Getting away from it all still means prayer struggles
Egyptian hermit learned obedience, patience and humility in the desert
By Tony Staley
St. John Kolobos
When: died c. 409
What: Desert Father
Feast: Oct. 17
Many Christians long to improve their prayer and spiritual life, but find it hard to carve out time to do so. That may be one reason why we are fascinated by hermits, who seek to escape everything and devote themselves to prayer.
In the early church, hermits often went to the desert in Egypt where they lived independently, but were linked together in communities. One desert monk was St. John Kolobos (Greek for "dwarf").
John was born in southern Egypt. As a young man, he moved to Skete in the desert of northern Egypt, where an old hermit was assigned as his spiritual director. One day, the story goes, the hermit told John to plant his walking stick in the ground and water it until it bore fruit.
John did so every day, walking a long way to the river. In the third year, buds, flowers and, finally, fruit, appeared. John took the fruit to the hermit, who gave it to the other monks, telling them, "Eat the fruit of obedience."
A fanciful story designed to teach obedience, perseverance in prayer and positive thinking? Probably, especially since it's also told of John of Lycopolis, but that doesn't detract from its meaning.
Besides watering sticks, John was known for a poor memory, perhaps caused by his concentration on prayer. It once took four tries for him to go from his door to his bench to get tools for another man.
John also was known for quick temper and boastfulness. Once, he took off all his clothes and told another hermit he was going to live in the desert like an angel.
A week later, John knocked on his friend's door and asked to be let in. "You can't be John," the hermit replied. "He's an angel now, not a man." He made John wait outside all night to teach him humility.
John worked on these shortcomings and eventually was considered humble and amiable. He even refused to get involved in gossip or current events for fear they would harm his spiritual life.
He also took care of an old monk who never thanked him. Finally, after 12 years, as the monk lay dying, he called John "an angel and not a man."
Eventually, John built a monastery near Wadi Natrun, a valley in Egypt's western desert, where he lived with his followers in a pit - probably a cave or narrow ravine - until Berbers invaded in about 400. He escaped across the Red Sea to Clysma, near the Suez, where St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356), the most famous Desert Father, had lived.
As John, now in his 70s, lay dying, his followers came for a last lesson. He said, "I never followed my own will, nor did I ever teach another what I had not practiced myself."
Sources: Butler's Lives of the Saints, Dictionary of Saints, Voices of the Saints and www.stthomasirondequoit.com.