The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

ST. JOHN THE DWARF - Life and Teachings: Part II

Today we will continue our two-part study of the life and teachings of St. John the Dwarf who was born in Egypt about 339.  At the age of 18, he left for Scetis and was trained there by Abba Ammoes for twelve years.  One of the most vivid characters in the Egyptian Desert, he attracted many disciples and in order to preserve his own solitude, he dug himself a cave underground.  Abba John was later ordained priest and the number of his sayings that are recorded and preserved point to his importance among his disciples.  After 407, he went to Suez and the Mountain of St. Anthony.

BEGIN: There was an old man at Scetis, very austere of body, but not very clear in his thoughts.  He went to see Abba John to ask him about forgetfulness.  Having received a word from him, he returned to his cell and forgot what Abba John had said to him.  He went off again to ask him and having heard the same word from him, he returned with it.  As he got near his cell, he forgot it again.  This he did many times; he went there, but while he was returning he was overcome by forgetfulness.  Later, meeting the old man he said to him, "Do you know, Abba, that I have forgotten again what you said to me?  But I did not want to overburden you, so I did not come back."  Abba John said to him, "Go and light a lamp."  He lit it.  He said to him, "Bring some more lamps, and light them from the first."  He did so.  Then Abba John said to the old man, "Has that lamp suffered any loss from the fact that other lamps have been lit from it?"  He said, "No."  The old man continued, "So it is with John; even if the whole of Scetis came to see me, they would not separate me from the love of Christ.  Consequently, whenever you want to, come to me without hesitation."  So, thanks to the endurance of these two men, God took forgetfulness away from the old man.  Such was the work of the monks of Scetis; they inspire fervour in those who are in the conflict and do violence to themselves to win others to do good.

Abba John said, "Who sold Joseph"  A brother replied saying, "It was his brethren."  The old man said to him, "No, it was his humility which sold him, because he could have said, "I am their brother" and have objected, but, because he kept silence, he sold himself by his humility.  It is also his humility which set him up as chief in Egypt."

He also said, "Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues."

It was said of Abba John that when he went to church at Scetis, he heard some brethren arguing, so he returned to his cell.  He went round it three times and then went in.  Some brethren who had seen him, wondered why he had done this, and they went to ask him.  He said to them, "My ears were full of that argument, so I circled round in order to purify them, and thus I entered my cell with my mind at rest."

On day a brother came to Abba John's cell.  It was late and he was in a hurry to leave. While they were speaking of the virtues, dawn came without their noticing it.  Abba John came out with him to see him off, and they went on talking until the sixth hour.  Then he made him go in again after they had eaten, he sent him away.  (EDITOR: Isn't this a wonderful story?!  How these Holy Men loved to talk about the spiritual life!)

One day a brother came to Abba John to take away some baskets.  He came out and said to him, "What do you want, brother?"  He said, "Baskets, Abba."  Going inside to bring them to him, he forgot them, and sat down to weave.  Again the brother knocked.  When Abba John came out, the brother said, "Bring me the baskets, Abba."  The old man went in once more and sat down to weave.  Once more the brother knocked and, coming out, Abba John said, "What do you want brother?"  He replied, "The baskets, Abba."  Then, taking him by the hand, Abba John led him inside, saying, "If you want the baskets, take them and go away, because really, I have no time for such things."

A camel driver came one day to pick up some goods and take them elsewhere.  Going inside to bring him what he had woven, Abba John forgot about it because his spirit was fixed in God.  So once more the camel driver disturbed him by knocking on the door and once more Abba John went in and forgot.  The camel driver knocked a third time and Abba John went in saying, "Weaving - camel; weaving - camel."  He said this so that he would not forget again.

An old man came to Abba John's cell and found him asleep, with an angel standing above him, fanning him.  Seeing this, he withdrew.  When Abba John got up, he said to his disciple, "Did anyone come in while I was asleep?"  He said, "Yes, an old man."  Then Abba John knew that this old man was his equal, and that he had seen the angel.

Abba John said, "I think it best that a man should have a little bit of all the virtues.  Therefore, get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and every commandment of God.  Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervour of your soul and body.  Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress; be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes.  When you are despised do not get angry; be at peace, and do not render evil for evil.  Do not pay attention to the faults of others, and do not try to compare yourself with others, knowing you are less than every created thing.  Renounce everything material and that which is of the flesh.  Live by the cross, in warfare, in poverty of spirit, in voluntary spiritual asceticism, in fasting, penitence and tears, in discernment, in purity of soul, taking hold of that which is good.  Do your work in peace.  Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.  Shut yourself in a tomb as though you were already dead, so that at all times you will think death is near."

One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, "What is a monk?"  He said, "He is toil.  The monk toils at all he does.  That is what a monk is."

Abba John the Dwarf said, "A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down.  You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top."  They said to him, "What does this saying mean?"  He said, "The foundation is our neighbor, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin.  For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one."

Abba John said to his brother, "Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of men, let us rejoice that we are honored in the sight of God."

Abba Poemen said that Abba John said that the saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source.  The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.  END

from Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 89-95