Lockdown Lent: you can beat death in life

by maggi dawn

Saint John Theristus (Italian: Giovanni Theristis; 1049–1129) was an Italian Byzantine monk. The name Theristus means ‘reaper’ or ‘Harvester’, a title he got when he performed a miracle that saved an entire harvest from being destroyed in a storm.

His life began in cruel circumstances. His father, who was a farmer, was killed in a Saracen raid on the coast of Calabria. His mother, who was Calabrian, was captured by the Saracens and brought to Palermo, where she gave birth to John. He grew up in a minority faith — a Christian in a predominantly Muslim environment. When he turned 14 his mother urged him to return to his native country, and against the odds, in a boat with no sail or oars, he crossed the Strait of Messina and reached Monasterace. The inhabitants, seeing him dressed in the clothes of the muslim culture he had come from, took him to the local Bishop who gave him the inquisition, but despite John saying clearly that he wanted to be baptised, the bishop put him through some very tough tests before allowing this.

Most of the accounts of his life I’ve found focus on his miracles, holiness, acts of healing, and unwavering faith. I just think it’s extraordinary that someone who is orphaned, enslaved, marginalised, interrogated, all before the age of 15, emerges with a big heart and a soul intact. I’m reminded of these lines from Charles Bukowski’s poem, The Laughing heart: you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Charles Bukowski, Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories