Noticing that John, the Patriarch of Alexandria, is celebrated by the Eastern Church on November 11 and the Western Church on January 23, I thought it might be time to check the Eastern Calendar instead. Sts. Clement of Ancyra and Agathangelos are celebrated today, but their story is brief and all too common. Diocletian is said to have killed 20,000 Christians; these are two of them, both beheaded. If I knew more about them, they'd be our featured saints on January 23, but lacking that knowledge, I'm turning to John the Almsgiver.
John was a seventh century Cypriot who moved to Alexandria, Egypt in his fifties. He was tight with Nicetas, who had helped the Emperor Heraclitus come to power, so Nicetas hooked his boy up with one of the top bishoprics in the world. Usually that sort of personal preference for an ecclesiastical office suggests a low score on the piety scale, but John was nearly absolute in his devotion. Upon taking office, he opened the treasury of his church and gave 80,000 gold pieces to hospitals and monasteries. You might think monasteries didn't need the money, especially if you've read Chaucer or seen films about fat monks who quarrel with townspeople about who owes whom money. Set those images aside. Think instead about small enclaves of austere and devout men and women who will take in aging no-hopers to either put them back on their feet or give them a permanent home.
Not impressed yet? How about opening seven maternity hospitals with forty beds each? Founding poor houses and hostels to combat the homelessness of Alexandria? Sending food, oil, grain, clothes, and money to help the refugees from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked it? [Someone's always sacking that City.] He ransomed captives back from the Persians, especially the nuns, and spent a fortune resettling the refugees who came to Alexandria from Jerusalem.
He used to sit in front of his Church on Wednesdays and Fridays, giving out assistance to anyone who showed up to ask for it. He was warned that some who asked were malingerers, impostors, and probably even non-Christians, but he didn't worry about it, believing that generosity would beget generosity. A little leakage on the side was just the cost of doing good work.
Of course he was not infallible. When a monk showed up in the company of a beautiful young woman several days in a row, the tongues started wagging and John went into action, not concerned that they might be taking advantage of the alms, but troubled by the apparent flouting of a monastic vow of chastity. He had the girl beaten and the monk flogged and locked up. Then he learned that she was Jewish, but considering conversion. He apologized to the monk, even offering him money (the monk refused, of course); no word what ever happened to the woman, though we might guess that she ran to the nearest synagogue and never contemplated Christianity again.
Notwithstanding that singular and spectacular lapse in judgment, John stands as a model fo generosity and kindness in a time when the Church's monopoly had fostered privilege, arrogance, and corruption.