Feast Day : July 23
There is general agreement among authorities that John was born around the year 360—but not about where. Among the possibilities suggested are Gaul, Syria, Palestine and Scythia. Nothing is known about his childhood and youth. He is first met in history in 380, when he and his friend Germanus became monks at Bethlehem, in a monastery near the place of the Nativity. They stayed there until about 385, when John was 25, then left for Egypt. For the next several years (until about 400) they traveled throughout Lower Egypt and the Nile delta, staying with the most famous monks and anchorites of the region and absorbing their Origenist ideas. John kept a journal, recording everything he saw with a vivid style and minute accuracy, a sense of humor and an eye for the picturesque. John and Germanus left Egypt to go to Constantinople, where Bishop St. John Chrysostom ordained Germanus a priest and John a deacon. In 405, after John Chrysostom was deposed, they went to Rome, carrying a letter to Pope St. Innocent I (r. 401–417) from the clergy of Constantinople protesting this act. In Rome, John was ordained a priest. Ten years later he was in Marseilles (Germanus having disappeared in the interim), where he founded (and served as abbot of) the monastery of St. Victor for men and the convent of St. Savior for women. Asked by a neighboring bishop, Castor of Apt, to compile a summary of all he had observed and learned during his travels, John set about writing his 12-volume work, Remedies for the Eight Deadly Sins, that describes the rules and organization of communities in Egypt and Palestine, and of the means used by the monks in their spiritual combat with the eight chief hindrances to a monk’s perfection. It appears that John was not unduly impressed by their extreme asceticism, because he did not recommend it for the monasteries of the West. Instead, he held that perfection was to be achieved through the charity and love that makes man most like God. John’s next work was Conferences on the Egyptian Monks, in which he relates discussions he and Germanus had with the monks. John emphasized continual prayer as the purpose of the monk. He found great results in a prayer technique, which became part of the hesychast practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church, of the continual repetition of a prayer, especially the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” John found that the constant repetition infused the prayer with intense energy. Many others, however, found it only monotonous. The idea of repetition of a prayer became established in Western practice about 800 years later with the development of the rosary. Unfortunately, the doctrine he expressed was unorthodox, giving too much importance to free will and not enough to divine grace. His position was in line with the heresy of “semi-Pelagianism” and was publicly criticized. The criticism did not keep the work from being highly popular and influential, however, and no less than St. Benedict prescribed it as one of the books to be read aloud by his monks after their evening meal. About 430, John was commissioned by the future pope St. Leo to write a seven-volume critique of the Nestorian heresy, On the Incarnation of the Lord. This hastily written book assisted in the condemnation of Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Ironically, after his death, John’s Conferences was declared apocryphal, by a decree attributed to Pope St. Gelasius I (r. 492–496), and in 529 he too was condemned by a church council. John died at Marseilles on July 23, about the year 433.