Life No 11, Book Ib
The Life of St John the Almsgiver
bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus
translated by Anastasius, his librarian
Preface of AnastasiusGreetings, O Prelate,
to the Lord Pope Nicolaus
For a long time I have been quietly and carefully turning things over in my mind, wondering what sort of worthy work suitable for the house of God I might undertake. I would not want to do anything which would bring discredit on my ministry, nor would I want to attempt anything greater than my own limited ability would allow. As Solomon says: 'If you have found honey don't eat more than you need, lest you make yourself sick' (Proverbs 25.16). And again, 'Delve not into things too deep for you, and search not into things greater than you can understand' (Ecclesiasticus 3.22). And quite unexpectedly I have now been asked by certain dedicated scholars to translate into Latin Leontius' Life of John, the late bishop of Alexandria, whom the Greeks were absolutely right to call 'the Almsgiver', because of the great compassion which he showed to all. Such a great man should be of great benefit not only those who speak Greek but those who speak Latin.
I felt that I was quite unworthy and insufficiently skilled for such a great task, but I lifted up my eyes to the hills from whence comes my help (Psalms 121.1). Trusting in the help and prayers of the fathers, I cannot allow this bountiful man to be kept hidden from those who speak Latin. But although I have prepared the parchments, and drawn up a synopsis, I would not begun writing a book without seeking your Lordship's approval, a thousand times blessed as you are. For it would not be right to take anything in hand, or publish it, apart from the Vicar of God, the key-bearer of heaven, the winged chariot of the spiritual Israel, the universal Pontiff, the one and only Pope and Pastor and special Father and ruler of all. For you hold the keys of David, you have been given the keys of knowledge. In the ark of your breast are preserved the tables of the Law and the manna of heavenly sweetness. For what you bind no one looses, what you loose no one binds, what you open no one shuts, what you shut no one opens (Matthew 16.19). For in this world you stand in the place of God.
However, in turning the life of this blessed man into Latin, I have not followed the exact words and constructions of the Greek, nor ought I to have done so. I have not translated word for word but sense for sense. I have not been concerned for the niceties of Latin style, for my intention has been only to be of service to the reader. So then, my Lord, friend of angels, pray do not take offence at my insignificant person, do not expect me to be clever, or to produce ornamental prose, but rather with the godly eye of your heart, think first of how great a benefit it must be for the reader to have such a great man as an example and mirror for all. If this translation is acceptable in your judgment, confirm it by your Apostolic authority; where it is not, amend it. I only hope that the Latin will not disappoint you as being lacking in savour as compared with the pleasure to be obtained from the well-turned Greek.
Accept then this Saint, interpreted by a sinner. Think not of the translator, but of the person translated. Do not despise the purity of the water because it comes through pipes of lead, nor spurn the rose because it grows among thorns. For the guardian and lover of your soul, sent dreams as it pleased him to both Pharaoh (Genesis 41.1) and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4.5), by which the future could be foretold. He prophesied through wicked Caiaphas what was expedient (John 11.49-50), and, finally, when he wills, he even permits an ass to speak (Numbers 22.28).
Greetings for ever!
Farewell, O blessed Pope of all the world.
Our intention in this present narrative of the life of that memorable man is identical with that of all those industrious and holy men who have gone before us, that is, to provide a beneficial and godly example of someone to be imitated, and thereby celebrate the glory and magnificence of the holy and adorable Trinity. In this man, as in all who from generation to generation shine with the true light, has been made manifest the things which may illuminate those who live in the shadow of sin and death (Luke 1.79).
O friends of Christ, we profess not to be surprised that there were men in the generations before us who lived lives pleasing to God, and left us lessons on the subject of how the devil works, for we often say among ourselves that human wickedness was not so strongly developed then as is it is today, as divine Scripture foretold, saying. 'Iniquity has abounded, the love of many has grown cold' (Matthew 24.12). And so we say that we are not capable of rising to their level of merit. It is for this reason that we have decided to tell the story of this holy Life, wishing to demonstrate the proposition that the more excellent among us, even in our days, are capable of following the strait and narrow way (Matthew 7.14) and thereby shutting the mouth of those who speak wickedness and the minds of those who hate us (Psalms 63.11).
There are of course others who have expounded on the outstandingly excellent doings of John, this great high priest. By their words and deeds they have had a lasting influence. I am talking about John and Sophronius, worshippers of God, lovers of truth and promoters of godliness. But they did miss out some things in their studies of the dignity and merit of this man. They are exactly like certain industrious farmers who harvest the most rich and fruitful vines, but who leave behind the blessing of a vine to be picked over by needy gleaners, among whom I am the least. All those holy men with great power and godly zeal strove to harvest the plentiful fruit of that olive tree which in the words of Psalmist is planted in the house of God (Psalms 52.8), but by the dispensation of the Lord there are yet many fruits of the olive left over.
I beg you therefore to accept this lowly and feeble effort as the two mites of the widow (Luke 21.2), not as taking anything away from them, as if I were able to match their God-given wisdom, but simply that I am eager to commit the deeds of the righteous to writing. In the first place I know that it is not right to keep silent about anything which might be of benefit to those who are listening, lest one fall into the condemnation of the servant who hid his talent in the ground (Matthew 25.18). Secondly, in what we have written there are some delightful stories preserved in praise of that truly most holy and blessed John, which were not mentioned by those other good men. They were wise and powerful writers and lovers of history, who managed their material wisely and sublimely. They have provided a great and all-embracing inspiration for us to undertake this present task, which is simply to tell a tale, as far as in us lies, as a humble, pedestrian and shapeless character, illiterate and unlearned. May you profit from what you read.
When I went to Alexandria to visit the tomb of the holy and victorious martyrs Cyril and John, I attended a conference of respected and Christ-loving men to discuss the Scriptures and the nature of the soul. As we were gathered together, a stranger approached us seeking an alms. He said that he had been recently been rescued from captivity in Persia. It so happened that none of us had any small change, but one of our number had a clerk standing by, who was accustomed to giving alms secretly, even though he was paid only three nummi a year and he had a wife and two children. After the beggar had gone on his way he followed him closely, and gave him a silver cross he was wearing, saying that he had never had so much as few pennies to spare in his whole life.
I saw what had happened and realised that it was by the grace of God that he had done this. I was very moved, and mentioned it to the person sitting next to me, a man called Mennas, a conscientious man who feared God, and who was the business manager of the most holy church of the noble and most blessed patriarch John. He could see how much I admired and praised the man who had given the alms.
"Don't be so surprised," he said. "There is someone whose teaching and example inspires people to actions of this sort."
"How is that?" I asked. "Do be so kind as to tell me about it."
"He has ceaselessly followed our most holy and thrice blessed patriarch John, and is as zealous about it as a son obedient to his own father. For John said to him, 'Zacharias, be merciful, and through the words coming from my own insignificant mouth I give you a message from God that God will never desert you during my lifetime or even after my death.' And he has faithfully kept to that, right up to today. God has sent him many blessings, but has never given him anything but what he gives it immediately to the poor, almost to the point of depriving his own family and bringing them to penury. There are people who have often heard him saying to God in ecstasy, 'So, you may be giving but I am giving it away. Let's see which of us will win! For you, O Lord, are full of riches and bring help to us in our lives.'
"Certain it is that in the event of his not having anything to give to a beggar he will say to some innkeeper or merchant, 'If you give me the third part of a gold coin I will be your slave for a month or two, as you will and where you will, for my household is in great need.' And then he gives it to the poor, telling them not to tell anybody."
Mennas could see that I was also a worshipper of God, seeing that I was listening to him as if he were the Gospel itself.
"Are you amazed by all this, sir?" he asked with concern. "What if you were to discover what our holy patriarch is like!"
"Why, what more might I see?"
"Just believe, by the mercy of God. He ordained me presbyter and made me steward of his most holy church, and I have seen him do things beyond the bounds of nature. And if you would care to honour me by letting me be your servant today I will tell you about the deeds which I have seen him do."
Suiting action to the word, he got up, took my hand and conducted me into his godfearing household, where he immediately suggested that we partake of food.
"It is not right, sir," I said, "to neglect food for the soul and feed the body before feeding the soul. Let us, then, partake first of the food which perishes not, and afterwards see to the needs of the body" (John 6.27).
He then began to tell me the true story of this holy man's life.
"The first good thing about him," he said, "is that he never under any circumstances swore by any oath."
I asked for pen and paper and began to note down in due order what he was telling me.
It was not by divine decree, not from men or through men that he was promoted to the throne of this great city of Alexandria, beloved of Christ. First of all he demonstrated where his priorities lay. For in the presence of all in his inner circle he declared to his helpers and to him who administered the peace, that it was not right to take thought for anybody more than Christ.
"Go, therefore, through all the city," he said, as they all listened carefully and supportively, "and make a list of all those who are my masters."
They did not understand what he was talking about, and asked each other in some bewilderment who could be these masters of the patriarch.
"Those whom you call beggars and poor I call masters and helpers," he said in his angelic voice. "They really are helpers for they are able to open the doors of the kingdom of heaven for us."
His orders were fulfilled with all speed, whereupon he ordered that a certain sum be set aside each day, and provided what was necessary out of his own possessions which amounted to more than seven thousand five hundred pounds. Then like a true shepherd and not a hired servant (John 10.12) he went with his own sacred flock and with the other bishops to the holy church where he was consecrated with divine approval.
It would not be right to delay the story of his good deeds any longer. The very next day he sent out his stewards and other civic officials to ensure that there were no arbitrary measures of weight of various different sizes in the city. All buying and selling was to be carried out under one standard size of weight He wrote out this order, to be circulated throughout the city, in the following form:
John, the humble and unworthy servant of the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, to all who live under our poor jurisdiction and who are ruled by this same Lord and God, take heed.
The blessed and noble Paul lays down a law for all in the name of Christ, who speaks through him. 'Be obedient to those who have the rule over you, and be subject to them' (Hebrews 13.7). For they care for you and will be held responsible for your souls. I, the least of men, yet have confidence that you will accept our requests as a divine word from God, not from men. In this knowledge I therefore warn you that in your charity none of you should be in any doubt on that score. Divine Scripture says 'God holds unequal weights in abhorrence' (Proverbs 11.1). If anyone after reading this prescription is found to be guilty of this crime let him give all his goods to the poor, without any appeal or mitigation. We therefore hasten to publish this order and expect it to be obeyed.
He was told at one time that in dealing with foreigners church officials were taking money to act as brokers for slavery. He diligently summoned them together and without upsetting anybody increased the wages which they had been getting and laid it down that none of them should accept gifts from anyone.
"Let fire consume the houses of those who accept bribes," he said.
And so by the grace of God their houses flourished to such an extent that some of them were able to give away some of their extra money.
He learnt that some people who were in dispute with their enemies had been refraining from putting their case to him as they wished, for they were intimidated by the officials and other staff who surrounded him. He took thought as to what he might do which would be acceptable to God, and on the fourth and fifth days of the week put a desk and two chairs outside the church, where he sat holding the Gospels in his hands. In order to show that anyone who wished might approach him with confidence, he allowed none of his staff near him except one of the church guards. He had the church guards announce this to the people, and gave orders that none of them should endeavour to dissuade their unworthy head priest.
"We human beings are always allowed to present our petitions by entering the house of God to plead before him, even though he is beyond our reach and much greater than any creature. Furthermore we urgently beg for our prayers to be answered without delay as the prophet says: 'Let your mercies speedily anticipate our requests, O Lord' (Psalms 79.8). How much more, then, ought not we to use all expedition in hearing the prayers of our fellow servants, mindful of the Lord's saying: 'Whatever the measure you use, that will be the measure by which you will be measured' (Matthew 7.1). The Prophet also says: 'It shall be done to you even as you have done'" (cf. Matthew 7.12).
There came a day when this amazing man went out and sat in the accustomed place until the fifth hour with no one coming to petition him. He was filled with sadness and went away in tears. No one felt it right to ask him why he was so sad, except Sophronius, who took him aside and asked:
'What is the reason, O healer of God, for you to burden your holy soul with such sadness? We are all quite worried about you."
"I have not received any wages from anybody, to day," he humbly replied, "nor have I been able to offer Christ anything to make up for my numberless sins."
Sophronius by divine inspiration understood immediately why the patriarch was so unhappy.
"Today you should rejoice and be glad, O most blessed one," he said, "for you really are most blessed in so far as you have brought such peace from Christ to your flock that no one has brought a suit against his neighbour. Without lawsuit or judgment you have made them like Angels."
This gentle pastor accepted that as the truth and lifted up his eyes to heaven.
"Thanks be to you, O God," he cried, " that you have deigned to use my undeserving weakness in the priesthood. You have called me, an unworthy sinner, your priest, and have used me to feed your living flock."
His depression cast aside, he then felt able to rejoice in all humility, and in this (as many said) he imitated Constantine, who became emperor after Heracles, and whose son he was.
It was during the time of this holy patriarch that the Persians mounted an invasion of Syria and laid it waste. Of those who fled from the hands of the Persians, nearly all of them were aware of the reputation of this thrice blessed man, and came to him as to a harbour after storms, seeking help and refuge. The blessed man received them hospitably and saw to their needs not as if they were prisoners but as if they were truly his natural brothers. He organised the wounded and infirm into reception centres and guesthouses, giving orders that they should be cared for and given free medicine, and allowing them to depart of their own free will whenever they wished. To males who were healthy but destitute he gave a measure of pulse, but a double measure to women and children as the weaker members of society.
There were some wearing gold rings and brooches who came seeking alms, and they were referred to the patriarch by those in charge of the distribution centre. The blessed man replied with a stern voice and piercing eye, for all that he was of a gentle and equable disposition.
"If you wish to continue as stewards of humble John as if for Christ, pay heed without any prevarication to the divine instruction: 'Give to all who ask' (Luke 6.30). If you go investigating them in searching detail, God has even more searching ministers, and so has humble John. If what you are distributing were my own personal property, which belonged to me from birth, then perhaps I might well be reluctant to give it away. But if what you are distributing belongs to God then it should be dealt with according to his own instructions. If you are frightened to do this because of your weak faith and unbelief, frightened that the number of people receiving alms will be more than the treasury can cope with, I'm afraid that I do not share your inadequate faith. For if what you are doing is pleasing to God, and if I am the unworthy dispenser of his gifts, then I don't care if the whole world should come to Alexandria seeking alms. For the limitless treasury of God is not straitened, nor is that of his holy church."
He dismissed them from his service, and so got rid of the weakness and faintheartedness with which they were infected. But to those who trusted in him and admired his God-given compassion, he told the following story.
"When I was still a young boy of fifteen in Cyprus, I saw a young woman in a dream one night, shining even more brightly than the sun, more beautiful than any human sense can conceive of. She came and stood by my bed and nudged me in the ribs. I awoke instantly, and saw her actually standing there, and realised that it was indeed a woman.
"'Who are you?' I asked, making the sign of the cross. 'And why are you so bold as to come in here while I am asleep?'
"She had a crown of olive branches on her head.
"'I am the first of the daughters of the King', she said with a joyful face and smiling lips, and at these words I bowed low before her. 'If you will have me as your friend I will lead you into the presence of the Emperor. For no one has more influence with him than I do. I was the reason he became man in order to save mankind.'
"As she said this she vanished. When I had come thoroughly to myself I began to understand the vision.
"'I believe,' I said, 'that she is called Compassion and Almsgiving, which is why she had the crown of olive leaves on her head. For it was indeed because of his compassion and good will towards mankind that God took upon him our flesh.'
"I got dressed at once and without waking anyone in the house I went out to go to the church. It was nearly dawn. On the way I met a fellow human being shivering with cold, so I took my cloak off and gave it to him, saying to myself 'By this I shall know whether my vision was true or if it was of the devil.' I'm telling you the truth, before I had even got to the church I suddenly saw coming to meet me someone dressed in white who gave me a parcel of a hundred numismas, saying, 'Take these, brother, and dispose of them as you will.' I took them very happily, but then changed my mind and thought to give them back, seeing I had no need of them, but he had vanished.
Home List of Contents Next Top of Page