John the Less of the Thebaid, a disciple of Abba Ammonius, was said to have lived for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill, and sitting on a mat near him. But the old man was always cross with him; and although John worked a long time for him, he never said: “May it be well with you.” But when the old man was on his death-bed, in the presence of the elders of that place, he held John’s hand and said: “May it be well with you, may it be well with you.” And the old man commended John to the old men, saying: “This is an angel, not a man.”
John the Less (not to be confused with John the Short) lived, according to this story, “for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill.” And yet, not once did he hear from the old man, “May it be well with you.” I think that there are many in John’s situation in the world today—serving others thanklessly for years and years. Yet how many of us have eyes to see: “This is an angel, not a man [or woman].” How many of them know what saints they are?
Such angelic life is lived in many contexts. One that immediately comes to mind to me would be people with parents who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. All of us live today in a world that is not what it is meant to be, one “subjected to futility” and the “bondage of corruption” (cf. Romans 8:20-21). As we degenerate toward death—the separation of the soul from the body—our bodies break down and our minds lose touch with the world around us. Yet how many people today give years to serve ailing family members in precisely this situation, never to hear a simple “thank you”?
No doubt, such a ministry is frustrating. It takes otherworldly patience to endure such labor. I doubt that John’s twelve years were easy. Yet each day he surrendered his own ambition to serve someone in need. It must have taken great maturity and discipline in order to do so without giving opportunity to anger or despair.
This story, however, underscores a great mystery of life. St. James writes, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:3-4). What a bold exhortation! Count your suffering as joy for the sake of patience! Count every test of your faith, everything that pushes you to the limit, as a gift to be celebrated!
But this, too, is part of the Gospel. For those who have found the way of life, a different standard guides their actions. Patience, after all, is a virtue, and from virtue comes true joy. If a person has tasted that joy and known what hardship produces it, suddenly each trial becomes an opportunity to embrace the source of that joy anew.
I imagine (though I do not know) that the first few years were the hardest for John. But once he had not only tasted, but feasted upon that joy, what other life would he want to live?
Twelve years is a long time. We do not know how old John was, but only the sick man and the others are said to be old, not John. One might think, did he not waste the best years of his life? What good is it to spend one’s youth in such servitude? Yet if one has learned to treasure the things of heaven, one can see how there is no better way to pass such years. For this, truly, is the life of the angels, who are “ministering spirits” sent to serve mankind (Hebrews 1:14).
Such thankless work would leave a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who is still too attached to the world, but for others, it is the bread of angels and the source of angelic life. “I was sick and you visited me,” says Christ himself (Matthew 25:36). And for twelve years John the Less served Christ in patience, and he shall not lose his reward: the joy of his master.
Lord have mercy that I would not foolishly bemoan my “various trials” and so pass up an opportunity for such joy. Rather, I ought to remember John the Less and embrace the angelic life. After all, such trials are bound to come, as surely as “the grass withers” and “the flower fades” (Isaiah 40:7).