St. John the Dwarf who was born in Egypt about 339. At the age of 18, he left for
Scetis and was trained there by Abba Ammoes for twelve years. One of the most
vivid characters in the Egyptian Desert, he attracted many disciples and in order to
preserve his own solitude, he dug himself a cave underground. Abba John was later
ordained priest and the number of his sayings that are recorded and preserved point
to his importance among his disciples. After 407, he went to Suez and the Mountain
of St. Anthony.
1.It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at
Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it
and said to him, "Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit." Now
the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the
following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit.
The old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren,
"Take and eat the fruit of obedience."
2. It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, "I
should like to be free of all care, like the angels who do not work, but ceaselessly
offer worship to God." So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After
a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his
brother say, before he opened it, "Who are you?" He said, "I am John, your brother."
But he replied, "John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among
men." Then the other begged him saying, "It is I." However, his brother did not let
him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said
to him, "You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat." Then John
made a prostration before him, saying, "Forgive me." (NOTE: this story is, according
to most sources, from Abba John's youth when he was still living with his family)
3. Abba John the Dwarf said, "If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's
city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying
of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a
man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak."
4.Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by having a meal together;
amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody
accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him,
"How is that you, the youngest, dared to let yourself be served by the priest?" Then
he said to them, "When I get up to offer drink, I am glad when everyone accepts it,
since I am receiving my reward; that is the reason, then, that I accepted it, so that
he also might gain his reward and not be grieved by seeing that no one would accept
anything from him." When they heard this, they were all filled with wonder and
edification at his discretion.
5.The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape* and
one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep,
saying, "What does this brother have in his heart, that he should laugh, when he
ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?"
6.Some brethren came one day to test him to see whether he would let his
thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, "We
give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have
been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual
work." Abba John said to them, "So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the
hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God."
7.Abba John said, "I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts
and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them
any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit
in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no
more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the
8.Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his
passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told
an old man this: "I find myself in peace, without an enemy," he said. The old man
said to him, "Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction
and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes
progress." So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it
might be taken away, but said, "Lord, give me strength for the fight."
9.The old man also said this to a certain brother about the soul which wishes to be
converted, "There was in a city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the
governors approached her, saying, "Promise me you will be good, and I will marry
you." She promised this and he took her and brought her to his house. Her lovers,
seeking her again, said to one another, "That lord has taken her with him to his
house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go
to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle
she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be unassailable." When she heard the
whistle, the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the
doors." The old man said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the
passions and other men; that the lord is Christ; that the inner chamber is the eternal
dwelling; those who whistle are the evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in
10. One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their
guide lost his way for it was night time. So the brothers said to Abba John, "What
shall we do, Abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the
way?" The old man said to them, "If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and
shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then
we can stay here till the dawn." This he did. The others said, "We will not go on
either, but we will stay with you." They sat there until the dawn, and in this way
they did not upset the brother. END
*agape: the primary meaning of this Greek word is "love." Here, it refers to the
common meal taken by the fathers after the celebration of the Liturgy. It can also
refer to the Liturgy itself.
11.There was an old man at Scetis, very austere of body, but not very clear in his
thoughts. He went to see Abba John to ask him about forgetfulness. Having
received a word from him, he returned to his cell and forgot what Abba John had said
to him. He went off again to ask him and having heard the same word from him, he
returned with it. As he got near his cell, he forgot it again. This he did many times;
he went there, but while he was returning he was overcome by forgetfulness. Later,
meeting the old man he said to him, "Do you know, Abba, that I have forgotten again
what you said to me? But I did not want to overburden you, so I did not come
back." Abba John said to him, "Go and light a lamp." He lit it. He said to him,
"Bring some more lamps, and light them from the first." He did so. Then Abba John
said to the old man, "Has that lamp suffered any loss from the fact that other lamps
have been lit from it?" He said, "No." The old man continued, "So it is with John;
even if the whole of Scetis came to see me, they would not separate me from the
love of Christ. Consequently, whenever you want to, come to me without
hesitation." So, thanks to the endurance of these two men, God took forgetfulness
away from the old man. Such was the work of the monks of Scetis; they inspire
fervour in those who are in the conflict and do violence to themselves to win others
to do good.
12.Abba John said, "Who sold Joseph" A brother replied saying, "It was his
brethren." The old man said to him, "No, it was his humility which sold him, because
he could have said, "I am their brother" and have objected, but, because he kept
silence, he sold himself by his humility. It is also his humility which set him up as
chief in Egypt."
13. He also said, "Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues."
14.It was said of Abba John that when he went to church at Scetis, he heard some
brethren arguing, so he returned to his cell. He went round it three times and then
went in. Some brethren who had seen him, wondered why he had done this, and they
went to ask him. He said to them, "My ears were full of that argument, so I circled
round in order to purify them, and thus I entered my cell with my mind at rest."
15.On day a brother came to Abba John's cell. It was late and he was in a hurry to
leave. While they were speaking of the virtues, dawn came without their noticing it.
Abba John came out with him to see him off, and they went on talking until the sixth
hour. Then he made him go in again after they had eaten, he sent him away.
(EDITOR: Isn't this a wonderful story?! How these Holy Men loved to talk about the
16.One day a brother came to Abba John to take away some baskets. He came out
and said to him, "What do you want, brother?" He said, "Baskets, Abba." Going
inside to bring them to him, he forgot them, and sat down to weave. Again the
brother knocked. When Abba John came out, the brother said, "Bring me the baskets,
Abba." The old man went in once more and sat down to weave. Once more the
brother knocked and, coming out, Abba John said, "What do you want brother?" He
replied, "The baskets, Abba." Then, taking him by the hand, Abba John led him
inside, saying, "If you want the baskets, take them and go away, because really, I
have no time for such things."
17. A camel driver came one day to pick up some goods and take them elsewhere.
Going inside to bring him what he had woven, Abba John forgot about it because his
spirit was fixed in God. So once more the camel driver disturbed him by knocking on
the door and once more Abba John went in and forgot. The camel driver knocked a
third time and Abba John went in saying, "Weaving - camel; weaving - camel." He
said this so that he would not forget again.
18.An old man came to Abba John's cell and found him asleep, with an angel
standing above him, fanning him. Seeing this, he withdrew. When Abba John got up,
he said to his disciple, "Did anyone come in while I was asleep?" He said, "Yes, an
old man." Then Abba John knew that this old man was his equal, and that he had
seen the angel.
19.Abba John said, "I think it best that a man should have a little bit of all the
virtues. Therefore, get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue
and every commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in
the love of God, with all the fervour of your soul and body. Exercise great humility,
bear with interior distress; be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning,
with purity of speech and control of your eyes. When you are despised do not get
angry; be at peace, and do not render evil for evil. Do not pay attention to the faults
of others, and do not try to compare yourself with others, knowing you are less than
every created thing. Renounce everything material and that which is of the flesh.
Live by the cross, in warfare, in poverty of spirit, in voluntary spiritual asceticism, in
fasting, penitence and tears, in discernment, in purity of soul, taking hold of that
which is good. Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and
thirst, in cold and nakedness, and in sufferings. Shut yourself in a tomb as though
you were already dead, so that at all times you will think death is near."
20.One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, "What is a monk?" He said, "He
is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is."
21.Abba John the Dwarf said, "A house is not built by beginning at the top and
working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top." They
said to him, "What does this saying mean?" He said, "The foundation is our
neighbor, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. For all the
commandments of Christ depend on this one."
22.Abba John said to his brother, "Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of
men, let us rejoice that we are honored in the sight of God."
23.Abba Poemen said that Abba John said that the saints are like a group of trees,
each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one
saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.
Sayings of the Saints
|Teachings on the Ascetic Life
Abba John the Dwarf
from Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,"
(Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 85-95