Abba John The Short
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba John the Short?
Abba John the Short is a large fixture in the literature of the Desert Fathers. While not as extensive as Abba Poemen the Shepherd, the sayings attributed to Abba John comprise a fair portion of the initial oral sayings handed down.
John was part of the second wave of monks that followed in the footsteps of Anthony the Great. He was the son of poor parents and was born around 339 AD. By the age of 18 he had set off to join the men of the desert at Scetis.
For 12 years he was mentored and trained by Abba Ammoes, eventually becoming a notable figure that many would come to asking for spiritual guidance. He was known as absentminded because he would be so caught up in the presence of God that he would frequently forget what he was doing or who was around him. Once, while weaving baskets, he was so caught up in contemplating the presence of God that he wove the material for two baskets into one.
His passion was the spiritual life. Once, when a certain brother visited to ask a quick question, their conversation quickly turned toward deep spiritual truth. Due to the sweetness of the moment, what should have been a five-minute conversation lasted the entire night. When the brother arose to leave in the morning, their parting conversation turned towards once again towards the spiritual life, and they lingered together until midday.
He was quick to avoid things that would provoke him to anger. Twice it is recorded that he came across situations that would have upset him. Instead of responding in anger, he dropped what he was doing and what he was carrying, and hurried off in order that he would not disturb the inner quietude of his heart.
He was considerate of others. Once, when traveling with some brothers to Scetis, their guide lost the way in the night. Knowing that the guide would be ashamed of having led them astray, Abba John interrupted before the guide could admit his fault. Abba John told the guide that he was not feeing well and could not go on anymore until the morning knowing that the guide would be able to reorient himself in the daylight.
One story in particular highlights the wit of some of the fathers.
One day, John the Short went to the brother he lived with and said,“I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.”
Abba John removed his monastic cloak and left for the desert. After a week away he came back to the dwelling he shared with his brother. He knocked on the door and called out that it was John and that he had returned from the desert.
His brother replied without opening the door, “John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.”
He was left outside until the morning, when his brother opened the door and said, ”You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.”
The spiritual life requires effort.
Once, Taisia, a woman who had previously supported the desert fathers, fell into a life of prostitution after spending her inheritance. Abba John was tasked by the other fathers to visit her and win her heart back to Christ.
When John walked in to the room he wept and said,
”What is it that you have against Jesus, and why do you blame Him for coming to such a state as this?”
The woman was paralyzed, and upon seeing his tears asked,
”Abba, why are you crying?”
Abba John, raising his head a little, and then lowering it again, said;
”How can I see Satan playing on your face and not cry?”
Great conviction took hold of her heart and she immediately got up and left with the Abba. Shortly afterwards, the woman passed away.
Abba John the Short heard the voice of the Lord speak to him clearly regarding this woman,
”The single hour for which this woman repented was more quickly received than that of many who spend years in repentance, since the repentance of the latter is not as earnest as hers.”
Abba John cared deeply for those who were part of the flock in Scetis. Upon returning from a season of work with his wages, he dedicated all that he had earned towards the care of the monks, saying,
“My widows and my orphans are in Scetis.”
The Spiritual Life
Humility was the key to unlocking the depths of the spiritual life.
"Abba John said that the door to Heaven is humility; and our Fathers entered into the City of God, after having tasted of many insults."
Nothing tests the humility of a man more than negative words spoken against him. The depth of pride will be displayed by the resulting offence taken from insults.
He not only spoke on bearing insults, but he practiced it. Once, when a number of brothers had gathered around him to ask him about the spiritual life, a certain brother became offended and said,
"John, just as a prostitute spruces herself up, in order to attract lovers, so you also do."
The father embraced the man and said,
"What you say is true, Father."
The greater thing was to accept the humiliation and let it deal with pride in the heart. In this way the fathers and mothers of the desert practiced the principle laid out in James 4:6,
“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
One of the brothers was astounded at the passive response of John and asked him later if he was offended in his heart. John replied,
"No, for as I appear to be externally, so I am internally."
This is true peace that only God can bring, when what those around see on the outside matches who we are on the inside.
His desire was not to be recognized by men, but to be recognized before God.
"Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of men, let us rejoice that we are honoured in the sight of God."
Recognition of men is transitory and fading. It will disappoint you. The recognition of God is the only thing of lasting value.
Humility and the fear of God were seen in not disparaging others.
"There is no greater virtue than that of not disparaging others."
If you fear God, you would not disparage another. If you are humble, you will see yourself as lower than all.
To John, the reason our growth is stunted is because we justify ourselves rather than accuse ourselves.
"We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification."
Self justification hinders growth because it never deals with the root issues in our heart. Rather, we justify our actions by any means possible, looking at everyone and every thing around us to find reason and excuse for what we do. Self justification keeps our focus on external matters. The true path is the interior one. It is to realize our own depravity before God and allow him to search our hearts and cleanse our conscience.
The spiritual life was about the honour of God.
"Abba John the Short said to his disciple: 'My child, let us honour the One and all shall honour us; but if we despise the One, Who is God, all shall despise us, and then we will go to perdition (punishment).'"
Fasting was necessary and key to developing the intimacy with God.
"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."
We fast to weaken the flesh in order that our selfish desires will weaken. With a weakened flesh our spirit can thrive and grow in intimacy with God.
He thrived by training himself to return constantly to the remembrance of God. After all, there can be no greater vocation. One time, some other brothers decided to test his desire to keep his thoughts centred upon God and decided to ask his opinion of the weather.
The brothers said,
"We thank God that it rained a good deal this year, that the palm trees received sufficient water to put forth leaves, and that the brothers are finding materials for their handiwork."
To which the Abba replied,
"So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men: they are renewed, and put forth leaves in the fear of God."
His practice was to cut off evil thoughts before they took root in his heart. 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 enemy."
The struggle is not against the thought itself, it is to turn from the thought and embrace God in prayer.
He encouraged his disciples to rise early each morning and to set out to acquire the spiritual life. He taught them to exercise great patience…
"…with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God."
They were to employ humility by…
"bearing with interior distress" and, when despised, "…do not get angry; be at peace, and do not render evil for evil."
He told them,
"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."
Christ was to be their example in every spiritual work:
"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."
His disciples were to take seriously the command of Paul to die daily.
"Shut yourself in a tomb as though you were already dead, so that at all times you will think death is near."
When death is at hand so much of what we deem important becomes unnecessary.
When an old man apologized for being a burden to Abba John the Short, John wouldn’t have it. For him, it was the love of Christ that flowed from him. John used the analogy of a lamp to demonstrate the sufficiency of the love of Christ.
"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."
Light does not diminish when you give light, it increases. So it was with John, his giving increased the love of Christ, it did not diminish Christ within.
Abba John the Short had a great amount of respect for the various teachings of the desert fathers and mothers. To John, the goal was the Holy Spirit.
"…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."
When the monks were driven from Scetis, Abba John traveled to the mountain of Abba Anthony the Great and spent his last days with his disciples there. His disciples implored him for one final teaching as he was set to pass from this life. Abba John sighed and said,
"I never followed my own will; nor did I ever teach another what I had not first practiced myself."
Everything he taught he first practiced. To John, the spiritual life was not a theory, it was his life. He passed away sometime shortly thereafter, in the early part of the fifth century on the mountain of Abba Anthony.
“God resists the proud but give grace to the humble.”