Chapter VII (continued) Life of John the Almsgiver , Book Ib
"'It was real and no phantasm,' I said to myself. And from that time onwards, when I was giving anything to anyone, I found myself saying. 'Let's see if God will reward me a hundredfold, as he promised' (Matthew 19.29). It was wicked to test God like this, but I gained a great deal of satisfaction in various ways by doing this, until at last I said to myself. 'Stop trying to tempt him who cannot be tempted, you miserable sinner!' But in the humility of my soul I gained so many assurances from God! Today those unbelievers came and tried to make me fall into the same kind of diffidence as theirs."
One of the strangers among the great number of people in the city, seeing his compassion, thought of putting him to the test. Dressed in old clothes, they approached him as he was visiting the distribution centre, where he went two or three times a week.
"Have mercy on me," he cried, "for I was a prisoner of war."
"Give him six numismata" he said to the steward.
The man took them, went away and changed his clothes, and approached the patriarch on another occasion, fell down before him and cried, "Have mercy on me, for I am in dire straits."
"Give him six gold nummi," said the patriarch to the steward.
After he had gone the steward whispered in the patriarch's ear, "This is the second time he has taken alms from you, sir." But the patriarch made as if he did not want to know. He came again for the third time as the patriarch was bringing out the gold coins, and the steward nudged him, and pointed the man out.
"Give him twelve numismata," said that truly merciful friend of God, "for he might perchance be Christ come to test me."
There was a foreign sea-captain who had suffered some loss and he came to the blessed man in floods of tears, begging him to have pity on him as he did to everyone else. He gave orders that he should be given five pounds of gold. The sea-captain bought grain and stowed it in his ship. Not long after, he was shipwrecked near the Alexandrian lighthouse, though he was able to salvage the ship. He came to the patriarch again, presuming on his goodwill.
"Have mercy on me," he said, "for the God of this world is merciful."
"Believe me, brother," said the patriarch, "if you had not mixed up money from the church with what money of your own that you had left you would not have suffered shipwreck. You gained your own money from criminal transactions, and so you have lost that along with what you had from the church."
But he still ordered that he should be given ten pounds of gold, warning him that it should be kept separate from his other money.
Again the sea-captain bought wheat, and sailing one day into a hurricane he lost everything, ship and all, and was cast up on the shore possessing nothing except his own soul. He seriously considered killing himself in his distress and confusion, and this was revealed to the holy patriarch by God who cares always for the salvation of humankind. When he had heard what had happened he sent a message to the sea-captain that he was not to worry but to come and see him. The sea-captain sprinkled dust upon himself, tore his robe and presented himself thus disfigured. When the holy man saw him like that he dissuaded him from killing himself.
"May the blessed Lord God have mercy on you," he said. "I have faith that from this day onwards you will never suffer shipwreck again for as long as you live. This misfortune has happened to you in order that your ship should no longer be able to serve the cause of unjust dealings."
And he ordered that he should be given charge of one of the ships which served the needs of the most holy church, and that it should be loaded up with twenty thousand modii of grain. He set sail from Alexandria, and for twenty days and nights he sailed through a terrible storm, unable to tell where they were, either by the stars or by familiar landmarks, except that the steersman could see the holy patriarch himself holding a staff and saying, "Don't be afraid. Just steer skilfully."
On the twentieth day they fetched up on the island of Britain, and when they went ashore they found that there was a great food shortage. They told the leading citizen that they were carrying wheat in the ship.
"It's the goodness of God that has sent you here," he said. "Make your choice. We will either give you one numismata for a modius of wheat, or give you its weight in tin."
They decided to take half in this way and half in that. And what I hasten to tell you happened next will be found unbelievable to the faithless who have no experience of the gifts of God, but will be accepted as credible by those who have experienced his miracles. For when they joyfully arrived back in Alexandria, the captain took some of the tin out of the ship in order to sell it to an old business acquaintance of his who he knew was interested in it. He had about fifty pounds of it in a bag. His acquaintance, wanting to make sure it was pure, tested a sample of it in the fire and discovered it was pure silver! He thought that he must have been put to some sort of a test, and gave the bag back.
"God forgive you!" he said. "Were you trying to make me out as some sort of a cheat by giving me silver instead of tin?"
"Believe me," said the astonished captain, "it was tin I gave you. But I suppose it is nothing wonderful if he who turned water into wine (John 2) could turn tin into silver because of the patriarch's prayers. But satisfy yourself. Come to the ship and see the rest of the metal from which you accepted this portion."
They went to the ship and found that all the tin had been turned into pure silver. But the love of Christ will not find this a very strange miracle. For he also multiplied the loaves of bread (John 6), and turned the waters of Egypt into blood, and the rod of Aaron into a serpent (Exodus 7), and made the flames as harmless as dew (Daniel 3), so it was not more difficult to do this great miracle in response to the prayers of his servant in order to show mercy to the sea-captain.
One Sunday, when this most holy man was going to the church a certain very rich man rushed up to him, saying that thieves had burgled his house and deprived him of everything they could lay their hands on. Exhaustive enquiries had not been able to reveal who was responsible, and now his utter poverty was leading him with the utmost respect to tell the most holy patriarch about his disaster. The patriarch was very sorry for him and told the steward in charge of the gold to give him fifteen pounds of it. The steward went away to get it, but after discussing the matter with the chief accountant and the bursar, between them they decided to give him only five pounds.
In the meantime the most honourable Archbishop had returned from the morning office, and was approached by a widow woman who had an only son. She gave him a note of hand promising a praiseworthy gift of five hundred pounds of gold, which he accepted and concealed about his person. He then called the stewards.
"How much did you give to that man who approached me earlier?" he asked
"Fifteen pounds, as your most sacred holiness ordered," they said
By the grace which dwelt in him he knew they were lying, and he called the man to whom he had given the money.
"How much money did they give you?" he asked.
"Five pounds," he said.
The holy man then showed the stewards the note of hand he had been given.
"God requires from you another thousand pounds. For if you had really given fifteen pounds, she who brought me five hundred would really have given me fifteen. And I can prove that by summoning the woman who gave this gift."
He sent two reverend clerks to bring back the woman who had given him the note of hand and held it out to her.
"Bring me the actual amount of gold which God put it into your heart to give me," he said.
She soon returned and fell at his feet with a quantity of gold, which the patriarch accepted and prayed over her and her son.
"Tell me, sister," he said, "Is this all you wanted to give Christ, or was there some more?"
She sensed that as a representative of God he knew already what she had done, and trembled with awe.
"Through your prayers and the prayers of Saint Menna I had written fifteen hundred in my promise, but an hour ago in the church I brought it out of my pocket ready to give it to you, my lord, and read it over again. With my own hand I, your unworthy servant, had written fifteen, but I found that it had been changed to five! Quite baffled, I said to myself that it must have been the will of God that I should only give five."
After the patriarch had sent this worthy woman away in peace, the stewards who had been disobedient to him fell at his feet, asking forgiveness, and promised not do such a thing again.
When Nicetas, the governor of the province, heard of the generosity of this most virtuous man and his ever open hand, standing head and shoulders above everyone else, he was driven by the devil to visit him.
"The state is in difficulty because of a shortage of money," he said to him. "So then, since money is given to you freely when you ask, give it to the state, let it go into the public treasury."
"It would not be right, I think, lord governor," he said, remaining quite calm, "to give to an earthly ruler what has been offered to the ruler of heaven. But if that is what you have finally decided upon, take note that humble John gives you not one single nummus. But look, it is the treasure chest of Christ that is under my humble bed. Do what you will."
The governor immediately ordered some of his men to carry all the money away on their shoulders, leaving behind not so much as a hundred nummi. As they were going out with it, others were just coming in, carrying small jars containing money donated from Africa. Some of the jars were labelled 'Best Honey', others 'Unsmoked Honey'. The governor read the labels and suggested to the patriarch that he might give him some of the honey for his own use. He knew that the patriarch was incapable of evil. The gentle pastor went to the men carrying the jars and learned from them that it was money in the jars, not honey. He wrote a short note saying:
'I will never leave you nor forsake you says the Lord (Hebrews 13.5 & Joshua 1.5). For he is the true God and does not lie. Therefore corruptible man can never thwart God who provides food and drink for all. Farewell.'
He put this label on one of the jars marked 'Best Honey' and gave it to the governor. He told those who were carrying the jar away with them to ask the governor to open the jar in their presence, and to tell him that all the jars which he had seen were filled with money, not honey. They arrived with the jars and went in to the governor as he was sitting at table, and saw that there was only one jar of honey.
"Go and tell the bishop," he said, "that he has after all shown me some ill will, for he has only given me one jar!"
He broke open the jar and emptied out all the money and realised that all the other jars which he had seen must have been likewise filled with money. When he had read the note saying that corruptible man could never thwart God's will he was conscience-stricken.
"As the Lord lives," he said, "neither can Nicetas thwart his will. I am just a human being, sinful and corruptible."
He got up from his meal immediately, gathered together the money he had taken from the worthy father as well as the jar, added three hundred nummi of his own and went to fall at the patriarch's feet, with no thought of the respect properly due to his own position. With the deepest humility, as if he had been actually accused by somebody, he asked pardon of God, assuring the patriarch that whatever penance he might choose to give him he would accept it and faithfully carry it out. In wonderment at the man's sudden conversion, the Archbishop said absolutely nothing in condemnation of what he had done, but rather comforted him with consoling words. Divine charity was thus so mutually restored between them that the Archbishop became the governor's spiritual father.
God tempted Abraham in order to bring into the open the faith that till then had been known only to God, so that the whole world might learn of it and imitate it (Genesis 22). So also did God tempt that unforgettable John. The form his temptation took came in the shape of a potential benefit for his holy churches. It happened like this:
Because of the great numbers of refugees escaping from the Persians and coming to Alexandria, which we have already described, there was an acute shortage of food, made worse by the fact that the Nile had not flooded as usual. The patriarch had spent all his own money, as well as about a thousand pounds given him by some of the lovers of Christ, and when that had been all used up, nobody was willing to give him any more. Food was still in short supply, people feared the severity of the famine, and the needs of those whom the patriarch was maintaining were not being met, though the blessed man persevered in prayer and in giving what help he could.
Now there was a citizen of that city who greatly desired to be made a deacon, but he had been married twice. He was very much aware of how desolate and needy that most holy man was in all sorts of ways, and he hoped to make use of those needs in order to gain the ordination that he coveted. He arranged for a legal letter to be sent to him, for he did not dare to speak to him face to face:
'To John, the most holy and thrice blessed father of fathers, vicar of Christ, from Cosmas, the unworthy servant of servants of your holiness, this petition and prayer: Most holy lord, knowing that your worshipful head is bowed down in care because of the shortage of food inflicted on us for our sins, albeit with the permission of God, I do not think it right that your servant should dine at ease while my lord remains in poverty. Your unworthy servant possesses two hundred thousand modii of wheat and a hundred and eighty pounds of gold which I would like to be given to Christ through you, my lord, if only your unworthy servant might be found fit to enjoy the ministry of the diaconate with you and repent of his many sins, for necessity demands that the law be changed, as says the holy Apostle, God's preacher' (Hebrews 7.12).
Upon receipt of this the wise man of God called for the man.
"You are the man who got your notary to write me this letter and you sent it to me by your son?"
"Indeed, my lord."
The blessed and most merciful man sent everyone else out of the room, not wishing to embarrass the man in their presence.
"What you are offering would be very welcome," he said, "and in tune with the needs of the time, but it is flawed. For you must know that the Law says that a sheep, whether big or small, may not be offered in sacrifice unless it is unblemished (Leviticus 2.21), which is why God had no respect for the sacrifice of Cain (Genesis 4.5). For all that you have spoken truly, brother, in saying that necessity demands that the law should be changed, it was the Old Testament that the Apostle was quoting. What about what James the brother of the Lord says, that whoever keeps the law and offends in one particular is guilty of all (James 2.10)? As for the holy church and my brothers in need, the God who cared for them before you and I were born will continue to do so if we keep our lips from evil speaking. He who multiplied the five loaves is well able to pour out a blessing on the ten modii in my granary. Moreover, my son, what I say to you is what was said in the Acts of the Apostles: 'You have no portion or right in this matter'" (Acts 8.21).
No sooner had he dismissed the man, disappointed in his failure, than news came that two of the church's great ships that had been sent to Syria for grain had reached port. The blessed man fell on his face and gave thanks to almighty God.
"I give you thanks, O Lord, that you have kept me from selling your grace for money. Truly, O Lord, those who seek after you and observe the rules of your holy Church shall lack for nothing."
He once punished two clerks, guilty of striking each other, with canonical excommunication for a certain period. One of them accepted his punishment with humility, the other, a maliciously minded person, was quite happy to submit to this decree, for it gave him an excuse not to go near the church but allowed him to continue in his wicked deeds. He was incensed with the holy patriarch and was threatening violence. There were those who said that he was one of the people who had helped carry the church's money to governor Nicetas and had helped himself to some of it. The blessed man was told that the clerk was still nursing resentment and was as wicked as ever in his ill will towards him.
But he was a true pastor, mindful of the saying, 'Who is weak and I am not weak?' (2 Corinthians 11.29). And again, 'You who are strong should bear the burdens of the weak' (Romans 15.1). He wanted to summon him, give him a talking to and release him from his excommunication, for he could see that he was a wolf threatening to steal the sheep. But as everyone knew, the mind of the patriarch was always liable to be forgetful of anything evil, and in the providence of God it so happened that he completely forgot to summon the man to release him from his excommunication.
Next Sunday, while standing at the altar preparing to offer the unbloody sacrifice, the affair which he had forgotten suddenly came back into his mind, just as the deacon had come to the end of the prayer and was about to unveil the holy gifts. He thought of how the Lord had said. 'If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift. First be reconciled with your brother and then offer your gift' (Matthew 5.23-24). He told the deacon saying the usual prayer which deacons say to begin again from the beginning, and if he finished it again, to go back to the beginning again, until he should come back for the consecration. He went into the administration wing and ordered twenty of the staff to go out looking for the evil minded clerk, for his intention was to rescue the sheep from the mouth of the lion. And indeed, God who always responds to the desires of those who fear him caused the clerk to be speedily found. When he arrived, the patriarch, in an act of witness to the truth of the gospel, was the first to fall on his knees saying, "Forgive me, brother".
The clerk was awestruck at the example presented by this honourable pontifex to him and all the others present, and even more than that, fearful of the judgment of God that fire might come down from heaven and consume them in an instant. He gazed at the venerable gray hair lying on the floor before him and bent the knee himself, seeking pardon and mercy.
"May God forgive us all," said the patriarch. They got up and went into the church and with great joy and gladness stood before the altar, able to say to God with a clear conscience, 'Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors'. As these events were rumoured abroad, the clerk's change of heart became so apparent that he was found worthy of being made a lector, as a preparation for eventually being ordained to the presbyterate.
Some of the God-bearing holy fathers have said, 'It is the nature of Angels that they are never contentious but remain at peace in every way, human beings may quarrel but have the ability to be reconciled, whereas the demons are always on the attack and never make peace.' We mention this, O lovers of Christ, by way of preface to the following narrative:
Our noble patriarch decided to make an objection on a certain public matter against the governor Nicetas, whom we have already mentioned. The occasion for the dispute was that the governor wanted to sell off a certain amount of public seating for the benefit of the treasury, but the patriarch would not countenance this out of respect for the poor. They argued at length between themselves in private, but neither would give in and they parted in anger with no solution to the dispute. It was the fifth hour, and the governor was upset because he was thinking only of pecuniary gain, but the patriarch was upset and bitter on behalf of God's commandment. But at length that just man spoke sharply to himself.
"Human beings ought not to give way to anger," he said, "whether their cause is either reasonable or unreasonable."
At the eleventh hour he sent his archpresbyter and a clerk to take this memorable message to the governor:
"It is almost sunset, sir." (cf.Ephesians 4.26)
Listening to this, the governor forgot about the turmoil in his heart, for he was conscience stricken at these words. Burning with the love of God and quite overcome by tears, he went straight away to see the blessed man.
"Welcome to the church, my son," said the patriarch. "You have listened to what it teaches."
They apologised to each other and embraced each other, and sat down together.
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