There are very few Orthodox Christian graphic novels. Presumably this is due to the fact that it takes so much time and energy to create one, especially if one wishes to accurately share the life of a saint. St. John the Short was no ordinary person, and therefore this is no ordinary graphic novel. I am grateful that Creative Orthodox* spent so many years researching St. John’s life and painstakingly creating this book. Presenting the story of St. John the Short through the use of this storytelling medium makes his story accessible to people of so many different ages. Young and old alike will enjoy this book and learn so much about (and from!) St. John’s life. As they read, they will be strengthened in their faith. This graphic novel effectively brings to life St. John the Short’s wisdom and insights.
“A Forest in the Desert” shares the life of St. John the Short. It begins with his first youthful attempt to go into the desert and become a monk, follows through his actual monastic calling, and continues all the way through his monastic life. The book offers a glimpse into monastic life as it was in his lifetime. The stories about St. John are intertwined with glimpses into his wisdom, expressed here in his own words. There are also accounts of miracles which God wrought through him, including the healing of a leper and that of a demon-possessed woman; an amazing encounter with the three Hebrew youths from the fiery furnace in Babylon; and more.
The book closes with an epilogue which allows the reader further insights into some of the saints mentioned in St. John’s story. There follow pages of interesting notes, with additional details about some of the events and/or illustrations on previous pages. Each note is clearly labeled with its corresponding page number and adds depth to the book as a whole. Following the notes are illustrations of several of St. John’s sayings.
Creative Orthodox has beautifully utilized the medium of the graphic novel, finding just the right words while also knowing when it is better to communicate with an illustration instead. Many times the drawings say more than words could, thus communicating ideas and events in a way that is easily (and quickly!) understandable. The drawings, done with pen and ink, are simple enough to appreciate at a glance, but detailed enough to convey what they are meant to illustrate. And, while they are not icons, the illustrations (and this book as a whole) point the reader to Christ through the life of this wonderful saint, St. John the Short.
I am truly grateful that Creative Orthodox was kind enough to share the ebook version of this extraordinary graphic novel so that I could read it and share it with you. I have already read it more than once, and have gleaned more from the life of this inspiring saint with each reading.
*Note: Michael Elgamal created “Creative Orthodox” so that his work would not be about him. Follow Creative Orthodox’s work through the social media links found here: https://creativeorthodox.com/
Order your copy of this graphic novel here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/creativeorthodox/shop/
Here are a few gleanings from the book, as well as a few suggestions of how to use the book to teach your Sunday Church School students about the life of St. John the Short:
Bring seeds, a small sapling, and a piece of a branch of a tree (with leaves and seeds, if possible) into class. Place them where the students can see them, to arouse curiosity. When you share this quote from “A Forest in the Desert”, you’ll have props to help your students understand what you’re talking about.
“Saintly life is like a tree. It starts with a seed sown by Christ, that grows through attention and care to spiritual life into a fruitful tree, not only strengthening and nurturing itself, but also giving rise to countless other trees.” (pp. 7-10, “A Forest in the Desert the Life of St. John the Short”, by Creative Orthodox)
If you are able, take your students outside before sharing the life of St. John the Short with them. Before Church School, stick a stick in the ground somewhere outside the church. When you bring your students outside, show them the stick. Ask them if it is likely to grow. If you have time (and water access), have each student take their turn to get water from a source (preferably a ways away from the stick) and carry it over, to water the stick. Ask again if it is likely to grow. Ask students if they’d water this old stick every day if someone asked them to, and why (or why not).
Then share the story of Elder Amoi’s test of St. John the Short with them. “One day, the Elder Amoi was inspired. He took a piece of dry wood and called John. He asked him to fill a bucket with water and follow. They walked for hours… Abba Amoi planted the stick firmly into the ground. ‘I want you to walk to the well daily, fill up a bucket with water, and come here to water the stick.’ …John understood that watering a dry stick wouldn’t bring it to life, but he quietly obeyed out of love for his abba. And this was how John’s biggest trial started. It wasn’t a one-time test of endurance. It was a daily test of love, perseverance, and obedience… John continued to water the stick every single day for three consecutive years. And the stick into a beautiful tree. Abba Amoi took the fruit of the tree, gathered the monks, and gave it to the elders, saying, ‘Take, eat from the fruit of obedience.’” (pp. 65-70, “A Forest in the Desert the Life of St. John the Short”, by Creative Orthodox)
Talk about obedience and how it can be fruitful. What examples can your students share of times when they were obedient, and were blessed to see the fruit of their obedience?
Older students will be able to engage in a conversation about this quote:“The saints of God are like a fine tree full of lush green leaves and glorious fruit that are planted in Paradise. Trees that are decorated with all beauties, adorned with glory and placed in a spring – a spiritual spring of life that is the Holy Spirit that waters all of our hearts. Likewise, if a kernel of wheat has to die in order to give fruit, and Christ had to give His life on the Cross in order to give us life, the saints too have to present their lives in sacrifice in order to bear fruit.” ~ St. John the Short (pp. 118-120, “A Forest in the Desert the Life of St. John the Short”, by Creative Orthodox)
To discuss: What other examples from the natural world can you give (besides a tree and a kernel of wheat) that can help us to understand what Christ and the saints have done, in order to bear fruit? What examples from your own life can you share? How have you “died” to yourself, and seen God work in you/seen fruit come from that “death”?
Near the beginning of a fast, you could share this quote from St. John the Short. Before you do so, however, you may wish to plant several bricks in your classroom and pose the question, “How is fasting like a brick wall?” Field answers, then share this analogy from St. John the Short.
“…you frequently find yourselves asking, ‘Why do we fast so often?’ I’ll tell you why. When a king seeks to conquer a city, he surrounds the city walls and blocks access to its water well, spoiling the city’s food supplies. The defending city will soon give in to hunger and thirst and will fall to the attacking army. This is exactly like fasting. When you abstain from eating, you control yourself and guard your soul to rule over evil.” ~ St. John the Short (p. 126, “A Forest in the Desert the Life of St. John the Short”, by Creative Orthodox)
Ask your class what they think about the analogy. In what ways does it hold well? Are there any ways that it doesn’t? Consider giving each student a brick and allowing them to write/draw (with oil pens or permanent markers) on their brick all the ways in which fasting will help them to control themselves and guard their soul against evil. Either stack these bricks as a monument in your classroom, to remind all of you of the reason for the fast for its duration, or send each student’s brick home with them to place where they can be reminded of the reasons for fasting (especially when they’re tempted to complain about it).
Teachers of younger children who wish to share the life of St. John the Short will wish to read “A Forest in the Desert” before class, and select which portions of his life would be best shared with their students. They can then read (or retell) those stories in class, and then offer the students St John the Short favorite part, which will allow the students to respond with their favorite part of his life.
Teachers of older students may want several copies of “A Forest in the Desert” so that the class can read it together. Depending on the length of class, you may need to break St. John the Short’s story into segments, reading and discussing each in a separate Sunday Church School class period. After having read and discussed the entire book, encourage your students to illustrate their favorite quote from St. John the Short. Or, push them to think of another saint whose graphic novel life story they’d love to read, and offer them this printable so that they can share part of that saint’s life in their own mini-version. (If you do this, consider making copies of the students’ mini-stories and putting all of them together into a class “book” which tells parts of the lives of many different saints!