Lives of the Saints
ST. JOHN surnamed, from his low stature, Colobus, that is, the Little or the Dwarf,
was famous among the eminent ancient saints that inhabited the deserts of Egypt.
He retired, together with an elder brother, into the vast wilderness of Scete and
pulling himself under the direction of a holy old hermit, he set himself, with his
whole heart, and with all his strength, to labor in subduing himself, and in putting on
the divine spirit of Christ. The first condition which Christ requires, the preliminary
article which he lays down for his service, is a practice of perfect self-denial, by which
we learn to die to ourselves and all our vicious inclinations. So long as inordinate
self-love and passions reign in the heart, they cannot fail to produce their fruits; we
are imperceptibly governed by them in the circle of our ordinary actions, and remain
habitually enslaved to pride, anger, impatience, envy sensuality, and other vices,
which often break forth into open transgressions of the divine law; and a lurking
inordinate self-love, whilst it holds the empire in the affections insinuates itself,
under subtle disguises, into all our actions, becomes the main-spring of all the
motions of our heart, and debases our virtues themselves with a mixture of vice and
imperfection. Virtue is generally defective, even in many who desire to serve God,
because very few have the courage perfectly to vanquish themselves. It is strange
that men should be so blind, or so cowardly, in a point of such infinite importance,
since Christ has laid down the precept of perfect abnegation and humility as the
foundation of the empire of his divine grace and love in a soul; upon this all the
saints raise the edifice of their virtue. He who builds not upon it, builds upon sand.
He who, without this precaution, multiplies his alms, his fasts, and his devotions,
takes a great deal of pains to lose, in a great measure, the fruit of his labors.
Our holy anchoret, lest he should be in danger of missing his aim, resolved to neglect
no means by which he might obtain the victory over himself. The old hermit who was
his director, for his first lesson, bade him plant in the ground a dry walking-stick
which he held in his hand, and water it every day till it should bring forth fruit. John
did so with great simplicity, though the river was at a considerable distance. It is
related that when he had continued his task without speaking one word, in the third
year, the stick which had taken root, pushed forth leaves and buds, and produced
fruit; the old hermit gathering the fruit carried it to the church and giving it to some
of the brethren, said, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."
Poshumian, who was in Egypt in 402, assured St. Sulpicius Severus that he was
shown this tree, which grew in the yard of the monastery, and which he saw covered
with boughs and green leaves. St. John used to say, that as a man who sees a wild
beast or a serpent coming towards him climbs up a tree to be out of their reach; so,
a person who perceives any evil thoughts coming upon him, in order to secure himself
against the danger, must ascend up to God by earnest prayer. Being yet a novice in
the monastic state, and much taken with the charms of heavenly contemplation, he
said one day to his elder brother, "I could wish to live without distraction, or earthly
concerns, like the angels, that I might be able to serve and praise God without
interruption." Saying this, and leaving his cloak behind him, he went into a more
secret part of the wilderness. After being absent a week, he returned, and knocked at
the door of his brother's cell. Being asked his name, he said, "I am your brother
John." "How can that be?" replied the other, "for my brother John is become an angel,
and lives no more among men." St. John begged pardon for his rashness, and
acknowledged that this mortal state does not admit such a perfection but requires
that contemplation and manual labor mutually succeed and assist each other, and
confessed that man's life on earth is labor and penance, not fruition. It was one of
this saint's maxims: "If a general would take a city, he begins the siege by debarring
it from supplies of water and provisions; so, by sobriety, fasting, and maceration of
the flesh are our affections and passions to be reduced and our domestic enemy
How careful he was to watch against all occasions of danger, appears from the
following instances. As he was praying and plying his work in platting mats, on the
road to Scete, he was one day met by a carrier driving camels, who reviled him in the
most injurious terms. The saint, for fear the tranquillity of his soul should be any way
impaired, threw down the work he had in his hands, and ran away. Another time,
when he was reaping corn in the harvest, he ran away, because he heard one of the
reapers angry with another. Happening, one day as he was going to the church of
Scete to hear two persons wrangling together, he made haste back to his cell, but
walked several times round it in profound recollection, before he went in, that he
might purify his ears from the injurious words he had heard, and bring his mind
perfectly calm to converse with God. By this continual watchfulness over himself, he
acquired so perfect a habit of meekness, humility, and patience, that nothing was
able to cloud or disturb his mind. When one said to him, "Thou hast a heart full of
venom," he sweetly answered: "That is true, and much more so than you think." By
the following example he inculcated to others the great necessity of overcoming
ourselves, if we desire truly to serve God. A certain young man entreated a
celebrated philosopher to permit him to attend his lectures. "Go first," said the
philosopher, "to the marble quarries, and carry stones to the river, among the
malefactors condemned to the mines, during three years." He did so and came back
at the end of that term. The philosopher bid him go again, and pass three years in
receiving all sorts of injuries and affronts, and make no answer, but give money to
those who should most bitterly revile him. He complied likewise with this precept and
upon his return, the experienced tutor told him he might now go to Athens and be
initiated in the schools of the philosophers. At the gate of that city sat an old man
who made it his pastime to abuse those who came that way. The young novice never
justified himself, nor was angry, but laughed to hear himself so outrageously railed
at; and being asked the reason, said, "I who given money these three years to all
have treated me as you do; and shall not I laugh, now it costs me nothing to be
reviled?" Hereupon the old man replied: "Welcome to the schools of philosophy; you
are worthy of a seat in them." The saint added, "Behold the gate of heaven. All the
faithful servants of the Lord have entered into this joy by suffering injuries and
humiliations with meekness and patience." To recommend tenderness and charity to
those who labor in converting others to God he said, "It is impossible to build a
house by beginning at the top in order to build downward. We must first gain the
heart of our neighbor before we can be useful to him."
It was a usual saying of this saint: "The safety of a monk consists in his keeping
always his cell, watching constantly over himself, and having God continually present
to his mind." As for his own part, he never discoursed on worldly affairs, and never
spoke of news the ordinary amusement of the slothful. Some persons one day, to try
him, began a conversation with him, saying, "We ought to thank God for the plentiful
rains that are fallen this year. The palm trees sprout well, and our brethren will
easily find leaves and twigs for their work in making mats and baskets." St. John
contented himself with answering, "In like manner when the Spirit of God comes
down upon the hearts of his servants, they grow green again, as I may say, and are
renewed, shooting, as it were, fresh leaves in the fear of God." This reply made them
attempt no more any such conversation with him. The saint's mind was so intent on
God in holy contemplation, that at his work he sometimes platted in one basket the
twigs which should have made two, and often went wrong in his work, forgetting
what he was doing. One day, when a driver of camels, or a carrier, knocked at his
door, to carry away his materials and instruments for his work, St. John thrice forgot
what he went to fetch in returning from his door, till he continued to repeat to
himself, "the camel, my platting instrument." The same happened to him when one
came to fetch the baskets he had made, and as often as he came back from his door,
he sat down again to his work, till at last he desired the brother to come in, and take
them himself.
St. John called humility and compunction the first and most necessary of all virtues.
By the fervor and assiduity of his prayer and heavenly contemplation, all his
discourse on God was inflamed. A certain brother coming one day to see him,
designing to speak to him only for two or three minutes, being in haste to go back to
his cell, so ardent and sweet was their conversation on spiritual things that they
continued it the whole night till morning. Perceiving it day, they went out of the
saint's cell, the one to return home, the other to conduct him some steps, and falling
into discourse on heaven, their entertainment lasted till mid-day. Then St. John took
him again into his cell to eat a morsel for his refection; after which, they parted. St.
John seeing a monk laugh in a conference, sat down, and bursting into tears, said,
"What reason can this brother have to laugh, whilst we have so many to weep?" A
certain charitable devout young woman, named Paesia, fell into poverty, and
gradually into a disorderly life. The monks of Scete entreated St. John to endeavor to
reclaim her from her evil courses. The saint repaired to her house, but was refused
entrance, till persisting a long time, and repeating that she would have no reason to
repent that she had spoke to him, he got admittance. Then sitting down by her, he
said, with his accustomed sweetness, "What reason can you have to complain of
Jesus, that you should thus abandon him, to plunge yourself in so deplorable an
abyss!" At these words she was struck to the quick; and seeing the saint melt into
tears, she said to him, "Why do you weep so bitterly?" St. John repined, "How can I
refrain from weeping, whilst I see Satan in possession of your heart?" She said, "Is
the gate of penitence yet open to me?" The saint having answered that the treasures
of the divine mercy are inexhaustible, she replied, "Conduct me whither you please."
Hereupon, he rising up, said, "Let us go." The penitent followed him without saying
another word and without giving any orders about her household or servants; a
circumstance which he took notice of with joy, as it showed how entirely she was
taken up with the thoughts only of saving her soul. She spent the remainder of her
life in austere penance, and died happily soon after in the wilderness, having no
other pillow than a hillock to lay her head on. John learned by a revelation, that her
short but fervent penitence had been perfect before God. When our saint drew near
his end, his disciples entreated him to leave them, by way of legacy, some
wholesome lesson of Christian perfection. He sighed; and that he might, out of
humility, shun the air of a teacher, alleging his own maxim and practice, he said, "I
never followed my own will; nor did I ever teach any other what I had not first
practiced myself." St. John died about the beginning of the fifth century. See Cotelier,
Apophth. Patrum, litt. i, p. 463 to 484; Rosweide, 1. 5, Vitae Patrum, translated into
Latin by Pelagius, deacon of Rome, who was chosen pope in 558; Tillemont, t. 10, p.
[1] Butler's Lives of the Saints.
St John the Dwarf   
Anchorite A.D. 420