Saint John, surnamed Kolobos, that is ``the Little'' or the ``the Dwarf'', was among the most eminent saints that inhabited the desert of Skete. In the Divine Liturgy, he is mentioned in the Congregation of the Saints and in ``Pi nishti''.
His Way to Monastic Life
He was born about the year 339, around the Theban region in Upper Egypt in a poor but holy family. His desire for monastic life led him since his early years to remote places where he trained himself for this austere life style. It was not long before he was led by Divine inspiration to leave his town. He retired, when only eighteen years old, into the wilderness of Skete (also called the Natroun Valley) and set himself with his whole heart to put on the spirit of Christ.
He went to become a disciple of the old hermit, Aba Pemouah (who was also the teacher of Saint Pishoy - the perfect man). Aba Pemouah tried to deter him from adopting this harsh monastic life. By night an angel appeared to him asking him to accept the young John as a monk. After three full days of fasting and prayers, the master and the disciple witnessed an angel blessing the new cloths John was to put on.
Saint John renounced all distraction and entertainment; and since monasteries were not built at that time, only hermits were populating the desert. He endured all the difficult tests as an experienced master rather than a bright disciple. Aba Pemouah led him to perfect watchfulness, solitude, subduing the body, meekness, silence, humility, simplicity and obedience.
Aba Pemouah, who was his director for his first lesson, bade him to plant in the ground a walking-stick, and water it every day till it should bring forth fruit. Saint John did so with great simplicity, though the river was about 12 miles away from the stick. When he had continued his task, without speaking one word about it, into the third year the stick, which had taken root, pushed forth leaves and buds and produced fruit. The old hermit, gathering the fruit, carried to the church, and giving it to some of the brethren, said, ``Take, and eat the fruit of obedience''. Postumian, who was in Egypt in 402, assured that he was shown this tree which grew in the yard of the monastery and which he saw covered with shoots and green leaves.
About silence he taught him saying, ``My son, be silent lest evil thoughts overtake your mind and lose your soul. Particularly in church, we ought the most to be careful in order to be worthy of the presence of Holy Mysteries."
Consecration of the Mind
Saint John believed that the perfection of a monk consists in his keeping to his cell, watching constantly over himself and having God continually present to his mind. He never discoursed on worldly affairs and never spoke of ``News'', the ordinary amusement of the superficial. He stressed the importance of ``quietness''; he says, ``The longer quietness prevails, the weaker the pains of lusts become, and the healthier the mind becomes until it reaches peace.'' His mind dwelt constantly on Divine issues; he used to take one of the commandments each day and work hard to perfect it. He was so intent on the things of God that he became very absent-minded. At his work he sometimes plaited into one basket the material which should have made two, and often went wrong through forgetting what he was doing. One day when a carrier knocked at his door to carry away his materials and tools to another place, Saint John thrice forgot what he went to fetch in returning from his door, till he repeated to himself, ``The camel, my tools. The camel, my tools. The camel, my tools.'' The same happened when someone came to him to fetch the baskets he had made, and as often as he came back from the door he sat down again to his work, till at last he called the brother to come in, and take them himself.
He avoided the words of men and their discussions and so cultivated the things of peace that his words held the attention of all. A brother coming once to speak to him for a few minutes, so ardent and sweet was their conversation on spiritual things that they continued it till morning. Perceiving it was day, they went out, the one to return home, the other to go with him for a few steps, but their talk again returned to God and His Kingdom and it lasted till midday. Then Saint John took him again into his cell to eat a little; after which they really parted.
A Teacher Responsible for Many Souls
In 374, Aba Pemouah departed after 12 years of illness during which Saint John was ministering to him. At his last moments, Aba Pemouah called Saint John ``the angel of God on earth'' and instructed him to make his abode next to the ``Tree of Obedience''. He went with Aba Pishoy who shortly later settled two miles away. Saint John then dug a cave and worshipped in it in solitude. His virtues were spreading quickly and many monks, among which was his older brother, came to him to learn about and follow his angelic life. He was then leading by example; he surpassed all the elders in their self-control. When he had made a comment to a non-obedient brother during harvest, he begged him to forgive him and spent the whole year fasting (eating only bread and salt every third day) praying, ``Forgive me, O Lord, for I angered your creation''.
Saint John's disciples were increasing in number and came from everywhere to his abode by the ``Tree of Obedience'' where a monastery was built and remained open until the 17th century. We know how he had tested the good dispositions of Saint Arsenius when he first came to Skete. He became then responsible for the salvation of many of his children. A certain charitable young woman, named Paesia, after the death of her parents opened her house to care for the needy and the strangers. She was so generous that her wealth was entirely spent and, not finding money to survive, she fell gradually into a disorderly life. The monks entreated Saint John to try to reclaim her, and he went to her house and sitting down by her he said with his accustomed sweetness, ``What reason can you have to complain about Jesus that you should thus abandon Him?'' At these words she was struck silent, and seeing the saint in tears she said to him, ``Why do you weep?'' Saint John replied, ``How can I not weep whilst I see Satan in possession of your heart?'' She was moved by his gentleness and concern for her, and grace entered into her heart and she asked him, ``Father, is the path of penitence still open to me?'' ``It is,'' he replied. ``Then show me the way.'' He rose up and she followed him without saying another word. As he was leading her to one of the nuns' monasteries, they slept in the desert. During the prayer of midnight, Saint John saw the soul of Paesia going up to Heaven carried by angels and heard a voice telling him that her penitence was perfect before God. And in the morning he found Paesia dead.
His Late Life away from Skete
When the Berbers raided Skete around 395, Saint John went across the Nile towards the Red Sea, and there, at one day's walk from the place hallowed by Saint Anthony, he remained until his departure. His rare visit to the village (the current city of Suez), he brought most of its inhabitants to Christ and he worked several miracles.
When he drew near his end, his disciples entreated him to leave them some final lesson of Christian perfection. He sighed, and that he might shun the air of a teacher alleging his own doctrine and practice, he said, ``I never followed my own will; nor did I ever teach another what I had not first practised myself''.
When he departed, his servant who was coming back from the village saw the angels carrying his soul to Heaven accompanied by the spirits of the saints. He then treated the body with honor and carried him to the village. Later, in 515, his body was taken to the desert of Skete.