St. John the Silent was born in 454 in Nicopolis, Armenia. He was born into a family of generals and governors, but John’s life took a different route. His parents died when he was 18, and seeking peace and contemplation, John built a monastery where he stayed with ten young monks.
His reputation for leadership and contemplation led the Archbishop of Sebaste to make him the bishop of Colonia in Armenia when John was only 28. John did not particularly want to be a bishop, but took the job anyway and served in the role for nine years before seeking more seclusion.
While praying one night, John saw a bright cross form in the air and heard a voice say, “If thou desirest to be saved, follow this light.” He saw the light move and point him in the direction of the monastery at St. Sabas. He joined the monastery when he was around 38, and St. Sabas eventually let John continue his life of contemplation in a separate hermitage. He fasted for five days a week and never left his cell except to attend Mass on Saturdays and Sundays.
He was made steward of the monastery after three years, but had never told anyone that he served as bishop of Colonia. After four years, St. Sabas thought it was time John became a priest, so he presented him to the patriarch of Jerusalem. John asked for an audience with the patriarch and confessed to him that he had already served as a bishop and said he would only receive holy orders if the patriarch judged him worthy. The patriarch told St. Sabas that he would like to abstain from ordaining John, and St. Sabas was worried that John had committed a crime, but God revealed the truth to him. St. Sabas allowed John to stay at the monastery and he spent four years in silence, only speaking to the person who brought him necessities.
In 503, St. Sabas left his monastery because of turmoil within, and this prompted John to leave also. He retreated into the wilderness where he lived for another six years in silence, eating only wild roots and herbs. St. Sabas did eventually return to his own monastery and tried to convince John to return as well. John was dissatisfied with life in the monastery after having spent so many years in solitude with God as his only companion, and so he returned to his silent cell where he lived for forty years. He did, however, break his silence to teach anyone who came to learn from him.
John died in 558 at the age of 104. He lived in almost complete solitude for 76 years––only interrupted by the nine years he served as bishop.
St. John the Silent is depicted in hermit’s clothing and with his finger to his lips to indicate his 76 years of almost total silence.