Literalization of symbols and bodily representation of biblical models

The phenomenon of stylites has to be interpreted in the larger framework of Syrian spirituality. It seems that the general tendency in early Christianity to literalize symbols, and to represent biblical models bodily, is prevalent in the Syrian tradition. Symeon and his successors standing on a pillar, that is to say, standing midway between heaven and earth, symbolically fulfilled the call to imitate Christ in a radical sense. Standing with their arms outstretched in prayer, they were living images of the crucified. Thus also St Alexis, the prototype of a Mesopotamian 'holy man', is not only to be seen in a functional way but has to be interpreted in terms of the imitatio Christi. The story of this young man from a wealthy family who leaves everything behind to take up the life of a beggar at the church door, can be read as the literal translation of Jesus' kenosis as found in Phil. 2: 7. So Alexis' Life has also to end with an empty grave, a motive which seems to belong to the original core of the legend. Likewise, those who went naked, surviving on a vegetarian diet, living among wild animals, exposing themselves to all kinds of weather, and leading an uninterrupted life of prayer and devotion to God, imitated the life in Eden. They acted out with their bodies the spiritual truth of their faith that Christ, the second Adam, made it possible to live as it were in paradise before the Fall. Most of those features of Syriac hagiography, which might be bewildering for many modern western Christians, can simply be understood as the consequence of the embodiment of Christian belief in practical behaviour.

These are obviously rooted in biblical models: first of all in Jesus himself and his chosen disciples, but also Old Testament prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, and John the Baptist, Paul and his female counterpart St Thecla, who became particularly prominent in Syrian Christianity, thanks to the widespread and quasi-canonical reception of the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. Less prominent figures from the New Testament, such as Tabitha, who served the early Christian community with works of charity, according to Acts 9: 36, could also be models. It is the common teaching of Syriac hagiographic sources that it is through the believer's life and death that his or her faith becomes manifest. For Euphemia, a saintly widow from Amida, whom John of Ephesus in the sixth century portrayed as a second Tabitha, that meant not only prayer and fasting but also begging for the poor and working hard to earn her own sustenance.

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