Chapter !V (continued) Life of St John the Almsgiver, Book Ib
"Believe me, sir," said the patriarch, "if I had not seen how troubled you were by this affair, I would not have been so tardy in coming to you. But our Lord and God goes about, visiting cities and castles and ordinary homes."
All who heard were full of admiration at the humility of this great high priest.
"Believe me, father," said the governor, "I was not listening to the voices of anyone except those who were urging me to be argumentative."
"Believe me, my son and brother," said the wise teacher, "if we were to give credence to all those kinds of people, we would be encouraging many people to fall into sin, especially these days when there are such a lot of people who hate each other. There are always many who try to persuade me into their way of seeing matters, and if I am persuaded to agree with them, there are always others who come along and tell me that my first decision was wrong. By the time I have been through this process two or three times I call a halt to the arguments of either party and keep to the decision I made to start off with. If any of them are lying they become subject to the same penalty due to anyone who can be truly proved to have uttered a slander. Since the day I have taken this position, no one has been bold enough to make unproven allegations against anyone else, and so, my son, I recommend and beg that you be of like mind. It happens so often that unjust decisions are made by those who have been entrusted with high authority, because they have been persuaded by others, and have got away scot free with going back on their first decision."
And the governor, as if he were listening to the commands of God, determined to keep the commandments inviolate from that time on.
This remarkable man had a nephew called George, who one day got into a quarrel with one of the shopkeepers in the city. The shopkeeper abused him roundly, which the youth bitterly resented, not only because he had been insulted in public but because he, the nephew of the patriarch, had been insulted by someone of an inferior class. He went to complain privately to the patriarch, weeping bitterly. When that most gentle patriarch saw him so upset and angry he questioned him about what was causing him so much grief, but in his bitterness he was unable to find words to express properly what had happened. The patriarch summoned eyewitnesses who might be able to exonerate his nephew from any blame. They gave him an exact account of what had happened, adding that it was not right that the actions of his relatives, condemned by all, should be overlooked, as it reflected on the honour of the Archbishop himself.
But the patriarch was a true physician and determined to apply a healing plaster to his nephew's anger, or take a liberating knife to amputate his passion, so he opened his mouth of wisdom and began to cure his disease in these words:
"Well now, has someone dared to open his mouth in order to condemn you? Believe what your father is about to tell you, my son, for I shall today do something which will call for the respect of all Alexandria."
The boy thought that he was about to be vindicated and recovered from his tantrums completely, thinking that the patriarch was about to cause the person who had insulted him to be whipped by the public constable and publicly disgraced. The patriarch clasped him to his breast.
"My son," he said, "if you would wish to prove yourself in humility a true nephew of mine, prepare yourself to be whipped and suffer the condemnation of everyone. For true relationship between people consists not in flesh and blood but in the virtuous meeting of minds."
He summoned the leader of the tradesmen's association and gave him instructions that the shopkeeper should be dispensed from paying his accustomed dues and public rates and even from the rent for his workplace, which in fact belonged to the most holy church. Everyone was awestruck at his forbearance, and began to understand what he had meant when he said that he would do something which would call for the respect of all Alexandria. For not only had he refrained from returning evil for evil but had proved himself to be careful for the rights of those who depended on him.
It was reported to this blessed man that one of the clerics was nursing a grudge in his heart against someone and refusing to make up the quarrel. Upon enquiring his name and position he was told that it was a deacon called Damian and that he was due to take part in the service next day at the Sunday offering. He gave his archdeacon instructions that he was to point Damian out to him when he came to the church. So when the archdeacon saw Damian coming next day to perform his Sunday duty he pointed him out to the patriarch. In order to do something about the deacon's quarrel the Pontifex himself stood at the altar, though no one realised what it was he was about to do. When the deacon Damian in due course came to receive holy Communion that holy man grasped his hand.
"First go and be reconciled with your brother," he said, "and then, having forgotten your grievance, come and receive the spotless mysteries of Christ."
The deacon did not dare to protest at this in the presence of so many clerics, in such a place and at such an awesomely holy moment, so he swore a solemn oath that he would do so, and then the patriarch administered the holy mysteries to him. From that time onwards both clerics and laity took care not to nurse grudges among themselves, fearing lest the patriarch should find them out and humiliate them as he had done to that deacon.
This most holy man had an extensive knowledge of the divine Scriptures, not so that he could boast of his wisdom by reciting them by heart, but so that they might inspire all his actions, and enable him to keep the commandments. No idle conversation was ever heard to take place in the course of his daily business, unless involvement in civil affairs demanded it. He delighted in stories of the holy fathers, or scriptural questions, or dogmatic problems occasioned by the multitude of heretics in the region, whose names we do not need to spell out. If he heard anyone beginning to defame someone else, like a wise man he skilfully dealt with it by giving them a talking-to. If any offender persisted he said nothing, but gave instructions to the doorman not to allow him entry with any of the other visitors, so that others might be warned and instructed thereby.
It would not be right to pass over another decision which this holy man made. He had heard that after the Emperor had been crowned, no one in the senate or the army proposed a monument to him in accordance with custom, so when some monumental masons came to see him with four or five small samples of marble in different colours, and asked him what sort of memorial he wanted his rule to be remembered by - as much as to say, 'You are only a transitory human being, destined for corruption, so take thought for your soul and govern your kingdom justly' - the blessed man thought to maintain this praiseworthy custom and ordered a tomb to be built for him near where his predecessors in the patriarchate were lying. But he gave instructions that it was not be finished until his death, in the expectation that as people were going in to the services conducted by the clergy its very incompleteness might provoke someone to remind him, 'My lord, your tomb has not been finished. Pray bid that it be brought to a conclusion, for we know not the day nor the hour when the thief might break in' (Matthew 24.42-43). The holy man did this in a desire to leave a good example for future patriarchs to follow.
Because of the multitude of our sins, the Lord allowed his own temple at Jerusalem to be looted and burned by the Persians, and when the most holy patriarch heard of this and of the great need in which Modestus the patriarch of Jerusalem found himself in his desire to rebuild, he ordered a thousand numismata to be sent to him, a thousand bags of grain, a thousand measures of pulse, a thousand pairs of scales, a thousand bags of fried fish known as menomenae, a thousand flasks of wine, and a thousand Egyptian workmen, together with a letter as follows:
Forgive me, dear labourer for Christ, for not sending you anything worthy of the temple of Christ. Believe me, had I been able, I would have come myself to take part in the resurrection of the house of the holy Christ. Nevertheless I beg you not to take offence at my own poverty, but rather seek from Christ that I may be written in the book where the truly blessed are wont to be written.
Here is something which this holy man chose to do, namely, sleep on the meanest sort of bed covered with the meanest sort of bedcovering. When a comfortably well-off person in the city heard about that he went to see John and found that his bedcovering was indeed a very ragged, rough woollen object. So he sent him a new bed and blankets worth thirty-six numismata.
"Use them to cover yourself with, and let them remind you of me!" he said.
Persuaded by that remark, and much more of the same, he used it for one night, but spent the whole night arguing with himself. It was as if a whole host of bedroom attendants were besetting him with questions.
"Who would have believed that humble John (which is how he always referred to himself) has a bed worth thirty-six numismata, while Christ's brothers are dying of cold?"
"How many are there whose teeth are chattering with cold?"
"How many are there who have only half a blanket over them and half a blanket under them, so that they cannot stretch their feet out but lie curled up in a shivering ball?"
"How many are there who are sleeping unfed, in the dark, out in the open, suffering the double torment of hunger as well as cold?"
"How many are there who would gladly stuff themselves with the cabbage leaves that are thrown out from your own kitchen?"
"How many are there who would gladly soak their own bread in the water your kitchen has cooked food in, then thrown away?"
"How many are there who would enjoy just a sniff of the wines stored in your cellar?"
"How many strangers are there in this city at this moment who have nowhere to sleep except in the street, probably drenched with rain?"
"How many are there, do you think, who have gone for a whole month or even two without a taste of any oil?"
"How many are there who have no change of garments between summer and winter and therefore suffer in both seasons?"
"You live in the expectation of eternal bliss, and you drink wine, and eat large fish and sleep in your bedroom. And along with all these things you have chosen to keep yourself warm in a bed and bedding worth thirty-six numismata? Living in such luxury, you should not expect to partake in the joys which have been prepared, but rather hear what the rich man heard, 'You have received you good things in this life, but the poor have received evil things, but now they are comforted, but you are in torment' (Luke 16.25). Blessed be God, humble John will refuse to use his expensive bed for a single night more. Now blankets are being sold at four for one numismatum. So it would be right and acceptable to God that a hundred and forty-four poor people (who are your masters, don't forget) should have a blanket rather than you with your expensive bed."
He sent it off forthwith next morning to be sold. But the person who had originally given it noticed it on sale and bought it himself for thirty-six numismata and took it back to the patriarch. The same thing happened next morning, and again he bought it and took it back to the patriarch, begging him to make use of it. And it happened again a third time!
"We shall see who will give up first, you or I," said that holy man, who was really enjoying this. For the giver of the bed was very rich indeed, and the holy man was cheerfully reaping a rich harvest from him little by little. He always used to say that it was right to despoil the rich if it was for the purpose of giving to the poor. You could even take the shirt off his back without sin if it was for a good intention, especially if he was unmerciful and miserly. The benefits from this are twofold. The first is that you are being helpful to others, the second is that you can expect a great reward from it yourself. And in support of this belief he would cite the example of Epiphanius and John the bishop of Jerusalem, whereby Epiphanius deceived that patriarch into giving him money which he then gave to the poor.
In keeping with the previous chapter it is fitting to relate the story that this holy man once told us all:
I used to know someone who worked in a shop in Cyprus, he said, who was very faithful, and a virgin till the time of his death. He told me how the owner of the shop was very rich and very mean. It so happened that one day as the poor were warming themselves in the sun, some of them began singing the praises of those who gave alms and offering a prayer for each one of them, and also castigating those who gave no alms at all. Among them the name of this shop owner cropped up, and they all asked among themselves whether any of them had ever received any alms from him, and no one was found ever to have received any alms from his household.
"How much do you bet that I won't get an alms from him this very day?" one of them then said. And when they had come to an agreed price he went and stood in outside the door of the shop owner's house, waiting for him to come home. By the providence of God the shop owner arrived there at the same time, leading a donkey bringing back fine wheat flour from the mill for his own table. Seeing the beggar standing there, he searched about for a stone to fling at him, and not finding any, snatched a bag of flour from the saddle of the donkey and angrily threw that in his face. The beggar picked it up and showed it to his companions to prove that it had been given to him by the shop owner's own hands.
Two days later the shop owner took ill and was like to die, and saw himself being put to the judgment, with all his deeds being weighed in the balance. On one side of the balance were gathered a horde of ugly Moors, on the other side beings dressed in white and of an awe-inspiring appearance. They could find nothing good to throw into their side of the balance, whereas the Moors gathered together all his evil deeds to weigh their side of the balance down. The ones dressed in white were very sad and troubled.
"Haven't we got anything on our side?" they asked.
"Nothing", one of them said, "except one bag of flour which he gave to Christ two days ago, and that unwillingly."
They put the bag of flour into the balance and it tipped the balance slightly in his favour.
"Now go and make this bag of flour bigger," the ones in white said to the shop owner. "For otherwise these Moors will have you."
He groaned, knowing that he was being presented with the truth and no lie. He saw everything he had done from his youth up, and had forgotten, being gathered together by those Ethiopians and thrown into the scales.
"Let me take warning!" he said. "If one small bag of flour is worth so much, how many evils may one be delivered from by giving alms freely to the poor?"
And from then on he became such a prudent and caring person, and such a great almsgiver that he would not even spare his own body.
It happened one day as he was going at dawn to his shop that he met a sailor, naked as the day he was born, who had come ashore from a shipwreck, and who fell at his feet asking for his protection. Realising his need, he took off his cloak, which was one of his best, and gave it to him and begged him to wear it. But the sailor felt embarrassed, and sold it to a street trader. The shop owner noticed it as he was going by and felt very upset. He went home, refused to eat, and shut himself weeping inside the door of his study.
"How is it that I am not worthy," he asked, "for that beggar to be my memorial?"
Still worrying, he went to bed, and had a vision of someone as radiant as the sun, carrying a cross and wearing round his shoulders the cloak he had given to the sailor.
"Why are you weeping, Master Peter?" the vision asked.
"How is it, Lord," he replied, arguing as if with God, "that when we give anything out of the bounty with which you have blessed us, they take it and disgracefully turn it into cash?"
"Don't you recognise this?' he said, indicating the cloak. "It is I who am wearing it. You gave it to me, and I give you thanks for your good will, for I was cold and you clothed me."
When he awoke he was filled with wonder and began to bless the poor.
"The Lord lives!" he cried. "And if the poor are my Christ, I shall not die before becoming as one of them."
He summoned a slave of his who acted as his secretary.
"I want to entrust some highly confidential business to you, he said, "and if you betray me, or if you won't do as I say, I shall sell you to the barbarians. Take this ten pounds of gold to set yourself up in business, then take me to the holy city and sell me to some Christian or other, and give the money to the poor."
The secretary was extremely reluctant to do so.
"If you refuse to do it I shall sell you to the barbarians, as I said."
The secretary perforce agreed, and they went to the holy places, where he made contact with a silversmith, a dear friend of his, whose business, however, was not doing very well.
"Listen, Zoilus," the secretary said, "I've got this very good slave for sale. He says he is actually of noble birth."
The silversmith was rather surprised that he had this slave.
"Truly, I have not got enough money to buy him," he said.
"Borrow some money then, and buy him. He will bring you a lot of good fortune. God will bring you many blessings through him."
He agreed, and bought him for thirty numismata, dressed as he was in mean and common clothing. The secretary left and went to Constantinople, making sure he told no one, kept nothing for himself out of the price he had been paid, and gave the whole lot to the poor.
Peter meanwhile was working in his master's kitchen, and sometimes doing the washing, tasks which he had never been used to doing before. He also chastised his body with regular fasting. His master began to see that Peter was indeed a blessing above all other blessings, and was put to shame by his outstanding virtue and humility.
"Peter," he said, "I would like to give you your freedom and be to me as a brother."
Peter would not agree.
Then the master noticed that he was constantly being abused and insulted by his fellow servants. For they thought he was a half-wit, and always called him 'Half-wit'. But as often as he was being given a hard time by his fellows and went to bed in disgrace, he was given a vision of him whom he had seen in Africa, wearing his cloak, and now holding those thirty numismata in his hand.
"Don't be so sad, brother Peter," he said. "I have received your price. Continue in your endurance until you are recognised."
Not long after this some merchants selling silver came from his native land in order to pray at the holy places, and Peter's master invited them to his house for a meal. Peter recognised them as soon as he started waiting at table. And they, as they were eating, could not help noticing him
"Doesn't he look like master Peter, the shop owner!" they said to each other.
As much as he could he kept his face hidden from them. But as they were eating they remarked to their host, "Master Zoilus, we think there is something rather extraordinary going on here, for unless we are mistaken you have a well known citizen among your slaves."
They could not be any more positive than that, for fasting and work in the kitchen had altered his appearance. They discussed it among themselves for a while, until one of them said, "I am sure it is Master Peter. I am going to get up and grab him."
As Zoilus heard all this he was very put out for not having realised this before. Peter heard what they were talking about from outside the door, put down the bowl he was carrying, did not go in but ran straight to the front door. The doorkeeper was one who had been deaf and dumb from birth, but was used to opening and shutting the door in response to a nod of the head.
"I am speaking to you in the name of Christ," said Peter, as he ran up to the door.
"Yes sir," said the doorkeeper, his hearing suddenly restored.
"Open up," said Peter.
"I will sir," said the deaf and dumb doorkeeper." And he got up and opened it
As Peter went out, the doorkeeper ran back in, shouting with great exultation, "Lord! Lord! I can hear and speak!" Everybody in the house could hear him and were quite petrified to hear him shouting.
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