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There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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16: Syria's upwardly mobile saint
ROM THE VERY START, the monastic movement involved quite terrifying levels of self-deprivation. By the time it was 100 years old, therefore, mere self-imposed solitary confinement on starvation rations was no guarantee of celebrity, and monks who wanted to make a name for themselves had to resort to hairshirts, chains or nakedness, flagellation (self-inflicted or communal), bondage and a diet of rotten meat.

In fact, making a name for himself was the last thing Simeon wanted. (This is an earlier St Simeon than our own Holy Fool, though I'm sure he deserves a share in the title.) He took to the full rigours of self-mutilation and hunger to deny and escape the world, and yet the holier he got, the more the world crowded to his door (or, to be pedantic, to the mouth of his cave). Crowds came to ask for prayer, advice, and hints on theological conundrums.

And so Simeon had a brainwave. Failing to escape outwardly from the world, he would escape upwardly. Demonstrating either a stunning naivety about PR, or darn sly genius, he got hold of a 10-foot pillar, set it up and sat on it. Alas, the numbers who flocked for the spectacle and some second-hand sanctity were soon greater than ever. So our saint extended his pillar. And the crowds grew all the more.

This pattern continued till Simeon was 60, maybe 70 feet in the air, and Syria's major tourist attraction. The first person, it has been said, to achieve solitary confinement in public. Even emperors came for consultations.

So he gave in, and every afternoon opened shop for sermons, prayer requests, an agony column, and to explain the Trinity to delegates from the ecumenical councils. He finally descended 36 years later, dead.

One of the few sayings of his that has come down to us is: "Eat what God has given you." A latter-day backpedalling from the excesses of monastic asceticism? Not exactly. He said it to the maggots that he fed to his self-inflicted wounds.

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