THE PERSONALITY OF A MUCH-SUFFERING
SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
Christou Krikoni ,
Professor of the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
1. Biography of Chrysostom
John Chrysostom, a hierarch with unusual spiritual abilities, unbroken mental strength and obviously possessing the endearing qualities of Divine Providence, was logical that he would be distinguished as a personality in the set of the Great Fathers who adorn the firmament of the Church.
He is without doubt the most famous and copious of the ecclesiastic writers of the Byzantine years -mainly of the early period- and the eminently spiritual leader of the Christian community. And as it has characteristically been observed, the study of the ecclesiastical affairs places Chrysostom at the top, among the theoretical Fathers of the Church, the leading figure of whom is Gregory the Theologian and some times higher than Basil the Great who surpasses all for his social activities.
However, since Chrysostom became mainly involved with the problems of man and not with the theoretical problems of his era, which of course he was well aware of, and since the objective of his ecclesiastical life was the elevation of moral life and the promotion of the spiritual strength of the Christians using his own life and words as an example, he is presented in the Ecclesiastical history as the fighter for Christian moral life and the martyr of Christian love.
Chrysostom was strongly protected by Divine Providence that guided his steps in his ecclesiastical life and action in an apparent way. He himself confessed this favouritism of Divine Providence and saw it plainly determining his personal life since his childhood, as it happens with all the big personalities that Divine Providence has chosen to become its instruments. Divine Providence reserved favourable conditions for him and all the necessary requirements in order to acquire the best education for his era.
According to the information provided by the sources, Chrysostom, the offspring of an aristocratic and distinguished family, belonged to the intellectual Greek environment due to his birth and education. He was born in Antioch sometime between 344 and 354, or perhaps in 350-351 -according to the latest view of the late professor of Patrology Pan. Christou- to devout parents and was raised in a Christian environment provided by the warmth of his family and, especially, by his mother Anthousa, from whom he inherited the fine spirit and sensitive character. Referring to his family later, Chrysostom said: "my father and grandfather and the great-grandfather were extremely devout and important men ". His whole family, therefore, breathed the spiritual scent of devoutness and he was raised in this environment with prudence and wisdom; this fact foreboded what a big and important personality he would become. He was exclusively raised by his pious and modest mother, Anthousa, and his aunt on his father's side, Saviani, since his father, Secoundos, a high-ranking officer of the army died shortly after his birth. No sacrifices, labours and money were spared for his education.
His mother, upon securing the means for the provision of every possible education for her son, was proven not only excellent at simply raising him but at teaching him as well. A widow, only 20 years old, dedicated herself exclusively and with all her heart to raising John and to providing him with every possible education so that he could become a complete and perfect personality. Her pious and holy life and her wise advice played a decisive role in the provision of multifaceted education.
She sowed the first seeds of the truth of Gospel in the soul of young John and turned him, form his young age, to the perfect and absolute Christian life. The words of Gregory the Theologian for Emmelia, the mother of Basil the Great, could have also been said for Anthousa: "Anthousa was seen amongst women in the same way John was seen amongst men ". Even the gentile orator Libanius had expressed admiration about Christian women in general saying: "What wonderful women are found among Christians!" taking Chrysostom's mother as an example.
Divine Providence , though, apart from the perfect upbringing by his mother, Anthousa, reserved for him excellent education provided by eminent teachers and orators of his time. He studied in the famous rhetoric school of the renowned gentile orators Andragathius and Libanius who taught him the wealth of knowledge of classic antiquity. When Libanius was asked who ought to succeed him in his School, said that John would have been his choice, had not the Christians stolen him. John was not stolen by the Christians, of course, because he became a Christian on his own free will, or as Tertullian had said about every human soul, John was a Christian soul by nature: "anima naturaliter Christiana".
Following that, John attended the Theological School of Antioch -the famous Asketerion- with the distinguished teachers Carterius and the pious and ascetic Diodore, whom he admired and said about him: " he devoted all his life to an apostolic life, having nothing, but being provided by others; his only concern was praying and preaching".
Apart from his teachers, the elderly bishop of Antioch , Saint Meletius, played a leading role in the shaping of his religious attitude and character. Chrysostom used to say about him that on the sight of his appearance, he charmed everybody and attracted them to virtue. It is a fact that Saint Meletius "loved the intelligence and beauty of the heart of John", recruited him to Church and baptized him (at around the age of 21, in 372 AD).
The result of the apprenticeship of Chrysostom under so eminent teachers was that he received a wide and excellent education and demonstrated his abilities and performance early on. Without being an intellectual or philosopher he became a classic orator or homilist, more in the sense of the teacher of moral education. This is clearly obvious in his language and style. His rhetoric virtuosity can be easily compared to the top orator of the antiquity, Demosthenes, as well as Xenophon and Plato. Although he had received Greek education, he was never moved by Greek philosophy and never felt the need to become particularly engaged with it. However, the influence of classic studies is strong on the literary style and the lines of arguments in all his works -especially the first ones.
Chrysostom, upon his graduation from his secular studies in the higher schools, practiced law or rhetoric, something that other great fathers had also done (Basil the Great, Gregory etc) for a very short period of time -perhaps just a few months. But the lawyer's work, as a profession, included (and still includes), inter alias, the servicing of the targets and interests of the client, which are not always in accordance with the personal beliefs and moral principles of the lawyer. This is why, Chrysostom, stressing the negative cases and aspects, characterized this job as " full of guile and deceitfulness" and ascertained, early on, that practicing the law did not satisfy him and that he was not born to become a lawyer.
As it has already been mentioned, although he had all the means and requirements to acquire even higher and wider education, to enjoy glory and honour in the world, he showed complete aversion to worldly interests. It is silly, he said, to pursue shadows, such as wealth power, pleasures - " For to pursue shadows is a madman's part".
As he liked monastic and ascetic life, after being baptized, he devoted himself exclusively to religious life and was re-born as a new man, as Palladius his biographer says. As of that day he never said a bad word, or curse or joke, never took an oath and never lied. In monastic life he found what he was seeking; monastic life offers moments of contemplation, self-examination and praying that elate man to the sphere of supernatural. The motto of his life was expressed by the wonderful words: " give priority to the spiritual over the material". A similar idea is expressed in the speech of Basil the Great "Take care of yourself': " Do not care about the flesh , because it passes away; take care of the soul , a thing immortal". Chrysostom expanded on the issue of vanity and transience of this life with grace and power in his wonderful homilies (on Eutropius), where he characteristically stresses that: " For this saying ought to be continually written on our walls, and garments, in the market place, and in the house, on the streets, and on the doors and entrances, and above all on the conscience of each one, and to be a perpetual theme for meditation "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" .
Chrysostom was mainly interested in spiritual life and the development of people, the main education of the soul and, since, he believed that theory and practice not only must not be apart from each other, but coincide, he felt the need - as all the great Fathers- to isolate himself from the world, to live alone and lead an ascetic life in order to achieve full spiritual completion and freedom with the dominance of the spirit over the body.
As a result of his beliefs, he decided to abandon secular life after the death of his mother, who was very much near to his heart, in 374 And this, because when his mother realised that John was planning to leave for the desert, took him by the hand and led him to the bed where she had given birth to him and with tears in her eyes, but with the same loving kindness and tenderness she had, reminded him of all the things - and they were many- she had been deprived of because of her widowhood for his sake. " She begged him not to make her a widow a second time by abandoning her but to wait because she would soon leave this world. Furthermore," she said, "there is always the time and hope for young people to realise their dreams. When you have buried me and joined my ashes with those of your father," she said, "then go wherever you wish and travel to any sea, without anyone preventing you. As long as I breathe, however, be patient and stay with me... Mind you," she said, "I took care of everything so that you can continue on your sacred work being untrammelled from obligations and carefree. And you should know," she added, "that no one loves you more than me, the mother that gave birth to you... If nothing else, at least stay with me as long as I live..."
The words of his mother won over the beliefs and will of her son, John, and his love for her prevailed. So, John postponed -and not cancelled- his aim and stayed with her, living in the house with his mother as an obedient son, in Antioch .
Then he left for the sacred monastic- ascetic societies not very far away from Antioch which " shine dwelling in great tranquillity and security and look as it were from heaven itself upon the shipwreck of other men". Then Chrysostom, urged by his friends, wrote his wonderful homilies on asceticism referring to monastery life; there he stressed that his objective was the perfection of man to lead a life according to God which was not easy to be achieved in a society full of temptations and corruption. He writes: " I wish the world was good so the people living in it would not have to run to the desert and neither the anchorites would have to run to the desert to live there."
His intention was not to urge people to withdraw from the world abandoning their towns, but to reshape the life of the society, the towns and villages in accordance with the principles of the Gospel; this is why he became a pastor, a teacher and a preacher.
Because, indeed, those who preached social change with the use of material-technical means, the progress of science and technology did not manage to bring prosperity for the people and social justice. On the contrary, there is the common belief that every day injustice, exploitation and corruption, degeneration and luxury with the various pleasures, continuous rivalries, hate and wars are on the increase. Consequently, none of them considers that sorrows, deprivations and the pain of every day life have beneficial results for the development of a strong will and uncorrupted character. Only through extreme pains, deprivations and persistent efforts can the faithful become masters of the weaknesses of their bodies and not through leading an easy and full of comforts and pleasures life, says Chrysostom.
Furthermore, Chrysostom neither considered discipline as an end in itself nor aimed at individual perfection only through it. On the contrary, he considered discipline as an appropriate opportunity to reform society and save people in combination with the other elements of spiritual life.
Ascetic life, of course, provided the opportunity for Chrysostom for an easier communication with God through praying. Chrysostom was a man of prayer and isolation; he spent his life praying. He said that prayer is at the same time the root and food of spiritual life and if you deprive yourself of praying, it is as if you get the fish out of the water and expect it to live, " as life is water for a fish, so is prayer for you ". It is impossible for someone to live without prayer " it is simply impossible to lead without the help of prayer a virtuous life". The experience and testimony of those praying shows that there is not a more powerful tool than prayer, " nothing is more powerful than nor equal to prayer". Prayer makes people " the temples of Christ"; it is the highest blessing - "superior to any blessing and leading to salvation and eternal life". This is why he always urged people to pray continuously - "even at work pray, on the way and on bed, wherever you are, pray". This is the only way that people will feel happy and blessed "in their Worship of God".
At the same time, the combination of discipline with continuous prayer provided Chrysostom with the appropriate opportunity to study the Holy Scripture which keeps the soul in constant communication with God. Moreover, Chrysostom considered the fact that " people did not know the Scriptures" the cause of all evils in the world and daily life . The study of the Holy Scripture was his refuge during the trials of his turbulent life and only when reading it did he find peace and comfort. He advised the faithful to read the Holy Scripture even if many times its true meaning is not absolutely understood. By continuously reading the Scriptures, Chrysostom acquired such familiarity with the content and he understood it so well that it is universally accepted that he became their most proficient and skilful interpreter; he wrote many, approximately 700 Homilies, and exegetical works and other works of incomparable beauty and power.
Chrysostom lived for over six years as an anchorite and solitary in the Monasteries and ascetic communities with continuous prayer and study of the Scriptures and, above all, with deprivations and indurations, spending his days near ascetics, famous for that time.
It was there that he planned his action as the reformer of souls and prepared himself for his mission in the world; there that he took the decision about his spiritual fight in the society. And, of course, he knew very well that any kind of spiritual fight in the society would face some reaction from the people. His fight was related to the mission he undertook to implement within the Church and the society by the grace and blessing of the Church.
This is why upon his return to the secular way of life, in Antioch , after the desert, he was ordained a deacon (381) by the bishop of the city, Meletius, whom he helped in his pastoral duties. Chrysostom remained a simple deacon for six years and during that period he devoted himself to writing significant treatises (such as on Virginity etc) and to teaching.
In 386, he was ordained a presbyter by the successor of Meletius, Flavian, and in his first sermon from the pulpit, he expressed his awe in approaching the Chancel Table and, as he said, it seemed unbelievable to him that he, an unworthy man, was speaking in front of the congregation. The congregation, however, realized what an important and wonderful preacher he was and witnessed the great examples of his extraordinary abilities with deep satisfaction. Perhaps, Chrysostom himself realized for the first time the exceptional gift of eloquence he was endowed with by Divine Providence; because he was a born orator and he could charm his audience with his fluency and the power of his words from the beginning.
As of that day and for approximately twelve years as the presbyter in Antioch and six more as the Archbishop of Constantinople he continuously preached, sometimes two and three times per day - "I wanted to do that, he said, even during the night and I wanted my speech to be characterized by a huge variety so that you can better choose." His soul was influenced by his passion to preach the word of God and for this reason he visited all the churches of the city. His preaching was distinguished for its directness and persuasiveness; it was the most effective means to influence people and the society. The voluminous and numerous exegetical works on the books of the Holy Scripture arise from these sermons and his speeches.
Chrysostom had the inner conviction that the ecclesiastical leaders are workers and instruments of Christ on the earth. More specifically, what he mentions in his exceptional work " On the Priesthood " about the mission of the priest is wonderful.
During his office as a presbyter in Antioch , devastating events shocked the city. The Antiochenes revolted against the Emperor Theodosius the 2 nd because harsh taxes were imposed and started aggravated assaults against the authorities. They tore down the statues of the emperor and his family (his brother, his wife Flakille and his two offspring). The news of the destruction reached the emperor immediately; he felt offended and was so enraged for this impious act that he decided to completely destroy the city and kill all the citizens. The arrests and imprisonments started. The Antiochenes panicked and many, seized with fright and despair, abandoned the city and sought refuge to the mountains and desert areas where unfortunately they died due to famine and hardships while others resorted to the churches. (The city was almost deserted).
It was then the time of Chrysostom, the time of the Church; the Church has the unique privilege of preaching the truth and only the truth with the voice of its representatives during the most difficult periods of history, when the others -the competent and people in charge or not- remain silent or take advantage of the situation; it also stands by its flock and provides comfort and hope.
During this hopeless and desperate situation of the people of Antioch , Chrysostom delivered his famous sermons " on the Statutes" during the Lent. By taking advantage of the state of mind of the people he tried -and he finally succeeded- to instill courage into the remaining horror-stricken Antiochenes and give them hope starting his sermons with the words: " What shall I say, or what shall I speak of? The present season is one for tears, and not for words; for lamentation, not for discourse. Who, beloved, hath bewitched us? Who hath envied us? Whence hath all this change come over us? Nothing was more dignified than our city! Now, never was anything more pitiable... Aforetime there was nothing happier than our city; nothing more melancholy than it is now become.
A flight without enemies; an expulsion of inhabitants without a battle... There is a silence big with horror, and loneliness everywhere; ye hills take up wailing, and ye mountains lamentation... For he who has been insulted has not an equal in dignity upon earth; for he is a monarch; the summit and head of all here below! On this account then let us take refuge in the King that is above; him let us call in to our aid..." With these and similar words, he advised the penance and return of the Antiochenes who, penitent indeed, accepted the sermon of penitence and changed - " The dissolute man hath now become sober; the bold man meek; the slothful man active. They, who never at any time saw a church, but constantly spent their time at the theatre, now remain in the church the whole day long."
At the same time, Chrysostom intervened with the Authorities and with his personal prestige and his persuasive sermons managed to stop the persecutions and the imprisonments of the citizens and the death sentences of the arrested. While Bishop Flavian, despite the objective difficulties (due to weather conditions because of the winter, the problems of his own health and his family, his sister was dying, as well as the Easter festivities, which made it imperative for him to be near his flock), went to Constantinople. There he managed to placate the Emperor with his geniality and persistent efforts; his venture was, therefore, a success. Chrysostom used to say: "The Emperor is benevolent, the Bishop dignified but God, above all, merciful".
The pleasant news reached the Antiochenes soon and upon hearing it, the people started celebrating with such joy that cannot be described; Chrysostom in his relevant homily said: "Blessed be God, who hath granted us this day to celebrate this holy Feast with much joy and gladness; and hath restored the head to the body, the shepherd to the sheep..." Thus ended the big ordeal of the Antiochenes during which Chrysostom managed not only to comfort the people and rekindle their faith to Christ but also to reform them into true Christians. His acts saved the city from being destroyed and as he very aptly used to say: " one passionate man is enough to save a whole city". It seems, however, that this transformation was not permanent for some people, but temporary and held as long as the danger for the city and its inhabitants existed because Chrysostom later on expressed his deep sorrow believing that his sermons were in vain and pointless. He wanted, if possible, all people to become saints, the chosen people of God in the world.
For Chrysostom, the salvation of the Christians' soul was the most valuable thing. He showed the magnificence of his gallant spirit for the people of Antioch during other hard times, such as enemy raids, famine problems (let be noted here that the Church of Antioch cared for more than 3,000 distressed people, widows, orphans, ill people, prisoners, elderly, foreigners etc) as well as earthquakes that brought on many disasters, much grief and despair to the people. Chrysostom stood by the people one more time during those events -as it was befitting to a Hierarch, a spiritual leader - providing comfort and hope. In one of his relevant homilies he said: did you see God's power, did you see God's philanthropy? He shook the earth with his power and steadied it again with his philanthropy... While the earthquake passed, fear stays. But while the commotion is over now, let piety remain. We had litanies for three days. Let the haste for praying not stop; this is why there was the earthquake; for our leisureliness. You became leisure and the earthquake came..."
The Holy Father faced the enemies of the faith, the Jews and heretics with the same success, enlightening the flock for which he had unlimited and real love.
The fame of this fervent presbyter, John, had spread not only to the area of Antioch but all over the East and the West, everywhere in the empire. It reached the capital of the Empire, Constantinople , and when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nectarius died, the people, recognizing his famous abilities and his adamantine ethos, turned to him, "the scientist of priesthood" as his biographer calls him. But because it was known that Chrysostom would not accept the vacant see and would decline the office, a trick was used to convince him to be led out of the city; he was then abducted without him or the people knowing where he would be taken.