Chapter XXI (continued) Life of St John the Almsgiver, , Book Ib
"It was the one who works in the kitchen," the former deaf mute said. "He has just run outside. But go and see. Perhaps he has run away! In any case he is a great servant of God. As he came up to me he said, 'I am speaking to you in the name of Christ', and I saw a flame coming out of his mouth and touching my ears, and immediately I could hear and speak."
They all jumped up and ran out after Peter, but alas, he was nowhere to be seen. Then everyone in the house began to feel guilty including the master who had bought him and subjected him to such a subservient state, but especially all those who had called him 'Half-wit'.
That is a sample of the stories told us by the blessed John, the patriarch honoured by God. He was not content to spend only his own life in giving a helping hand to anyone who wanted it, but made use of the true stories of those who had been accepted by God.
"Anyone who spares not his own flesh," he always used to say, "but lays it down for his brother, lays it down for Christ. Why else do you think that with eagerness and humility we ought to give of our possessions to Christ in the persons of the needy and poor, if it is not to receive our reward from God, that righteous source of all recompense, in that fearful and tremendous Day? 'He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly' (2 Corinthians 9.6), but he who sows with blessings, that is generously and widely, shall also reap a manifold reward. In other words he will inherit those good things which pass man's understanding."
This holy man was impeccable in his way of life. He fell short in nothing. He truly loved to speak of the deeds of the holy fathers and those renowned for giving alms. One day he told us about the life of the holy Serapion, known as the Sindonite, who gave his cloak to a poor man, and then having gone on a little way gave his tunic away as well, leaving him sitting there naked, with nothing but the Gospels in his hand. Somebody asked him. "Who has robbed you, abba?" And he held up the holy Gospels, saying "This!"
On another occasion he sold this book of the Gospels and gave the money away in alms.
"Abba, where is your book of the Gospels?" said his disciple.
"Believe me, my son, I have sold that very thing which told me to sell all that I have and give to the poor (Matthew 19.21), that in the day of judgment I may have abundant recompense before God."
And again, when a widow woman asked for an alms from this same holy Serapion because her sons were starving, he handed himself over to her, not having anything else to give, so that she could sell him as a slave to a troupe of Greek actors, and it was not very long before he had converted those actors to Christ.
In reading this story of the holy Serapion, the holy John was overcome with admiration for his great zeal. In tears, he called all his aid workers and read the whole story to them.
"O, you who love Christ," he said, "Do you not see what profit there is in talking about the deeds of the holy fathers? Believe me, up to today I was thinking that I could not do any more than give away what money I had. I never imagined that compassion could be felt so strongly that anyone would sell himself."
This holy man always held those wearing the monastic habit in high regard. He encouraged them and empathised with them, especially when he saw a monk emaciated for lack of bodily comforts. One of his priorities was never to accept any accusation, whether true or false, against anyone wearing the monastic habit. For it happened once that among many other tales going round, a certain monk was being accused of having been wandering about in the city for several days in the company of a very young girl while asking for alms. People who saw him were scandalised, because they assumed that the girl was his woman. They brought a complaint about him to the patriarch.
"You stand high in God's favour," they said to the bishop. "Is it not a disgrace to the reputation of the Angelic monastic habit that he should have this girl as his woman?"
The servant of God believed that he was there for the very purpose of putting a stop to sins committed against God, and ordered that the girl should be separated from him and whipped, and that the monk should be beaten and put in prison. After these orders had been carried out with all diligence, the monk appeared to him that night in a dream, showing him his back, which was a bloody pulp, for the church guardians had assaulted him without mercy.
"I hope this pleases you, my lord bishop," he said. "You have erred like any other human being this time. Don't forget that your life and death is in the hands of your neighbour!"
In the morning that blessed man remembered his vision and was overcome with shame and sorrow as he sat up in his bed. That blessed patriarch sent immediately for his prison warder to bring him the monk from the prison, wondering whether he was the same man as had appeared to him in his vision. It was an enormous effort for him to arrive before the patriarch, for because of his wounds he was hardly able to move. When the patriarch saw him he was speechless, not knowing what to say. He could only gesture with his hand to tell him to sit on the bed. He recovered sufficient composure to cross himself, and asked the monk to take no thought for his modesty but take his clothes off so that he could see whether his back was as he had seen in his dream. The monk was wearing a linen tunic. Somewhat unwillingly he undressed to show his back to the holy man, and in God's wonderful providence his loincloth also slipped to the floor, allowing everyone to see that he was in fact a eunuch! It had not been at all obvious outwardly, for the operation had only been done quite recently. The holy Pontiff and everyone there could see how exceedingly viciously he had been flogged, and he immediately ordered that those who had beaten him so unmercifully should be suspended. He then began a long discussion with that venerable monk by admitting that he had sinned against him and against the true God.
"But you must realise, my son," he said, "that you could hardly expect not to be locked up in this city, wandering about in your Angelic monastic habit in the company of a female, to the scandal of all who saw you."
The monk then in all humility explained to the holy man what had happened.
"Believe me, I am not lying. A few days ago I was in Gaza, and as I was going out of the city on my way to worship at the shrine of the holy Cyrus, this nice-looking girl came up to me outside the gates as night was falling, fell at my feet and asked if she could come with me. She said she was a Jew and wanted to become a Christian and she told me a quite horrifying story, begging me to save her from being killed. In fear of the judgment of God I accepted her, confident that eunuchs have no fear of sexual temptation from Satan. So, we came here together, most holy father, and after praying together I baptised her at the shrine of abba Cyrus. In simplicity of heart I wandered about begging for a little sustenance until such time as I could get her into a monastery."
"Oh, how wonderful!" exclaimed the patriarch. "I wonder how many more servants of God there are about, that humble John has never heard of. "
And he told those who were with him about the vision that he had had the night before. He took out a hundred numismata from his purse to give him, but that true monk and friend of God would not accept it, offering instead a very noteworthy saying to the patriarch:
"I would not ask for all that, sir," he said. "If a monk has faith he has no need of it. If he does need it, he has no faith."
This more than amply satisfied his hearers that this monk was indeed a servant of God. He bent the knee to the patriarch and departed in peace. The result of all this was that the patriarch honoured monks even more, and offered them hospitality whether they were good or bad. It was not long before he built a guesthouse for them, which he called 'Allmonks Haven'
Once when plague struck the city this holy man took part in the funerals, which he said was useful so that he could inspect the burial places. Very often indeed he would sit with the dying as they suffered the agony of the departure of their souls. He would close their eyes with his own hands, deliberately reminding himself of his own mortality. And he made sure that no one would be left in any doubt that prayers had been said for the deceased.
For he told a story about how someone not long since had been taken captive by Persians, and taken to a prison in Persia called Lethe, that is, 'oblivion.' Some people escaped from there and came back to Cyprus, where they were questioned by the captive's parents as to whether they had seen him at all. They replied that they had buried him with their own hands, unaware that it was not this man but someone else who looked like him. And they told him the day and the month of his death. His parents then said the prayers for the dead for him at three set times a year.
Four years later he escaped from Persia and came back to Cyprus.
"Truly, brother," said his relations, "we thought you were dead, and have been saying the prayers for you three times a year."
"What days did you say then on?" he asked.
"Epiphany, Easter Day and Pentecost." they said.
"On these very three days every year I was visited by someone dressed in white, as shining bright as the sun. He loosed me from my iron chains and from my cell, and I was able to walk about freely all day without anyone noticing. Next day I was back in chains."
"What we learn from this," said the holy bishop, "is that when we say the prayers for the dead, the dead are given rest."
What frequently happened to this most compassionate of men is what we read of as happening in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4). For many people, when they saw his unlimited and unsearchable generosity to people, were often moved to sell many of their possessions and bring them to lay at the feet of this devoted minister of God. There was one person who came one day with seven and a half pounds of gold and assured the holy man that that was all the gold he had. Genuflecting repeatedly before the bishop he begged also that he would pray that the Lord God would keep his son safe. He had just the one son of about fifteen years of age, who was bringing back goods from Africa in his ship.
The high priest accepted the gold from his hand, marvelling that his generosity extended to giving all the gold that he possessed. He prayed for him, with many people as witnesses, and so let him depart. Furthermore in response to the man's great faith the patriarch made a bundle of the gold and put it under the holy table in his private chapel (oratorio cubiculi sui) and celebrated the synaxis for the person who had made the gift, including many prayers that the son should come home safely in the ship, as he had been asked to do.
However, before a month had passed, the son died. Three days after his death another ship of his came in from Africa, containing his own brother, to whom also he owed money. He was able to describe how while sailing past Pharos the son's ship was shipwrecked and apart from one empty lifeboat all that might possibly qualify for salvation were their souls. When the boy's father, the owner of the ship, heard about this disaster his soul had almost dwell in hell, in the words of the Prophet (Psalms 94.17). To the tribulation he suffered because of his son's death was added the loss of his ship.
The patriarch was told about all that had happened to him, and he mourned almost more than the father did. He was especially sad at the loss of the only son. He did not know what to do, except beseech the most merciful God that the father would find comfort through the strength of his faith. The holy man felt extremely awkward about calling the man and comforting him face to face. Nevertheless he did so, and urged him not to fall into despair, for none of God's judgments were unjust; everything was done for the best, even when we could not see why. The faith that he had shown in the patriarch and in the gift of the seven and a half pounds of gold would bring a spiritual reward, which he prayed would not be lost in this time of testing, which had come after having performed such a good deed. We should always remain untroubled and give thanks to God.
That night, that Christ-loving father had a dream of someone dressed like the most holy patriarch.
"Why are you so sad, my brother, and sunk in mourning?" he said. "Did you not ask me to pray to God that your son should be kept safe? Behold, he is safe. Believe me, if he had lived he would have become a dissolute and wicked person. And as for your ship, if it had not been that God was pleased at the good deed you did to me, it too would have perished in the deep with everyone in it including your brother, as it happens. But rise and give glory to God who has brought your brother back to you and has saved you son unharmed by the vanities of this world."
When he woke up he found there was comfort in his heart and all his sadness cast out. He got dressed and went straight away to that most honourable patriarch and fell at his feet, giving thanks to God as he told him about the vision he had had.
"Glory to you, most kind and merciful God," said that most righteous patriarch, "for you hear the prayers of sinners."
And to the man he said, "Don't give thanks for my prayers, my son, but thank God for your faith. Faith is able to overcome all things."
This holy man was always so humble, and prudent in everything he said.
This blessed man once spent some time visiting the poor in the Caesarian district, where he provided some quite spacious shelters for them to sleep in during the winter. They had wooden planks laid over a solid floor, together with rush mats and blankets. There was one of the bishops with him who was a very tight-fisted lover of money
"Brother Troilus," said the blessed patriarch (for Troilus was his name), "love and honour these brothers of Christ."
Now someone had told him that Troilus' house servant was carrying thirty pounds of god with him in order to buy a sort of anaglyphus to grace his table with. Fearing that John was about to preach a sermon at him, with a marked lack of enthusiasm he ordered his servant carrying the gold to give some of it to each of the poor. The whole amount of it quickly vanished. The patriarch and bishop Troilus, the unwilling almsgiver (as I call him), both went their several ways home. Troilus felt very bitter, with all kinds of perilous thoughts rushing through his mind because of the money he had given away. The love of money which had engendered harshness and negligence in him finally caught up with him and made him shake all over, so that he became unnaturally feverish, and unwillingly took to his bed.
Now the most holy patriarch sent his servant to Troilus to bid him come to a meal, but Troilus refused, saying that for some reason he was suffering from a shivering sort of fever. The patriarch knew at once that the unwilling almsgiver's fever had been caused by the sudden disappearance of his money. For, as we have said, he loved his money and had no sense of compassion for others. The blessed man could not allow himself to sit at ease at his table while Troilus was languishing on his bed, so he went to see him straight away.
"Don't worry, Troilus, my son," he said humbly and with a cheerful face. "Did you really think that I would have expected you to give to the brothers in that way? Believe me, I was only joking. I had in fact wanted to give each of them a numismatum for them to celebrate the holy feast day, but my purseholder did not have enough money with him, so you kindly lent me the money. See, I am bringing you back the thirty pounds now."
When Troilus actually saw the money in the honoured hand of this wise doctor and pastor, his fever suddenly left him and strength and warmth returned to his body, so that it was quite obvious what had caused the change that had come over him. Without hesitation he took the money from the venerable patriarch's hands, and the patriarch asked him in return for a receipt, disclaiming any reward that might be due for having given the thirty pounds. Troilus quite happily agreed to this, and in his own hand he wrote as follows:
"O God, I have received back my own money. Ascribe the reward due for the almsgiving of the thirty pounds to the account of my lord John, the most blessed patriarch of this great city of Alexandria."
The holy man took this receipt and betook both himself and Troilus back to dinner, for as we have said, he was now completely well.
But God, the giver of rewards, decided to reproach him, and awaken in him some compassion and sympathy with the idea of almsgiving. So after his dinner with the patriarch, God showed him that night in a dream how he had been deprived of his reward. He saw a building whose magnificence and beauty no human art could possibly devise, with a doorway all of gold, and across the doorway a scroll, saying THE ETERNAL MANSION AND RESTING PLACE OF BISHOP TROILUS.
"I was overjoyed," he told us later, "when I read this, to think that someone had provided such a sumptuous house for me. But I had hardly finished reading this superscription before a royal bedroom-attendant came along with other servants to the doorway of this gleaming house and said: 'Take that superscription down. Change it and put it back according to the orders of the ruler of the world.'
"And as I looked on, they brought a new scroll and fixed it on: THE ETERNAL MANSION AND RESTING PLACE OF JOHN, ARCHBISHOP OF ALEXANDRIA, BOUGHT FOR THIRTY POUNDS. I awoke immediately, and went to the great high pastor to tell him what I had seen"
And from that time onwards Bishop Troilus became a most magnificent almsgiver.
The Lord who in due season stripped blessed Job of his riches did the same to the holy patriarch John, who also was a man full of all goodness. For some ships belonging to the most holy church encountered such storms in the Adriatic that the crew had to throw overboard all their cargo, which consisted of clothing and silver and other more valuable things, which they reckoned to amount to about three thousand pounds in weight. There were more than thirteen ships, each with a capacity of ten thousand modii.
Arriving at Alexandria the ships' captains, as being responsible for the loss, took refuge in the church. When the holy man heard they were there he sent them a word written with his own hand: 'The Lord has given, brothers, the Lord, as he wills, has taken away. As the Lord pleases so is it done. Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1.21). Carry on and fear nothing from this event. For the Lord will visit you in the morning.'
Almost half the city assembled at the church next day wanting to show their support for that noble man, but he got in first by saying to them,
"Sons and brothers, don't be too sad because of the difficulties that these ships got into, because really it is all the fault of humble John. If only I hadn't been so conceited this would never have happened. The reason it happened was that I was constantly being praised for what God was doing, and was thinking to myself what great things I was doing, savouring only the things of men. So God allowed this to happen in order to teach me a lesson. Almsgiving can easily lead to pride if one is not careful, but humility comes to someone who suffers an event like this. As divine Scripture says, 'poverty brings a man low', and again, 'it is good that you have humbled me, for so have I learned your judgments' (Psalms 119.71). I have become detestable because of my evil deeds, for my generosity has led me into vainglory. All that money has been lost because of my wickedness, and I now suffer the penalty of being in dire straits. But truly, my beloved, God is now the same God as the God of Job, and he will not abandon us. Not because of my needs, but because of the needs of the poor, he himself has said, 'I will not leave you nor desert you' (Hebrews 13.5). And again, 'Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you' (Matthew 6.33).
So it was that whereas the citizens came wanting to comfort him, it was on the contrary they who received comfort from his blessedness. And it was not long afterwards that the Lord doubly restored the goods of our latter day Job, so that again he was able to be generous towards the poor, but in perhaps a more chastened frame of mind than he was before.
When one of his domestic servants fell into extreme poverty, the holy man gave him two pounds of gold, so that no one would know about it.
"Now that you have given me this, my lord, I no longer feel any resentment at the sight your honourable and angelic face."
To which he made the following wise and praiseworthy reply, "I have not yet laid down my life for you, my brother, as demanded by Christ my Lord and God of all."
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