Life of Our Holy Father, John the Almsgiver

detail of a painting of Saint John the Almoner; by Titian, c.1545; San Giovanni Elemosinario, Venice, Italy; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsJohn, the great servant of God and His faithful high-priest, who was named after ‘almsgiving’ and received that exceptional and glorious title from his exceeding goodness which took Christ for its model-this John, I say, invites us to the present banquet of praise, and as dainty and free fare he sets before us tor our common feast most pleasing tales of his achievements and his triumphs.

And every soul that delights in instruction will revel and find joy in them, and in its love for God it will be aroused by a sacred passion to pious imitation.

And the Lord of glory will be signally glorified, for He is always glorified in His own servants, and those that glorify Him He glorifies splendidly in return.

Come then! let us, as best we may, begin our story, it cannot be complete but we shall be graciously guided towards the end which we have set before us by John’s merciful co-operation and intercession.

This renowned light of the Church and great father among saints was the noble offspring and precious nursling of the island of the Cyprians, and was descended not from ignoble or ordinary ancestors, but from those of an illustrious family and of brilliant renown. For John’s father, Epiphanius (=Conspicuous) by name, did so many ‘conspicuous’ and remarkable things in his life in accordance, we may say, with his name that he was chosen by the rulers of that time to be entrusted with the reins of government in the island of the Cyprians. And we may, I think, reasonably suppose that his wife, I mean the mother of our wonderful John, had like her husband her share of good fortune and distincticun.

This noble lad was given a generous education by his noble parents and was brought up in the fear of the Lord. As he grew in age he developed in body and progressed in spirit until he was joined to a wife in the partnership of lawful wedlock; not however by his own wish but in obedience to his father’s authority did he take upon himself the yoke of marriage. Nor was it so much that he yielded readily but rather that he was forced thereto by constraint. And in his love of purity even after assuming the bonds of marriage he gave a proof of his great passion for the unmarried state. For accepting the marriage-contract only in name and treating it as but a form, in his love for continence he abstained for a considerable time from intercourse with his wife. Finally his father-in-law noticed what was happening, became very angry and threatened to brand with guilt the purpose of his guiltless son-in-law.

At this the great-hearted man yielded, for in all things he was ready to make concessions and earnestly strove to give offence to none. He therefore went so far as to submit himself to the lawful intercourse of married life. From this intercourse he allowed himself even to beget children of whom he had a bountiful crop, becoming the father of sons according to the law of nature.

These all departed this life while they were still in the flower of their age, and his wife, too, met her end soon afterwards. He had now gained complete freedom from all worldly burdens and anxieties and gave himself up wholly and entirely without any other thought than how to please the Lord and, like the great apostle, to ‘become all things to all men’ [1 Cor 9:22] and ‘not to seek his own profit only but the profit of many’ [1 Cor 10:33] that they might have a prosperous course.

And indeed he was always on all occasions amiable to all, advising, encouraging, assisting, acting as peacemaker, doing a kindness, reconciling, and ever anxiously striving to display his love for the highest virtue in all its forms.

And by this conduct John became everywhere very famous and at the same time dearly beloved, not only by the subjects of the Empire and by private individuals, but even by the Emperors themselves and by the nobles and governors.

Thus under strong pressure by the Emperor Heraclius and largely through the counsel of Nicetas, who at that time had been raised to the rank of ‘patrician’ and shared in the government of the Empire (he was also the adopted brother of the blessed man) and further with the approval of the whole body of Alexandrians he was raised to the high-priestly throne as Patriarch.

With his mind filled by the inspiratlon of the Divine spirit John first of all suppressed the blasphemous addition, namely the innovation in the ‘Trisagion’, which Peter, nicknamed ‘the Fuller’, in his profane babbling had recited, daring impiously to say: ‘Holy, immortal, Thou Who was crucified for us’. For when John by divine decree received into his hands the reins of the high-priesthood, he found only seven churches maintaining the services of the Orthodox liturgy; and by much diligence he succeeded in increasing the number to seventy and in all these he authorized the celebration of the Immaculate Oblation.

He absolutely refused to receive presents or money or any kind of gift whatsoever, not only as a fee for ordination, but also on any other pretext or excuse, whether the matter were great or small, for he ever kept in mind the words of the writer of Proverbs, who says ‘He that is greedy of gain destroys himself but he that hateth taking gifts shall live’. [Prov 15:27 LXX] Moreover from all those who were seeking ordination at his hands, whether as bishops or priests, he demanded a written declaration in order to safeguard the orthodox faith and to secure the observance of all the ordinances set forth in the Canons.

With regard to the decisions concerning ordinations and the testing of candidates he was so very scrupulous that once when the Emperor sent to him about a certain monk, who feigned great piety, asking John to ordain him bishop he examined the facts with care and recognizing that the monk was unworthy of the priesthood he confined him to one of the monasteries, bidding him remain there quietly. The monk escaped soon afterwards and reported the whole matter to the Emperor, but John was not afraid nor did he take any account of the Emperor’s order; he sent the monk empty away telling him to return to him who had sent him.

The priests who abjured their heresy and gave written declarations of their repentance, confessing the doctrines of the orthodox faith, accepting the four holy Oecumenical Councils and anathematizing all the heresies and the heresiarchs, were willingly received by John who made them members of the Catholic church.

At that time the Persian armies invaded and laid waste the whole country of the Syrians, and the inhabitants of all the towns there came in great numbers with bishops and other clergy and governors and sought refuge in Alexandria. In the greatness of his mind and the generosity of his purpose he supported them all liberally, supplying most abundantly each one’s necesslties.

When he learnt that some of the bishops staying in Alexandria were in need, he summoned the richer members amongst the leading clergy and when he had brought them together he exhorted them with many counsels and then laid down that they all, and he himself first of all, should pay one pound of gold a year to their poverty-stricken colleagues.

He made a similar arrangement for the needy priests and deacons and the rest of the clergy of the Church, freely granting to each in every rank a certain sum of gold yearly corresponding to the particular labour of his own station so that his wants might be satisfied.

In addition to this he built a great many poorhouses and hostels for strangers, and he decreed that all the corn and all the necessary expenditure for the feeding of their inmates should be paid for from the revenues of the Church.

Once when a severe famine was oppressing the city and the holy man’s stewards were, as usual, ceaselessly distributing money or some small gift to the needy, some destitute women overcome with hunger and but lately risen from child-bed were obliged to hasten to receive help from the distributors while they were still in the grip of abdominal pains, deadly pale, and suffering grievously; when the wondrous man was told of this, he built seven lying-in hospitals in different parts of the city, ordered forty beds to be kept ready in each and arranged that every woman should rest quietly in these for seven full days after her confinement and then receive the third of a nomisma and go home.

It was not only for those in bodily need that he showed care but he took special forethought for the salvation of those suffering from spiritual hunger. For instance, there was a lake in Alexandria, called Maria, in which a great quantity of papyrus grew, and the inhabitants of that district had been in the habit of cutting it down and using it as fuel instead of wood. And the boys, whose work it was to cut down the papyrus together with the men dwelling there, practised the vice of sodomy unrestrainedly; and they had no house of prayer, no priest at all, they never heard the Scriptures nor partook of the Divine Mysteries. When the inspired Patriarch heard of these illegal doings and of this pollution, he ordered the boys to be brought away from that place and he built houses of prayer for its inhabitants and set apart certain priests whom he appointed to minister to them and to teach them.

After Rasmiozan the governor, or rather the general-in-chief, of Chosroes, King of the Persians, had demolished all the holy places of Jerusalem, the news of this wickedness came to the ears of the thrice blessed Patriarch. When he heard of this horrible insolence and learned that all the ho]y things had been committed to the flames, then just as though he had been an inhabitant of the places which had suffered thus he sat down and made lament. He mourned for their desolation, not merely for one or two days, or ten or twenty or even twice as many but for a whole year; wailing and groaning bitterly he strove by his lamentations to outdo Jeremiah who of old lamented over the capture of this same city, Jerusalem. And this lamentation he did not compose, as it were, without careful thought, leaving it to be forgotten, but he is said to have committed it to writing.

And on receiving the news of this disaster he sent a man, dearly loved of God, Ctesippus by name, and at that time in charge of the monasteries of the Ennaton, to view the destruction of the holy places in Jerusalem. And by his hands he sent a large sum of money and an abundance of corn, wine, oil and pulse; also garments for laymen and for monks; and for the sick various kinds of eatables, and finally, a great many beasts of burden for the distribution of these necessaries. He not only took much thought for those who had been captured in the towns but he took measures with great care for those from the monasteries who had suffered a similar fate, and especially for the women from the convents. A number of the latter had been done to death by the Persians and about a thousand of the nuns were captured, so John sent a large sum of money to ransom them and then he restored them all, settling them in convents.

The Persian governors heard of John’s surpassing liberality and boundless sympathy – for certainly he was most appropriately named ‘the Almsgiver’ – and therefore they were very eager to see him – for even an enemy respects a man’s virtue – and they offered money to Dion, who was governor at that time, if he would make it possible for them to see him.

Besides all this, John sent Theodore, bishop of Amathus, to rescue those who had been taken prisoners by the Madienians, and with him Anastasius, abbot of the mount of the great Antony, and Gregory, bishop of Rhinocoroura; by their help he effected the rescue of very many captives, both men and women, whom he redeemed by paying a large sum of gold.

But it was not only in the distribution of money and the ransoming of captives that he showed the generosity of his disposition, but also in the matter of his simple fare; for he had no hesitation in showing that his own humble style of living was to buy cheaply and be content with little. One day in the large church of the great martyr Menas he took a cup of wine in his hand and, when he noticed its bouquet and pleasant taste, he asked the steward where it had been bought and for how much. The steward replied that the wine had been brought from Palestine and purchased at a very high price, so John refused to drink it, saying, ‘Humble John does not drink such fragrant and excellent wine, bought, too, at so high a price; pour me out rather some Mareotic wine, for its taste is nothing to boast of and its price is low’.

A certain John, at that time bishop of the town of Tiberias, escaped the barbaric invasion of the Persians, fled for refuge to the great city of the Alexandrians and there reached the end of his life. He used to wear on his breast a gold cross inside which was a portion of the precious Cross, and this he bequeathed to his heir. Now John longed to possess this and asked the man to take double its price and give him what he desired. The man took the sum agreed upon, then changed the pectoral cross and gave the Patriarch another in place of it. Afterwards the rascal at dead of night saw a vision of angels calling him to account and questioning him and using terrible threats to him and saying that unless he gave the just Patriarch (Papas) the precious bit of wood which he had inheritedz he should suffer most grievous ills and end his life in utter misery. So he did this at once and asked forgiveness for the crafty theft.

Some of the clergy had deserted their own towns owing to the invasions of the barbarians and had come to Alexandria and had no expectation of ever returning to their native towns; these John accepted and enrolled in the Church. As these men had no shepherds, he did not insist on their supplying ‘letters of introduction’, but he took written declarations from them to prove their confession of the orthodox faith and their observance of the ecclesiastical canons

On hearing of the wholesale devastation of the Roman realm by the Persians John decided to go to the Emperor and open negotiations for peace. But, although he had drawn up his farewell speech and read it to all, the people of the city would not allow him to leave. After the Persian armies had utterly laid waste the whole of Syria, Phoenicia and Arabia and various cities besides, these sinners threatened to take even Alexandria itself. And then the holy man, having found out by God’s help, that a murderous plot was being hatched against him, sailed away to his native country, Cyprus.

Now a general, one Aspagurius by name, had been sent to Constantia in Cyprus but had not been admitted by the town; so he prepared himself for war against its citizens and they on their side were arming themselves against him. And they were just on the point of engaging in this slaughter of each other when the all-admirable John, the disciple of the God of Peace, intervened and induced both parties to seek reconciliation and succeeded in bringing them to terms.

John once received relics from Jerusalem of Stephen, the first martyr, and of James the brother of our Lord; so he built a chapel in the name of this first great martyr and having made a list of all his belongings he generously dedicated them to this chapel.

Isaac who was general at that time betrayed the city of the Alexandrians (to the Persians) and then fled for refuge to Cyprus. There he found the most holy Patriarch (Papas) and formed a murderous intrigue against him, intending to kill him on the Monday before Palm Sunday. The divine man was informed of this and therefore stayed at home and received nobody, and thus by God’s providence he was miraculously saved from this deadly attack. But the author of this plot, the miserable Isaac, by the just judgment of the unsleeping providence of God was savagely set upon by some men and murdered on the very day on which he had planned death against the righteous Patriarch.

John, the all-holy Patriarch (Papas), when he had arrived at Constantia paid reverent worship to the relics of the saints there, namely, Barnabas, the all-praiseworthy apostle, and Epiphanius, the great miracle-worker, and afterwards went on to Amathus and it was from there that he departed to be with his beloved Lord.

– translated from the Greek by Elizabeth Anna Sophia Dawes