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The Eloquent Witness of John Chrysostom

An ascetic monk from the fourth century is still a model for Christian life today.

“Glory be to God for all things!”

Despite fever and exhaustion, John Chrysostom chose that lucid prayer to sum up the long road he had traveled to the tiny, remote chapel. The simple faith of his last works belied the lifetime of physical deprivation and a long exile. For three trying years in the harsh landscape of Cappadocia, the deposed patriarch of Constantinople had written to the faithful in Antioch and the capital. Devoted followers had made difficult ten-week pilgrimages to visit him. Exasperated by John’s continuing influence, Emperor Arcadius had ordered the aged writer and preacher on a death march over mountain ranges beyond the Black Sea. Without a simple cap to cover his head from the rain and cold, he had trudged toward death – no doubt as he had advanced through life: with a resolute faith in the transcendence of the spirit.

The truth brings its own power to life. Few have proven this more than Saint John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church. Physically unimpressive, he commanded respect. His eloquence earned him the epithet “golden tongued.” Lacking formal structure, his sermons held the rapt attention of both the unschooled and the educated. But more than words lucidly expressed his faith. Through his austerity he demonstrated how a Christian could live, even amid the decadence of worldly fourth-century Antioch and Constantinople.

Such a radical witness to spirituality can inspire the deepest faith. It also threatens those who cling to worldliness. It brought John to prominence, and eventually led to his total sacrifice in his death in exile.

John had been born around 349 in Antioch, Syria. He showed the spirited intellect of his Greek mother and the strong will of his Latin Christian army-officer father. A devoted student of rhetoric, philosophy, and theology, he also was a diligent catechumen under Meletius and Diodore in the school of Antioch before being baptized at 19.

From early in life John’s ascetic nature was a longing to become a monk. After four years of prayer and study with a hermit, he retired to the solitude of a cave for more intense self-denial. After two years of excruciating mortification of the flesh, his health had dangerously deteriorated. He reluctantly returned to Antioch.

As he recovered, John moved from a faith centered on solitude to one enlivened by community. He committed himself to a life of service. He taught catechumens, nursed the sick, and befriended the outcast and afflicted. Having known hunger, cold, loneliness, and illness, he reached out in empathy. In fact John never gave up his asceticism. By sharing in the suffering which is the daily fare of the poor, he always knew both the frailty of the human condition and the folly of indulgent attempts to mask that nature.

Only after this rigorous apprenticeship did John enter the priesthood. Now the eloquence of his preaching matched the eloquence of his actions. In the first year of his priesthood he showed the power of expressing truth. The tax-burdened people of Antioch began to riot when a new levy was imposed. Their frenetic abuse of public monuments tempted imperial wrath. John’s sermons transformed the people’s anger to repentance, their frustration to insight, and their despair to a recommitment to a life animated by faith. A tragic confrontation was averted.

For another eleven years he preached in Antioch. With a knack for finding simple images laden with significance, John opened the spiritual realm as never before to all who heard him. John constantly contrasted the people’s observance of the spiritual life with that of the physical, and the spiritual clearly was getting short shrift. Injustice is fed by personal gain at the expense of others, he warned. He pointed out the folly of self-love that overlooks one’s own soul and that denies spiritual communion with others. The way he preached, wisdom was as accessible as common sense.

John struck a chord of truth that resonated in the people. His message was clear: Their spiritual lives are as real as and more significant than the physical. Faith is a recognition of this truth. The power they sought would be found in the communion of prayer. Eastern rites are still enriched with a powerful sense of community in their Liturgy thanks to John Chrysostom.

John’s renown as a preacher led Emperor Arcadius to overlook many applicants eager to become patriarch of Constantinople in 397. He thought John could be controlled in the capital. Reluctant to leave his flock, John must have anticipated how his spiritual vision of community would confront the great weight of political empire.

As bishop and patriarch, John met the challenge of his new authority with the same unflagging commitment to truth. His moral authority once again was based on clear actions and clear words. Again the simple people of faith opened their hearts in return to his eloquence, while the affluent closed theirs to what they saw as a threat. While the common folk applauded his clerical reforms and the return to religious piety, some wealthy clerics as well as rich laypersons complained.

John’s life remained a model of Christian simplicity and self-denial. John could not be lured into an opulent life. He continued to eat meagerly and alone. He sold off the extravagant furnishings for the benefit of the poor. Caring for the powerless was his constant passion. He abhored slavery and preached that all persons are of one spiritual family.

Meanwhile his preaching was a burr under the saddle of the wealthy and powerful. Arcadius and Eudoxia, his empress, no longer saw an advantage to having the golden-tongued orator in their capital and repeatedly tried to rid themselves of this voice of conscience. The truth’s power was a pain ringing in the consciences of vain and opulent people. After a number of attempts and against the militant opposition of the faithful, Arcadius exiled John.

John directly accosted the worldly existence of his time. His sermons and writings are timeless accounts of recognizing and respecting our spiritual nature in a materialist world. John also lived in contradiction to the world around him. Amid the confusion of fourth-century life, his vision was steady.

This beacon for the early Church still cuts through the darkness with its power. He speaks to the vital question of living out one’s faith in the world: of rejecting the quest for empire and striving instead for community of faith. His way of living still is a model for Christian life in a confused, materialistic world. His faithfulness to the Word was a radical witness, and his power came from the truth he served.

Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East Magazine.

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