The Prison (St. John of the Ladder)

St. John Climacus was very edified by a visit to a dependency of an Alexandrian monastery, called “The Prison,” where monks who had gravely sinned lived in extreme ascesis and gave extraordinary proofs of repentance, straining by their labors to receive God’s forgiveness. Far from appearing as hard and intolerable, this prison seemed rather to the Saint to be the model of monastic life: “A soul that has lost its one-time confidence and abandoned its hope of dispassion, that has broken the seal of chastity, that has squandered the treasury of divine graces, that has become a stranger to divine consolation, that has rejected the Lord’s command … and that is wounded and pierced by sorrow as it remembers all this, will not only take on the labors mentioned above with all eagerness, but will even decide devoutly to kill itself with penitential works. It will do so if there is in it only the tiniest spark of love or of fear of the Lord.”


St. John Climacus also uses earthly analogies of slavery, prison and prisoners for the monastic life:

You who have decided to strip for the arena of this spiritual confession, you who wish to take on your neck the yoke of Christ, you who are therefore trying to lay your own burden on Another’s shoulders, you who are hastening to sign a pledge that you are voluntarily surrendering yourself to slavery, and in return want freedom written to your account, you who are being supported by the hands of others as you swim across this great sea—you should know that you have decided to travel by a short but rough way, from which there is only one deflection, and it is called singularity.3 But he who has renounced this entirely, even in things that seem to be good and spiritual and pleasing to God, has reached the end before setting out on his journey. For obedience is distrust of oneself in everything, however good it may be, right up to the end of one’s life. (4:5)

 Thola 1

‘I judged that I had been sold into slavery for my sins; and so it was with bitterness, with a great effort, and as it were with blood that I made the prostration. But after a year had passed, my heart no longer felt sorrow, and I expected a reward for my obedience from God Himself. But when another year had gone by, I began to be deeply conscious of my unworthiness even to live in the monastery, and see and meet the fathers, and partake of the Divine Mysteries. And I did not dare to look anyone in the face, but bending low with my eyes, and still lower with my thought, I sincerely asked for the prayers of those coming in and going out.’ (Isidore, 4:24)

 Thola 2

And so, seeing him daily in wretched plight like the lowest slave, I would ask him when I met him: “What is the matter, Brother Acacius, how are you today?“ And he would at once show me a black eye, or a scarred neck or head. But knowing that he was a worker, I would say to him: “Well done, well done; endure and it will be for your good.” Having done nine years with this pitiless elder, he departed to the Lord. (Akakios 4:110)


A poor monk is lord of the world. He has entrusted his cares to God and by faith has obtained all men as his slaves. (17:2)

Blessed is he who is as zealous with true zeal as a well-disposed slave towards his master. (30:11)

Do not be like those who in burying their dead first lament over them and then get drunk for their sake. But be like the prisoners in the mines who are flogged every hour by the gaolers. (7:13)

 Thola 4

Convicts in prison have no joy or delight, and true monks have no feast on earth. Perhaps that is why that excellent mourner, sighing, said: ‘Bring my soul out of prison4 that it may rejoice henceforward in Thy ineffable light.’ (7:38)

He who is chained up in prison fears the judge who sentences him, but the hermit in his cell brings forth fear of the Lord; and the tribunal is not so terrifying to the former as the throne of the Judge is to the latter. You need great fear for solitude, excellent man, because nothing else is so effective in dispelling despondency. The convict is continually looking to see when the judge will come to the prison; and the true worker wonders when the angel of death will come. A burden of sorrow oppresses the former, but the latter has a fountain of tears. (27:69)

The Rake's Progress - Scene in Bedlam
The Rake’s Progress – Scene in Bedlam

Here is what the Saint wrote about “The Prison” [NOTE: Those who are familiar with the histories and descriptions of 18th-19th century mental asylums will notice some striking similarities. Not to mention in Orthodox countries like Russia, most mentally ill individuals were housed in monasteries until asylums spread to that region of the world in the mid-1800s]:

Bethlehem Asylum 'Bedlam'
Bethlehem Asylum ‘Bedlam’

For Western Christian forms of “The Prison,” see Ulrich L. Lehner’s Monastic Prisons and Torture Chambers: Crime and Punishment in Central European Monasteries, 1600-1800:

Following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholic religious orders underwent substantial reform. Nevertheless, on occasion monks and nuns had to be disciplined and–if they had committed a crime–punished. Consequently, many religious orders relied on sophisticated criminal law traditions that included torture, physical punishment, and prison sentences. Ulrich L. Lehner provides for the first time an overview of how monasteries in central Europe prosecuted crime and punished their members, and thus introduces a host of new questions for anyone interested in state-church relations, gender questions, the history of violence, or the development of modern monasticism. 

Monks' Prison - Meteora
Monks’ Prison – Meteora

Symeon the Holy Fool: Patron of the Mentally Ill (Fernando Espí Forcén)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The British Journal of Psychiatry, August 1st, 2014, p. 94:

St. Symeon the Fool Dragging a Dead Dog
St. Symeon the Fool Dragging a Dead Dog

Every professional guild or social group has always had a patron saint. That of the mentally ill is Symeon Salus (the fool), whose hagiography shares some symptoms of madness that gained him the patronage of this particular group. Symeon was an anchorite who was reportedly born in the city of Edessa, Syria in the 6th century AD. His life was dramatised in the 7th century as Life and Conduct of Abba Symeon Called the Fool for the Sake of Christ written in Greek by Leontius of Neapolis (on Cyprus). Even if it is probably based on some biographical details narrated in the 6th century Ecclesiastical History by Evagrius Scholasticus, the story of Symeon must be considered an original work of Leontius.

Symeon Salus

Like other ancient anchorites such as Symeon Stylite or Saint Anthony Abbot, he committed to a long period of retirement with his friend John. At a certain point Symeon Salus felt the call from God to save human souls in a very particular way: he purportedly chose to look insane and moved to the city of Emesa. Before arriving in the city, he found a dead dog in a dunghill; he loosened the rope of his tunic, tied a dog’s paw with it and dragged the carcass on the floor as he was entering the gates of the city. Some children nearby saw him and cried ‘Hey, a crazy monk’, they ran after him and boxed him on the ears. The following day, which was a Sunday, Symeon went to church and started cracking nuts noisily. After that, he snuffed the candles and when people ran after him to expel him from the church he pelted women violently with the nuts. Once he was expelled, he overturned the tables of pastry chefs, and they consequently almost beat him to death.

αγιος συμεων δια χριστος σαλος

The life of Symeon contains common features with traditional hagiographical literature with the purpose of showing that the saint was an imitator of Christ. Thus, Symeon gives food to the poor, practises exorcisms and saves people from sins. Nonetheless, he had erratic behaviours unparalleled in other anchorites that constantly provoked public scandals: he ate copiously in taverns, defecated in the streets, practised nudism, entered the baths of women, pretended to rape a woman and walked around being carried and whipped by prostitutes in a sadomasochistic manner. The behaviours described in the life of Symeon could be comparable with mental illness, but his reputation made him turn the patron of the mentally ill, whose festivity is celebrated on 1 July. Probably due to the eccentricity of Symeon Salus, there is not an iconographical tradition of him and therefore no devotional images. Calendars are probably the only visual source for Symeon Salus. A 17th-century French calendar illustrates the festivity of 1 July with a beautiful etching by the artist Jacques Callot that lyrically depicts Symeon in the city of Emessa surrounded by children.

Symeon Salus cover

Syemon Salus’ biography has been digitalized and can be read online here:

άγ. Συμεών ο σαλός 2