Saint John Chrysostom – the Golden Mouthed. One of, if not the most, well known and beloved saints of the church, both during his lifetime and in the 1600 years since his repose. As beloved as he was and as brilliant an orator as he was, he was also one of the most controversial clerics of his time, and his personality was one which was more admired from afar than close to, especially if the observer didn’t meet his rigorous and demanding standards.
He was born in Antioch in about 347 AD, the son of the (probably pagan) military and civil commander (magister militum) of the region, known as Secundus, who died shortly after John’s birth. His widowed mother refused remarriage and was such an exemplary mother she was famous even among the pagan population of Antioch.
St. John’s education encompassed both Christian theology and the classical pagan teachings of the time, and he was raised as a Christian. At 18 years of age, he began studying the law under Libanius, one of the great pagan rhetoricians of the time (he taught St. Basil the Great and was a friend of the emperor Julian the Apostate), and seemed destined for a brilliant legal career, attending the law courts unfailingly. He loved the theatre passionately. But the influence of his mother, Bishop Meletius and, not least, his closest friend Basil (not St. Basil the Great, who was fifteen years older) led to a gradual and permanent change of heart. The attractions of the courts failed, and he more and more became aware of the corruption of justice prevalent at the time, and he became uncomfortable with the essential wrongness of taking wages for what he described as making the worst cause the better cause. Eventually, he said that accepting a fee for his work was the same as taking Satan’s wages. He decided to leave the law and follow Christ.
He was baptized in 369 or 370, when he was about 23 years of age. This wasn’t unusual for the times, when baptism was often put off until very late in life. He was ordained a reader soon after. His friend Basil convinced St. John to pursue a monastic life, but his mother pleaded with him to remain with her until she died. St. John did, but it must have been a very strange relationship, since St. John acted as if he were actually a monk. He slept on the ground, ate very little and ate seldom, prayed continually, and he hardly spoke at all. He said it was to avoid his habit of slander. He almost never left the house, and he remained at his mother’s side until her death. During this time, he studied scripture and its interpretation with several other young men under Diodorus and Carterius.
One of his first letters shows how persuasive he was even then. Theodore, one of his classmates, was drawn to monasticism and wanted to become a monk, but was in love with a young woman. Eventually, he chose his young lady, until he received a letter from St. John, entreating him to give up the girl, and the world, and return to the monastic calling. Theodore was convinced, broke off the engagement, and entered a monastery.
It was during this period, as well, that he and his friend Basil were considered for ordination to the episcopacy. Neither of them felt equal to such a calling, but both agreed that if one were to accept, so would the other. St. John, however, privately decided that while Basil would be a brilliant bishop, he (St. John) wouldn’t. When the time came for the men to be consecrated, St. John hid, leaving Basil to be forcibly ordained on his own. Basil protested, and the hierarchs told Basil that John had already undergone his ordination. It’s unclear whether or not the hierarchs actually knew of John’s deception, and were in collusion with him, or if they simply lied to Basil to get him to go along with them.
When Basil found out about the deception, he confronted St. John, who admitted the trick and justified it. He wrote the conversation down and explained it in his treatise “On the Priesthood.” In his defence, at that time it was believed that if trickery and deceit were used to good ends – i.e. the ordination of a brilliant candidate to the episcopacy – then it was morally justified. It’s not clear if Basil was truly convinced.
In or around 374 (presumably after his mother’s death), St. John joined a monastery in the mountains south of Antioch. Four years later, he took up the life of a hermit in caves near the monastery, but within a couple of years had to return to the city. His disciplines were so severe they destroyed his health, and in order to recover, he needed to be in Antioch. Ill health was to plague him for the rest of his life, and much of his irritable temper was because of his stomach and kidney problems, caused by his monastic disciplines.
By 381, he’d recovered enough that he was ordained a deacon and then a priest in 386. He began preaching shortly after his ordination as a deacon, and it wasn’t long before his fame as a speaker began to spread. Stenographers recorded his homilies, which dealt extensively with interpretation of Holy Scripture, among other subjects, and many of which we still have today. Whenever he preached, the church was filled, and his sermons were often interrupted by applause (which he railed against in other homilies).
St. John’s brilliance in Biblical interpretation was because of the practical and straightforward way he explained the Scriptures to the laity (which was the way he’d been taught to interpret the Bible by his teachers). His lessons were applicable to everyday life, and in addition, appealed to both the head and the heart. His Paschal homily is still read in every Orthodox church on Pascha, because in the opinion of the Fathers, the sentiments he expressed cannot be equaled or surpassed.
His eloquence was credited with turning the wrath of the emperor Theodosius away from Antioch in the late 380s. Theodosius, a devout and normally ethical ruler, was subject to uncontrollable rages, when he made disastrous and violent decisions. He always repented of them and often rescinded the orders he’d issued, but often too late to undo the damage. In this case, he had imposed what amounted to a military tax on the city, and the people rebelled. They tore down the likenesses of Theodosius and his late (and beloved) wife, destroyed statues of them both, and it took days to get the populace under control. It is at least partly due to St. John’s sermons after the riots, when he urged the people to repent and show contrition, that the emperor did not slaughter 70,000 of the citizens, as he did a few years later in Thessalonica. In the case of Antioch, clemency was granted, and disaster averted. The homilies were also credited with the conversion of a number of pagan citizens.
By 397, St. John’s fame had spread as far as Constantinople, and he was nominated for the bishopric when the see became vacant. (Constantinople did not become a patriarchate officially until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, although unofficially, it was already recognized as second only to Rome. This caused some problems with the Patriarch of Alexandria, who was officially the superior of the bishop of Constantinople.) This time, St. John couldn’t hide but was so opposed to the elevation that he had to be tricked into custody and escorted to the capital under armed guard.
It was in Constantinople that his troubles really began. Theodosius had died in 395, and his son, Arcadius, had ascended the throne. Weak-willed and inclined to listen to others for not just guidance but decisions, he was easily led by his wife, Eudoxia, who was strong-willed and decisive. She ruled her husband, and through him the empire. She was selfish, immoral, and flagrant in her worldliness and vanity. Needless to say, the new bishop and the Empress did not find much common ground. While at first they seemed to admire and respect one another, St. John’s opinion changed when he learned of the empress’s true personality and inclinations. He didn’t hesitate to call her to account. Eudoxia was not amused by his opinions, and the two came to loath one another. Additionally, Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, was furious at St. John’s elevation. He’d worked hard to promote his candidate, Isodore, and to make matters a whole lot worse, had to consecrate St. John bishop.
One of St. John’s first acts was to strip the bishop’s residence of its luxurious furnishings and to sell the plate in order to donate the money for the poor and ill. Because of his poor health, St. John had been forced to ease his monastic rule, but he was as strict with himself as he could be, which meant that he was not very well suited for life in the corrupt and worldly society of Constantinople. At that time, political and religious separation was unheard of, and the bishop was expected to take a full and active part in the social and political life of the city and the empire. John refused to put on the lavish banquets and parties his predecessors had, and he refused to attend court unless he had business there.
The clergy of the city were as worldly as the laity and the aristocracy. St. John was appalled and wasted no time in cleaning house. Given some of the charges he brought against his priests, the changes were long overdue: homicide and adultery were only a couple of the charges. His outspokenness wasn’t restricted to his own see, either, and he angered just about everybody in the city who didn’t meet his standards of Christian behaviour, regardless of who they were. Needless to say, the people adored him, and the aristocracy and the clergy hated him for his outspoken homilies and opinions. Eudoxia in particular came in for some withering scorn. Eventually a party of clerical opponents crystallized around Theophilus.
St. John finally overstepped in 404, however, when he was accused of comparing the empress to Jezebel. Free speech wasn’t a concept in that day and age, and if the emperor or empress felt insulted by what someone said about them, the speaker was in for trouble. St. John was arrested, dethroned, accused of treason and heresy, and sentenced to exile. Before he could leave the city, however, an earthquake (and possibly a miscarriage) convinced the empress that leniency was the better option, and she talked her husband into recalling the irritable, outspoken bishop. But peace was not to last. The next year, the empress had a solid silver statue of herself erected outside Hagia Sophia, and the celebrations of the dedication were so loud and boisterous that they interrupted the services going on inside the church.
Once again, St. John’s irritable temper and outspoken nature got the better of him, and he didn’t hesitate to publicly scold the empress for her outrageous behaviour, comparing her this time to Herodias, who demanded the head of St. John the Forerunner. Predictably, he was once again arrested, dragged forcibly from Hagia Sophia, and convicted of treason and heresy. This time it stuck, in spite of week-long riots and Hagia Sophia and the Senate buildings burning to the ground the night he left the city.
Unwilling to let bygones be bygones, and because he felt that a secular ruler had no business removing a bishop from his see for secular problems, St. John and a number of his supporters wrote to the Roman Pope and two other prominent patriarchs, begging for their intercession. They agreed with St. John and the Johannites, but even though they overturned the emperor’s and the council’s decisions, it was no use; John was exiled.
St. John stayed in Cucusus, a lonely mountain village in the Tauric range, on the borders of Cilicia and Lesser Armenia, for two years, carrying on a voluminous correspondence with his supporters, both in Constantinople and elsewhere. That wasn’t good enough for the emperor. In 407, when he was about 50 years old, and in frail health, St. John was ordered to walk to an even smaller and more remote location, the small town of Pityus in the Caucasus mountains. It was a forced march, and St. John suffered every step of the way. He never reached Pityus. He collapsed at the shrine of a martyred bishop just outside the town of Comana and died at the altar of the shrine. He was buried in the town, but his relics were transferred to Constantinople some thirty years later, by Arcadius and Eudoxia’s children, as an atonement of the treatment he had received at the hands of their parents.
His words have come down to us, both prayers and homilies, and we still profit by them today. While it’s debatable how much of his liturgy was actually written by him, it is known that he regularized and rearranged the liturgy we know as the Liturgy of St. John Crysostom into its present form, one that is used not only in our church, but formed, for centuries, the basis of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Eucharist services.
Byzantium, the early centuries, John Julian Norwich, Guild Publishing, 1988
http://www.goarch.org/chapel/saints_view?contentid=290 John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople
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