(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. John the Faster, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople
If fasting guaranteed an entry into heaven, lifelong felons and violators of every Christian creed could starve themselves into the company of the righteous. The practice of fasting complements the decent behavior of the genuine Christian in emulation of the Savior who fasted in the desert for forty days in warding off temptation. Not for forty days, but for more than forty years a man named John observed the custom of fasting, reserved for certain solemn occasions for the average Christian, in the process of which he also exemplified piety to the degree that he became the ecumenical patriarch of Orthodoxy. His self-denial earned him the name of John the Faster, a man who observed to the letter everything expected of an Orthodox priest but voluntarily went a step beyond in a diet regimen usually expected of an eremite of the desert and not a man whose high office held forth the dishes that delight a Greek stomach.
Born in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, in the sixth century, the remarkably durable John was formally educated in Byzantium, where he was tutored by a renowned monk of Palestine whose name was Eusebios and who instilled in John the longing to serve Jesus Christ. It was after he was ordained a priest that John decided that he could fulfill his purpose in the Church with a self-imposed diet that allowed for the barest of sustenance. In resisting the temptation to eat the delicacies that delight the palate, he became inured to hardship and trained to resist any form of temptation, physical or spiritual. He did this in deadly earnestness, with no desire to impress anyone with his hardiness, which was asserted throughout his lifetime in spite of his meager fare.
An unseen hand nourished the dedicated John, who was not the gaunt figure people expected to see wherever he went in his service to Christ. His rise through the ranks of the clergy was a rapid one, and it was inevitable that he would be made ecumenical patriarch, serving as spiritual leader of Eastern Christianity for thirteen years – from 582 to 595. At church and state functions where banquets offered all manner of food, the ecumenical patriarch never went beyond the simple necessities of life, which seemed to afford him greater pleasure than the offerings consumed by the heartiest of eaters. When he was referred to as the Faster, it was with reverence because his miraculous state of health was attained through prayer and meditation. This combination seems to have given him a proximity to God which was manifested not only in the miracle of his well-being, but in miracles attributed solely to him through the power of the Divine.
It was not miracles but John’s hard work that raised the patriarchate to an exalted level, one that is outstanding in a long history of exalted patriarchs. He took personal command of all the projects set forth to improve the lot of the Christians through aid for the poor, the establishment of hospitals, orphanages and churches for the service to all mankind. In the course of these vast undertakings, however, there was more than one manifestation of his ability to summon forth a small miracle, but he did his best to minimize his mystical power, calling on all to give thanks to God for his blessings.
A most holy man, John was quite human and combined his human nature with the mystical one on an occasion when he was provoked to righteous anger by an action of the state. A day of festivity at the Hippodrome was set by the authorities as a state celebration, but it happened to fall on the day of Pentecost. When a call for a delay of the festivity was issued by an outraged patriarch, it was ignored by those whose interests lay irreverently outside of respect for the holy day. This so distressed John the Faster that he retired to a chapel and prayed for rain so earnestly that he was answered with a deluge that washed out the entire affair. Conversely, he prayed for the safety of a ship on which he was a passenger and which was about to founder in a storm, the answer to which was bright sunshine and just enough wind to fill the ship’s sails.
At odds with the popes of Rome because of his insistence of retaining the designation ‘ecumenical,’ which applies to this day, St. John the Faster died peacefully on September 3, 595.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.