Simeon Stylites, Margery Kempe, and Philip Jacob Spener share little in the way of biographical details. Simeon, a fourth-century hermit, lived atop a pillar for 36 years, eating only one small meal per week. Margery made a deal with her husband around 1413 that if he would grant her wish of celibacy, she would grant his wish that she drink beer with him on Fridays. Spener, a seventeenth-century German divine, so impressed the ruling House of Saxony with his pious writings and pastoral effectiveness that he earned free postal privileges.

These three figures likely would not have approved of each other's methods and might not even have recognized each other as Christians. Yet all achieved fame as paragons of holiness.

Some aspects of the pursuit of holiness have remained constant throughout church history. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century apocalyptic book that almost made it into the canon, prescribes this lifestyle:

"Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God."

Christians in all times and places could affirm this basic plan for drawing near to God. God's character and precepts are always the same. But holiness also entails being "set apart" from the world. As the world has changed, so have ideals of holiness.

Desert superheroes

Simeon was not the only pillar-dwelling hermit of his era. He inspired a small wave of stylites, who took their name from the Greek word for "column," stulos. And this group was just an ...

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