John was born into a prominent Armenian family, in 454 AD. His parents died when he was eighteen and from that moment he sought a monastic life, first building a monastery where he stayed with ten young monks. Under John’s direction, they led a life of hard work and devotion. He earned a reputation for leadership and sanctity, which led to him being consecrated Bishop of Colonia at just twenty-eight. John had no desire to be a bishop and after nine years, John fled this life. He sought seclusion in his efforts to refrain from evil. Uncertain of his future vocation, he went to Jerusalem.
While John was praying one night, he saw a bright cross form in the air, and heard a voice say to him, “If you desire to be saved, follow this light.” He saw it move and point out the Lavra (monastery) of St. Sabbas, which John joined aged thirty-eight. After a period of testing, St. Sabbas let John have a separate hermitage for uninterrupted contemplation. For five days a week he fasted and never left his cell but on Saturdays and Sundays he went to public mass. After three years of this he was made the steward of the Lavra.
John never told anyone he had been bishop. After four years, St. Sabbas thought John was worthy to become a priest and presented him to the patriarch Elias of Jerusalem. They travelled to Calvary for the ordination but upon their arrival John requested a private audience with the patriarch. John told the Holy Father, that he had been ordained bishop; but had fled on account of his multitude of my sins, and was now waiting for the coming of the Lord in this desert. The patriarch was startled but told St. Sabbas that he desired to be excused from ordaining this man.
St. Sabas was afraid John had committed a crime and after he prayed, God revealed the truth to him. He complained to John about keeping it from him and John, finding himself discovered, wanted to leave the monastery. St. Sabbas convinced him to stay by promising to keep his secret. John stayed in his cell for four years, speaking to no one except the person who brought him necessities.
When St. Sabbas was forced to leave his Lavra, John went into a neighbouring wilderness, where he spent six years in silence, eating only the wild roots and herbs which the desert provided. When St. Sabas was brought back to his community, he found John in the desert and convinced him to return. John had become used to speaking only with God and found only bitterness and emptiness in anything else. He treasured obscurity and humility. He returned with St. Sabas and lived in his cell for forty years. John died in 558 AD at the age of one hundred and four. He had lived in solitude for seventy-six years interrupted only for the nine years he was bishop.
John appears to have lived a life of great humility, tormented by his own sense of sinfulness or unworthiness and yet is remembered as a holy, inspirational figure, showing us what it is to want God alone.
On this day, lift before God:
- those, who find the burden of others’ expectations too much to bear.
- those who spend time in silence and contemplation.
- those living into great old age in homes or communities all around us.
And ask God to renew in us the expectant hope that the Lord is coming.