Today, we celebrate the feasts of two more of the saints of Egpyt: St John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, and St Neilos the Faster of Sinai.
Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, was born on Cyprus in the seventh century into the family of the illustrious dignitary Epiphanius. At the wish of his parents he entered into marriage and had children. When the wife and the children of the saint died, he became a monk. He was zealous in fasting and prayer, and had great love for those around him.
His spiritual exploits won him honor among men, and even the emperor revered him. When the Patriarchal throne of Alexandria fell vacant, the emperor Heraclius and all the clergy begged Saint John to occupy the Patriarchal throne.
The saint worthily assumed his archpastoral service, concerning himself with the moral and dogmatic welfare of his flock. As patriarch he denounced every soul-destroying heresy, and drove out from Alexandria the Monophysite Phyllonos of Antioch.
He considered his chief task to be charitable and to give help all those in need. At the beginning of his patriarchal service he ordered his stewards to compile a list of all the poor and downtrodden in Alexandria, which turned out to be over seven thousand men. The saint ordered that all of these unfortunates be provided for each day out of the church’s treasury.
Twice during the week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, he emerged from the doors of the patriarchal cathedral, and sitting on the church portico, he received everyone in need. He settled quarrels, helped the wronged, and distributed alms. Three times a week he visited the sick-houses, and rendered assistance to the suffering. It was during this period that the emperor Heraclius led a tremendous army against the Persian emperor Chosroes II. The Persians ravaged and burned Jerusalem, taking a multitude of captives. The holy Patriarch John gave a large portion of the church treasury for their ransom.
The saint never refused suppliants. One day, when the saint was visiting the sick, he met a beggar and commanded that he be given six silver coins. The beggar changed his clothes, ran on ahead of the Patriarch, and again asked for alms. Saint John gave him six more silver coins. When, however, the beggar sought charity a third time, and the servants began to chase the fellow away, the Patriarch ordered that he be given twelve pieces of silver, saying, “Perhaps he is Christ putting me to the test.” Twice the saint gave money to a merchant that had suffered shipwreck, and a third time gave him a ship belonging to the Patriarchate and filled with grain, with which the merchant had a successful journey and repaid his obligations.
Saint John the Merciful was known for his gentle attitude towards people. Once, the saint was compelled to excommunicate two clergymen for a certain time because of some offense. One of them repented, but the other fellow became angry with the Patriarch and fell into greater sins. The saint wanted to summon him and calm him with kind words, but it slipped his mind. When he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the saint was suddenly reminded by the words of the Gospel: “If you bring your gift to the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar … first, be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). The saint came out of the altar, called the offending clergyman to him, and falling down on his knees before him in front of all the people he asked forgiveness. The cleric, filled with remorse, repented of his sin, corrected himself, and afterwards was found worthy to be ordained to the priesthood.
There was a time when a certain citizen insulted George, the Patriarch’s nephew. George asked the saint to avenge the wrong. The saint promised to deal with the offender so that all of Alexandria would marvel at what he had done. This calmed George, and Saint John began to instruct him, speaking of the necessity for meekness and humility. Then he summoned the man who insulted George. When Saint John learned that the man lived in a house owned by the church, he declared that he would excuse him from paying rent for an entire year. Alexandria indeed was amazed by such a “revenge,” and George learned from his uncle how to forgive offenses and to bear insults for God’s sake.
Saint John, a strict ascetic and man of prayer, was always mindful of his soul, and of death. He ordered a coffin for himself, but told the craftsmen not to finish it. Instead, he would have them come each feastday and ask if it was time to finish the work.
Saint John was persuaded to accompany the governor Nicetas on a visit to the emperor in Constantinople. While on his way to visit the earthly king, he dreamed of a resplendent man who said to him, “The King of Kings summons you.” He sailed to his native island of Cyprus, and at Amanthos the saint peacefully fell asleep in the Lord (616-620).
Saint Neilos the Ascetic of Sinai, a native of Constantinople, lived during the V century and was a disciple of Saint John Chrysostom, who exerted a tremendous influence upon their lives and their spiritual struggles.1 After receiving a fine education, the Saint was appointed to the important post of prefect of the capital while still a young man. During this period, Neilos was married and had children, but the couple found courtly life distasteful.
About the year 390, by mutual consent, they decided to abandon the world and entered monasteries. Neilos’s wife and daughter went to one of the women’s monasteries in Egypt, while he and his son Theódoulos went to Mount Sinai, where they settled in a cave, which they dug out with their own hands. For forty years this cave served as the abode of Saint Neilos. By fasting, vigil, and prayer, he attained a high degree of spiritual perfection. People began coming to him from every occupation and social rank, from the Emperor down to the farmer, and all of them received counsel and comfort from the Saint.
On Sinai, Saint Neilos wrote many soul-profiting works to guide Christians on the path of salvation. In one of his letters there is an angry denunciation of the Emperor Arkadios, who had unjustly exiled Saint John Chrysostom. The ascetical writings of Saint Neilos are widely known: they are perfectly executed in form, profoundly Orthodox in content, and are clear and lucid in expression. His Ascetic Discourse is found in Volume I of the English Philokalia.
Saint Neilos suffered many misfortunes in the wilderness. Once, Saracens captured his son Theódoulos, whom they intended to offer as a sacrifice to their pagan gods. By the Saint’s prayers the Lord rescued Theódoulos, and his father found him with the Bishop of Emessa, who had ransomed the young man from the barbarians. This bishop ordained both of them as presbyters. After ordination they returned to Sinai, where they lived as ascetics together until Saint Neilos reposed. His holy relics were transferred to Constantinople in the reign of Justin II (565-578), and were placed in the church of the Holy Apostles.
The Greek Philokalia has a quote from Saint Neilos beneath his icon: “The state of prayer is a passionless, settled disposition of the soul which, by supreme love, transports the wisdom-loving mind to spiritual heights.” (See the English Philokalia, 153 Sections. Concerning Prayer, # 53).
1 In earlier editions of the Synaxaristes and the Menaion, it was erroneously stated that Saint Neilos lived during the reign of Emperor Maurikios (582-602). This was corrected in later editions, since he was a disciple of Saint John Chrysostom, and was esteemed by Emperor Arkadios because of his virtues.