The Coptic Orthodox Church is filled with the stories of saints, so much that the production of their movies has become a cottage industry. They are not always the best acted or of the highest Hollywood production value, but they open a window into the worldview of Egyptian Christians.
I first heard of St. John the Short when I visited the Monastery of St. Makarious, located in the Wadi Natrun Desert between Cairo and Alexandria. It is there I saw his relics; the monastery also houses those of John the Baptist, Elisha, and the Three Makarii, after one of whom the monastery is named.
St. John the Short’s relics came to settle here as it was his abode for most of his monastic life, indeed, his life entire. John left Bahnasa near Minya in Upper Egypt at the age of 18. He was raised by Christian, God-fearing parents, though his mother was distraught he fully followed his spiritual commitment into monasticism. His father was more accepting, as was his older brother who bore family responsibilities preventing his own monastic choice until after his parents passed away.
John’s path to monasticism led him to a company of hermits who abused him incessantly in tests to decipher his commitment. In general a monk is by nature an individualistic solitary; the film presents them with few social skills. Yet for the most part it was a ruse, and John proved faithful. Eventually an angel appeared to the abbot and commanded him to accept John into their band.
Even so, the testing continued, leading to the event for which John is best known. The abbot instructed John to find deadwood in the desert, plant it, and then water it every day from a river twelve miles away. Faithfully, John did so, as obedience is a mark of Christian character. The abbot was astonished, for John kept at his work, never complaining a word.
This was only the beginning of the astonishment. After a long duration (stated in Coptic records as three years), the deadwood sprouted leaves, produced fruit, and became a full-grown plant. In popular Coptic lore it is known as the Tree of Obedience.
Years later John would give example to the fact that however monks desired independence and were often caustic with each other, beneath it all was a foundation of love. The abbot who abused John for so many years grew to love him like a son, and John cared for him in his debilitating illness over twelve years.
John’s miracles were many. The film displays him driving out a demon from a woman who aimed to kill him. He gave sight to the child of a woman to whom he was led from charity to give bread. He healed the stuttering of a man for whom he also cured his withered hand.
Yet despite his miracles he cared most for the cure of souls. A wealthy woman in the nearby village discovered the joy of the Lord when she gave away her possessions to the poor. Yet upon their exhaustion, none cared for her in return, and she slipped gradually into a life of ill repute. John went to her and rebuked her, but with the love of one who cried over a broken masterpiece.
The woman repented and followed John through the desert to take residence in a nunnery. John pushed her, urging her on as penance for her descent into sin. When she could go no further John allowed the opportunity for both to sleep, yet awoke in the morning to find her dead. He wept at his error, cursing himself that he allowed her to die before her sins could be expunged. Yet an angel appeared to him to lift his sorrow. God had forgiven her sins at the moment of repentance, and had now accepted her into paradise.
Eventually John moved from Wadi Natrun to the present day area of Suez. The film does not give the reason, but Coptic records state it was in response to Bedouin raids on area monasteries. Yet in Suez he faced another danger; the Roman prelate Clopas demanded to see who was giving comfort to the tortured village Christians.
He did not have opportunity to torture John himself. God struck Clopas with a painful disease, semi-comically labeled in the film as ‘chicken pox’. It drove him blind and gave him unbearable shivers. A palace servant instructed Clopas to beg healing from John, as he had healed others. When all other options failed, he humbled himself to do so.
In what struck me as odd, John refused. He sent message to Clopas he would not come unless he renounced his gods and worshipped Jesus, the Son of God. Encouraged to come, John heard his confession, and restored Clopas to full health.
John came to Suez in 395 AD, and died in his nearby isolated cave in 409 AD. An angel visited him the day of his death to declare his acceptance before God, that he had finished the course. Coptic records state he led the majority of Suez’s inhabitants to Christianity.
In an earlier post I wrote about Coptic miracle stories and the pervasive acceptance of these throughout the community. I also wrote once about the value of monasticism, though I don’t wish to rehash either of these reflections here.
Perhaps the only remark is the didactic simplicity of these films, seeking to bring the life of the saints into greater focus for the modern world. The cheesiness factor relates mostly to them being dated, but didactic films are often not that entertaining anyway.
Pope Shenouda opens each of these films with footage from one of his weekly meetings forbidding the improper copying and distribution of these films. He states that those who made them have a right to their intellectual property. In Hollywood, the FBI issues such a warning, threatening imprisonment or fine. In Egypt, it is the head of the church, threatening nothing in particular, but you know where this can go…
I mostly jest. I do enjoy the films, though their re-watch-ability is nil. But as I opened, they are a wonderful window into popular Coptic spirituality. The question is if I profit spiritually myself, or only as a sociological student. The former is far better, and St. John the Short offers lessons, to be sure.
Yet I am far too Western to give too much credence to the details of the story. Perhaps here there is a spiritual lesson to come, when I receive my comeuppance.
There is another question: Tonight, should we watch the more modern tales of Sister Irini, or Pope Kyrillos? Any suggestions?
- John, the Would-Be Monk, Eventually – a modern day novice waits his turn
- Daddy – Daughter at the Monastery – taking Emma on the pilgrimage
- From Poverty to Riches – how a modern day monk became a celebrated saint