ST. JOHN THE DWARF, ANCHORET OF SCETE
ST. JOHN, surnamed, from his low stature, Colobus, that is, the Little or the Dwarf, was famous among the eminent ancient saints that inhabited the deserts of Egypt. He retired, together with an elder brother, into the vast wilderness of Sceté, and putting himself under the direction of a holy old hermit, he set himself, with his whole heart, and with all his strength, to labor in subduing himself, and in putting on the divine spirit of Christ. The first condition which Christ requires, the preliminary article which he lays down for his service, is a practice of perfect self-denial, by which we learn to die to ourselves, and all our vicious inclinations. So long as inordinate self-love and passions reign in the heart, they cannot fail to produce their fruits; we are imperceptibly governed by them in the circle of our ordinary actions, and remain habitually enslaved to pride, anger, impatience, envy, sensuality, and other vices, which often break forth into open transgressions of the divine law; and a lurking inordinate self-love, whilst it holds the empire in the affections, insinuates itself under subtle disguises, into all our actions, becomes the main-spring of all the motions of our heart, and debases our virtues themselves with a mixture of vice and imperfection. Virtue is generally defective, even in many who desire to serve God, because very few have the courage perfectly to vanquish themselves. It is strange that men should be so blind, or so cowardly, in a point of such infinite importance, since Christ has laid down the precept of perfect abnegation and humility as the foundation of the empire of his divine grace and love in a soul: upon this all the saints raise the edifice of their virtue. He who builds not upon it, builds upon sand. He who, without this precaution, multiplies his alms, his fasts, and his devotions, takes a great deal of pains to lose, in a great measure, the fruit of his labors.
Our holy anchoret, lest he should be in danger of missing his aim, resolved to neglect no means by which he might obtain the victory over himself. The old hermit who was his director, for his first lesson, bade him plant in the ground a dry walking-stick which he held in his hand, and water it every day till it should bring forth fruit. John did so with great simplicity, though the river was at a considerable distance. It is related that when he had continued his task without speaking one word, in the third year, the stick, which had taken root, pushed forth leaves and buds, and produced fruit; the old hermit gathering the fruit carried it to the church, and giving it to some of the brethren, said: “Take, and eat the fruit of obedience.”1 Posthumian, who was in Egypt in 402, assured St. Sulpicius Severus, that he was shown this tree, which grew in the yard of the monastery, and which he saw covered with boughs and green leaves.2 St. John used to say, that as a man who sees a wild beast or a serpent coming towards him, climbs up a tree to be out of their reach; so, a person who perceives any evil thoughts coming upon him, in order to secure himself against the danger, must ascend up to God by earnest prayer. Being yet a novice in the monastic state, and much taken with the charms of heavenly contemplation, he said one day to his elder brother: “I could wish to live without distraction, or earthly concerns, like the angels, that I might be able to serve and praise God without interruption.” Saying this, and leaving his cloak behind him, he went into a more secret part of the wilderness. After being absent a week, he returned, and knocked at the door of his brother’s cell. Being asked his name, he said: “I am your brother John.” “How can that be?” replied the other; “for my brother John is become an angel, and lives no more among men.” St. John begged pardon for his rashness, and acknowledged that this mortal state does not admit such a perfection, but requires that contemplation and manual labor mutually succeed and assist each other, and confessed that man’s life on earth is labor and penance, not fruition. It was one of this saint’s maxims: “If a general would take a city, he begins the siege by debarring it from supplies of water and provisions; so by sobriety, fasting, and maceration of the flesh, are our affections and passions to be reduced, and our domestic enemy weakened.”
How careful he was to watch against all occasions of danger, appears from the following instances. As he was praying and plying his work in platting mats, on the road to Sceté, he was one day met by a carrier driving camels, who reviled him in the most injurious terms. The saint, for fear the tranquillity of his soul should be any way impaired, threw down the work he had in his hands, and ran away. Another time, when he was reaping corn in the harvest, he ran away, because he heard one of the reapers angry with another. Happening, one day as he was going to the church of Sceté, to hear two persons wrangling together, he made haste back to his cell, but walked several times round it in profound recollection, before he went in, that he might purify his ears from the injurious words he had heard, and bring his mind perfectly calm to converse with God. By this continual watchfulness over himself, he acquired so perfect a habit of meekness, humility, and patience, that nothing was able to cloud or disturb his mind. When one said to him: “Thou hast a heart full of venom,” he sweetly answered: “That is true, and much more so than you think.” By the following example he inculcated to others the great necessity of overcoming ourselves, if we desire truly to serve God. A certain young man entreated a celebrated philosopher to permit him to attend his lectures. “Go first,” said the philosopher, “to the marble quarries, and carry stones to the river, among the malefactors condemned to the mines, during three years.” He did so, and came back at the end of that term. The philosopher bid him go again, and pass three years in receiving all sorts of injuries and affronts, and make no answer, but give money to those who should most bitterly revile him. He complied likewise with this precept, and upon his return the experienced tutor told him he might now go to Athens, and be initiated in the schools of the philosophers. At the gate of that city sat an old man who made it his pastime to abuse those who came that way. The young novice never justified himself, nor was angry, but laughed to hear himself so outrageously railed at, and being asked the reason, said: “I have given money these three years to all who have treated me as you do; and shall not I laugh, now it costs me nothing to be reviled?” Hereupon the old man replied; “Welcome to the schools of philosophy: you are worthy of a seat in them.” The saint added: “Behold the gate of heaven. All the faithful servants of the Lord have entered into this joy by suffering injuries and humiliations with meekness and patience.” To recommend tenderness and charity to those who labor in converting others to God, he said: “It is impossible to build a house by beginning at the top in order to build downward. We must first gain the heart of our neighbor before we can be useful to him.”
It was a usual saying of this saint: “The safety of a monk consists in his keeping always his cell, watching constantly over himself, and having God continually present to his mind.” As for his own part, he never discoursed on worldly affairs, and never spoke of news, the ordinary amusement of the slothful. Some persons one day to try him, began a conversation with him, saying; “We ought to thank God for the plentiful rains that are fallen this year. The palm-trees sprout well, and our brethren will easily find leaves and twigs for their work in making mats and baskets.” St. John contented himself with answering: “In like manner when the Spirit of God come down upon the hearts of his servants, they grow green again, as I may say, and are renewed, shooting, as it were, fresh leaves in the fear of God.” This reply made them attempt no more any such conversation with him. The saint’s mind was so intent on God in holy contemplation, that at his work he sometimes platted in one basket the twigs which should have made two, and often went wrong in his work, forgetting what he was doing. One day, when a driver of camels, or a carrier, knocked at his door to carry away his materials and instruments for his work, St. John thrice forgot what he went to fetch in returning from his door, till he continued to repeat to himself, “the camel, my platting instrument.” The same happened to him when one came to fetch the baskets he had made, and as often as he came back from his door, he sat down again to his work, till at last he desired the brother to come in and take them himself.
St. John called humility and compunction the first and most necessary of all virtues. By the fervor and assiduity of his prayer and heavenly contemplation, all his discourse on God was inflamed. A certain brother coming one day to see him, designing to speak to him only for two or three minutes, being in haste to go back to his cell, so ardent and sweet was their conversation on spiritual things that they continued it the whole night till morning. Perceiving it day, they went out of the saint’s cell, the one to return home, the other to conduct him some steps and falling into discourse of heaven, their entertainment lasted till midday. Then St. John took him again into his cell to eat a morsel for his refection; after which, they parted. St. John seeing a monk laugh in a conference, sat down, and bursting into tears, said: “What reason can this brother have to laugh, whilst we have so many to weep?” A certain charitable devout young woman, named Paësia, falling into poverty, and gradually into a disorderly life, the monks of Sceté entreated St. John to endeavor to reclaim her from her evil courses. The saint repaired to her house, but was refused entrance, till persisting a long time, and repeating that she would have no reason to repent that she had spoken to him, he got admittance. Then sitting down by her, he said, with his accustomed sweetness: “What reason can you have to complain of Jesus, that you should thus abandon him, to plunge yourself in so deplorable an abyss?” At these words she was struck to the quick: and seeing the saint melt into tears, she said to him: “Why do you weep so bitterly?” St. John replied: “How can I refrain from weeping, whilst I see Satan in possession of your heart?” She said: “Is the gate of penitence yet open to me?” The saint having answered that the treasures of the divine mercy are inexhaustible, she replied: “Conduct me whither you please.” Hereupon, he, rising up, said: “Let us go.” The penitent followed him without saying another word, and without giving any orders about her household or servants; a circumstance which he took notice of with joy, as it showed how entirely she was taken up with the thought only of saving her soul. She spent the remainder of her life in austere penance, and died happily soon after in the wilderness, having no other pillow than a hillock to lay her head on. John learned by a revelation, that her short but fervent penance had been perfect before God. When our saint drew near his end, his disciples entreated him to leave them, by way of legacy, some wholesome lesson of Christian perfection. He sighed, and that he might, out of humility, shun the air of a teacher, alleging his own maxim and practice, he said: “I never followed my own will; nor did I ever teach any other what I had not first practised myself.” St. John died about the beginning of the fifth century. See Cotelier, Apoth. Patrum, litt. i. pp. 468 to 484. Rosweide,1. 5, Vitæ Patrum, translated into Latin by Pelagius, deacon of Rome, who was chosen pope in 558. Tillemont, t. 10, p. 427.