For All the Saints: John Chrysostom



Today is the feast of St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church. Of course, there was a little snippet on him over at Universalis and sundry other places, like here. But my curiosity gets the best of me, see,  and I want to know more. That is one of my many faults.

So I headed to my favorite electronic library and found this gem of a story in The Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church With Other Contemporary Saints by a “Mrs. Arthur Bell.” By who? Make that by Nancy R.E. Meugens Bell. Trust me, she is very accomplished. Check out her titles on Amazon. Who better to get this story about the “Golden mouthed” Doctor than by someone who had a pen that never rested?

I gather that the shorter title of the book is The Saints in Christian Art (whew!) and what follows is from Chapter VIII,

St. John Chrysostom

The most popular, and at the same time, perhaps, also the most saintly of the four Greek Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, or the golden-mouthed—so called on account of his great eloquence—was born at Antioch about 347, and was brought up as a Christian by his widowed mother Arethusa.
He was educated as a lawyer, and had already won great renown as a pleader at the bar, when at the age of twenty-six he resolved to renounce the world.

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St. John in prayer

When the young John declared that the only true way of serving God was to lead a life of solitary penitence, Arethusa, a woman of cultured intellect, and endowed with the yet rarer gift of practical commonsense, tried in vain to convince him that his resolution was at the best a selfish one. He escaped from Antioch and hid himself in the desert, where he remained for nearly six years, weakening himself so much by fasting and self-inflicted penance that he was at last obliged to return home to save his life.

Back again in Antioch, he attracted the notice of the Bishop, St. Meletius, who persuaded him to live with him for three years, ordained him Reader, and endeavored to win him from his undue love of silence and solitude. For a time it seemed as if he had succeeded, but in 374 St. John fled once more to the desert, where he joined a community of anchorites, celebrated even in that day of asceticism for the severity of their self-discipline.

It was not, indeed, until he was already past forty that the real work of the life of St. John Chrysostom began, when the holy Bishop Honorius, to whom the Christians owed so much, induced him finally to abandon his retreat and become a preacher of the Gospel in his native city. Ordained priest in 386, a white dove, it is said, hovering above his head at his consecration, St. John of the Golden Mouth very quickly proved how true had been his mother’s judgment concerning him, for he won over to the Church such numbers of converts that the building in which he preached was soon too small to hold his congregation. When the people of Antioch fell under the just displeasure of the Emperor, it was St. John who composed the speech of St. Flavianus, which so touched the heart of the Emperor that he granted a full pardon to the offenders.

Again, when the Roman supremacy was divided between the sons of Theodosius I., and Arcadius became the Emperor of the East, the voice of St.Chrysostom was often fearlessly raised against the luxury of the Court. He became indeed so great a power in the land that in 397, by the advice of Eutropius, the favourite eunuch of Arcadius, he was made Archbishop of Constantinople on the death of Nectarius.

The thought of losing their beloved teacher so moved the people of Antioch that they refused to let him go, and it was not until an armed escort was sent to fetch him that he was able to start for his new sphere of action. Arrived in the capital of the East, St. John at once set to work to practice the doctrines he had preached as a priest. He reduced the number of the servants in his palace, leading a life almost as austere as he had done in the desert, and giving away so much money in charity that he became known as St. John the Almoner.

St. John
the Almsgiver

by Titian

Not long after his accession to the archiepiscopal throne, occurred one of the most striking incidents of his remarkable career: his rescue of Eutropius from the fury of the mob. The eunuch, who had so long virtually ruled the Empire, was suddenly disgraced, the Empress Eudoxia having complained to her husband of a real or imaginary insult he had offered to herself. Pursued by the officers of justice sent to arrest him, the unhappy man fled to the cathedral for sanctuary, and took refuge beneath the altar at which the Archbishop was officiating. St. John Chrysostom, unmoved by the clamors of the people, or by the fact that a troop of soldiers with drawn swords surrounded the building, ascended the pulpit, that he might, says Gibbon, “be distinctly seen and heard by an innumerable crowd of either sex and every age, and pronounced a reasonable and pathetic discourse on the forgiveness of injuries and the instability of human greatness. The agonies of the pale and affrighted wretch,” continues the historian, “groveling under the table of the altar, exhibited a solemn and instructive spectacle, and the orator, who was afterwards accused of insulting the misfortunes of Eutropius, labored to excite the contempt that he might assuage the fury of the people.”

Eutropius escaped for the time, only to be impeached for high treason and beheaded a few months later, but the fame of the man who had been able to hold spell-bound by his eloquence, so many thirsting for vengeance, and to induce even the Emperor to respect the sanctuary of the Church, became so great that St. John, in his turn, aroused the jealousy of Eudoxia, who, having got rid of Eutropius, now determined to bring about also the exile of his rescuer. St. John, it is said, had aroused her special animosity by his sermons against extravagance in dress, which she chose to think were intended to apply specially to her.

John preaching in Constantinople
by Ambrose Dudley

Aided by the influence of Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who was also incensed against the Archbishop on account of his admission to communion of certain so-called heretics, the Empress succeeded in obtaining a decree of banishment against him, and he was driven out of Constantinople in 403, after preaching a farewell sermon full of the noblest resignation to the will of God, in which he declared himself ready to die a thousand deaths for his people, if he could only save their souls.

“Violent storms encompass me on all sides,” he exclaimed, “yet I am without fear, because I stand upon a rock. Though the sea roar, and the waves rise high, they cannot sink the vessel of Jesus. I always say,” he added, “O Lord, may Thy will be done: not what this or that creature wills, but what it shall please Thee to appoint, that shall I do and suffer with joy. This is my strong tower; this is my unshaken rock; this is my staff that can never fail.”

The soldiers sent to see that the Emperor was obeyed were only able to fulfil their duty through the aid of the victim himself, who managed to elude the vigilance of his friends and to deliver himself into the hands of his enemies. He had not, however, been gone from the city many days before a terrible earthquake took place, which so alarmed the guilty conscience of the Empress that she entreated Arcadius to recall St. John, crying in her terror,’ If he do not return our Empire is undone.’ The Emperor consented, and the Archbishop was brought back again in triumph, all the inhabitants of the town going out to meet him. He was, however, again banished in the following year, and he was never afterwards allowed to return.

St. John and Eudoxia
by Jean Paul Laurens

When, on the death of Eudoxia, the broken-hearted widower Arcadius wrote to the celebrated hermit, St. Nilus, asking his prayers for the Empire, the holy man replied: “How do you hope to see Constantinople delivered from the destroying angel of God after . . . having banished the most blessed John, the pillar of the Church, the lamp of truth, the greatest light of the earth!”

Meanwhile many powerful statesmen had endeavored to obtain the recall of St. John, but their importunity, unfortunately, only led to fresh proceedings against him. He had taken refuge at Nicaea, and was there fervently preaching the Gospel, when orders were received that he should be removed to the little town of Cucusus, in a remote district of the Taurus Mountains. There he was received with the greatest enthusiasm by the inhabitants, and was allowed to remain unmolested for a short time, converting many Persians to Christianity, and writing numerous beautiful letters and essays, full of touching resignation, proving how true was his own assertion: “no one can harm the man who does himself no wrong.”

The three years spent at Cucusus and the neighboring town of Arabissus, were, says Gibbon, “the last and most glorious of the life of the great teacher. His character was consecrated by absence and persecution . . . every tongue repeated the praises of his genius and virtue, and the respectful attention of the Christian world was fixed on a desert spot among the mountains of Taurus.”

The Emperor Honorius, recognizing how great a mistake had been made in banishing such a man, endeavored to get his cause brought before what the historian calls ‘the supreme tribunal of a free and general council.’ But it was all in vain; the enemies of the Saint were too powerful, and the weak-minded Arcadius could not be induced to interfere in his behalf. The agitation in favor of St. John resulted merely in a fresh edict of banishment against him. He was to be removed at once from the new home he had learnt to love, to the yet more remote town of Pytius on the Euxine. It is even believed by some that secret orders were given, to the officers sent to take him there, to bring about his death on the road, if possible, and so end all further trouble on his behalf.

Worn out with all he had gone through, and with a constitution weakened by his early austerities, the much-persecuted Saint, though as yet only sixty years old, was in no fit state to travel, and he died on the road after terrible sufferings. It is related that on the eve of his death he was allowed to rest for a few hours in a little wayside shrine above the remains of the martyr St. Basiliscus, who appeared to him in a dream, and said to him: “Be of good courage, Brother John; tomorrow we shall be together.” This greatly cheered the Archbishop, and when he awoke he begged his guards to let him remain in the shrine for a few hours longer, in the hope of thus winning permission to die in peace.

They refused, and compelled him to proceed, but he had not gone far before it became evident that he was dying, and touched, perhaps, at last by his patient suffering, the men carried him back to the shrine and laid him down on it. With a touching desire to do honor to the moment of his meeting with the Lord he had served so well, St. John persuaded his companions to allow him to put on his white robes. His last prayer is said to have been the beautiful one still in use in the English Church, ending with the petition, “granting us in this world knowledge of Thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting,” and when the Amen had been said he died with the words “Glory be to God in all things” trembling on his lips.

He was buried beside St. Basiliscus, but his body was translated to Constantinople in 434, where it was re-interred with great pomp in the Church of the Apostles, in the presence of the Emperor Theodosius II., who, it is related, had gone out to meet the funeral procession at Chalcedon, and there, “falling prostrate on the coffin, had implored in the name of his guilty parents, Arcadius and Eudoxia, the forgiveness of the injured Saint.”

Amongst the attributes given to St. John Chrysostom, who is more often introduced in devotional pictures in the Roman Catholic Church than any of the other Greek Fathers, are a pen, the usual symbol of a writer; a beehive, in allusion, it is supposed, to his honeyed words; and a dove, in remembrance of the incident said to have taken place at his ordination. When he holds a scroll, it generally bears the words, “God our God, who has given us for food the Bread of Life,” a quotation from one of his own homilies.

St. John Chrysostom is sometimes represented being carried along in a fainting condition by his escort of soldiers, or bound to an ass, with his head drooping from exhaustion. He is introduced with St. Athanasius, St. Leo, and St. Thomas Aquinas, amongst the Latin Fathers in the Chapel of Nicholas V, in the Vatican; in S. Giovanni Elemosinaro at Venice is a fine composition by Titian, representing the Patriarch of Alexandria as the Almsgiver seated on a raised podium, with a beggar at his feet (see above), and in S. Giovanni Crisostomo in the same city is a grand Altar-piece by Sebastiano del Piombo, considered one of his greatest works, in which St. John Chrysostom is enthroned, attended by numerous saints, including Augustine and John the Baptist (see top of the post). In a chapel on the left of the choir the golden-mouthed Father appears again, grouped with Saints Andrew, Onofrio, and Agnes.

The character of St. John has also been finely interpreted by Rubens in a painting now in private possession, in which the Patriarch holds a chalice in one hand and rests the left on the Gospels, whilst above his head hovers the dove, typical of the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Check out his homilies and more on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04545510194367389333 Stefanie

    Gosh, what a story! LOVE this guy. In RCIA, I use his homilies often in order to introduce early interpretation of the Gospels.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Thanks Stefanie. I love this guy too. =)