John the Apostle – the Theologian in Silence
The 8th of May is a feast day dedicated to the Apostle John, the Evangelist and Theologian. Among all the Apostles, the title “Theologian” is only bestowed upon St John, which attests to the spiritual heights to which he attained, and the depth of the heavenly wisdom he was granted. The author of the profound Fourth Gospel and the witness of Divine Revelation, it is to this Saint that the contemplative mystics of later centuries looked to as a model of Faith and Prayer. It is the icon of St John the Theologian “in Silence” (Rus:Иоанна Богослова “в молчании”) that best depicts this ideal Theologian.
Various icons of St John in Silence appeared in Russia from the 16th century onwards. John was the only Apostle not to have been martyred, and lived a good seventy years after Christ’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven. It was towards the end of his life that St John wrote his Gospel, which explains why it is so different in layout to the other three, and why it concentrates less on the chronological events of Jesus’ life, which were already well-known, but concentrates on the spiritual meaning behind them.
The icon shows the Apostle John in these latter years, as the elder “Theologian”. In his hands he holds the Gospel, with the words: “In the beginning…” (John 1:1). To his left, an angel is shown whispering the Gospel into John’s ear, yet the Apostle does not look to him, but casts his eyes down in contemplation. The Saint’s right hand is raised up, making the sign of the cross over his mouth, guarding it lest he were to say something from his own imagination: the great Evangelist is reduced to silence.
The inspiration for the image could be the words of John himself when he writes: And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. (John 21:25).
Yet there is something else. St John’s pose here resonates with the 4th century monastic saint Evagrius Ponticus’ words on prayer: “Do not cherish the desire to see sensibly angels or powers or even Christ lest you be led completely out of your wits, and taking a wolf for your shepherd, come to adore the demons who are your enemies.”. He also writes: “Keep your eyes lowered while you are praying. Deny your flesh and your desires and live according to the spirit.”
And perhaps St Evagrius’ most famous line: “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.”
The Apostle John, then, is shown as a true Theologian: in prayer, and specifically in silent, contemplative prayer.
During the late 14th century, the silent, contemplative, prayer of the Athonite monks (called: Hesychasm) came under attack from within the Church by those who believed such prayer was a waste of time, time which would be better spent in gaining intellectual knowledge of the Divine. The hesychasts, with St Gregory Palamas as their champion, successfully defended their way of life. It may be that icons of St John the Theologian “in Silence” made their way to Russia by the 15th and 16th centuries as a result, and found a home among the monasteries of the Northern wilderness where such contemplative prayer was also practiced.
Already a lot of words have been spent on describing an icon which shows the Great Theologian in Silence; better to end here with the final words the Apostle himself, this beloved friend of Christ:
When he was dying, his disciples asked him for a final counsel to keep with them. “My children,” he said, “Love one another,” and then repeated it again. “Is that all?” he was asked. “That’s enough,” John said, “because it is the covenant of the Lord.”