Thursday, December 05, 2002

From the desert: a story of St. John of Damascus, whose feast-day was yesterday.

The following is told concerning St. John of Damascus (reposed c. 750): His elder and spiritual father, wishing to test him, one day handed him some woven baskets and told him to take them into Damascus and sell them there. The elder laid down a very high price for the baskets, thinking that they would not sell at such a price and would have to be brought back. John had, then, firstly to undertake a very long journey; secondly, to enter as a poor monk the city where he had earlier been man next in importance after the Caliph (`Abd al-Malik 685-705); thirdly, to ask an absurdly high price for the baskets; and, fourthly, should the baskets not be sold, he had to endure the long journey there and back for nothing. The elder wished, in this way, to test the obedience, the humility, and the patience of his famous disciple.

John silently prostrated himself before the elder and, without a word, took up the baskets and set out. When he came to Damascus, he stood in the marketplace and waited for customers. When he told interested passers-by the price of his goods, they began to laugh and mock him as a lunatic. He stood there the whole day, exposed to mockery and ridicule. But God, who sees all things, did not abandon His patient servant. A passing citizen happened to glance at John, and, although John was wearing a monk's poor habit and his face was shrunken and pale from fasting, the man recognized him as the former nobleman and first minister of the Caliph, in whose service he also had been. John also recognized him, but they began to deal as strangers. Even though John told him the ridiculously high price of the baskets, the man bought them and paid the price without comment, mindful of the good deeds the Damascene had once done for him. Then holy John returned singing triumphantly to the monastery, and brought joy to his elder.

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