Selected Poetry: 1974-
a story by
Paul Seifert, M.D.
Dawn slowly ensues on the day following Lent. Ebony night succumbs to the matutinal gray softness of insurgent light. A fiery glow rises in the east, as the triumphant sun lifts skyward within an incandescent areola of light. The oppressive darkness slowly vanishes, dissipating into the azure ether of the morning sky. Good Friday has arrived at last.
Simeon--in loincloth and hair shirt--hangs like a gibbeted corpse from a harness. He has been suspended forty days in this, his thirtieth year upon the pillar. With supreme effort, he contracts every muscle in his body, every muscle still capable of response to his iron will. His torso pivots in the torsade de pointes of a dying dancer on his numb and useless legs. Simeon's face confronts the wooden framework from which he hangs, as his body slowly turns like a weathercock in the gentle morning breeze.
Because this is the dawn of Good Friday, the people have gathered in even greater numbers below his tower, forty cubits below. Simeon can see them looking up, but he knows they look at God, not him. They are watching the shadowy outlines of his body emerge from the darkness, wondering if he has died this day. But death would be too facile for Simeon. His victory lies in persistence, not death.
Simeon's eyes fix upon the emerging, grainy surface of the framework before his face, as the light ascends in glory. The pits in the soft wood become tombs in Simeon's imagination, from which the dead in ranks come crawling, dragging their entrails and holding their hearts before their terror-stricken faces like flaming beacons.
"I thirst," Simeon rasps, but the words are only echoes of sound upon the rushing wind and the dead refuse to listen. There has been no rain in many days, no gift from God to alleviate the parched and bleeding surfaces of his tongue.
"I thirst," he mumbles once again. Still, Simeon knows that Marconius, his latest disciple, will soon come to him, for the sacrificial season has ended. He will drink and then, he will thirst no more. He will no longer hang, but sit, sharing triumphantly in the glory of his dying God.
Simeon rests upon his haunches atop the stark and empty surface of the pillar. Marconius has removed the scaffolding that held the master's body upright throughout the Lenten season. This year, the ulcer on his thigh has curtailed Simeon's ability to stand upon his own, as he has done in prior years. His mortification, his shame, bears down upon him like an incubus.
Simeon has been sitting thus from dawn until the present hour--the approach of sext--the time of the highest passage of the sun, and the beginning of the glorious passion of the Lord. Marconius has given him water, but other than the Blessed Sacrament, Simeon has refused any of the proffered food. He will break bread only on Easter morning, not until then.
All morning, Simeon has been watching the sun rising in the east, and now the brilliant globe lies directly to the south, having reached the apex of its thrust into the heavens. For the next three hours, Simeon will confront the sun, willing it to extinguish its profane and no longer wanted light. He will stare into its fiery, boiling substance until he himself is blinded, until he is overcome by blessed darkness, the darkness shining in the brightness, the darkness which the brightness cannot comprehend.
Within the glimmering areola of pain that surrounds the solar body, Simeon notices the appearance of a tiny speck, followed soon thereafter by the appearance of several others. He knows the specks are birds of prey, the demon harpies of temptation. He knows they are coming for him. He knows they will approach his eyes and devour them, as if those eyes were succulent grapes, like those that once hung in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knows he will not be able to resist the horrid beaks of such persistent birds of prey.
As the creatures fly closer, Simeon shudders to find them becoming smaller. They are transmogrified grotesquely before his transfixed eyes into locusts and wasps. On they come in vast hordes, becoming smaller, but more numerous. He can hear, against the gentle soughing of the wind, the drumming beat of horrifying wings.
It is high noon; the passion of the condemned Christ is beginning. The creatures reach Simeon. He can feel them feeding upon his flesh. Hundreds crawl over the surfaces of his tormented eyes, which remain fixed and obdurate upon the glare of the maddening sun.
Suddenly, the horror of Simeon's anguish is multiplied seven hundred fold within a single stroke of time. The creatures begin to invade his body, inching first into the space behind his eyes. The sensation is unreal, tormenting--like nothing he has suffered before. Simeon can sense pincers, beaks, and stingers at work upon the flesh behind his eyes. Then his ears, his nose, and mouth are in turn invaded.
An array of insects is crawling down Simeon's esophagus. Soon, he can sense creatures flying like ominous black birds within the cavity of his stomach, falling in free flight like sea birds from an ocean crag, or bouncing off the walls of his gullet, pecking at his flesh from deep within. Now the creatures are invading the orifices of his nether parts. He can feel hordes of crawling demons writhing within his bowels and bladder, laying eggs and nesting within the very depths of his entrails. Simeon cries out in anguish at the agony of his unspeakable pain--pain worse than he has heretofore been able to imagine. The people hear his cries, but the people cannot know what torments him.
"Take this cup from me," Simeon cries out, but in vain. The insects redouble their efforts, pinching and eating at him, consuming him from within. This diabolical feast continues through the next three agonizing hours of the afternoon. Simeon fears his flesh will not survive the passion of his God, that he will collapse into the dark pit of the second death, a mere shell of himself, his soul deflated like an empty wineskin.
But then--at the very terminus of the final hour—a miracle! His tormentors are suddenly transformed once more, this time to become the precious angels of the Lord! Simeon slumps forward in ecstasy, as joyous tears pour forth from his eyes. He is aglow with the fire of the relentless sun, his pitiless age transformed to angelhood in one maddening burst of all consuming love, at the very moment of the death of Christ. The veil of blindness falls from his eyes. The horrid, tormenting insects have become the angels of the Lord! A sudden hush falls upon the crowd below the pillar. The angels caress Simeon from within and the people can see the glory shining from his face. As the angels lap at Simeon's flesh, his body is filled with purifying and incandescent love.
Born a shepherd's son in Cilicia, Simeon--as a youth--had fed the lambs of his father. In the fields, the small flying things dancing among the wildflowers were never insects, but tiny angels of the Lord. His visions of angels--to Simeon, a sign of grace--led the boy to the monastery of the Abbot Timothy, where Simeon hoped to purify himself through prayer and fasting and through the mortification of that flesh, from which the demon at shameful intervals protruded in the form of a malignant staff. The call of the flesh was the Devil's goad in Simeon's side. The rapturous curve of the female breast tormented him in the darkness. Tiny hardnesses, wet with the sweat of lust, caressed his nakedness through interminable and tortured nights. The moist heat between the entwining thighs of the Lilith seductress chaffed at Simeon's soul and drew his tainted hand to that place of succulent softness where maidenhairs--fine as gossamer--became shackles of iron, binding him to the shamefully delectable fruit of Adam's fall.
Simeon spent his two happiest years with Abbot Timothy, but during his novitiate, the young religious contrived for his waist a girdle of rope, woven of palm leaves. This constrictive device he wound about his body ever so tightly, until the fibers seared deeply into his flesh, gracing him with magnificent and purifying pain. The stench of his putrefying flesh betrayed Simeon to the brotherhood. Surgical incisions were necessary to extract the fibers from his skin.
When Simeon's elaborate penance was discovered, Father Timothy was incensed with the young novice. Simeon was summarily dismissed as an example to the brotherhood of the great sin of hubris--the extravagant evil of morbid and excessive pride.
Out on the roads, moving from village to village, eating the chafing dust of the desert, Simeon discovered his power to heal the sick. His approach was heralded from town to town. Soon, there was little respite from the crowds that beset him on all sides. Penitents would cling to his neck and feet. Simeon would draw the sin and the putrefaction of their bodies into his own. In cleansing his fellow pilgrims, Simeon's own body became a distended shell of corruption and pain. But still, the people came to him in hordes, in droves, until Simeon was weakened to the point of extinction by a dreadful sickness of the spirit. Filth and corruption clogged his hair and coated his skin, which soon erupted into pustules, blisters, and putrid scales. Still, the people came to him, demanding cleansing from their afflictions and liberation from their unendurable pain.
How could the people know the cost of their exorcism? To cure them, Simeon's nerve endings would arborize from the ends of his fingertips, extend like the tendrils of some plant shakily into space, grapple with the demons gloating within the bodies of the sick and subdue them by strangulation. The pain of this singular process was intense, as if Simeon's own skin were rent and torn. Once inside Simeon's body, the demons would gnaw at him mercilessly. Only when the secretions of love oozing from that minuscule portion of his being that belongs to God dissolved each demonic entity, each element of corruption to a lingering, but impotent purulence could he find release. Corruption would ooze from Simeon's body slowly over the course of agonizing days and weeks.
In time, the pain of such work became too much for Simeon. Despite his iron resolve to do the bidding of the Lord, he withered beneath the insatiable needs of the people. To escape the ragged hands, to distance himself from the cries and the supplications of the sick, from the feverish demands that he relieve the plagues and the cancers that pick at the flesh without mercy, Simeon placed himself upon the first of many towers. His first pillar had been no taller than the height of the largest man. Now, thirty years later, Simeon stands forty cubits closer to the iridescent heaven of the living God.
On this, the holiest day of the year, the people have been swarming beneath the pillar since dawn. The rich, the court officials, the politicians, even Kings have been sending up petitions in chalices of gold. What can Simeon say to the rich that has not been said with greater eloquence many times before.
"Give up your worldly possessions," he shouts from atop the pillar. "Feed the sick and hungry, clothe the lost and the homeless!"
Simeon, his face contorted by a wry smile, follows with his eyes the sad retreat of the rich, as the worldly withdraw unfulfilled from the square before the tower.
The sun defines midday. Simeon stands rigidly, his legs ramrod straight. Slowly, he bends, his body flexing at the hips. Down, down, he forces his head until it strikes the surface of the pillar before his feet. He holds the agonizing position of contortion until his vision begins to fade. Then he slowly lifts his upper trunk skyward, his arms rising to the side to assume the configuration of Christ upon the Cross. After a second of vicarious glory, Simeon repeats the process again, and yet again, and then once again.
The vertigo is intense, threatening to hurl him to the ground below, but Simeon will not allow himself to succumb to the weakness of his flesh. At the corner of his eye, he perceives a counter, the seventh of the day thus far. Simeon scoffs, for the counter counts in vain. Only darkness will abort the rhythmic repetitions. No counter will ever know the number of repetitions demanded of Simeon, as penance to the living God.
The counter leers at Simeon and then gives up the impossible task, spitting defiantly into the dust at his feet. Simeon watches the counter out of eyes rimmed in scarlet and suffused with blood. In response to the Stylite's penetrating gaze, the counter transmogrifies to become an owl which rises up in defiant challenge, its razor sharp beak slashing out at Simeon's flesh. A dark, ominous, and shadowy form sweeps past the Stylite's face. Whimpering a sad and plaintive cry, the counter's familiar implodes into nonexistence. Simeon bends his trunk. The vertigo is intense, but he triumphantly plunges his undefiled face toward the space before his feet.
During each of the canonical hours that remain on this Easter Sunday, and for all of the days yet to come, Simeon's ministry upon the tower will continue, a relentless testimony to his mastery of persistence. The possessed, the leprous, and the maimed come to him in hordes, some of these mere skeletons crying out for deliverance, reaching up to the Stylite with bony, emaciated hands. Some of these, Simeon will find the strength to heal.
The naked sisters of the Lilith seductress, too, bewail Simeon's ears with lewd suggestions. Some of these try in vain to bribe Marconius to carry them aloft. The demons among them slink in their black robes to the limits of the mandra--the circle of purity surrounding the stylos. Here they writhe out of their profane garb, inflate their organs of temptation to enormous proportions, and project these by sorcery to within a fingerbreadth of Simeon's resisting and triumphant tongue.
Despite such torments, Simeon will stand, he will pace, and he will bend endlessly in homage to the living God. The vertigo will take him repeatedly to the edge of the parapet, where the winged minions of the fiend beckon, cajole, and threaten. All the while, an angel of the Lord clings fast to Simeon's thigh to prevent his fall. The angel's relentless grasp has already ulcerated Simeon's flesh, but the wound is sweet and holy. As he bends, Simeon cleanses the purulence from the gaping wound with his tongue, as his head descends. The taste of the wound is sweet, but bone has been visible in the depths of his ulcerated thigh for months. The people cry out in anguish at the sight of the cavernous sore, but Simeon experiences only ecstasy from the steady pressure of the angel's firm and reassuring grasp upon his flesh. He is overcome with joy when he is afforded a precious glimpse into the glorious, intrepid void behind the angel's adoring, mesmerizing eyes.
Simeon knows that he will be released. He knows he will rise from the pillar one day. His spirit will never descend from the tower, even though the corrupt remnants of his tainted flesh will be carried down. The useless obsequies that will be applied to his mortal remains will be meaningful only for those who tried to love him.
Evening brings on a still and blessed solitude. Simeon peers down at the people, as they fade into the shadows of the waning day. The hilltops are afire with the painted, golden glory of the setting sun.
Yes, Simeon will rise some day. He knows that his spirit will rise from the pillar, and be drawn at last into the sacred heart of Jesus. The beating of that mighty organ will thunder in Simeon's ears, drowning out the last pitiful sound of sorrow on the wretched earth.
Simeon senses, as he peers at the slowly rising moon, that when his spirit enters the chambers of the sacred heart, he will be released at last from the oppressive labors of the flesh. He will become an element of the Eucharistic blood of Christ. From the blessed heart of Jesus, Simeon will flow on and on through eternity, his spirit traveling an endless, timeless stream through the loving veins of the absolute, through the ever flowing bloodstream of the Incarnation. How sweet this most divine thought, that he--Simeon--will participate in the nourishment of the divine and holy flesh of the resurrected Christ, and that he--even he--will become the Bread of Life!
The wings of innumerable angels flutter in the soft darkness that surrounds the stylos. The stars vibrate in an atmosphere of ethereal beauty. A gentle wind blows through the olive gardens. Fruit falls to the earth and Simeon's heart resounds. Until that blessed day of glory, Simeon will pace. He will stand. He will hang, and he will bend, bend, and then he will bend again, carrying his pounding head to the vital space between his feet, his three-point stance symbolic of the Hypostatic Union of the Triune God. Simeon will bend again, and yet again, bending, bending, and then bending once again to the never-ending glory of the living God.
Darkness has fallen. The village sleeps. Simeon's eyes, scarlet orbs rimmed in fire, behold timeless visions of a transcendent glory far beyond the confines of simple space. The wind is rising in the East. The angel grips his festering wound, but no cry of pain disturbs the solitude of those sleeping upon the gentle earth.