November 4 – Joannicius the Great

Joannicius the Great (752–846) was born in Bithynia, which is sort of between Mysia and Paphlagonia. His parents couldn’t afford send him to a charter school, so they sent him to tend the family’s sheep. (Or cows, although my sources run 5 to 1 sheep.) More than once he made the sign of the cross over the sheep (cows), and found a quiet place for prayer. When he came back to the cows (sheep), they were always safe and sound.

One day a decree went out from Caesar Leo IV that all the world (or some of its young male population) was to be drafted. Soon Joannicius had a sword in his hand. He was a popular soldier due to his humility and bravery. His only real fault was iconoclasm. Returning from somewhere out west, his unit passed a monastery near Mt. Olympus, and a particular monk came out into the road, saying, “Joannicius, how can you be pleasing to God if you deny his icons? Huh? Tell me that.” The monk must have been pretty convincing, as Joannicius vowed then and there to always honor the icons of Christ and his saints.

When war broke out with the Bulgars, Joannicius cut down the enemy like bulgur wheat, slew a giant guy, and in general was brave and strong and manly. The emperor resolved to give him special honors, and invited him to the palace, but Joannicus refused all the awards and honors and Harry & David gift boxes the emperor offered him.

Desiring to be a hermit, Joannicius made for Olympus, but the first abbot he met suggested he live among the other monks for a time. “Learn from us how to pray, and stuff like that,” Abbot Gregory said. Joannicius saw the good sense of this at once. After a time he moved to a second monastery, where he learned his letters, words, and whole sentences. The constant stream of pilgrims distracted him, however, so he moved to a third monastery, where he memorized not ten, not twenty, but thirty of the Psalms of David.

After once praying for seven days and nights (or vice versa), he heard a voice from above giving him the longitude and latitude of a mountain. He betook himself thither, whereupon two hermits greeted him, gave him a spare hairshirt they had lying around (“two-for-one sale,” one explained), and sent him away to hermitify. He lived under the stars at first, until Gregory sent some of the boys with a pickup truck (or equivalent) full of lumber to build him a hut. Soon he was assailed by seekers of wise advice, so he removed to another mountain near the Hellespont, and dug himself a cave. A shepherd weekly brought him a loaf of bread. One day he went to church in the nearby town, and was recognized by a former army buddy, who began to exuberate about how great a soldier he had been. The soldier turned to his comrade to introduce him to Joannicius, but when he turned back, Jo was gone.

After a time he went down to Ephesus, walking across a river in full flood because he was in a hurry and there was no boat. On his way back, he met a mother-daughter nun team. The daughter was tempted to return to the world, so Jo bade her lay her hand on his neck, whereupon all of her temptations flowed into him. She then settled contentedly into her monastic calling. As he walked away, however, Joannicius felt all the vile thoughts, passions, and chocolate cravings that the young girl had felt. Eventually they grew so bad he wanted to die. He found a poisonous snake, tried to get it to bite him, but after he vexed it for a while, it died. At that moment the unclean thoughts fled from him.

Joannicius performed many other miracles, including memorizing the other 121 Psalms. He ultimately settled into monastic life, was tonsured, and lived the rest of his life in peace.