Uncle Eddy's E-mail -- March 27
Saint John of Egypt (entered heaven in 394)
If I estimate correctly, you are now on spring
break. As I was praying for you on your saint’s day this morning, I tried to picture where you
might be. Most likely, you have gone with some classmates to the old family vacation house in
Newport, RI. Lovely spot. Do you remember how I taught you to play chess there in the
cool summer evenings when your feet still dangled from the chair? Great memories. I
imagine that your buddies (at least the ones who haven’t been there before) will want to make the
grand tour of the Newport Mansions. As I pictured all of you strolling through those immense
mansions, mere “summer cottages” for the Vanderbilts et alia who built them, I became a bit
apprehensive. It occurred to me that you all may be taken in by their splendor. Enjoying
a taste of that luxury may whet your appetite for more. Be careful, my promising young nephew;
don’t miss the obvious lesson. What are those mansions now? Museums. Where are the
great families who built them? Broken, scattered, divided by greed, divorce, and fruitless
sensuality. In their heyday their lawns were filled with elegant parties and costly
decorations, but now silence reigns, with the occasional tourist’s cackle rising above the roar of
the surf. What a contrast between those modern palaces and the little cave that today’s saint
lived in for fifty years!
John was a carpenter in lower Egypt, but at the age of 25 he left the city and apprenticed himself to a hermit, hoping to learn the secrets of holiness. The aged monk taught him well, training him in obedience, humility, and self-surrender. For a whole year he had the young man water a dry stick as if it were a living plant, just to counteract his intellectual pride. When the spiritual master died, John went to join a monastic community, but quickly discovered that God wanted his service in solitary prayer. So he climbed to the peak of a small mountain and carved out three stone rooms for himself: a bedroom, a workroom and living room, and an oratory (a place for prayer, “orare” in Latin – not a place for giving speeches). He walled himself in, leaving only a small opening where he received food (though he ate very little, and only after sundown) and spoke to visitors (only on the weekends). He was faithful to his uncommon vocation, and his holiness soon made him famous. Emperors and bishops sent for his advice, saints visited and revered him, and the common folk came to him for healing and prophecy – both of which abounded on that mountaintop. He was granted a premonition of his death, and shut his window, commanding that no one should approach him for the next three days. After that, they found that he had died, at the age of 90, on his knees in the rock-hewn oratory.
In 1901 his famous mountain cell was rediscovered (they had lost track of it when the Muslims conquered Egypt in the seventh century). I can’t help juxtaposing the two places in my mind’s eye: that humble, austere place of prayer and the magnificent, glorious Vanderbilt mansions. I also can’t help wondering who died more fulfilled, the recluse or the magnate. Well, in any case, both will get my prayers today, as will you. Happy saint’s day.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
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