John had his surname given him from his love of silence and recollection. He was born at Nicopolis in Armenia, in the year 454. His descent by both parents was from the most illustrious generals and governors of that part of the empire; but he derived from their virtue a much more illustrious nobility than that of their pedigree. They were solicitous above all things to give their son the most holy education. After their death, he, with part of his estate, built at Nicopolis a church in honor of the Blessed Virgin, as also a monastery, in which, with ten fervent companions, he shut himself up when only eighteen years of age, with a view of making the salvation and most perfect sanctification of his soul his only and earnest pursuit, directing to this end all his thoughts and endeavors. As humility is the foundation and guardian of all virtue, this he labored in the first place to obtain.
Accordingly he made it his earnest petition to God; and, by assiduous meditation on his own nothingness, his absolute insufficiency, numberless miseries, and baseness, and on the infinite majesty and adorable perfections of God, he studied to know God and himself. He learned sincerely to look upon all manner of humiliations as his due, and to receive them with joy from whatever quarter they were sent; and cheerfully to exercise himself in those which appeared most repugnant to flesh and blood, and most proper to beat down all secret sentiments of pride. To kill the seeds of all other vices, he practiced the most constant and severe denial of his own will, and he added corporal austerities to subdue his flesh, and to fit his soul for the spiritual functions of contemplation and prayer. Not only to shun the danger of sin by the tongue, but also out of a sense of sincere humility and contempt of himself, and the love of interior recollection and prayer, he very seldom spoke; and if necessity obliged him to open his mouth, it was always in very few words, and with great discretion. He banished sloth out of his little community as a fruitful source of vice, and the poison of all virtue. Some humbling, painful, and useful labor, filled up in his house all the intervals of time which public prayer and other necessary duties left vacant. His mildness, prudence, and piety, won him the esteem and affection of all. his brethren, who strove in every virtue to be the copies of their holy abbot. But, to his extreme affliction, when he was only twenty-eight years old, the archbishop of Sebaste obliged him to quit his retreat, and ordained him bishop of Colonian in Armenia in 482.
In this dignity John preserved always the same spirit, and, as much as was compatible with the duties of his charge, continued his monastic austerities and exercises. His brother and nephew, who enjoyed honorable places in the emperor's palace, were moved by his example to contemn the world in the very midst of its honors, and the same grace which sanctifies anchorets in their deserts, made them saints in the court. But he found not the same comfort in a brother-in-law, who was governor of Armenia, against whose oppressions of his church the saint was obliged to have recourse to the emperor Zeno, and readily obtained his protection.
St. John had fulfilled all the duties of a holy bishop nine years, practicing all the austerities of his former life, and refusing to allow himself even the necessary conveniences of life, that he might bestow all he possessed on the poor. He instructed his flock by preaching, and, by his example, invited them to practice what he taught. He was the comforter of all that were in affliction, and bore their burdens with them; and he never ceased to instil sentiments of humility, moderation, and compunction, into the hearts of those who lived in the more dangerous flattering state of worldly prosperity. He was the father of all, and carried them all in his heart, that he might plant in them the spirit, and transfer them into the heart of Christ. Certain evils which he found it impossible for him to remedy, joined with his strong inclination to a retired life, gave him an earnest desire to resign his charge. By the rule of the church and his sacred engagement, he was bound not to abandon the spouse to which he was tied, or to leave exposed to wolves a flock which the supreme Pastor had intrusted to his care. But the divine grace sometimes makes exceptions in order to raise a soul to an extraordinary sanctity. John had reason at first to look upon the thought of such a project as suspected, to examine it impartially, and to consult God for a considerable time by earnest prayer. The author of his life assures us, that while he was watching one night in prayer, he saw before him a bright cross formed in the air, and heard a voice, which said to him, "If thou desires" to be saved, follow this light." He then seemed to see it move before him, and at length point out to the Laura of St. Sabas.
Being satisfied what the sacrifice was which God required at his hands, he found means to abdicate the episcopal charge, and embarked in a vessel bound for Palestine. He went first to Jerusalem, and having there performed his devotions, retired to the neighboring Laura of St. Sabas, which at that time contained one hundred and fifty fervent monks, all animated with the spirit of their holy founder and superior. St. John was then thirty-eight years old. St. Sabas first placed him under the steward of the Laura, to fetch water, carry stones, and serve the workmen in building a new hospital. John went and came like a beast of burden, continuing always recollected in God, always cheerful and silent. After this trial, the experienced superior appointed him to receive and entertain strangers. The blessed man served every one as if he had served Christ himself, whom he considered in his members; and all persons were exceedingly edified with his humility and devotion. Saint Sabas observed every step, and admired to see the behavior of this young monk in an employment which is often dangerous to the monastic spirit, even in those that are most advanced. For the dissipation of such an attendance seemed no way to interrupt his attention to God, or abate his spirit of recollection. St. Sabas by this time clearly perceived that his novice was already a masterly proficient in the monastic profession, and eminently endowed with the spirit of his vocation. Therefore, to afford him opportunities of the greatest spiritual progress by uninterrupted contemplation, he allowed him a separate hermitage, which was his method only with regard to the more perfect. During five days in the week, which he passed without taking any nourishment, John never left his cell; but on Saturdays and Sundays he attended the public worship of God in the church.
After passing three years in this eremitical life, he was made steward of the Laura. His virtue drew a blessing on the community; neither was this employment any distraction to his mind. Such, indeed, was his love to God, that his soul stood in need of no effort to think continually of him. Such a habit is not to be attempted at once. Too strained an attention might hurt the head, as experience has sometimes shown. This practice, and a constant attention to the divine presence, is to be acquired at first by frequent ejaculations to God during exterior actions, repeated at intervals; either such as naturally occur to the devout mind, or select ones of divine praise, compunction, love, &c., such as are contained in the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, or other parts of the inspired writings. By this method, such a practice in John grew habitual, and by daily use became more perfect and familiar.
Our saint had discharged this last office four years, when St. Sabas, judging him worthy to be promoted to the priesthood, presented him to the Patriarch Elias. When they came to the church of Mount Calvary, where the ordination was to be performed, St. John said to the patriarch, "Holy father, I have something to impart to you in private; after which, if you judge me worthy, I will receive holy orders." The patriarch tool. him aside, and John, having obtained from him a promise of secrecy, said, "Father, I have been ordained bishop; but on account of the multitude of my sins have fled, and am come into this desert to wait the visit of the Lord."
The patriarch was startled, and calling in St. Sabas, said to him, "I desire to be excused from ordaining this man, on account of some particulars he has discovered to me." St. Sabas went back much afflicted, fearing lest John had been formerly guilty of some grievous crime. Under this uncertainty, God revealed to him, at his request, the state of the affair. Whereupon calling for John, he complained to him of his unkindness in concealing the matter from him. Finding himself discovered, John was for quitting the Laura, nor could St. Sabas prevail on him to stay, but on a promise never to divulge the secret. John lived after this four years in his cell, without speaking to any one except to the person who brought him necessaries. In the year 503, the factious spirit of certain turbulent disciples obliged St. Sabas to quit his Laura. St. John, that he might have no part in such an unhappy disturbance, withdrew into a neighboring wilderness, where he spent six years in silence, conversing only with God, and subsisting on the wild roots and herbs which the desert afforded. When St. Sabas was called home again, he went to seek St. John in his desert, and brought him back, in 510.
But a long and happy experience had taught him, that a soul which has been accustomed to converse only with God, finds nothing but emptiness and bitterness in any thing besides. His love of obscurity and humility made him desire more and more to live unknown to men; but such was the lustre of his sanctity as rendered it impossible for him to succeed herein to the full extent of his desire. He went back with his old master, and confined himself for forty years to his cell, after his return to the Laura; but did not refuse instructions to those who resorted to him. Among whom was the judicious and learned monk Cyril, who wrote his life when the saint had lived forty years in his hermitage, after his return, and was one hundred and four years old. He at that age retained the vigor of his mind, and that sweetness which rendered him always amiable and venerable. This Cyril of Scythopolis, who is one of the ablest writers of antiquity, relates, that in his youth, when he was about sixteen years of age, he addressed himself to St. John, who was then ninety years old, and begged his advice concerning the choice of a state of life. The holy old man advised him to dedicate himself to God in the monastery of St. Euthymius. Cyril, however, preferred one of the little monasteries on the banks of the Jordan. But he was no sooner arrived at the place than he fell sick of a fever.
His distemper every day augmented, and he began grievously to afflict and condemn himself for having neglected the advice of the servant of God. But in the night St. John appearing to him in his sleep, after a gentle reprimand for not having followed his counsel, told him, that if he repaired to the monastery of St. Euthymius, he should be restored to his health, and should find his salvation. The next morning he arose, and, notwithstanding the entreaties of the brethren, broke from them, and having taken no other refreshment but that of the blessed eucharist, which he had received that morning, he set out, walked to the aforesaid monastery of St. Euthymius, and found himself perfectly recovered. The same author tells us, that while he was conversing one day with St. John on matters of piety, he saw a man named George bring his son, who was a child possessed by the devil, and lay him on the ground before the saint without speaking a word. St. John understood the miserable condition of the child, and made the sign of the cross on his forehead with blessed oil, and the same instant the child was delivered from the evil spirit. A nobleman of Constantinople, who was infected with Eutychianism, was introduced by one Theodorus to the saint. The holy man gave his blessing to Theodorus, but refused it to the nobleman, with a mild reproach for his schism and heresy; who, seeing that he could only have been apprized or these circumstances by revelation, became upon the spot a most devout Catholic. St. John, by his example and counsels, conducted many fervent souls to God, and continued in his hermitage to emulate, as much as this mortal state will allow, the glorious employment of the heavenly spirits in an uninterrupted exercise of love and praise, till he passed to their blessed company, soon after the year 558; having lived seventy-six years in the desert, which had only been interrupted by the nine years of his episcopal dignity.
His astonishing austerity, love of silence, and sublime contemplation condemn the unmortified spirit and dissipation of the world. Interior recollection is, as it were, the soul of Christian virtue. Without it, the most active zeal and devotion will only be superficial. A dissipated heart can never be truly devout. One that is united with God, and relishes the sweetness of his divine converse, finds the tumult of creatures and the noise of the world an insupportable burden, and he truly understands from experience what pure joy holy solitude is able to afford. A love of Christian silence, or a silence of virtue and choice, not of stupidity or sullenness, is a proof that a soul makes it her chiefest delight to be occupied on God, and finds no comfort like that of conversing with him. This is the paradise of all devout souls.