On November 9, the Eastern Churches commemorate one of the greatest of the ancient Desert Fathers, "St. John the Dwarf." This remarkable father left for Scetis at the age of 18 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. We have a photo in our Egypt Gallery that shows the door of a very old Coptic Church in Upper Egypt on which an image of Abba John has been carved. This church is over the cave where he spent much of his life. St. John has long been considered one of the greatest of the ascetics, a disciple of Abba Pambo and a teacher of St. Arsenius the Great.
Some two and a half years ago, this newsletter ran a two-part study of St. John's teachings on asceticism, a study we would like to repeat here today and next week, as many of our readers have probably not read them. They are simply superb.
TEACHINGS OF ST. JOHN THE DWARF ON ASCETICISM
BEGIN: -- It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, "Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit." Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. The old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."
-- It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, "I should like to be free of all care, like the angels who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God." So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it, "Who are you?" He said, "I am John, your brother." But he replied, "John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men." Then the other begged him saying, "It is I." However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, "You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat." Then John made a prostration before him, saying, "Forgive me." (NOTE: this story is, according to most sources, from Abba John's youth when he was still living with his family)
-- Abba John the Dwarf said, "If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak."
-- Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by having a meal together; amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him, "How is that you, the youngest, dared to let yourself be served by the priest?" Then he said to them, "When I get up to offer drink, I am glad when everyone accepts it, since I am receiving my reward; that is the reason, then, that I accepted it, so that he also might gain his reward and not be grieved by seeing that no one would accept anything from him." When they heard this, they were all filled with wonder and edification at his discretion.
-- The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape* and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep, saying, "What does this brother have in his heart, that he should laugh, when he ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?"
-- Some brethren came one day to test him to see whether he would let his thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, "We give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual work." Abba John said to them, "So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God."
-- Abba John said, "I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy."
-- Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: "I find myself in peace, without an enemy," he said. The old man said to him, "Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress." So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, "Lord, give me strength for the fight."
-- The old man also said this to a certain brother about the soul, which wishes to be converted, "There was in a city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her, saying, "Promise me you will be good, and I will marry you." She promised this and he took her and brought her to his house. Her lovers, seeking her again, said to one another, "That lord has taken her with him to his house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be unassailable." When she heard the whistle, the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the doors." The old man said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions and other men; that the lord is Christ; that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling; those who whistle are the evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the Lord.
-- One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night time. So the brothers said to Abba John, "What shall we do, Abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?" The old man said to them, "If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then we can stay here till the dawn." This he did. The others said, "We will not go on either, but we will stay with you." They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother. END
*agape: the primary meaning of this Greek word is "love." Here, it refers to the common meal taken by the fathers after the celebration of the Liturgy. It can also refer to the Liturgy itself.
from Sr. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 85-89