March 30, 2015

Saint John of the Well as a Model for our Lives

St. John of the Well (Feast Day - March 30)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

The venerable John lived as an ascetic in the wilderness and the last ten years of his life he spent inside a dry well, which is why he has become known to us as Venerable John of the Well.

At a relatively young age, after having received the blessing of his mother, he departed for the desert. Later, with the blessing of his Elder (Pharmutios), he fled to the interior desert where he found a dry well full of scorpions, snakes and other reptiles. After a fervent prayer to God, he descended into the well. An Angel of the Lord helped him descend, and by the Grace of God the venomous beasts did not hurt him. There he remained for ten whole years praying, until his death, and would be fed with the food given by the Angel of the Lord to his Elder.

When it was time for the Lord to call the venerable John to his eternal habitation, the Angel of the Lord led the hermit Chrysios to the well of the Saint. Having arrived he declared the purpose for his visit, that the Lord sent him to bury his ascetic body. Then the Saint came out of the well in a miraculous manner, and told Chrysios that his mother Juliana, who was widowed from a young age, was a pious woman who raised him and his sister Themistea "in the education and admonition of the Lord", and protected her children from the persecutors of Christians. And although rich in material goods, she taught her children that true wealth is in Christ, the "precious pearl". Lastly, he spoke to him of his life in the well, which for him was in actuality his grave, as well as his earthly Paradise.

When the venerable John completed what he had to say, he reposed in peace and Chrysios buried his much-contested body near the well. Next to his grave a palm was planted, and then the following miracle took place. The palm immediately grew and became a perfect tree, that flourished and bore fruit. When Chrysios saw this miracle he glorified God, who glorifies in return those who by their way of life become the cause for the glorification of His all-holy Name. And while praying, a spirit of the Lord grabbed him and brought him to a place where he rested.

The life and conduct of the venerable John gives us the opportunity to highlight the following:

First, asceticism, prayer and the participation in the Mysteries of the Church, especially the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, is the lifestyle taught by the Orthodox Church. Asceticism is not an end in itself, but a means that lead towards the end and purpose. The purpose of asceticism is the death of the carnal mind and not the human body, the transformation of the passions, and the knowledge of God and union with Him by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. The people of God are not body-killers, but passion-killers, because the body is not something evil nor useless, it is not the prison of the soul, but it is "the temple of the Holy Spirit in us" and "if anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person". Also, asceticism (fasting, vigils, prostrations, etc.) without prayer does not benefit a person, because through prayer the heart opens and the light of the Grace of God enters. Besides, demons keep vigil and fast, since they don't have a body, but it doesn't benefit them because they don't repent and they don't pray. Therefore, fasting without prayer is the "invention of demons", according to Saint Maximus the Confessor.

There are Christians who are accustomed to fasting throughout the entire period of Great Lent, which we are currently going through, without praying or without increasing the time and intensity of their prayer, as well as not participating in the services designated by the Church to be conducted during this period, such as Great Compline, the Great Canon, the Presanctified Divine Liturgy, the Salutations and Akathist. Yet, abstinence and fasting are not a diet for losing weight, but in conjunction with prayer and love they are remedies for a person to be able to experience the presence of God as light (Paradise) and not as fire (Hell). But also the spiritual gifts are given to those who live in asceticism and prayer. In one hymn of the Church to the Venerable Ones, the following is recorded among other things: "By fasting, vigils and prayer you received heavenly gifts." Of course, this means also the partaking of the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, since we pray and keep vigil in order to commune. Besides, the peak of a vigil is the Divine Liturgy.

Second, when a person has the Grace of the Holy Spirit within them, then they are respected even by the venomous beasts and sit beside them like harmless lambs. Just as the Prophet Daniel, when thrown into the pit with hungry lions, remained unharmed, the same harmlessness remained with the venerable John when he descended into the dry well with the scorpions and the snakes. The Grace of God and the blessing of his Elder kept him invulnerable.

Many ascetics reached "extreme" forms of asceticism, but they did it because of their great love for God. Besides, perfect love is identical with sacrifice and whoever acquires it becomes the greatest blessing to humanity, since they continuously pray for the entire world. And because perfect love comes from inner peace, this is why thousands of people come to find peace around them, according to the words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

What is first and foremost missing today in these hard and turbulent times is authentic love and inner peace, which have the power to offer modern aching people the sweetness of elementary humanity, consolation, a smile and hope.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ὅσιος Ἰωάννης ὁ ἐν τῶ φρέατι", February 2012. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.