For some reason, this passage from Tennyson's "St. Simeon Stylites" popped into my head last night:
For not alone this pillar-punishment,
Not this alone I bore: but while I lived
In the white convent down the valley there,
For many weeks about my loins I wore
The rope that haled the buckets from the well,
Twisted as tight as I could knot the noose;
And spake not of it to a single soul,
Until the ulcer, eating through my skin,
Betrayed my secret penance, so that all
My brethren marvelled greatly. More than this
I bore, whereof, O God, thou knowest all.
When I teach this poem, the students rapidly pick up on how St. Simeon casts his theatricality in the form of humility: the dramatic monologue indicts extreme asceticism (that ulcer "eating through my skin") as a form of mad selfishness. There's nothing especially innovative about Tennyson's critique. The mainstream Protestant position on asceticism, first, was that as a purported imitation of Christ's sufferings on the cross, it confused a purely personal choice with a divinely mandated sacrifice (true suffering is always sent by God); and, second, that by undermining the ascetic's health, it also interfered with his or her duties to the larger community. (When Jane Eyre refuses to kill herself by accompanying St. John Rivers to India, she draws on a similar logic.) St. Simeon's obsessive calculations of suffering, which land him in blasphemous territory, turn his agonies into both a competition with other saints ("Show me the man hath suffered more than I") and a virtuoso theatrical performance. But his agonies, far from subduing the flesh, have simply rendered it all the more painfully prominent.
There's something else, though, that I love about this passage, and it's one of those tiny details which are so easy to skip. St. Simeon disciplines himself with the rope from the well. How, I ask my students, did his fellow monks draw any water while St. Simeon was making illicit use of the rope?