St. John of Kuttenberg
His father owned a silver mine in Kuttenberg. John was the second son—a good, obedient child. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, and John studied law at the University of Prague.
One Christmas, he returned to Kuttenberg to celebrate with his family. As always, there was a great feast—rabbit and venison, rich sauces, pastries and pies, barrels of wine. Before the meal, John’s father rose and prayed, thanking God for the feast and for their wealth. “We offer God our prayers,” said his father, “and in return, he blesses us. Our great faith is greatly rewarded.”
The dishes were passed, and the barrels of wine were tapped, but John did not eat or drink. The prayer had turned his stomach. For his father, John realized, faith was just another transaction, no different than a bargain with the butcher or the wine merchant: I pray to you, and you bless me. This was no faith at all.
That night, John dreamed that he was at an enormous feast, chained to his chair. He ate and ate until he was sick, but the feast would not end. Dishes were stacked on dishes, sauces dripped and congealed, flies buzzed and swarmed—and still the food kept coming. John woke before dawn, slipped out of the house, and rode back to Prague.
He tried to resume his studies, but the nightmare tortured him. Night after night, he sat at the endless feast. He began to read the gospels, and when he found Christ’s words to the rich young man—“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”—he feared for his soul.
Soon, he understood what he had to do. He wanted a pure faith—faith for its own sake, not for any benefit or reward. But only if his faith gave him nothing could he know that he truly believed. And so he decided to renounce the world.
He explained his decision in a long letter to his father, and his father replied, saying that if John became a monk, he would lose his inheritance. John was glad. In August, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, he joined the Cistercian brotherhood at Sedlec Abbey.
The brothers lived simply, tilling their fields and brewing their ale. Shoulder to shoulder with them, John sowed and plowed and prayed, and his soft white hands grew cracked and brown. He loved his life at the abbey—the dignity of the work, the satisfaction of his sweat, the low chants of the evensong, the fellowship with his brothers. He had renounced the world, and he was happy.
But as the years passed, he began to worry. If he was happy, how could he know if his faith was pure? He had renounced the world, but did that mean that he loved God? Perhaps he only loved life at the monastery. Had he made his own exchange, sordid as his father’s, trading earthly riches for this happiness?
The nightmares returned. The endless feast piled higher and higher.
John knew what he had to do. It was more painful to him than the break with his father, but that was how he knew it was right. After seven years, he left Sedlec Abbey.
With only the white robe on his back, he wandered east, into the forest. These were the lands of Count Czernin, famous for their white deer. John lived there alone, sleeping in the mud beside the river, eating acorns and grass.
He found himself thinking about the abbey, so he broke a branch from a wild rose bush and wrapped it around his thigh, and the thorns tore his flesh. Every morning, he twisted the branch to keep the wound from healing. He thought of little but his pain, and his faith became purer and purer.
The summer ended, and the leaves fell from the trees, and John grew weak and gaunt. His cheeks sank; his eyes bulged; his teeth dropped from his mouth one by one. Soon, his thigh was too thin for the circle of thorns; he twisted it tighter. The white deer no longer fled from him: he no longer seemed to be a living thing.
On New Year’s Day, the forest shone with frost. Count Czernin offered shelter in his castle, but John refused. He dug a hole in the snow-bank near the frozen river and pulled his robe around his body. The blood from his thigh stopped flowing, and the tips of his fingers turned black. He had never been more miserable, and he thanked God.
The sun set, and the wind screamed, and John wondered if he would survive the night. In a few hours, he might be in paradise.
At that thought, his soul sank. Paradise—that would be the reward for his faith. All his suffering would be exchanged for eternal bliss. It was yet another transaction. It had been there all along, tainting his faith, and he had not seen it.
John crawled out of his hole and put his forehead to the snowy earth. The tears froze on his cheeks. A prayer began to form in him: he feared it, but he knew that he had to pray it.
He shut his eyes and asked God to exclude him from paradise. For the purity of his faith, he renounced heaven.
He lay there for a long time. A strange warmth suffused him. Now that he had made his prayer, he was no longer afraid. He would be tortured forever in hell, but he was satisfied. It was finished. His faith could not be purer.
Finally, he raised his head, and there before him was Christ. The savior stood knee-deep in the snow.
“O Lord,” cried John, “see your servant! I have given up everything for your sake.”
But Christ frowned.
“What else can I give?” asked John. “I have renounced it all—even heaven! I have made my faith pure.”
“You must give up even that.”
Christ lifted John from the ground, untwisted the branch from his thigh, and kissed the black flesh of the wound. John fainted, and when he woke, the wound was closed, and he was alone. But a white stag stood on the opposite bank of the river. John crossed the ice and followed the stag to the edge of the forest. It began to run, and he lost it in a blinding field of snow.
On a hill, far in the distance, was Sedlec Abbey. John returned and lived a long life there among the brothers, content that God had taken everything from him.