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July 21, 2017

An Anglican Hagiographer on Saint Symeon Salos

The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (28 January 1834 – 2 January 1924) of Lew Trenchard in Devon, England, was an Anglican priest, hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist, folk song collector and eclectic scholar. Despite his broad range of knowledge, often dealing with and writing about strange things, it is interesting how offended he is by the life of Saint Symeon Salos, more popularly known as Saint Symeon the Fool for Christ. The text below comes from his book Curiosities of Olden Times under the chapter titled "Some Crazy Saints", written in 1896.

By the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, M.A.

In the modern Roman Martyrology we find on July 1 St. Symeon Salos given as a confessor, approved by Rome as a model for Christians to take example by. M. Wratislaw has lately drawn attention to St. John Nepomucene, and has shown how careless Rome has been in her assertions about the circumstances and the date of his martyrdom. The case of St. Symeon Salos also deserves attention.

The life of this saintly personage comes to us on excellent authority. The patron of Symeon in Edessa, and the witness of his acts, was a certain simple-minded John the Deacon. Leontius, Bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus, whose Apology for Sacred Images was accepted and approved by the Second Council of Nicaea, was acquainted with this John the Deacon, and from his account of the doings of Symeon wrote the life, in Greek, which has come down to us entire. It is one of the most curious and instructive of early Christian biographies.

Evagrius, the historian, also a contemporary of Symeon, makes mention of him in his Church History (lib. iv. c. 34).

The story of Symeon is as follows:—

In the reign of the Emperor Justinian, two young Syrians came to Jerusalem to assist at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The name of one was John, and the name of the other was Symeon. John, a young man of two-and-twenty, was accompanied by his bride, a beautiful and wealthy girl, to whom he had been very lately married, and by his old father. With Symeon was his widowed mother, aged eighty.

The festival having terminated, the pilgrims started on their return to Edessa, and had reached Jericho, when John, reining in his horse, bade the caravan proceed, whilst he and his comrade Symeon tarried behind. The two young men flung themselves from their horses on the coarse grass. In the distance, near Jordan, glimmered the white walls of a monastery, and a track led towards it from the main road followed by the caravan.

“What place is that?” asked Symeon.

“It is the home of angels.”

“Are the angels visible?” Symeon inquired.

“Only to those who elect to follow their manner of life,” answered John, and descanted to his companion on the charms of a monastic life. “Let us cast lots,” he said, “whether we shall follow the road to the convent, or that which the caravan has pursued.” They cast lots, and the decision was for the life of angels.

So they turned into the road that led to Jordan and the monastery, and as they went they encouraged each other. For, we are told, John feared lest the love Symeon bore to his old widowed mother would draw him back, and Symeon dreaded the effects of the remembrance of the fair young bride on John.

On reaching the monastery, which was that of St. Gerasimus, the abbot, named Nicon, received them cordially, and gave them a long address on the duties and excellences of the monastic life. Then both fell at his feet and besought him at once to shear off their hair. The abbot hesitated, and spoke to each in private, urging a delay of a year, but Symeon boldly said, “My companion may wait, but I cannot. If you will not shear my head at once, I will go to some other monastery where they are less scrupulous.” Then he added, “Father, I pray thee, ask the Lord to be gracious to and strengthen my comrade John, that the remembrance of his young wife, to whom he has been only lately married, draw him not back.”

And when the abbot spoke to John, “My father,” said he, “pray for my comrade Symeon, who has a widowed mother of eighty years, and they have been inseparable night and day; he dearly loves her, and has been wont never to leave the old woman alone for two hours in the day. I fear me lest his love for his mother make him take his hand from the plough and look back.”

So the abbot cut off their hair, and promised on the morrow to clothe them with the religious habit. Then some of the members crowding round them congratulated the neophytes that on the morrow “they would be regenerated and cleansed from all sin.” The young men, unaccustomed to monastic language, were alarmed, thinking that they were about to be rebaptized, and went to the abbot to remonstrate. He allayed their apprehensions by explaining to them that the monks alluded to their putting on the “angelic habit.”

John and Symeon did not long remain in the abbey before a wish came upon them to leave it. Accordingly, in the night, they made their escape, and rambled in the desert to the east of the Dead Sea, till they lighted on a cave which had once been tenanted by a hermit, but was now without inhabitant. The date-palms and vegetables in the garden grew untouched, and the friends settled in the cave to follow the lives of the desert solitaries.

Their peace of mind was troubled for long by thoughts of the parent and wife left behind. “O Lord, comfort my old mother,” was the incessant prayer of Symeon; “O Lord, dry the tears of my young wife,” was the supplication of John. At length Symeon had a dream in which he saw the death of his mother, and shortly after John was comforted by a vision which assured him that his wife was no more.

After a while Symeon informed his comrade that he could not rest in the cave, but that he was resolved to serve God in the city. He felt there were souls to be saved in the world, and that he had a call to labour for their conversion.

This announcement filled John with dismay. He wept, and entreated Symeon not to desert him. “What shall I do, alone, in this wild ocean of sand? O my brother, I thought that death alone would have separated us, and now thou tearest thyself away of thine own will. Thou knowest I have forsaken all my kindred, and I have thee only, my brother, and will my brother desert me?”

“Do thou, John, remember me in thy prayers here in the desert, whilst I struggle in the world; and I will also pray for thee. But go I must.”

“Then,” said John solemnly, “be on thy guard, brother Symeon, lest what thou hast acquired in the desert be lost in the world; lest what silence has wrought, bustle destroy. Above all, beware lest that modesty, which seclusion from women has fostered, fail thee in their society; and lest the body, wasted with fasting here, surfeit there. Beware, also, lest laughter take the place of gravity, and worldly solicitude break up the serenity of the soul.”

He had good cause to give this advice, as the sequel proves; but Symeon gave no heed to the exhortation, answering, “Fear not for me, brother; I am not acting on my own impulse, but on a divine call.”

Then they wept on one another’s shoulders, and Symeon promised to revisit his friend before he died.

John accompanied Symeon a little way, and then again they wept and embraced, and after that John sorrowfully returned to his cell, and Symeon set his face towards the world, and came to Jerusalem.

He spent three days in the Holy City, visiting the sacred sites, and then went to Emesa.

Hitherto his life had been, if not altogether commendable, yet at least respectable. But from this point his character changes. He simulated madness, his biographer says, with the motive of drawing down on himself the ridicule of the world.

This ill-conditioned fellow is venerated by Greeks and Russians as a saint, and Cardinal Baronius with culpable negligence introduced his name into the modern Roman Martyrology.

Alban Butler, the Père Giry, and the Abbé Guérin, and indeed all Roman Catholic hagiographers, give the former part of this history with some detail, and draw a curtain of pious platitudes over the second act of the drama. They state that the saint made himself a fool for Christ, but are very careful not to give the particulars of his folly.

It is hardly necessary to point out how untrue to history, how morally dishonest, such a course is.

The Jesuit Fathers, who continued the work of Bollandus, give the original Greek Life in their volume for July, but with searchings of heart. “If,” say they, “our lucubrations could be confined to such small space as would suffice to give only the lives of those men whose memory is edifying and deserves imitation, never for a moment would it have entered into our heads to give and illustrate the life of St. Symeon Salos. For towards the close of that life many things occur, silly, stupid, absurd, scandalous to the ignorant, and to the learned and better educated worthy of laughter rather than of faith.”

But the unfortunate Bollandists were not at liberty to avoid the unpleasant task, as Symeon figured among the Saints of the Roman Calendar in these words: “At Emesa (on 1st July) St. Symeon, Confessor, surnamed Salos, who became a fool for Christ. But God manifested his lofty wisdom by great miracles.” 1st July is a mistake for 21st July, the day on which St. Symeon is venerated in the East. Baronius was misled by a faulty manuscript of the Life, which gave α for κα, as the day on which the saint died. It is a pity that, when he was transferring the day, he did not place St. Symeon Salos on the more appropriate 1st of April.

The only way in which I can account for this insertion in the Calendar is that Baronius read the first part of the Life, and was pleased with it, and did not trouble himself to conclude the somewhat lengthy manuscript. He therefore placed Symeon in his new Roman Martyrology, which received the approbation and imprimatur of Pope Sixtus V. and afterwards of Benedict XIV.

But to return to St. Symeon.

On reaching the outskirts of Emesa, Symeon found on a dung-heap a dead, half-putrefied dog. He unwound his girdle and attached the dog with it to his foot, and so entered the gate of the city and passed before a boys’ school. The attention of the children was at once diverted from their books, and, in spite of the expostulation of their preceptor, they rushed out of school after Salos, like a swarm of wasps, shouting, “Heigh! here comes a crack-brained abbot!” and kicked the dog and slapped the monk.

Next day was Sunday. Symeon entered the church with a bag of nuts before him, and during the celebration of the divine mysteries threw nuts at the candles and extinguished several of them. Then, running up into the ambone, or pulpit, he threw nuts at the women in the congregation, and hit them in their faces. Laughter and outcries interrupted the sacred service, and Symeon was expelled the church, not, however, without offering a sturdy resistance.

Outside, the market-place must have resembled one on a Sunday abroad at the present day, for it was full of stalls for the sale of cakes. In rushing from the church officials, he knocked over the stalls,4 and the sellers beat him so unmercifully for his pains that he groaned in himself: “Humble Symeon, verily, verily, they will maul the life out of you in an hour!”

A seller of sour wine saw him racing round the market-place, and, being in want of a servant, hailed him, and said, “Here, fellow; if you want a job, sell pulse for me.”

“I am ready,” answered Symeon. So he gave him pulse and beans and peas to sell, but the hermit, who had eaten nothing for a week, devoured the whole amount.

“This will never do,” said the mistress of the house; “the abbot eats more than he sells. Here, fellow, what money have you taken?”

Symeon had neither money nor vegetables to show, so the woman turned him out of the house. The monk placidly seated himself on the doorstep, and proceeded to offer up his evening devotions. But these were not complete without the ritual adjunct of smoking incense. Symeon looked about for a broken pot in which to put some cinders; but finding none, he took some lighted charcoal in the palm of his hand, and strewed a few grains of incense upon it. The mistress of the house, smelling the fumes, looked out of the window, and exclaimed, “Gracious heaven! Abbot Symeon, are you making a thurible of your hand?” At that moment the charcoal began to burn his palm, and he threw the ashes into the lap of his coarse goat’s-hair mantle.

The taverner and his wife were so moved by the piety of Symeon that they received him into the house, and employed him in selling vegetables, which duty he executed satisfactorily when his appetite was not exacting. They speedily found that Silly Symeon drew customers to their house, for Symeon laid himself out to divert them, and it became the rage for a time in Emesa for folk to visit the tavern, saying, “We must have our dinner and wine where that comical fool lives.”

One day Symeon Salos saw a serpent put its head into one of the wine pitchers in the tavern, and drink. He took a stick and broke the pitcher, thinking that the serpent had spit poison into the wine. The publican was angry with Symeon for breaking the amphora, and, catching the stick out of his hand, cudgelled the poor monk with it, without listening to his explanation. On the morrow the serpent again entered the tavern, and went to the wine jars. The host saw it this time, and rushed after it with a stick, upsetting and breaking several amphoræ. “Ha, ha!” exclaimed Symeon, peeping out from behind the door, where he had concealed himself, “who is the biggest fool today?”

The taverner did not show much kindness to Symeon; but this is hardly to be wondered at, when we hear that, summoned to his wife’s bedroom by her cries one night, he found it invaded by the saint, who was deliberately undressing in it for bed. This he did, says Leontius, Bishop of Neapolis, in order to lower the high opinion entertained of him by his master. After this, as may well be believed, the taverner told the tale over his cups with much laughter to his guests, and with confusion to his man. In Lent the saint devoured flesh, but would not touch bread. “He is possessed,” said the inn-keeper; “he insulted my wife, and he eats meat in Lent like an infidel.”

In Emesa he picked up a certain John the Deacon, who admired his proceedings. To this John, the saint related the events of his former life; and from John Leontius heard the story.

One day John the Deacon was on his way to the public baths, when he met Symeon. “You will be all the better for a wash, my friend,” said the Deacon; “come with me to the baths.”

“With all my heart,” answered the monk, and he forthwith peeled off his clothes, wrapped them in a bundle, and set them on his head.

“My brother!” exclaimed the Deacon, “put on your clothes again. I cannot walk with you in the public street in this condition.”

“Very well, friend, then I will walk first, and you can follow.” And stark naked, bearing his bundle “like a faggot” on his head, he stalked down the crowded thoroughfare.

The baths were divided into two parts, one for women, the other for men. Symeon ran towards the women’s entrance.

“Not that way!” shouted the Deacon in alarm; “the other side is for men.”

“Hot water here, hot water there,” answered Symeon; “one is as good as the other”; and throwing down his bundle, he bounded into the ladies’ compartment, and splashed in amongst the female bathers.

The women screamed, flew on him, beat, scratched, pushed him, and drove him ignominiously forth.

The biographer gravely informs us that on another occasion an unbelieving Jew saw Symeon privately bathing with two “angels,” and would have told what he had seen had not Salos silenced him. It was only after the death of the saint that the Jew related the circumstance. The Christians concluded that the two lovely forms with whom Symeon was enjoying a dip were angels. “To such a pass of purity and impassibility had the saint attained,” continues the Bishop of Neapolis, “that he often led the dance in public with an actress on each arm; he romped with actresses, and by no means infrequently allowed them to tickle his ribs and slap him.”

Indeed, his biographer tells some stories of his association with very fallen angels, which are anything but edifying.

His antics in the streets and market-place became daily more outrageous. “Sometimes he pretended to hobble as if he were lame, sometimes he capered, sometimes he dragged himself along to the seats, then he tripped up the passers-by, and sent them sprawling; sometimes at the rising of the moon he would roll on the ground kicking. Sometimes he pretended to speak incoherently, for he said that this above all things suited those who were made fools for Christ. By this means he often refuted vice, or spat forth his bile against certain persons, with a view to their correction.”

A Count, living near Emesa, heard of him, and said, “I will find out whether the fellow is a hypocrite or not.”

As it happened, when the Count entered the city, he found that Symeon’s housekeeper had hoisted her master upon her back, whilst another young woman administered to him a severe castigation with a leather strap. The Count, we are told, went away much scandalised. Salos wriggled off his housekeeper’s back, ran after the Count, struck him on the cheek, then stripped off his own clothes, and danced in complete nudity before him up the street and down again.

Passing some girls dancing one day, and noticing that some of them had a cast in their eyes, he said, “My dears, let me kiss your pretty eyes and cure you of your squint.”

One or two of the young women permitted him to kiss them, and, we are assured, were cured; after which, all the girls who thought they had something the matter with their eyes ran after Symeon to have theirs kissed. The Deacon John invited him to dinner one day. Symeon went, and devoured raw bacon which was hanging up in the chimney, instead of what was provided for the guests. Symeon was fond of frequenting the houses of the wealthy, where, says his biographer, he sported with and kissed the maids.

Two Fathers were troubled that Origen should be regarded as a heretic, and they asked the hermit John the reason. John bade them inquire of Symeon in Emesa. On reaching Emesa they found the monk in the tavern, with a bowl of boiled pulse before him, eating as voraciously “as a bear.”
“What is the use of consulting this Gnostic?” said one of the Fathers; “he knows nothing but how to crunch pulse.”

“What is the matter with the pulse?” asked Symeon, starting up and boxing the hermit on the ears, so that his face bore the mark for three days. “The pulse has been soaking for forty days, and is soft enough, I warrant ye! As for your Origen, he can’t eat pulse, for he is at the bottom of the sea. And now take this for your pains!” and he flung the scalding pulse in their faces. His reason, Leontius tells us, was to prevent them from telling all men how he had read their purpose before they had spoken about Origen.

One Lord’s Day, Symeon was given a chain of sausages. He hung it over his shoulders like a stole, and filled his left hand with mustard. He ate all day at the sausages, flavouring them with the mustard, and smearing his face with it. This highly amused a rustic, who mocked him. Symeon rushed at him, and threw the mustard in his eyes. The man cried with pain, and Symeon bade him wash the mustard out of his eyes with vinegar. Now it happened that this man was suffering from ophthalmia, and the mustard and vinegar applied to his eyes loosened the white film that was forming over them, and it peeled off, and thus the man was cured.

Symeon had long ago left the service of the publican, and had taken a small cottage, which was only furnished with a bundle of faggots and a housekeeper. John the Deacon supplied him with food, but somehow Symeon managed to secure a store of excellent provisions, and the beggars and tramps of the town were accustomed to assemble in his hut occasionally for a grand feast. John the Deacon unexpectedly dropped in on one of these revels, and wondered where the “white wheaten bread, cheesecakes, buns, fish, and wine of all sorts, dry and sweet, and, in short, whatsoever is to be found most dainty,” had come from, which Symeon and his housekeeper were serving out to the beggars and their wives. But when Symeon assured him that these good things had come down straight from heaven in answer to prayer, the Deacon went away wondering and edified. In the same way Symeon always had his pockets full of money. We find him bribing a woman of bad character with a hundred gold pieces to be his companion. Many of these ladies sought his society with eagerness, “for,” says his pious biographer, “he was always showing them large sums of money, for he had as much as he wanted, God always invisibly supplying him with funds for his purpose.” Whence came this money? For what purpose was it used? Why was the saint so continually found in the society of these women, or among the female servants of the wealthy citizens?

Early in the morning Symeon was wont to leave his hut, twine a garland of herbs, break a bough from a tree, and thus crowned and sceptred enter the city. John the Deacon asked the monk how it was that he never saw him having his hair cut, nor with his hair long. Symeon assured him that this was in answer to prayer. He had supplicated Heaven that he might be saved the trouble of having recourse to a barber, and Heaven had heard him; all which John the Deacon fully believed.

When death approached, Symeon revisited his friend John in the wilderness, who probably did not find his old comrade much improved in morals and manners by his residence in town.

He then returned to Emesa, and was found dead one morning under his bundle of faggots.

The remarks of Alban Butler are not a little amusing. “Although we are not obliged in every instance to imitate St. Symeon, and though it would be rash even to attempt it without a special call; yet his example ought to make us blush”—we should think so, indeed—“when we consider”—ah!—“with what an ill-will we suffer the least things that hurt our pride.” Symeon slipped into the Roman Martyrology by an inadvertency. Let us trust that at the next revision, he may be turned out.