Imagine, for a moment, that you are walking along a dirt road in the seventh century Middle East. The sun is hot, the air is dry, your feet are tired. It’s been a long journey, by boat and foot, from your home in Constantinople to where you find yourself now: outside of the walls of the mountainous river city of Antioch. In the bright sunlight, you strain your eyes to catch a distant glimpse of the sight you’ve come all this way to see – and then suddenly, you do. A bright stone pillar, stretching as tall as a church dome with an unsteady-looking wooden platform; and atop it a tiny, bedraggled, flinty old man.
You’ve found him: the Pillar Saint.
To our modern eyes, this is a profoundly weird image – but it would have been a recognisable, even iconic, one if we were living in the early medieval Middle East. To explain how we got here – and how that guy got on that pillar - we need to step back and tell the origin story of one of the most recognisable characters in medieval life: the monk.