John the Almsgiver

(c. 620)

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patriarch of Alexandria. Born at Amathus (Old Limassol) in Cyprus, of a noble and wealthy family, he married and fathered several children. But all of them died young, as did his wife; at the age of over fifty he was chosen as patriarch of Alexandria by his adopted brother Nicetas, who had helped the Emperor Heraclius to come to power. Two near-contemporary Lives were written to demonstrate the power of almsgiving by which, rather than by theological refutation, John came to attract the believers back to orthodoxy away from the currently dominant Monophysitism. Both the wealth of the see of Alexandria and John's generosity seem almost incredible.

His own living standards were extremely simple and he was known to give away his own bedding to the poor. These he called his ‘masters’; they numbered 7,500 in his city; he showed his interest in them by ordering the use of just weights and measures, by forbidding his officials to take presents, and by sitting in the open in front of the church on Wednesdays and Fridays to ensure that everyone had free access to him.

On becoming patriarch, he is said to have distributed 80,000 pieces of gold in his treasury to hospitals and monasteries. He also founded new ones as well as poorhouses and hostels for strangers and seven maternity hospitals of forty beds each. Although not a monk himself, he came to respect them and founded two new monasteries in his city. When the Persians under Chosroes sacked Jerusalem, he came to the rescue by providing large sums of money, plenty of wine, corn, oil, and clothes, besides many beasts of burden for transporting these goods to where they were most needed. He also spent immense sums rescuing captives, especially nuns. Nor were the refugees who poured into Egypt from Jerusalem forgotten. His almsgiving in fact was both individual and collective: some was directed to specific Christian purposes, at other times all benefited, whatever their creed or race.

Individuals he helped included a merchant twice ruined by shipwreck, whom John provided with a ship full of corn which was sold at great advantage during a famine in the British Isles. Sometimes he was deceived by impostors who kept on asking for alms in disguise when he had already helped them generously: even when he knew he was imposed on, he still gave again and again. Once a young monk begged alms for several days, accompanied by an attractive young woman; as a result of the consequent scandal John had the woman beaten and separated from the monk, who was scourged and placed in solitary confinement. That night John dreamt that he saw the monk who told him that for once he had made a mistake. He called for the monk who was so badly lacerated and injured that he could scarcely walk; he told John that he was a eunuch and that the young woman was a Jewess who wished to become a Christian. John apologized for his mistake, offered the monk 100 numismata (which he refused), and gave him an admonition saying it was not right for those who are clad in angelic robes to wander about unguardedly in cities and, above all, they should not take women round with them to the scandal of the beholders. Thenceforth John showed special honour and hospitality to monks and built them a hostel for their exclusive use called The Monks' Inn.


Subjects: Christianity.

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