A bizarre request

Also known as John Kolobos, John the Short and John the Little, St John was born around 340 in Egypt, and would become one of the best-loved Desert Fathers. The foundation of his profound spirituality was laid in childhood: his family were not well off but were imbued with the Catholic faith. At 18, John made his first experiment in a life devoted to prayer, digging an underground cave in the desert of Skete.

He was lucky to have a spiritual director who understood his particular foibles: conceitedness and a short fuse. This wise elder asked John to perform an apparently pointless task: planting a walking stick in the ground and watering it every day. The request seems even more ludicrous, given that the nearest source of water was about 10 miles away. Nevertheless, John knew that self-abnegation was the way to perfection, and so he made the round trip every day without a word of complaint. After three years the stick abruptly put out splendid leaves and bore fruit, and John carried it into the monastery, announcing: “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

John preached of mortification, saying: “If a general would take a city, he begins the siege by debarring it from supplies of water and provisions.”

Sweet correction

One touching story, told in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, is of “a certain charitable devout young woman, named Paësia”, who fell into various sins. St John went to see her and, “with his accustomed sweetness”, asked: “What reason can you have to complain of Jesus, that you should thus abandon him, to plunge yourself into so deplorable an abyss!”

These words persuaded Paësia to live a new life devoted to prayer and doing penance for her sins. At her death, John saw in a vision that she had made a complete satisfaction before God.

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