Very few saints entered the history and memory of the Church with the name “great.” These are the Fathers of the Church, who, like Dionysius and Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Rome, were bishops of very significant Churches, left behind remarkable works, showed particular firmness in defending church doctrine and preserved their church flock in moments of special turmoil. These are the founders of monasticism, monastic schools, charters and various traditions, Anthony, Pachomius, Theodosius, Hilarion, and others. Finally, these are ascetics and teachers of spiritual life, the grateful memory of whose disciples is expressed in calling them great.
This last group of ascetics also included Joannicius (754–846), the last Orthodox saint who went down in history with the name “Great.” He lived a very long life, filled with secular and spiritual events, so that, in the absence of other information about him, one might perhaps get the impression that we are talking about many people and different ascetics. But his biography is documented in detail. Obviously, we are talking about the same person.
Initially, he was a shepherd, a swineherd, then, being a real hero by nature, he served in the professional Byzantine army for two decades, after which he studied theology and asceticism and began to live a monastic life. This combination of physical strength and subsequent vision of God and grace-filled gifts makes Joannicius similar to our contemporary ascetic, the Athonite monk Silouan (1866–1938).
In matters of dogma, for some time he shared the positions of the iconoclasts, then he renounced this heresy, which was very beloved by the authorities and the military of that time, but at the same time retained his point of view on this issue. Nowadays, it would be very interesting to reconstruct its content based on the polemics of Joannicius with other contemporary “iconographers”.
Over time, Joannicius gathered disciples around him, but often changed the way of his feat. In a truly creative desire to impose as much work on himself as possible and the search for communion with God, a special incredible boldness was visibly manifested in him. He changed the place of his ascesis, left and returned to his former monasteries and cells. One day he put himself on a chain and lived like this for a long time in a mountain cave. Contemporaries revered him for the grace of miracles.
It is known that another great venerable father of that time, Theodore the Studite (759–826), respected Joannicius, but warned his disciples against imitating the extreme nature of his exploits. “If you are looking for martyrdom, stay hopelessly in your cell, and not like Joannicius, who is constantly looking for adventure, adding new unusual and unheard-of feats to himself,” - so, translated into modern language, Theodore essentially wrote.
The name Joannicius itself can be translated from Greek as a diminutive of the name John. This wonderful combination of names, literally, “little John” - “John the Great,” contains a wonderful reminder of the biblical truth that what is great among people is often insignificant before God, and what is neglected by everyone is great in His eyes. Or, as the Apostle Paul says about the same thing: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong things; And God chose the base things of the world and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are; so that no flesh should boast before God.” (1 Cor.1:25-27).
“My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my protection is the Holy Spirit: Holy Trinity, Glory to Thee!” This prayer ends the service of Compline and ends the daily evening prayer of an Orthodox Christian. On the day of remembrance of the saint, and better yet, on all days, it is important to remember that this prayer goes back to Joannicius the Great. In search of God, in sorrow and joy, day after day, in moments of sadness and mysticism, He appealed to Him with the words of this deeply personal and, at the same time, truly theological creed. Joannicius, like every saint, was the genuine and serious smile of God. It is amazing that, even without knowing about him, we pray with his words.