December 3, 2019

Life of Saint John the Hesychast, Bishop of Colonia (St. Dimitri of Rostov)

St. John the Hesychast (Feast Day - December 3)


I am not resting. For by death I am crowned,
Were the words of the the hesychast John.

By St. Dimitri of Rostov

Our venerable father John the Silent, a man deserving of unceasing praise, was from Nicopolis of Armenia. His father was named Encratius, and his mother Euphemia. He was born on the eighth day of January, during the fourth year of the reign of the pious Marcian, and was enlightened in Holy Baptism. His parents were Orthodox Christians known throughout Armenia for their wealth. Encratius was a general held in high regard by the Emperor, who entrusted him with great authority. This is mentioned not so that John may be praised because of his noble birth (for the saints are blessed and extolled for their virtues, not because they are highborn), but that, knowing how eminent was the family from which God’s favorite sprang, we might understand how profound was the humility he attained.

John and his brothers were instructed thoroughly in the divine Scriptures. Both his parents departed unto the Lord while he was still young, leaving a large inheritance to their children. The blessed John took his portion and with it erected the church dedicated to the most pure and blessed Virgin Mary in the city of Nicopolis. At the age of eighteen he renounced the world and was clothed in the monastic schema. Together with other monks, he struggled in asceticism at the church he had founded. Throughout his youth he took great care to subject his flesh to the spirit, not wishing to become a slave to the belly or be conquered by the passions. He became a man wondrous in the virtues, a good and tried director of souls, and was chosen abbot by the brethren.

When John reached the age of twenty-eight, the Bishop of Colonia reposed, and the people of that city went to the Metropolitan of Sebastea to ask for a successor. The name of John, the abbot of Nicopolis, was on everyone’s lips during the selection of a candidate, for all regarded him as worthy of the episcopal throne. Since his profound humility was well known, it was expected that he would be unwilling to accept the rank of bishop; therefore, the Metropolitan summoned him to Sebastea under the pretext that he had business to conduct with him. When the saint arrived, the Metropolitan was able to persuade him to accept the episcopal rank, and John was consecrated. Though he accepted the rule of the Church of Colonia, he did not change his monastic regimen or lessen his struggles. He never went to the baths, being very careful lest others see him naked; indeed, he did not permit himself to see his own body unclad, and never washed even in private, remembering the fall Adam suffered in his nakedness. His sole concern was to please God by fasting, prayer, and chastity of body and soul. He strove to keep his thoughts always pure, casting down every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. When others saw how he conducted himself, they also began to live in a righteous manner. Among these was Pergamius, his brother according to the flesh, an eminent man held in high esteem by the Emperor Zeno, and by Anastasius, Zeno’s successor. Seeing Saint John’s life of virtue, Pergamius was filled with compunction and began to strive fervently to please the Lord. Similarly, John’s nephew Theodore, who later came to be regarded with great respect by the pious Emperor Justinian, heard report of his uncle’s way of life, which was equal to that of the angels. Greatly edified, he and his entire household began to live in a godly manner. The entire court was amazed by Theodore’s wisdom, devotion to the faith, and compassion for the poor. And truly, Theodore excelled in every good quality, having as an example the blameless life of his uncle, the blessed John.

Our God-bearing father John fulfilled his duties as bishop for ten years, directing the Church of Christ well. Then Pazinicus, his sister Mary’s husband, was appointed Governor of Armenia. Incited by a demon, he began to trouble the Church entrusted to John and to deal wickedly with the blessed one. He interfered with the administration of the diocese and forcibly removed those who had taken refuge in church from punishment, refusing to permit the clergy and the founders of churches to direct ecclesiastical affairs. Many times John humbly besought him not to interfere in matters that did not pertain to him, and to repent; but Pazinicus refused to correct himself, and after Mary’s death his meddling grew even worse. As a result, the saint, who could endure no longer the evil done to the Church, was compelled to go to Constantinople to speak with the Emperor Zeno. He found an ally in Euthymius, the Archbishop of the Imperial City, who interceded on his behalf with the ruler.

After this the blessed John, spurning the vanity and innumerable cares of this world, decided to forsake his diocese and go to Jerusalem, there to labor for God in silence. He served the Divine Liturgy, then dismissed the presbyters and other clergymen present, and went down alone to the harbor, where he secretly embarked a ship bound for the Holy Land. He entered the first poorhouse he came to in Jerusalem, in which there was a church dedicated to the holy great-martyr George. There he remained for some time, pretending he was a pauper. Seeing that the inhabitants of the city were entirely given over to vain pursuits, he became downcast and yearned even more for a place of quiet. He prayed to God earnestly with tears, beseeching the Lord to show him a place where he could live in silence, free from cares. One night, while praying fervently, he looked up and saw a brilliant star appear unexpectedly, taking the form of a cross. The star came toward him and he heard a voice speak from the light, saying, "Follow, if you wish to be saved." John gladly followed and was led to the great lavra of our venerable and God-bearing father Sabbas. This took place while Sallustius was Patriarch of Jerusalem and John was in his thirty-eighth year.

John toiled fervently and obediently at whatever task he was given by the steward. At that time a guesthouse was being built in the lavra, and the blessed John was assigned to serve the workers. He cooked their food, carried water, brought them stone, and helped them construct the building. After living in the lavra for two years, he was appointed guest master. He served the visitors humbly and meekly, showing love to all. Then the godly Sabbas began to build a coenobium for novices who had just renounced the world: these were to be trained in the communal life, and then permitted to go to the lavra. "As the flower appears before the fruit," said the saint, "so should life in the coenobium precede life in the desert. May our novices blossom in the coenobium, performing their first labors, and bear perfect fruit in the lavra."

Sabbas’ lavra was in the desert, but the coenobium was closer to the world. During the construction of the latter, John was again assigned to help the workers. Thus the godly lover of labor now fulfilled two obediences: serving pilgrims in the guesthouse, and also carrying upon his shoulders bread and other foodstuffs, cooked and uncooked, to those constructing the coenobium, which was more than a mile away. John toiled in this way for a full year, serving the brethren well. Then the venerable Sabbas gave him his own cell, permitting him to live in silence. The blessed John remained in this cell three years, enclosed for five days each week, eating nothing and being seen by no one, conversing only with God. On Saturdays and Sundays he went to church before anyone else and stood with fear and compunction, especially after the Divine Liturgy began. Streams of tears never ceased to flow from his eyes, so that all the brethren marveled at the gift of weeping he had received. On days when he attended church, he partook of food with the other monks.

After three years the blessed John was made steward. God assisted him in fulfilling this obedience and in all his labors; thus the lavra was greatly blessed and enjoyed prosperity. Since John was executing his duties well, the godly Sabbas wished to make him a presbyter, considering him a worthy and perfect monk; therefore he took him to Elias, the new Patriarch of the Holy City, recounted John’s virtuous life, and asked him to ordain John presbyter. The Patriarch agreed, and called John to the church. Seeing that there was no escape, John said to the holy Patriarch, "Most honorable father, allow me to speak privately with you. If you still think me worthy of the priesthood after we converse, I will not refuse to be ordained."

The Patriarch took him aside, and John threw himself at the feet of the God-pleasing Elias, begging him to swear that he would tell no one what he was about to hear. When the Patriarch vowed that he would keep the secret, John explained, "Father, I was Bishop of Colonia, but because of my sins forsook the city and fled. Since I am strong in body, I sentenced myself to serving the brethren, in hope of gaining the aid of their prayers for my feeble soul."

Patriarch Elias was amazed when he heard this, and called for the venerable Sabbas, to whom he announced, "John cannot be made a presbyter. Henceforth he is to live in silence: no one is permitted to trouble him." So saying, the Patriarch allowed them to depart.

Sabbas was greatly disappointed and went to a cave about three miles from the lavra, where he cast himself to the floor before God and cried, weeping, "O Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me? Why hast Thou hid from me the secrets of John’s life? I was mistaken in thinking him worthy of the priesthood. But now, O Lord, reveal to me his secret, for my soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. Can it be that the vessel I thought was chosen, holy, and fit to receive the divine myrrh is useless and unworthy in Thy sight?"

After the venerable Sabbas had passed the night praying thus and weeping, one of God’s angels appeared to him and declared, "John is not an unworthy vessel, but God’s chosen one. He is a bishop, and for this reason cannot be ordained to the priesthood."

With this the angel disappeared. The holy abbot hurried joyously to John’s cell, embraced him, and exclaimed, "Father John, although you hid the gift God granted you, He revealed it to me!"

"I am grieved, Father," said John. "I did not want anyone to learn my secret, but now you know it. I cannot remain any longer in this land."

Sabbas swore to John that he would reveal the secret to no one. From that time the blessed John remained in his cell, keeping silent. He did not go to church, nor converse with anyone, nor was anyone allowed to visit him. Only the novice assigned to serve him was permitted to enter. Just once, when Patriarch Elias came to visit on a feast of the most pure Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary (to whom the lavra’s church was dedicated), did John leave his cell. He prostrated himself before the Patriarch, who greatly loved and respected him for his humility.

When John had been living in silence for four years, our venerable father Sabbas went to Scythopolis, where he dwelt for a long time. Wishing to live in the most remote part of the wilderness, John departed for the desert of Rouba, where he remained for nine years. He was almost fifty years old at this time. While living there he ate only the plant called melagria. Once he went out to gather it and returning, lost his way. Weakened by much walking, he collapsed and was near death. Suddenly he was lifted up into the air by God’s power, like the prophet Habakkuk, and set down before his cave. Later the godly one traced the path he had taken and found that he had become lost about four miles from the cave.

Not long after this a brother came and lived with him. When the feast of Pascha drew near, the brother said to the elder, "Father, let us return to the lavra. We have nothing to eat on the great feast except melagria."

Saint John did not wish to go, because the godly Sabbas had not returned to the lavra from Scythopolis. He answered, "There is no reason for us to leave, Brother. We must believe that He Who fed the people of Israel for forty years as they wandered in the desert will also feed us, sending us not only bare necessities, but much more. It is said in the Scriptures, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee, and, Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Have patience, child, as you walk the way of sorrow. Those who give rest to their bodies here prepare eternal punishment for themselves, while the mortification of the flesh leads to unending repose."

The brother, however, was unwilling to heed the godly one’s words, and set off for the lavra. After his departure a stranger came to John leading an ass loaded with various delicacies: warm fresh bread, wine, oil, fresh cheese, eggs, and a pailful of honey. The man left all these things with the saint and immediately disappeared. The venerable one understood that God had visited him, and joyfully gave thanks to the Lord. Meanwhile, the brother who had left for the lavra became lost and wandered for three days in the desert. Utterly exhausted, hungry and thirsty, he barely succeeded in making his way back to John’s cave. When he saw what manner and quantity of food God had sent the blessed one for the feast, he marveled, and because of his lack of faith, was ashamed to look the saint in the face. Falling at the elder’s feet, he asked forgiveness. John pardoned him, saying, "Know, Brother, that God can indeed prepare a table for His servants who dwell in the wilderness."

At that time the Saracen chieftain Alamundar, a vassal of the Persians, raided Arabia and Palestine, cruelly attacking the inhabitants of those lands and taking many captive. Numerous small parties of barbarians scattered through the wilderness, and the monasteries were warned to watch out for raiders. The fathers of the Great Lavra sent word of the barbarians to the venerable John, advising him to return to his cell in the lavra. Although the saint did fear the barbarians, he did not wish to forsake his silent abode in the desert. He said to himself, "The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? If the Lord will not defend me or care for me, what reason have I for remaining alive?" John put his trust in the Most High and remained in his cave. Wishing to preserve His favorite and deliver him from fear, God, Who always cares for His servants, sent the venerable one a huge, ferocious lion, which remained on guard at the entrance of the cave day and night. Several times the barbarians attempted to do the saint harm, but the lion attacked them fiercely, wounding them and driving them off. Seeing this, the blessed John gave thanks to God, Who will not permit the rod of sinners to be upon the lot of the righteous.

Shortly thereafter, the godly Sabbas returned to the lavra and then went to see John in the wilderness. He advised him, "God preserved you from being harmed by the barbarians, but you should still do as other men. Arise and flee, like the rest of the fathers of the desert." The venerable one said everything he could think of to persuade John to leave the wilderness. Finally John consented, and Sabbas went back with him to the Great Lavra. The blessed John was fifty-six years old at that time.

Besides the Most Holy Patriarch Elias and the venerable Sabbas, no one knew that John was a bishop. They continued to keep his secret, but nevertheless, after much time had passed, God willed that it be revealed to the brethren. This came about in the following way. Aetherius, an archbishop from Asia Minor, traveled to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Places and the sacred wood of the Lord’s Cross. After giving much gold to the poor and to various monasteries, he left the Holy City and departed for his homeland. He took passage on a ship which sailed a short way, until a contrary wind arose, compelling it to return to Ascalon. There he remained for two days, waiting for the boat to set sail again. As he was sleeping, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and commanded, "You are not to depart for your homeland without returning to the Holy City. Go to the lavra of abbot Sabbas, where you will find Abba John the Silent, a righteous bishop who forsook all things for God’s sake, voluntarily embracing poverty and humbling himself by obedience."

The next day Aetherius returned to Jerusalem and went to the lavra of the venerable Sabbas, where he asked for John the Silent. He was shown to John’s cell and remained with him for two days, enjoining him in God’s name to tell him who were his parents, where he was born, and of what city he had been bishop. Perceiving God’s will that he speak, the saint told Aetherius everything. From that time it became known to everyone in the lavra that John was a bishop. The monks were utterly amazed at how greatly he had humbled himself.

Some time afterwards, on the fifth day of December, our venerable and God-bearing father Sabbas departed unto the Lord. This was during the seventieth year of John’s life. Because he was not present at the parting of Sabbas’ soul from the body, John was deeply grieved in spirit, but the venerable Sabbas appeared to him in a vision, saying, "Do not sorrow because of my departure, Father. Although I am no longer with you in body, I am always present in spirit."

"Pray to the Lord, Father," said John, "and ask that He let me go, to be with thee."

Sabbas replied, "For now, this cannot be. A great trial will befall the lavra. It is God’s wish that you remain in the flesh to console and strengthen those who shall do battle for the Orthodox faith against the heretics." As a result of this conversation with the godly Sabbas, John’s spirit rejoiced, although his heart sorrowed when he thought of the coming temptation.

Subsequently, John conceived the desire to see how the soul departs from the body. He prayed to God about the matter and was snatched up and taken mentally to holy Bethlehem, where in spiritual vision he saw a man die. The soul of the man, whom he did not know, was escorted by angels chanting hymns. The blessed John awoke and journeyed at once to Bethlehem, where he found, outside a church, the body of the man he had seen. He had died at the very hour when John, sitting in his cell, saw his soul taken to heaven. Having embraced his remains lovingly, John gave them an honorable burial and returned to his cell.

The blessed John’s two disciples, Theodore and John, told Cyril, the author of his Life, the following: "After the repose of the venerable Sabbas, we were sent on an errand to Lybiada by our elder. While crossing the Jordan, we met men who warned us, ’Take care, for a lion lies in wait on your path.’ We said to one another, ’God is able to preserve us by the prayers of our father, who ordered us to make this journey,’ and continued on our way. Suddenly we caught sight of a fearsome lion running toward us. We were so filled with terror that we lost all our strength and, unable to flee, became as dead men. Then our elder, the venerable John, appeared at our side, telling us not to be frightened. The lion took to its heels, driven off as though with a scourge, and our elder disappeared. After resting, we continued on our way unharmed. We did as instructed, and when we returned to the elder, he said, ’Do you see, children, how I was with you on your journey? I prayed to God for you a great deal while awaiting you, and He showed you mercy.’"

One of John’s disciples also told Cyril that the saint subsisted on nothing but bread for many years, with which he ate ashes instead of salt. One day, John forgot to close the window of his cell while he took his meal, and the disciple saw what he was eating. The elder was grieved at this, so the disciple, to console him, said, "Not you alone, Father, but many of the fathers in the lavra do this, fulfilling the saying of the Scriptures, I ate ashes like bread." Thus the elder was comforted.

In those days many were led astray by the heresy of Origen and began troubling the Church of God, while others firmly opposed the false teaching. The latter had as their support the venerable John the Silent, who left his solitude to assail the heretics, hewing down with his words the doctrine of Origen as though with a sword. The appearance of this false teaching was the temptation the godly Sabbas had prophesied when he appeared to John. The heretics persecuted the Orthodox in the lavra, as a result of which many, even of the ascetic fathers, their belief undermined, were corrupted by evil doctrines or fell into doubts. Because of this it was God’s will that John be present to comfort the irresolute and strengthen the weak.

It was during this period that Cyril of Scythopolis, who later wrote John’s Life, went to seek counsel of him. Cyril wrote, "When I was about to leave home to become a monk in one of the monasteries of the holy city of Jerusalem, my mother, who greatly loved Christ, told me to do nothing without the consent of the blessed John, ’lest you fall,’ said she, ’into the heresy of Origen at the very beginning of your struggle.’ Arriving in Jerusalem, I went to the lavra of Saint Sabbas and prostrated myself before the praiseworthy John. I revealed to him my thoughts and asked for counsel, and he said to me, ’If you wish to be saved, go to the Monastery of Euthymius the Great.’ Being young and foolish I did not do as he said, but left, and entered the Monastery of the Reeds, on the Jordan. Not only was my life there most unhappy, but I fell gravely ill, and was afflicted by despondency both because of my bodily infirmities and because I was a stranger among the brethren. Then the venerable John appeared to me in a dream, saying, ’You have become sick on account of your disobedience. Now arise and go to Jericho. In the guesthouse of Abba Euthymius you will find an old monk. Follow him to the Monastery of Euthymius and save your soul there.’

"When I awoke, I sensed that my whole body had been restored to health. In obedience to our holy father’s command, I went to Jericho, where I found an aged monk, a wise and virtuous man, just as he said. He took me to the Monastery of Euthymius the Great, where I remained. I often visited the venerable John at the Lavra of Saint Sabbas, and my soul profited much from him. Once, while troubled by satanic thoughts, I confessed to the godly one, and by his holy prayers obtained relief, so that peace returned to my heart." Later, John sent Cyril to the godly anchorite Cyriacus, according to the Life of that saint.

One day, Cyril was sitting by the window of the venerable John’s cell, when there came a man named George, leading his son, who was tormented by a demon. The man left his son lying beneath the window and departed. The boy lay on the ground weeping, and John realized that he was possessed by an unclean spirit. Moved by compassion, he prayed and anointed him with holy oil, and the demon fled from the youth immediately. The boy was restored to health that very hour.

Abba Eustathius, a pious, spiritual man who inhabited the cave of the godly Sabbas after Sergius lived there, related the following: "Once, overcome by the spirit of blasphemy, I was troubled greatly by irreverent thoughts against God and everything holy. Because of this I was afflicted by much sorrow. I went to the blessed John the Silent and told him of my temptation, hoping to be benefitted by his holy prayers. He immediately arose and prayed for me, then declared, ’Blessed is God, my child! From henceforth no profane thought shall come near you.’ Just as the elder said, I was never again attacked by blasphemous thoughts."

A woman from Cappadocia named Raina, who held the rank of deaconess in the holy Church of Constantinople, came to Jerusalem with her nephew. He was a nobleman of true virtue, although not in communion with the Holy Catholic Church, holding as he did the heresy of Severus. The pious deaconess tried in every way to turn him to Orthodoxy and unite him to the Holy Church, and she asked all the fathers to pray for him. Hearing of Saint John, she wished to visit and do reverence to him as well, but learned that women were not permitted to enter the lavra. She called for Theodore, John’s disciple, and requested him to take her nephew to the elder, believing that by Saint John’s prayers God would soften his heart, turn it from heresy, and render him worthy to be united to the Catholic Church.

Theodore took the man to the elder, before whom he made the usual prostration, saying, "Bless us, Father!"

The elder said to the disciple, "I bless you, but not the man with you."

"Do not speak thus, Father; bless both of us," said the disciple.

"I will not bless him until he renounces his evil, schismatical beliefs and promises to unite himself to the Catholic Church," replied the saint. The heretic was amazed by the elder’s clairvoyance, and converted by the miracle, promised to enter into communion with the Orthodox. The elder then blessed him, and he partook of the most pure Mysteries, his every doubt concerning the truth dispelled by the saint’s inspired teaching. Having converted him to Orthodoxy, the saint permitted the man to depart.

When the deaconess Raina heard of this, she greatly desired to see the holy elder herself. She planned to put on men’s garments, go to the lavra, and confess her thoughts to him; but the elder, learning from an angel of her intention, sent word to her, saying, "Know that if you come to me as you intend, you will not see me. Do not labor in vain, but remain where you are. I shall come to you in a dream to hear what you wish to relate, and will tell you what God wants you to hear." The deaconess was stricken with terror by John’s clairvoyance. Convinced that he could perceive thoughts from afar, she anxiously awaited his appearance. Not many days later the blessed one visited her in a dream and said, "Lo, God has sent me to you: tell me what you wish." She confessed her sins and received a fitting spiritual healing. After instructing her, the saint became invisible. The woman awoke from sleep and gave thanks to the Lord.

The cell of the venerable one was located in a dry, rocky place where no tree or plant could grow. Once, John took some fig seed and said to his disciples Theodore and John, "Hearken unto me, children. If, by the grace of God, this seed puts forth root on barren rock and a tree springs up, spreading out leaves and bearing fruit, then know that the Lord has granted me repose in the kingdom of heaven." So saying, he planted the seed on the rock near his cell. God, Who caused Aaron’s dry rod to blossom, sent down moisture so that the fig seed grew into a tree, showing thereby the favor His faithful servant had found in His sight. The seedling broke through the thin soil and slowly grew, in time completely overshadowing the cell. It bore fruit: three figs, which the elder picked. Giving thanks with tears in his eyes to God, he kissed the figs and shared them with his disciples. Then John began to prepare for his departure. He had reached great old age, being 104 years old when he fell asleep in the Lord our Saviour, unto Whom be glory forever. Amen.

The Life of this saint was written by Cyril, a monk of Jerusalem, and revised by Symeon Metaphrastes. This version in an abbreviation derived from both sources.