
Here the monk lived, praying day and night in total solitude. The demons often assailed the saint, trying to terrify him with sights and sounds. But by the power of God the saint ultimately gained victory over the power of the Enemy, after which he was troubled no more. He then intensified his efforts even more: he built a barrel-like structure, so cramped that it was just possible to get into it, and only with an effort was it possible to raise his head. He lived there for about ten years.
The Lord granted to the ascetic the gift of wonderworking, and his miracles helped him to enlighten the pagan inhabitants. With the help of the inhabitants he converted to Christianity, he demolished the pagan temple, building a church where there were daily services.
St Thalelaios died in old age in about the year 460. In the book titled Leimonarion or Pratum [The Meadow], a composition of the Greek monk John Moschus (+ 622). St Thalelaios is mentioned: "Abba Thalelaios was a monk for sixty years and with tears never ceased saying, 'Brethren, God has given us this time for repentance, and we must seek after Him'" (Ch. 59).
The Barrel-like Structure of Saint Thalelaios
After the venerable Thalelaios emerged from his hut near the temple and defeated every demonic assault, he decided to enter the next level of ascetical struggle unique in Christian history. He took two wheels of two cubits in diameter and joined them with planks with bolts and nails. The wooden planks of this barrel-like cylinder were not thick and heavy, but slender and spaced apart. Thalelaios then drove three wooden poles into the ground, forming a kind of tripod. He joined the three poles at the top with other pieces of wood. From that point where they met at the top, he raised up the two-wheeled barrel-like structure and fastened it. As it swung, suspended in the air, Thalelaios crawled inside. We are not told the height above the ground the structure was placed, nor how he entered within. But when he was inside the airy cylinder, the interior height of which was no more than two cubits, he was compelled to take a sitting position. Since he was a rather large-boned man, he could not take his ease within that confined space. He certainly could not recline, nor could he even keep his neck straight. Thalelaios was ever seen in a sitting position, bent over, so that his forehead was pressed tightly against his knees.
Theodoret of Cyrus gives us an eye-witness account of this most astonishing ascetic feat in his History:
"When I beheld him, he had been already ten years in that position. I also observed that he was reaping the benefit of the divine Gospels, in which he was immersed. I then, out of a desire to learn and not from idle curiosity, asked him why he took up this novel contest of asceticism. He replied to me in the Greek tongue, since he was Cilician by birth and people, and said:
'Because I lay under many sins, I believe unshakably that I shall be liable to the penalties of which sinners have been forewarned by God. I, therefore, have contrived these moderate means of chastisement, in this present life, that I might lighten the burden of torments in the future life. Those punishments are worse, not only in quantity but also in quality, for they are involuntary and violent. Whatever is forced upon one without one's will is grievous, while that which is self-chosen without constraint, even if toilsome and sorrowful, is a lesser evil. For the labors of such a one are self-determined and voluntary. One does not feel compelled or lorded over. Therefore, if I may by these small afflictions lessen the great punishments that await me, assuredly it will be a great gain to me.'
"When I heard this explanation, I marvelled not only at the venerable ascetic's sagacity and shrewdness, but also at the fact that he exceeded the customary ascetic contests laid down. He devised other struggles, greater ones, in which he knew exactly what he was doing and by which he encouraged and taught others."