St. John the Short

In this episode of our volunteer-driven research project “Walking The Way with The Saints”, we focus on St. John the Short (Ⲁⲃⲃⲁ Ⲓⲱⲁⲛⲛⲏⲥ ⲡⲓⲕⲟⲗⲟⲃⲟⲥ), whom we commemorate on October 17 according to the Syriac Orthodox Liturgical calendar. Merin Thomas from Sacramento, USA presents us with his research into the life and teachings of the saint and how his example can inspire us to live for Christ today.

St. John surnamed Kolobos (“Short or shortened in Greek”) was one of the greatest Desert Fathers who lived in the desert of Skete in northern Egypt. He is remembered during the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil in the Commemoration of the Saints and in the Pi-Nishti hymn, along with the other great monastic saints like Abba Anthony, Abba Pishoy, etc.

Watch a video prepared by Merin Thomas

He was born around AD 339 in the Theban region of Upper Egypt to a poor but holy family. From an early age, he had a strong desire for the monastic life. This led him to spend his time in remote places, preparing himself for the strict way of life that would be required of him. He left his town, and at the age of 18, settled in the wilderness of Skete and dedicated himself to put on the spirit of Christ.

Abba Pemwah

St. John desired to be the disciple of St. Abba Pemwah (or St. Pambo), a disciple of St. Anthony the Great. Abba Pemwah was the guide for both St. John the Short and St. Pishoy the Great, and was known as a strict teacher. At first, Abba Pemwah tried to discourage John from the harsh monastic life, but an angel appeared to him in the night asking him to accept the young John as a monk. Abba Pemwah then prepared a set of monastic clothes for St. John and prayed and fasted over them for three whole days. When St. John finally put them on, Abba Pemwah saw an angel making the sign of the Cross over them.

Abba Pemwah, also known as St. Pambo

The Tree of Obedience

For his first lesson, Abba Pemwah asked St. John to plant a wooden stick into the ground and water it every day till it bore fruit. Even though the river was 2 miles away from the stick, St. John completed his task with great obedience and simplicity without a word of complaining. When three years had gone by, the stick started sprouting leaves and produced much fruit. The old Abba Pemwah gathered the fruit and distributed it to his fellow monks in the church saying, “Take, and eat the fruit of obedience.” That tree, later called the “Tree of Obedience”, still stands in the same spot to this day.

Abba Pemwah passed away in AD 374 after a long period of sickness, with St. John serving him faithfully. As per Abba Pemwah’s wishes, St. John dug a cave next to the “Tree of Obedience” and took up strict asceticism. His dress was made of palm leaves. He dug an underground room inside the cave in which he spent the whole week fasting and being absorbed in ceaseless prayer. Soon, many monks came to him to learn from him and follow his example. A well was dug, a church was built, and a monastery grew around the “Tree of Obedience”, which remained open till the 17th century.

St. John the Short watering the piece of wood

The Coptic Pope Theophilus ordained St. John hegumen and abbot over the monastery, and when he placed his hand over St. John’s head, a voice was heard from heaven saying, “Axios, Axios, Axios!” (Axios means “worthy” in Greek).

St. John was able to know those who were worthy and those who were not worthy to partake of the Holy Sacrament, as if their hearts were open before his spiritual eyes. During the Divine Liturgy, St. John used to behold vividly the consecration of the gifts and their change to the Body and Blood of Christ.

Story of St. Paisa

St. John was responsible for the salvation of many people. There was a certain young woman named Paisa who, after the death of her parents, opened her house to care for the poor, monks and strangers. She was so generous that she soon ran out of all her wealth and with no money to survive, fell into a life of sin and prostitution. The monks asked St. John to talk to her. He went to her house, where she was sitting ready in her bed.

He sat by her and asked her, “What reason can you have to complain about Jesus that you should abandon him?”

She was speechless, but seeing the saint in tears, she asked him, “Why are you crying?”

St. John replied, “How can I not weep whilst I see Satan in possession of your heart?”

She was moved by his love and concern and she asked, “Is there still hope for me, Father?”

He said, “It is.” “Then show me the way”, she replied.

St. Paisa and St. John the Short

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 Paisa going up to Heaven carried by angels and heard a voice telling him that her repentance was perfect before God. In the morning, he found Paisa dead. After the saint had buried her, he returned to the Elders and told them what had happened. They all glorified the Lord who accepts the repentants and forgive their sins.

St. Paisa is remembered by the Coptic Orthodox Church on Mesori 2 (August 8 on the Gregorian calendar).

His Spiritual Teachings

  • St. John compared the saints of God to different trees; each bears its special fruit, although all are watered from the same source. Saints differ in their practices, but the same Spirit works in all of them.
  • St. John said: “I think it is 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 fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress; be vigilant and pray often with reverence, 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 pray 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.”
  • St. 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 neighbour, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.”

On Humility and Meekness

  • “A monk should feel that he is the least of all creation.”
  • “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.”
  • “Humble yourself to everyone. Do not get angry towards him who thinks he is better than you, for it is from ignorance that a brother raises himself above his brother.”
  • “Humility is the door which leads into the kingdom.”
  • An easy exercise he describes for humility is self-accusation; whereas self-justification is a heavy burden on the soul. After a particular quarrel that did not end, he prayed with tears, “Lord, forgive me my sins, for I have wounded one of your children.”
  • He would quickly forget any insult as if it never happened. He would treat the insult as arranged by God for the sake of his salvation.
  • He would flee from all occasions of anger, because anger may lead to other sins.

On Fasting

  • He said, “Fasting conquers the flesh more than any other discipline.” He also said, “If a king wanted to capture his enemy’s city, he would start by cutting off the water and the food. Thus the distressed city would submit. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; they are weakened and controlled by hunger and thirst.”

On Solitude and Prayer

  • St. John believed that the work of the monk is to seek the constant presence of God, and in order to reach this, he has to keep silence in his cell. “Silence is better than all works. Its constant practice calms the mind, abolishes the will, cuts the remembrance of vain things, and weakens all carnal and spiritual passions. Nothing is better than solitude and silence, without which man cannot know himself. Persistence in silence gathers the mind to itself, so it awakes to the reception of the light of the Lord and is able to see its Creator and to know God.”
  • How does the monk spend his time in the cell? In answer, St. John says, “Your day should be divided between reading, prayer and work, so that your prayer may be illuminated by reading. Give more time to reading than to any other work, for reading gathers the mind when it wanders during prayer.” By reading, St. John means the meditation on the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments because the OT teaches “the glory of God, His works, His justice and His power,” and the NT teaches “the mercy of Christ, His goodness and His grace.”

Later Life

When the Berbers raided Skete around AD 395, St. John went across the Nile towards the Red Sea, and there he remained until his departure. When he was asked why he left, he replied that he did not leave because he was afraid of death, but because he feared a Berber would slay him and go to hell, for though he is against his worship, he is his brother in form.

One Saturday evening, he fell sick and sent his attendant to bring him something from the nearby village. When he came back, he saw the soul of the saint surrounded by saints and angels singing before them. Among the saints present was Abba Anthony, the father of all monks. St. John’s body was found kneeling with his face on the ground. A fragrance as if of perfume emanated from his holy body. He then treated the body with honor and carried him to the village, where great wonders and miracles were performed through his body.

The relics of St. John the Short at the Monastery of St. Macarius the Great

In AD 515, his body was taken to the desert of Skete. The relics of St. John the Short are now kept in the Monastery of St. Macarius the Great in the Wadi Natrun Desert between Cairo and Alexandria. The monastery also houses those of John the Baptist, Elisha, and the Three Makarii.


May the prayers and blessings of Abba John the Short be with us all, and glory be to God forever. Amen!

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