Sunday, March 28, 2004

St. John the Almsgiver and CCC 2477-2478

St. John the Almsgiver was Patriarch [Papa}of Alexandria in the times of the desert Christians. This story, from Life of John the Almsgiver by Leontius of Neapolis, notes his behavior when one of the abbas came into town from the desert and started behaving in a notedly unusual way.......

History of the Monk Vitalios

A certain monk nearly sixty years old, having heard tell of the good deeds of the Blessed Man [St. John the Almsgiver, patriarch of Alexandria 609-619], wished to put him to the test, to see if he was quick to listen to calumnies and be scandalized, and if that would be the case, if he would condemn him. He had first lived in the monastery of Abba Seridon. And in this manner, he came to Alexandria and adopted a lifestyle designed, without doubt, to scandalize men, but he was approved by God who "gives to each," as David says, "according to what is in his own heart."

Having thus entered the city, he wrote down for himself a list of names of all the prostitutes, and he worked as a laborer in a workshop, and each day he earned a keration (silver coin). When the sun went down, he ate some warm beans for a follis (bronze coin), took the rest of the follis, went into one of the prostitutes, gave her the follis and said: "Grant to me this night, but there will be no fornication." And he remained at her side during the evening, watching her so that she wouldn't go fornicate. Late at night, he stood up in a corner of the small room near the place where the woman laid, and he began a psalm, praying for her, saying matins until dawn. Then he left, but he made the woman swear that she would not tell anyone what he did. So that, when one of the prostitutes had denounced him, that is to say revealed his conduct, saying, "He did not come to us in order to fornicate, but to save us," the monk prayed, and the woman was possessed by a demon, so that after this day the others were afraid and did not unmask him for the rest of his life. Some people said to the demoniac, "What is the matter? God has recompensed you because you have lied. For it was in order to fornicate and not for any other reason that this most vile man came to you."

This holy Vitalios, for that was his name, wishing to flee from human glory and to call back souls from the darkness, said in the hearing of all as he labored in the workshop and left in the evening with his small pay, "Come along, my lords, to Lady So-and-So who awaits you." Thus he spoke in the place where he worked. And when many of them accused him and mocked him he answered, "Haven't I a body like everyone else, or is it only upon monks that the wrath of God descends so that they die from the troubles that they bring upon themselves? Truly, they are also men, like those in the rest of the world." Then certain ones said to him: "Get yourself a wife, abba, and change your habit, lest God be blasphemed because of you and lest you be condemned for the souls you have caused to stumble." Again he replied to them with oaths, even pretending to be angry, "As God lives, I am not going to listen to you. Leave me alone. Must I now change my way of life, so that you won't be scandalized? And as for taking a wife, should I take one for the worries of a family and spend my days miserably? No, by God! If anyone wants to be scandalized, let him be so. Let him beat his head against a wall! What do you want of me? Did God set you up as my judges? Go on, look after your own affairs. It isn't you who will defend me before God. There is only one Judge, only one holy day of judgment; it is this Judge who will render to each one according to his deeds. And if God had not willed it, I would not be in Alexandria!" He said this and created such a tumult by his shouting, that everyone refrained from speaking to him. And he kept saying, "Truly, if you don't stop, I will see that you do, and you will regret it!"

Then some of the church disciplinary officials, after having learned of these things, reported this affair to the Papa [patriarch]. But God knew that the saint did not wish to offend Abba Vitalios. The Papa turned a deaf ear to this, and he did not believe anyone, but he shook off those who had said evil of Abba Vitalios, and reproached them greatly, saying, "Stop bringing me accusations against monks. Do you know what writers tell us about the late emperor Constantine, how some impious men, including some bishops and monks, gained access to his holy council and gave to him denunciations against one another before the blessed emperor? The saintly emperor Constantine summoned these people before him two by two, the accuser and the accused, and made them speak face to face, the plaintiff accusing the defendant of the sin that he had committed, whether it was adultery or something worse --- a murder or whatever else. And when he had ascertained that the majority of these accusations were well-founded, remembering that it was said, "Who is weak, and I am not weak?" and that the Lord Himself had not condemned the adulterous woman caught in the very act of adultery, he followed their example. He had a lighted candle brought, and before the eyes of everyone, the accusers and the accused, he burned all the accusations that had been given to him and said, "In truth, if with my own eyes I had seen a priest of God or someone wearing the garments of an angel committing a sin, I would undo my cloak and cover him, so that none could see him. That is the very design you have had on this eunuch who is a servant of God. You would have turned me from the path, and would have brought a terrible condemnation on my soul." Having thus made them greatly ashamed, he dismissed them.

However Vitalios, the servant of God, did not alter his conduct. After all, this was the very thing he had asked of God. Thus after his death he revealed in a dream to several people that one should not count as a transgression the fact that someone is scandalized by his behavior, since, he said, his own practices lent themselves so well to scandal, "and I will condemn no one if he said something against me." Whatever the case, his behavior brought compunction to many of these women, especially at night when they saw him stretch his hands towards heaven and pray for each one of them. Some abandoned prostitution, some married and corrected their behavior in that way, while others renounced the world completely and pursued an eremitical life. But no one knew until his death that his admonitions and prayers had caused these improper young women to break with their sin.

Once toward dawn, when he was leaving the house of the chief one of such women, he was met by a dissolute fellow who was coming there to fornicate with her. As soon as he saw master Vitalios leaving the woman's establishment, the man slapped him and said, "You miserable mocker of Christ, when will you stop abandoning yourself to these activities?" The monk said to him, "Believe me, you poor little creature, someday you will be slapped so hard that nearly all of Alexandria will congregate to hear your cries." Just a short while later the blessed Vitalios fell asleep peacefully in his cell, with absolutely no one knowing that he had. He had a tiny cell at the city gate called the Gate of the Sun, so that often, when he celebrated the Liturgy in the Church of St. Metras [a martyr under Decius, 250-251, dragged out of city and stoned - Eus. HE 6. 41. 3] next to his cell, some of the young women would meet each other and say, "Let's go to Liturgy! Abba Vitalios is celebrating again! When they came to church, he was very solicitous of them, eating and joking with them until other people were irritated and would say, "All these women love the pseudo-abbot so much, and they yield to his designs on them," because, as stated above, they did not know his secret mode of life. Doubtless they had seen him enter each one of those women's houses, but they were unaware that this generous, chaste man was on an errand to save them.

Thus, as we have said, when unknown to anyone he had fallen asleep in his cell, a demon in the guise of an evil-eyed Ethiopian appeared alongside the man who had slapped Abba Vitalios, and struck him also, saying, "Take this blow that you gave to Abba Vitalios!" The man immediately fell to the ground and began to foam at the mouth. As Abba Vitalios had prophesied, a large crowd assembled from all over the city of Alexandria, drawn by the violence this man was suffering at the hands of the demon, and especially since the sound of that slap was heard by some as far as an arrow can travel. When he regained consciousness several hours later, he possessed man tore his clothes from his chest and ran to the saint's cubicle, shouting and saying, "I have sinned against you, O Vitalios, servant of God! Have pity on me!" All those who heard him ran with him, and when they arrived at the saint's cubicle the demon came out of him in the sight of all, tearing him mightily. And when those who accompanied him entered the cell, they found the saint on his knees in prayer, having commended his soul to the Lord, while on the ground this inscription was seen: "Men of Alexandria, do not judge before the time, until the Lord comes." At this, the demon immediately left the man, who then began to confess how he had wronged the saint and to report what the saint had said to him.

All this was reported immediately to the Papa [St. John the Almsgiver]. Then he left, accompanied by the clergy, to view the remains of holy Vitalios. When he saw the inscription on the ground, he said, "In truth, it is by God's grace that humble John has escaped this inscription, seeing that the blow dealt to this possessed man was one that I might have received." Then all the prostitutes who had renounced the world and those who had married led the saint's funeral procession with candles and torches, weeping and saying, "We have lost our savior and our teacher." "He did not enter our houses for any shameful activity. We never saw him sleep except on his side, and he took only one of us by the hand." Some of the people reproached them and said, "Why didn't you say this to the rest of us? He scandalized the whole city!" Then they told them what had happened to the demon-possessed woman. "We were afraid the same thing would happen to us, and so we kept our peace."

When he had been buried with high honors, the man who had obtained punishment and healing from the saint remained behind, giving unceasing testimony to his memory. In the end, he renounced the world and joined that same monastery of Abba Seridon in Gaza, and by faith he occupied the cubicle of Abba Vitalios, where he remained until his death.

Meanwhile, the most holy Patriarch performed great acts of thanksgiving to God, because he had not been permitted to sin against God's servant Vitalios. And since that time, many men and women have given aid to the
monks in Alexandria, forever afterward showing them hospitality, and always careful not to condemn anyone when a similar occasion arose. May the Lord, by this man's prayers, justify us and take pity upon us, until that day when He reveals the hidden depths of men and bares the designs of their hearts.

[Leontius Neapolitanus vita Joannis Eleemosynarii 38]

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