St. John the Silent, named for his love of solitude, came from a prominent Armenian family. At eighteen, he built a monastery and for a decade led ten young companions in a life of devotion and hard work. Because of his reputation as a leader, at age twenty-eight and over his protests, he was made bishop of Colonia in Armenia. For nine years he faithfully performed his office. In 490, however, John went to Constantinople to secure the emperor’s intervention to quell a local persecution. When the mission was accomplished, he decided not to return to Colonia, but slipped away into the desert in search of quiet.
A vision of a bright cross led John to the Mar Saba, the monastery of St. Sabas in Palestine. For several years Sabas subjected his novice to tests of hard labor and service. Judging John to be a serious candidate for holiness, around 494 he finally allowed him to embrace the solitary life of a hermit. John reveled in his new pattern of life: alone five days a week to contemplate God and mortify his flesh, joining the other hermits for worship only on Saturdays and Sundays.
However, John left the Mar Saba in 503, when factious monks forced Sabas to abandon his monastery. At that time John’s disciple, Roubâ, lived with him. Roubâ, expecting fine food, wanted to celebrate Easter at the monastery. John, however, as a test of his obedience, said no:
Let us stay calm, brother, and have faith that he who nourished 600,000 in the desert for forty years will himself provide us with not only necessary nourishment but a surplus as well. . . . Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31–33 NJB).
Unconvinced . . . the brother departed . . . to the monastery. After his departure a man totally unknown came to the elder with . . . hot white loaves, wine, oil, fresh cheeses and eggs, and a jar of honey. He unloaded and went away . . . John rejoiced in spirit at this divine visitation, while the brother who had left, after losing his way. . . returned on the third day hungry and exhausted, having enjoyed the fruits of his own disobedience. When he found such good things in the cave, he recognized his own lack of faith and stubbornness and prostrated himself shamefacedly before the elder, begging to receive forgiveness. The elder, sympathizing with human weakness . . . raised him up and admonished him, saying: “Recognize precisely that God is able to prepare a table in the desert” (see Psalm 78:19).
Six years later, when the monks welcomed Sabas back, John also returned to the monastery. He lived forty more years in his coveted silent adoration and died in his hermitage at 104 years of age.