John Koukouzelis was born in Dyrrachium, probably during the twelfth century. His father died while he was still a child, and his devout mother placed him in school to learn to read and write and to chant. It so happened that he was noticed during a search for talented students and accepted into the school of the imperial court in Constantinople. Here he attracted the attention of the Emperor Comnenos and his court because of his exceptionally fine voice, comely appearance and native talent.
John very soon became the favorite singer at the imperial court and the first chanter of the Great Church Hagia Sophia. Fearing the flattery and praise of men, John fled to the Holy Mountain and presented himself at the Great Lavra as a simple shepherd. He lived an exceptional life of asceticism. The Most-holy Theotokos appeared to him on two occasions.
St. John was spiritually enlightened to such a degree that he was found worthy to learn the hour and day of his death. He bid a tender farewell to all the brethren who came to him and after asking to be buried in the church of the Archangels, which he had built himself, with a blessed smile on his prayerful lips, he passed away to the Lord on the first day of October.
“Exchanging the fine silken garments of the court for a hair shirt and a pilgrim’s staff, John soon appeared at the gates of the Grand Lavra. When the gatekeeper inquired where he was from and what he wanted, John replied that he was a simple shepherd and that he wanted to become a monk.
“You are too young yet,” the gatekeeper remarked.
“It is good to take on the yoke of the Lord in one’s youth,” John meekly replied and began to beg to be presented to the abbot. The gatekeeper took him to the abbot, who was happy to accept him, because he was in need at that time of a shepherd to look after the goats.
After a short period of trial, John was tonsured and assigned the duty of looking after the monastery’s flocks on the mountain pastures. This duty, which was completely new for him, overjoyed the devout young chanter· He went off with his flock into the depths of the Athonite wilderness, where his favorite occupation was meditation and prayer.
In the meantime the Emperor learned that his favorite chanter had run away. He was deeply hurt and sent special agents off to search everywhere for the young chanter. But being hidden by God, John remained totally unknown in spite of the fact that the Emperor’s agents came to Mount Athos and were even in the Grand Lavra of St. Athanasius. No one could imagine that the poor shepherd in worn and tattered rags was a favorite of the imperial court.
Quietly and peacefully John passed his days and years in the desert; he could not get his fill of joy from his new circumstances. Once, when he was in a state of compunctionate and deep thought, he sat with his peacefully grazing flock. His thoughts went hack over all his past life and his heart trembled with the sense of a living gratitude to God and His all-hymned Mother for Their providence concerning him.
After looking about to make certain there was no one else in that wilderness that could hear him, John began to chant. Just as before, the divine words of the hymns and his angelic voice resounded in graceful melodies, but now they echoed through the wild desert heights of Athos. John was deeply moved and he chanted with all his skill and to his heart’s content.
However, there was a certain hermit, who lived secretly inside a cave in a nearby diff. Suddenly this desert-dweller heard the most beautiful chanting ringing through that secluded wilderness. Quietly he came out of his cave and started to investigate where the chanting was coming from. Finally he discovered that the sweet sounds of the angelic chanting, which moved him to tears and brought his compunctionate soul into a state of special grace, was coming from a shepherd looking after a flock of goats. The desert-dweller was even more astonished when he noticed that the goats were not grazing under the melodious sounds of their shepherd’s voice; these dumb beasts with bated breath encircled their shepherd and stood immovably staring before him, as if they were hypnotized or charmed by his angelic, rather than human, voice.
When he saw all this, the desert dweller made his way to the lavra and told the abbot about the marvelous shepherd and his extraordinary chanting.” In this way the true identity of John was revealed to the Abbot of Great Lavra.
St. John’s original compositions and melodies exist to this day. For example, listen to: “Praise the Lord – Long Version, First Mode, by St. John Koukouzelis, Annunciation Church, Lyon, France, Tropos Choir.