Chapter XLVIII (continued), Life of St John the Almsgiver Book Ib Life No 12
(Also Saints Epictetus and Astion further down this page)
He gave his assent to this man of great faith, obeying God by submitting himself to his will, for Nicetas only wanted to let John benefit from his own considerable prestige. But the ship in which the holy man and the governor travelled was buffeted by gales and in danger of being sent to the bottom. During the night the governor and his aristocratic entourage saw the patriarch moving about among the poor people on board, encouraging them to join with him in lifting up their hands to pray for help from on high. As they were approaching Rhodes, the holy man was startled to hear God calling him, and saw a eunuch of shimmering appearance standing in front of him, holding a golden sceptre in his right hand.
"Come!" the vision said. "The King of kings requires your presence!"
Without delay he called to Nicetas the governor and spoke to him with many tears.
"You, my lord, may have summoned me to an earthly Emperor, but the heavenly Emperor has forestalled you, for he has warned me of my approaching departure."
He told him about the vision of the Angelic eunuch which had appeared to him, and that most glorious man was at once both sad and joyful, knowing that there was nothing he could do to prevent that holy man's departure. Supported to the full by the holy man's prayers he abandoned the journey to the Emperor and gave the order to return to Cyprus.
When he got back to his own city of Amathunta he told his secretaries to draw up his will. They quickly brought pen and paper and he dictated as follows:
I, John, the servant of God, freely give God thanks for entrusting me with the honour of priesthood. I give thanks to you, O God, that you have regarded my lowliness and I beseech that your loving kindness will not be lacking to me in my death. When I was chosen to be the bishop of the most holy church of that great city Alexandria, I accepted the post by the grace of God, and when I was consecrated bishop I found myself in possession of eighty thousand pieces of gold, nearly as great a number as the friends of Christ who provided it. I thought of the mind of Christ, and recognised that all that money belonged to the ruler of all, so I hastened to give back to God what belonged to God. If there is anything left I order it to be given to those who belong to God.
What a glorious thing! What holy devotion! He did not think of his own family, as many rich people would conceive to be their duty. They gather their riches through oppression and think of the gifts of God as their own property, and hoard their treasures as if they could take it with them, never giving a thought to the needy. But he sought after those things which remain for ever and may not be diminished. In very truth he cannot have been denied what God promises in the words, 'I will glorify those who glorify me' (1 Samuel 2.30). The Lord did indeed magnificently glorify that holy man who was glorified in the deeds he performed. This noble man in the course of his life could never rest from doing good works worthy of praise. What did he do? He built refugee centres, old peoples' homes, and monasteries from the foundations up, and he set up choirs of holy monks, all of which stand as a permanent memorial to his undeniable righteousness through the good works done in them. As for those who do evil, and after their death leave successors with their own evils in this life, the Apostle full of the grace of the Lord says 'Whose works are manifest, and go before them to the judgment and some men they follow after' (1 Timothy 5.24). But on the other hand this is what has to be said about this blessed man, 'His righteous works are manifest and go before him into the kingdom of heaven and some men they follow after' (1 Timothy 5.25). He stands out among such men.
What we have said about him is no fable or exaggeration, and a testimony to the truth of that was plainly given to us in the prodigious miracles which followed soon after his precious death. They took his body and commended his soul into the hands of God - as it says in Scripture, 'the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God (Wisdom 3.1) - and offered the holy sacrifice for the honourable laying to rest of his honoured body, and in a ceremony appropriate for bishops they took him to a chapel where lay that miracle-worker St Tychon. And a great and glorious sign was done.
For lying in the same tomb where he was to be laid were the bodies of two former bishops who in their lifetime had been truly holy. According to the order of nature they were now lying there inanimate, nevertheless as if they were truly alive they indicated that honour equal to their own should be attributed to John. For as his blessed body was being laid with theirs, at God's command they moved aside as if they were alive and received his sacred body between them. They were shepherds honouring the greatest of shepherds, showing wondering respect for his faithfulness towards God. At God's bidding they were honouring him as they themselves were honoured by God, and making plain to all, the glory and transcendence given to him by God. This extraordinary and glorious miracle was witnessed not by one, not ten, nor even by a hundred people, but by the whole crowd which were gathered round his precious tomb.
My tale must try to commemorate an even more glorious miracle that he did, which began while he was still alive but which was not completed till after he departed to the Lord. For a woman appeared in the city who knew what a holy man he was, because after he had come back from Rhodes she had heard about the Angel who had appeared to him and revealed that he was about to be called to that Lord who was hers as well as his. She was aware of a most grave sin she had committed which she was quite unable to tell anyone about. But with unquestioned faith, she came to the holy man and fell at his feet, crying with floods of tears.
"O thrice blessed man," she cried, "this miserable woman has committed a sin which cannot possibly be spoken about for human ears to hear. But I know that if you are willing you can bring me forgiveness. For the Lord has said to you, 'Whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven' (Matthew 18.18), and 'whosoever's sins you forgive they are forgiven, and whosoever's sins you retain they are retained'" (John 20.23).
The holy man listened to the woman and feared that if he refused her request she would suffer even greater torment, whereas her faith in him might well be able to free her from her sin.
"If you believe," he humbly said, "that by using my own unworthiness God can forgive this sin that you are talking about, confess to me what it is."
"I can't bring myself to say it," she replied. "No human ear could bear to listen to it."
"If you are too ashamed, go away and write it down, if you can write, and bring it back to me."
"Truly, my lord, I can't do it."
"What about if you write it down and seal it up before bringing it to me?" - for he had a good idea of why she wouldn't say anything.
"Perhaps I could do that, as long as you would give me your honourable and angelic word that you would not open it nor let it fall into the hands of anyone else."
He gave her his word that that would be the case, so she went away and wrote down her sin in her own writing, sealed it, and brought it back to him. Having taken it from her he died five days later without having told anyone about it or saying where and what it was.
By chance, or by the dispensation of God, the woman had left the city by the time that the patriarch passed from this world to the next, for she wanted to demonstrate to God how much trust she had placed in the patriarch as God's own servant. She heard of his death a day after his precious body had been placed in the tomb. She came back to the city, frantic and almost out of her mind, supposing that her letter had been left in the bishop's house somewhere and that her sin would soon become public knowledge. But she pulled herself together, and regained her former unshakeable faith. She flung her arms around the tomb of the man honoured by God and spoke to him as if he were truly still alive.
"Man of God," she said, "I could not tell you my sin, for it was just too appalling beyond measure. But now, what I could not tell you is likely to be made known to everybody. Alas, alas! I hoped to find the disorder (confusio) in my life straightened out. Instead I will become an object of repulsion (confusio) to all. I hoped for soothing ointment, all I will be getting is bitter execration. What was the use of opening up my secrets to you? However, I will not give up or go away or cease from pouring out my tears over this tomb until I have been given an answer to my petition. You are a saint of God, you are not dead, but alive. It is written, 'the just shall live for ever' (Wisdom 5.16). All I ask of you, O man of God, is that you satisfy my worries about what happened to the letter I gave you."
And just as God said to the Canaanite woman, "Your faith has made you whole" (Matthew 15), so he also gave this woman the assurance she needed. For after persevering for three days tasting neither food nor drink, on the third night, as she tearfully poured out forceful and faithful pleas to the most blessed man, behold, the servant of God came visibly out of the tomb, along with the two bishops buried with him, one on each side.
"Woman," he said, "why do you keep on disturbing these two with me here, preventing them from resting in peace? Our vestments are dripping wet from your tears. Here, do you recognise this?" - and now he passed her letter to her - "Unseal it, examine it."
And as she was coming out of her trance she saw those holy men going back to their own place. She broke open the seal and found that what she had written had been erased completely, and instead there was written YOUR SIN HAS BEEN WIPED OUT FOR THE SAKE OF MY SERVANT JOHN.
O, my friends and brothers, who can possibly tell of all the powers of the Lord? Who is this merciful lover of mankind, who does the will of them that fear him, and glorifies them that glorify him and magnifies them by the workings of his miracles? For the grace which he had in God's sight was manifested not only in this place where his precious body was laid to rest, but shone brilliantly in places a long way off.
For on the same day when this blessed man departed this life to go to God, a certain worthy and diligent monk called Sabinus who lived the monastic angelic life in Alexandria went into a trance, and saw John carrying a candle and coming out of his own house with his clerics on his way to the Emperor. And he saw as it were a eunuch in the garb of a household servant, beckoning him on (so Sabinus himself told us) as he came out of the doorway. This signified his separation from the body. And he saw a young woman as bright as the Sun welcoming him and taking him by the hand and crowning his head with a circlet of olive branches. The holy Sabinus soon knew for sure that the patriarch had passed over to the Lord in that same hour. For some people in Alexandria questioned visitors from Cyprus about the death of the patriarch, and when they mentioned the day and the month (it was in fact the feast day of the holy martyr Mennas), they knew that Sabinus' vision was true, especially in view of the vision of the young woman taking him by the hand at the time of his death. It was then that he received the fulfilment of the promise made to him in the words which we have already mentioned: 'If you will have me as your friend I will lead you into the presence of the Emperor'.
It was not only his almsgiving and compassion for the needy which convinced everyone that he had been taken into the kingdom of heaven, but another God-fearing Alexandrian citizen, in the same night as the holy Sabinus had his vision, saw all the poor and the orphans and the widows going in to the church and proclaiming the patriarch. So that was not two voices, not ten, nor even a hundred who testified, making it clear that this memorable man had earned the right to be numbered among the saints, and subsequent events confirmed it.
For some time later, the anniversary of the falling asleep of Saint Tychon took place in the shrine where the precious body of the most blessed patriarch John had been laid. Sacred hymns were being sung on the vigil of the annual remembrance of the holy miracle worker Tychon, when the Lord of miracles himself demonstrated how worthy of being honoured was his servant John, for he caused an invigorating, sweet-smelling perfume to emanate from his coffin, so that everyone with joyful confidence returned thanks to the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, our true God, who glorifies his Saints with infinite glory.
My friends in Christ, do not be reluctant to believe in such miracles. Similar graces of God can be seen even now in connection with many Saints in the island of Cyprus, beloved of God. Sweet-smelling perfumes flow like a fountain from their precious shrines, to the glory of God's loving-kindness and to the honour of his Saints and to the diligence and good zeal of the human beings who follow them. For insofar as we set about imitating them, we too may be found worthy of receiving the same honour from the righteous giver of rewards. So, my dearly beloved, let us fulfil the righteous counsels of our most holy father John. As sojourners and pilgrims in this life let us lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven by generous almsgiving to the needy (1 Corinthians 16.1), even as the divinely inspired Apostle said. From his store of blessings he measured out blessings, and exchanged the corruptible for the incorruptible, the temporal for the eternal, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into the heart of man, the things God has prepared for those who love him, and which we all beg to be granted through the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the holy Spirit be glory and honour and dominion, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen
The Life of Saints Epictetus, presbyter
and Astion, monk
by an unknown writer
During the reign of that most irreligious emperor Diocletian, a presbyter called Epictetus lived in the Eastern regions, pursuing a religious life, chaste in all his ways. He had been brought up from infancy in the service of the Lord, and meditated on the statutes (Psalms 119.23) of Jesus Christ. When he arrived at a mature age, just as Samuel's ephod in days of old foreshadowed the promise of priesthood (1 Samuel 2.18), so did the many signs and prodigies which Epictetus performed by divine grace. By his prayers he often opened the eyes of the blind and cleansed the lepers that came to him and put to flight the demons from the bodies of those possessed.
One day as he sat alone in his cell offering his usual prayers to Christ, the daughter of a local nobleman (comes) was brought to him, paralysed in all her members except her tongue. Her father left her outside Epictetus' door and went inside to the holy man, where he fell on his knees and made his plea.
"Have mercy on me, O man of God most high," he said, "for your God is known by his servants to be kind and merciful of heart. Do not turn your face away from me, I beg you, for he freely comes to the aid of those who seek refuge in him. I have an only daughter aged fifteen, and over the last three years she has gradually become completely paralysed. I have no doubt that he who cured the woman who had had an issue of blood for twelve years (Matthew 9.20) will be able, if he will, to restore my daughter to wholeness. We have given our faith to him, for we are children of the holy Church and have been baptised in the name of the Father, Son and holy Spirit."
The priest of God told him to bring the girl inside, which he did and placed the girl at his feet.
"O Lord God," the man of God prayed, "eternal God, you who give life to the Cherubim, you came down from heaven to bring back the exiled into the possession of paradise, by taking our humanity you have taken upon yourself our infirmities, so that we in these earthen vessels may be found worthy to possess you. I pray to you, O Lord, I pray that you may look upon the faith of your servant, and as you restored to life the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue (Mark 5.42), so now be pleased to restore this beloved daughter to her former condition, that this unbelieving and perverse generation may learn to worship your holy and terrible name, and tell of your wonders at all seasons."
He finished his prayer and anointed all her members with holy oil, and after this holy remedy she was able to bless the Lord along with her parents.
"Dearly beloved," Epictetus then urged the father, "if you would have your household freed from the last vestige of infirmity and distress, take care that you and your whole family receive the Sacrament of the Lord every week with inner devotion and pureness of heart."
He then let them return home, rejoicing and in good heart.
A demoniac was brought to the man of God once, and he kept him with him for three days, during which the demon did not cease from crying aloud.
"O what a cross, what torture, I am suffering!" he shouted, "It used to be really good for me once in the land of Phrygia, where I had persuaded human beings to use my rites and sacrifices. How much honour I was given there! But now I am miserable for I know honour no more. How senseless of me to have left there and come here! I am he who is responsible for all the many blasphemous words of Montanus, and the manifold crimes committed by Maximilla. I subjugated that whole region to my worship and wickedness. It was I who attacked the city of Alexandria through Arius and persuaded them that the Son of God was a mere created being. Through Manes I instituted the Manichean heresy and showed them how to dedicate their fasting to me. Through Donatus I devastated the whole of Africa. And now, look, I have been captured like a runaway slave by one of your servants, O Christ!"
He carried on like this for hours and hours, until on the third day he fled from where he had established himself, and the cleansed man gave thanks to Christ the Lord.
Again, a blind woman was taken to him, who stood before him and wept.
"I don't know you," she said, "but I believe in whatever merit you have in the sight of God. Do not despise my tears, or render my prayers in vain. Doctors throughout the whole of the province have prescribed for me with diligence and care, but have not been able to do me any good. Indeed the more they have practised their art on me the more miserable and unhappy I have become. So I beg your holiness to lay your right hand upon my eyes in the name of Christ, and I believe that light will then be restored to my eyes through your mediation."
The holy Epictetus appreciated the woman's faith, and laid his hand on her eyes, glorifying the loving-kindness of the Lord.
"According to your faith, be it done to you, my daughter," he said, echoing the words of Christ (Matthew 9.29).
And immediately her eyes were opened and she saw the light.
"Glory to you, O God of the Christians," she cried. "You do not spurn sinners in their sins, but according to your great mercy you pick them up and save them when they turn to you."
And after this, along with her whole household she believed in God the Saviour.
It would take rather a long time if we were to set before the eager reader all the miracles which the Lord did through him, but we have touched briefly upon these few among the many before reverting to our main theme.
One day a youth called Astion, with a very beautiful face and handsome appearance, came to visit him, and the blessed presbyter made him sit down beside him, and putting his hand on his head he began gently to urge him to have faith in the Lord.
"You are a most charming young man," he said. "Tell me who you are, and where you have come from, and where you are going, and who your father's family is."
"I don't know that I could tell your blessedness where my family originated, most blessed father," he replied, "but I will briefly tell you what I do know. My father is a leading citizen of this city, and is reckoned to be very wealthy. My mother is from the noble Julian family; she is the daughter of a senator. I am her only offspring and they spend their days looking (inspicio) upon me as some sort of precious pearl."
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