Countless stories are told about hundreds of hermits and hermitages that hallowed the deserts of Egypt in the earliest Christian centuries. Some of these stories are likely folklore. Usually they ring true. Always, they edify.
One of the best-known of the fifth-century desert saints was a man called “John Kolobos;” that is, John the Little, of John the Dwarf. He was a young man when he entered the monastic wilderness of Skete in northern Egypt. There he would pass his whole life in prayer and manual labor.
Little John had a beautiful simplicity of character. On his arrival, he was assigned to an old, experienced hermit as tutor. The tutor straightway gave John a walking stick. “Plant this in the ground,” he ordered, “and water it every day.” The command was a test as well as a task. John obeyed at once, without question or delay. Even though the river from which he fetched the water was at a distance, he watered the stick dutifully every day. In the third year the walking stick put forth buds and flowers and fruit. John had passed the test. His tutor collected the fruit and distributed it among his companions. “Take,” he told them, “and eat the fruit of obedience.”
(Although this sounds like folklore, there is a record, dating from 402 AD, that refers to a certain tree in the monastery yard as John’s walking stick come to life.)
It is not surprising that such a simple soul would be single-minded in his service of God. Divine things were his only interest. He cared nothing for the “news” of the day. (Here is something for us gossips to ponder; and, even more, the media people!) In fact, his focus was so intense that he was often absent-minded about worldly things. Once, for instance, a man on a camel came to his cell to pick up John’s basket making tools and transfer them elsewhere, according to an agreement. But, between the door and his bench, John forgot his messenger and his message. This happened three times. Finally he hammered the caller’s purpose into his mind by repeating to himself: “The camel; my tools.” So the caller on the camel finally did get the equipment. On the other hand, John once spent a whole night and day without break discussing spiritual matters with another monk.
Around that time, a hitherto reputable young Egyptian woman named Paesia fell into unworthy ways. St. John’s monks begged him to try to bring her back to God. He called at Paesia’s home and gently expressed his concern for her She asked why he was weeping. “How can I not weep,” he replied, “while I see Satan in possession of your heart?”
Paesia was deeply touched. “Will you show me the route to repentance?” she asked. John bade her to come back to the desert with him. En route, they had to stop over night. As he slept in the dark wasteland he dreamt that he saw Paesia going up to heaven, and he heard a voice that said, “God has already considered her repentance perfect.” When he awoke and went to the place where she had been sleeping, he found that she had indeed died.
Towards the end of St. John’s life, Berbers from the west raided the monastic fastness of Skete. John and his followers fled east across the Nile to the desert made famous by St. Anthony, the pioneer Egyptian monk. It was there that John, too, drew his last breath.
When they saw that his death was imminent, St. John’s disciples asked him to give them one final spiritual lesson.
Still too humble to want to be thought an expert, he simply said, “I have never followed my own will; nor did I ever teach another what I had not practiced myself.”
There were spiritual giants in the ancient deserts of Egypt. One of the tallest of these giants was St. John the dwarf.
Father Robert F. McNamara