Speaking in Dublin, a day after Ms May shelved the vote on her Brexit deal, Sir John said was “time to turn to reality and not fiction, time to turn to reason and not ideology”.
“Whether you are a Remainer or Leaver, no one can welcome chaos,” he told the Institute of International and European Affairs.
And he added: “There is no shred of doubt in my mind that to do so we now need to revoke article 50 with immediate effect.
“The clock, for the moment, must be stopped. It’s clear that we now need the most precious commodity of all: time.”
Sir John, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997 and has backed a Final Say referendum on the Brexit outcome, called for “serious and profound reflection” on the country’s situation.
“There will be a way through the present morass; there always is. But in our national interest we now need to take some time to find it and I hope and I trust that we will,” he said.
With the prime minister in Brussels pleading with EU leaders to offer further concessions, he said there was “wiggle room” to find a compromise but warned it was “probably very limited”.
The call came as Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, also argued that whether to head for a no-deal Brexit “remains in the hands of the UK”.
"The option is there to revoke Article 50, the option is there to extend Article 50 and while there may not be a majority for anything, or at least any deal, at the moment in the House of Commons, I do believe that there is a majority that the UK should not be plunged into a no-deal scenario,” he told the Dail, the Irish parliament.
“It is in their hands at any point in time to take the threat of no-deal off the table, either by revoking Article 50 or, if that is a step too far, by extending it.”
In fact, the two-year Article 50 period can only be extended – beyond Brexit day on 29 March – with the agreement of all other 27 EU members.
The EU has suggested it would be willing to take that step to allow a second referendum to be held. In contrast, Brussels cannot block a revocation of Article 50, the European Court ruled.
Sir John suggested revoking the notice would allow the UK to “stop the clock” – although the Court said it should be “unequivocal and unconditional, suggesting it could not be used as a negotiating tactic.
He also warned about the potential for a return to violence if a hard Irish border returns.
“The belief that because we have no violence in Northern Ireland for 18 years that it is gone forever is fatuous. Peace is never definitively forever. Things can go wrong,” he said.
“We must do nothing to give them the opportunity of doing it and the imposition of a hard border is an opportunity for them to do it,” Sir John said.