John The Dwarf

“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.” Very efficient tactic to fight temptations.

“Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of men, let us rejoice that we are honored in the sight of God.” What do we care what others think of us! We know that God holds us in high esteem. Or do we?

“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. 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.” Very wise advice if we want to advance in holiness.

“We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.” An outline of a real path to innocence.

All these sayings come from a monk who was so short that he was called John the Dwarf. Born in Egypt to poor Christian parents around 339, at the age 18, he left for the desert of Scetis to live radically his Christianity. 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! Funny!

He was a practical man. “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.” If we cut the resources where our temptations come from, the battle is half won. If internet is the cause of your falls, put a filter on. If alcohol is the source of your anger, keep beer out of your house.

His obedience was extreme. One day the Abba took a piece of dry wood, planted it and told him, “Water it every day with a pail 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 Abba took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, “Take and eat the fruit of obedience.”

Like all of us, he did not start faultless. He had to learn wisdom. In his young days, he prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told his Abba: “I find myself in peace, without an enemy”. The old man said to him, “Go, implore 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.”

Small in stature. Giant in compassion. One day when he was going through the desert with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night time. So the brothers said to him, “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 next day the guide realized his mistake and all were safe.

His guiding principle? “I never followed my own will; nor did I ever teach another what I had not first practiced myself.” May it become our course of action!


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.