Leaves from Saint John Chrysostom, by Thomas William Allies

detail of a statue of Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York, New York

Birth and Parentage

John of Antioch was born about the year 347, of a noble family. His father, Secundus, held a high rank in the imperial army; he died early, and left a very young widow, in the bloom of age and beauty, and amply endowed with wealth. Many suitors sought to obtain the hand of Saint Anthusa. She remained faithful to the memory of her husband, and devoted to the education of her only son. She brought him up in all the knowledge of the age and in strict piety, which she enforced by her example. Saint Anthusa, amid all the perils of Antioch, guarded her son John with the same care which her contemporary, Saint Monica, bestowed in the small circle of an African town on her Augustine. She was happier in one thing. The heathen charms of Antioch exerted no such power over her son John as the like seductive beauty of Carthage exerted over the young Augustine. The prayers and the care of Saint Monica and Saint Anthusa were equally zealous. In the one case, after the most terrible fall, lasting over a period of at least fourteen years, the African mother had the unspeakable joy of seeing her son’s mind delivered from the most dangerous heresy of the day, and was allowed to die in the arms of the new-born Christian, who could share all her hopes of eternal life, which are recorded in the beautiful dialogue between mother and son preserved for us by that son, who was to be the greatest doctor of the Church. In the other case, the Antiochene parent to whom was applied that expression of the admiring heathen, ‘See what mothers these Christians have,’ had the still rarer gift of rearing a son who never fell, who pursued from beginning to end a holy life, who was crowned with a confessorship exceeding the glory of many martyrs, and whose least merit is that he was the greatest preacher of the Eastern Church, and gave to the language of Plato, eight hundred years after him, in its decline, a glory equal to that which the Athenian gave to it in its prime.

Two men – I know not if there be any others in all history – have had their personal name merged by posterity in the name which expressed their special qualities. As the son of Pepin is for ever Charlemagne, so John, the son of Saint Anthusa, is for ever Chrysostom, the Golden Mouth. It is thus the world calls the one great and the other eloquent.

To return to the facts of John of Antioch’s life. As he grew up he had lessons from the renowned heathen rhetorician Libanius. He studied philosophy, and distinguished himself, at twenty years of age, in preparation for the bar. Libanius considered him the best scholar he had, and even wished to be succeeded by him in his office.

Named Preacher at Antioch

But John speedily renounced this and all worldly renown. He practised a most strictly ascetic life, and gave himself up to the study of the Christian religion. He was a pupil of that Diodorus, afterwards bishop of Tarsus, who was then held in high repute as a Scripture commentator. He was also under Saint Meletius, patriarch of Antioch. From him he received baptism in 369, at the age, therefore, of twenty-two years; and the minor order of Lector three years later. The bishops who met at Antioch in 373 designated him, with his friend Basil, for the episcopal dignity. In his humility he took flight to the anchorets who dwelt in the mountains near Antioch. With them he spent four years, and two years after that in a cavern, until his health failed, and he was obliged to return to Antioch. Here the patriarch Meletius made him a deacon in 380; and his successor Flavian gave him the priesthood in 386, in his fortieth year, and named him to be preacher in the cathedral.

Then during ten years the great see of the East wondered at the eloquence, the teaching, and the zeal of the greatest preacher it had known. In her sorest time of need he was at hand to comfort and support the city of his birth. When a great riot broke out, and led the citizens in their haste and anger to insult the statues of the emperor Theodosius and his wife, the most pious Flaccilla, and Antioch trembled lest this act of treason should be followed by summary destruction; when her patriarch Flavian hurried across the five hundred miles to Constantinople, that if possible he might soften the wrath of the emperor before the bolt was launched, Saint Chrysostom preached some of his most famous sermons, those entitled, ‘On the Statues’. He kept up the courage of the fainting people, and when Flavian returned with a pardon which left untouched the privileges of the city, the preacher shared with the patriarch the gratitude of those who were saved.

After ten years of incessant labours by the preacher, which form a large part of the writings preserved to us, the see of Constantinople fell vacant by the death of the patriarch Nectarius. Theodosius had died in 395, leaving the great eastern empire in the hands of his elder son Arcadius, scarcely out of his boyhood. The young emperor was unwilling to trust the see of his capital to any one of his clergy, and he listened to the advice given to him to call from Antioch the man whose genius was as great as his character was stainless. The great officer who carried out the imperial invitation, or command, at Antioch, was obliged to use artifice for the purpose of securing the preacher. His people would not knowingly have suffered him to leave them. He was taken out of the city under a plausible pretence. ‘Asterius, count of the East, had orders to send for him and ask his company to a church without the city. Having got him into his carriage, he drove off with him to the first station on the high road to Constantinople, where imperial officers were in readiness to convey him thither.’ Thus he was carried across Asia with all possible speed. Upon his arrival at Constantinople he was chosen bishop with one voice, and consecrated on the 26th February, 398. His consecrator was Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, who very unwillingly performed this office. He had striven to get a certain priest who was devoted to himself appointed. His subsequent enmity to Saint Chrysostom was a main cause of the banishment and death which befel the man whom he had consecrated.

Archbishop of Constantinople

Thus, at fifty years of age, Saint Chrysostom was placed, not only without seeking for it, but against his wishes, upon that see which, through the residence of the emperor, was already become the most conspicuous of episcopal thrones in the East. From the moment that Constantine, sixty-seven years before, had made Byzantium Nova Roma, and founded, in fact, a new empire, all the ambitious spirits among the prelates of the East sought to seat themselves on that perilous height. This new centre of temporal power was from that time forth the centre of trouble, heresy, and disaster to the Church. Eusebius left his former see, Nicomedia, to possess it, and to be the emperor’s bishop. One after another Arian heretics succeeded. In 379, when the small number of Catholics remaining in the new capital invited Saint Gregory Nazienzen to come to their aid, he could only open in a private room a small church, which he called by the significant name of Anastasia, the Resurrection. In that year Theodosius was promoted by the young Gratian to share his throne, upon the destruction of his uncle Valens by the Goths. Valens had all but destroyed both empire and Church in the East. It was the great effort of Theodosius to restore both. In fifteen years of unexampled energy, terrible trials, and almost miraculous success, he did what valour, piety, and prudence could do. These years were all that the Divine Providence had allowed him for a work almost transcending human power; and when he died, not yet fifty years old, in 395, the great empire of Rome, both in East and West, may be said to have fallen into orphanage. His two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, one a youth of nineteen and the other a boy of eleven, proved to be utterly incompetent. Even Theodosius had failed to overcome the deep degeneracy and rooted party spirit to which the Arian heresy had reduced the eastern episcopate when Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil had been freshly laid in their tombs. The council called by Theodosius at Constantinople in 381 suffered Saint Gregory to give up the see, which was surrounded by envious rivals. For when Meletius, the patriarch of Antioch, died, in presiding over that council, instead of extinguishing the Antiochene schism by the election of Paulinus, the bishop who was already in communion with Rome and Alexandria, according to an actual agreement, they suffered the schism to be prolonged by the election of Flavian. Nectarius took the place which Saint Gregory had vacated, and Saint Chrysostom was called after about fifteen years to succeed to his patriarchate.

State of Constantinople

Such was the state of things when, in 398, he began the charge of a city which, in corruption, party spirit, and unquenched enmities of long-standing, surpassed, if it were possible, his own native Antioch. It is true, that instead of the small remnant who listened to Saint Gregory eighteen years before in the Church of the Resurrection, the whole city was, in name at least, Catholic. Its bishop was seated in a magnificent church, with a clergy more numerous, perhaps, than in any episcopal see in the world: with vast revenues, and a position second only to that of the emperor. But the court of the East was the focus of endless rivalries: of eunuchs who were ministers of state exercising the terrible autocratic powers of an emperor scarcely of age, and dominated by an imperious empress, whose splendid beauty held him in thraldom, while her lust of power was endless and her vanity excessive. And then there were foreign and barbarian generals, whose struggle with each other for mastery was always keeping the empire in disquietude. And lastly, the rivalry of the Gallic Rufinus, whom Theodosius had left to advise his son in the East with the semi-barbarian Stilicho, to whom he had given both his favourite niece Serena for wife, and his younger son Honorius for pupil in the West, was preparing the ruin of Constantine’s empire by its own hands.

In such an atmosphere the preacher and the saint was placed to struggle as he might against court intrigues, and to correct and purify a clergy whose conduct left much to be desired. He showed himself throughout an admirable bishop. Pursuing himself the most simple and ascetic life, he bestowed his whole great income as patriarch on the poor. He founded hospitals and homes. He celebrated the divine service with the utmost care and splendour. He watched over discipline among his clergy. He was unwearied in preaching. Nor did his vigilance end with the limits of his own see. He sent missionaries to Phoenicia and Palestine; to the Scythians, also, and the Goths. For the latter he established a special service of their own – he did all he could to deliver them from the fatal error which the deceit of the emperor Valens had infected them with, in presenting them with Arianism instead of the Christian faith. He exerted also the very questionable claim of his see – which the council of 381 had attempted to exalt to the utmost – by judging the case of the Exarch of Ephesus, and removing several faulty bishops from their seats in that exarchate.

Enmity of Eudoxia

But the ‘Court’s stern martyr-guest,’ who was also ‘the glorious preacher with soul of zeal and lips of flame,’ could not go on long practising the life of a saint with the power of a patriarch under such sovereigns as the weak Arcadius and the imperious Eudoxia. His virtues offended many in a city of intense worldliness. His censures, delivered with his wonted eloquence from the pulpit of the cathedral, roused great enmities. In Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, he had a watchful enemy, eager to punish, in the person of Chrysostom, the new rank which his see arrogated of being the second in the Church, as the see of Nova Roma. By that arrogation, the see of Saint Mark at Alexandria was degraded from a rank which it had held since the beginning of the Christian hierarchy. Not only among the magnates of the court, but among his brother bishops, Chrysostom found much opposition: and at last the empress set herself at the head of his opponents. While he was absent in Asia Minor, restoring to order the exarchate of Ephesus, Severian, bishop of Gabala in Syria, sought, by sermons delivered in the cathedral itself, to take from him the favour of the people. But it received him with acclamation on his return, and drove Severian out of the city.

Synod of the Oak

But certain disturbances about the doctrine of Origen which had broken out among the monks in Egypt involved him in unfortunate difficulties. Among many monks who fled to Constantinople from the desert of Nitria in Egypt, under excommunication from Theophilus, were the ‘four tall brothers’. They came to accuse their patriarch before the emperor and Chrysostom. He took them up, showing kindness and sympathy, though he did not admit them to communion. Theophilus was summoned to Constantinople by the emperor, to answer for his conduct before a synod. To escape this humiliation he used every effort to ruin Chrysostom, whom he took to be his own opponent. He accused Chrysostom himself of Origenism. This scheme of the Egyptian patriarch brought over to his side all the opponents of Chrysostom at the court. Theophilus even ventured to appear as the accuser and judge of the patriarch in the capital itself. He was able to draw together a synod of thirty-six bishops at the Oak, a country-house near Chalcedon, and to summon the bishop of Constantinople to appear before it. Chrysostom, on the double ground of his own rank and his innocence, refused to appear. The unlawful synod ‘of the Oak’ condemned him, supported by the influence of the empress. Forty bishops around him in Constantinople attested his innocence, and objected to a proceeding utterly unlawful and, until then, unknown. Chrysostom was willing to obey a command of the emperor that he should cross the Bosphorus and attend; but the people threatened insurrection if the command were not withdrawn. Chrysostom had to return, and was reseated in his church with the joyful acclamation of his people.

Exile at Kucusus

Not long did the peace last. A statue of the empress had been inaugurated before the cathedral. The crowd indulged in most intemperate rejoicings, and paid almost idolatrous homage to the statue. This Chrysostom, in preaching, censured. The empress took the blame to herself: it kindled her wrath afresh. It was whispered to her that the great preacher had alluded to her under the name of Herodias. A new synod of the patriarch’s opponents was convoked. It issued, in the year 404, a second sentence of deposition against him. It alleged that Chrysostom, after being deposed by a synod, had, contrary to the law of the Church, resumed his see without being restored by another synod. The emperor Arcadius confirmed the decision, and subscribed a decree of banishment. This time Chrysostom waited for force to be used. Soldiers were sent into the church: they pushed aside the people who were protecting their bishop. Blood flowed, and the church was desecrated.

Chrysostom was carried away to Nicaea in Bithynia, and was ordered, in the midst of the summer heats, to go thence on foot, amid the greatest privations and hardships, to Kucusus in Armenia. The journey brought on him a grievous illness. Thus he was detained for some time at Caesarea in Cappadocia. He was scarcely recovered when he was driven further on. In 406, he reached Kucusus. But he kept up intercourse by letter with his friends in the capital. Arsacius, in the meantime, had been intruded by the emperor’s power into his see; and a grievous persecution was instituted against those who would not recognise the intruder. Chrysostom consoled them in many letters. Banished as he was, he concerned himself for the spread of the faith among Persians and Goths. His sufferings, and the magnanimity with which he bore them, won for him sympathy far and wide. But his enemies remained unmoved. He besought the intercession of Pope Innocent I., describing to him, in a letter which is translated in this volume, the utter illegality of the violence which he was suffering. The Pope applied to the emperor Honorius for succour, and was supported by him in sending a solemn deputation to the emperor Arcadius; but he was under the dominion of the offended Eudoxia, and refused to listen either to his brother emperor or the Pope.

Judgment of Pope Innocent I

The Pope withdrew his communion from the intruder Arsacius, who had been put unlawfully in the see of Chrysostom, and from his successor Atticus; and for many years this mark of reprobation was all that the Pope could do in the difficult circumstances of the times. It lasted until the name of Chrysostom was replaced in the diptychs of the Church at Constantinople.

Comana

But Arcadius went further, and condemned Chrysostom to a more distant and ruder exile at Pityus, a seaport on the most desolate eastern coast of the Euxine. In the utmost summer heat, with exhausted strength, the deposed patriarch had to undertake this journey. He never reached the end. His merciless guards pressed his weakness to the utmost. When at Comana he thought his end was near; but the guards urged him on. For an hour he could drag himself along; then his strength utterly failed. He was taken into the small church of the Martyr Basiliscus, which was near. His friend and biographer, the Bishop Palladius, thus describes the last scene:

His Death

‘In that very night (that is, at Comana) the martyr of the place stood before him, Basiliscus by name, who had been bishop of Comana, and died by martyrdom in Nicomedia in the reign of Maximinus, together with Lucian of Bithynia, who had been a priest of Antioch. And he said, “Be of good heart, brother John, for to-morrow we shall be together”. It is said that the martyr had already made the same announcement to the priest of the place: “Prepare the place for brother John, for he is coming”. And John, believing the divine oracle, upon the morrow besought his guards to remain there until the fifth hour. They refused, and set forward; but, when they had proceeded about thirty stadia, he was so ill that they returned back to the martyr’s shrine whence they had started.

‘When he got there, he asked for white vestments suitable to the tenor of his past life; and taking off his clothes of travel, he clad himself in them from head to foot, being still fasting, and then gave away his old ones to them about him. Then, having communicated in the symbols of the Lord, he made the closing prayer “on present needs”. He said his customary words, “Glory be to God for all things,” and having concluded it with his last Amen, he stretched forth those feet of his which had been so beautiful in their running, whether to convey salvation to the penitent or reproof to the hardened in sin. And being gathered to his fathers, and shaking off this mortal dust, he passed to Christ, as it is written, “Thou shalt come to thy burial like full wheat that is harvested in season, but the souls of transgressors shall die prematurely”. But so great a crowd of virgins, ascetics, and those who had the witness of sanctity in their life were present from Syria, Cilicia, Pontus, and Armenia, that many thought they had come by agreement. With these solemn rites, like a victorious athlete, he was buried in the same shrine with Basiliscus.’

In the meantime, the empress Eudoxia had passed away in child-bed before her victim. In the undimmed lustre of her beauty, and the undiminished power of her will over her husband, she had been called to her account. Her husband, the emperor Arcadius, died not long after. He finished an utterly inglorious reign of twelve years at the age of thirty-one. His miserable government had gone near to destroy the empire which his father saved, and had actually thrown Alaric with his Goths upon Rome and Italy. He was succeeded by Theodosius II., a boy eight years old.

Translation of his Body

Thirty years after, a disciple and friend of Chrysostom sat in the see of Nova Roma, the orthodox Proclus, who was a theologian and a saint. He moved the emperor Theodosius II. to bring back the body of Chrysostom to its place among the bishops in the Church of the Apostles, where only the bishops and the emperors were buried – the former in the church, the latter in the vestibule. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus at the time, says: ‘A great multitude of the faithful crowded the sea in vessels, and lighted up a part of the Bosphorus near the mouth of the Propontis with torches. These sacred treasures were brought to the city by the present emperor. He laid his face upon the coffin, and entreated that his parents might be forgiven for having so unadvisedly persecuted the bishop.’

Final Burial at Saint Peter’s

Those remains now rest in a fitter place. Saint Chrysostom, in words quoted further on, when dilating as a fervent lover of Saint Paul upon his praise, cried out: ‘Rome, for this do I love, although having reason otherwise to praise her, both for her size, and her antiquity, and her beauty, and her multitude, and her power, and her wealth, and her victories in war. But passing by all these things, for this I count her blessed: because, when alive, Paul wrote to them, and loved them so much, and went and conversed with them, and there finished his life. Wherefore the city is on that account more remarkable than for all other things together, and like a great and strong body, it has two shining eyes – the bodies of these saints. Not so bright is the heaven when the sun sends forth his beams, as is the city of the Romans sending forth everywhere over the world these two lights. Thence shall Paul, thence shall Peter, be caught up. Think, and tremble, what a sight shall Rome behold, when Paul suddenly rises from that resting-place with Peter, and is carried up to meet the Lord. What a rose doth Rome offer to Christ! with what two garlands is that city crowned! with what golden fetters is she girdled! what fountains does she possess! Therefore do I admire that city, not for the multitude of its gold, nor for its columns, nor for its other splendours, but for these, the pillars of the Church.’

The body, therefore, of him who spoke these words, while a preacher at Antioch, rests more fitly than in any other place amid that matchless group of apostles, saints, and martyrs which surrounds the body of the Fisherman, in the central shrine of Christendom. There he awaits the sight which he anticipated with so much joy.

I must notice one more fact of the eight great brethren, the chief doctors of the East and West. Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Athanasius, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and himself, all suffered persecution; the life of Saint Athanasius was for years in danger from the bitter hatred of the emperor Constantius, and the emperor Valens would have destroyed Saint Basil, had he dared. But to Chrysostom alone was given actually to lay down his life itself for justice’ sake, and to follow Saint John the Baptist not only in sanctity of life and preaching the cross of Christ, but in his death through the persecution of a woman, and the blinded tyranny of a king devoted to her will.

Summary of his Works

It may be well to give here a summary of Saint Chrysostom’s works. Very much of his labour he spent in commenting upon Scripture. This took the form of homilies, of which the larger part was delivered before the people in Antioch. He belongs to the Antiochene school of literal explanation. He was a fellow-pupil under Diodorus of Tarsus, with that Theodorus, afterwards bishop of Mopsuestia, whose writings were the fountain-head of what was afterwards called Nestorianism. They were composed exactly at the same time as those of Saint Augustine, and were as prolific for evil as those of Saint Augustine for good. But the piety and accurate doctrine of Saint Chrysostom preserved him from the errors of his early comrade and friend. His homilies in their structure may be divided into the careful expounding of the text, even to its particles, and then the moral application, both in popular yet scientific form, finished with such skill that the art of eloquence seems blended with that of exposition in the fairest union.

He thus expounded the whole of Genesis in sixty-seven homilies; the Psalms in sixty homilies; the prophet Isaias, but only to the middle of the 8th chapter, according to both the historical and the mystical sense. There are five discourses on Saint Anne, the mother of Samuel; three on David and Saul; two on the obscurity of the prophets; six upon the seraphim, in which he speaks on the incomprehensibility of the Divine Being. To the gospel of Saint Matthew he has given ninety homilies, so skillfully interweaving Christian doctrine with literal exposition that, in Montfaucon’s opinion, no such work exists elsewhere; and Saint Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said that he would rather have it than the city of Paris. He has given seven homilies to the history of Lazarus and Dives in Saint Luke; and eighty-eight homilies to the gospel of Saint John, shorter, however, than those on Saint Matthew. To the Acts of the Apostles he has given fifty-five homilies, delivered at Constantinople, and written down by shorthand. To the epistles of Saint Paul he has given two hundred and forty-six homilies; which make up the number of four hundred and eighty-six on the whole New Testament.

All these are counted among his best works: but the best of all, those on the Pauline epistles, particularly that to the Romans. Saint Isidore of Pelusium says: ‘I believe if Paul had interpreted himself in Attic phrase, he would have done it no otherwise than this distinguished holy teacher. So admirable is his exposition in meaning, elegance, and choice of words.’

Besides biblical exposition, Saint Chrysostom has left a great number of other discourses on various occasions.

Such are eight homilies against the Jews; twelve against the Anomaeans, the worst branch of the Arians. Discourses on the great festivals; panegyrics on saints, among them on bishops of Antioch, Ignatius, Babylas, Philogonius, Eustathius, and Meletius. Seven on the Apostle Paul, held at Antioch, whom he seems to have chosen for his model: to have read perpetually, and, as it were, to have seen at his side.

Of occasional discourses, there are twenty-one ‘On the Statues’ held at Antioch in the Lent of 387, full of tenderness and the most stirring eloquence. Of moral discourses, there are two to ‘those about to be illuminated,’ that is, baptised: nine upon penance. Eleven at Constantinople in 398 and 399, one of these in praise of the empress Eudoxia when she came at night to Sancta Sophia to venerate the relics of the martyrs; nine others on various subjects.

Among his dogmatic works are the demonstration against the Jews that Christ is God, proving the divine dignity of the Messias from the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, from the wonderful spread of the Christian faith, from the fulfillment of the prophecies of Christ, especially on the temple and the Jewish people: the writing on Saint Babylas, and against Julian and the heathen. He points out how the miracles worked at Antioch in Julian’s attack on Daphne were a warning to the restorer of heathenism, disregarding which, he was punished by an early death. A treatise on two books to Theodorus, when he lapsed, the Theodorus mentioned above: on compunction, two books: on Providence, three books, to a friend grievously troubled. To the opposers of the monastic life, three books: the comparison between a monk and a king: on the priesthood, six books, written in solitude, in 376. It dwells on the holiness and exalted character of the New Testament priesthood: on its divine powers in offering the sacrifice and forgiving sins; on the difficulty and the dangers of preaching; on the great qualities required by a priest and a bishop. So he excuses himself to his friend Basil for recommending him to an office which he fled from himself. A treatise on the virginal life, which he gives only as a counsel, not as a precept, recognising the honour due to marriage. Two books to a young widow, advising her not to remarry. Against the prohibited dwelling of unmarried women in the same house with priests, and a most beautiful treatise upon ‘No one can be hurt except by himself,’ written in the last moments of his own banishment, of which his own life and death is the best assurance; and a like one ‘on those who are scandalised at misfortunes’.

Lastly, we possess 238 letters, all but one called forth by the incidents of his own banishment. These show the holy confessor in the whole beauty of his magnanimous life. They are instinct throughout with trust in the Divine Providence, like the last words which he uttered when he lay down to die.

Out of this vast mass of works, the largest left to us by any Greek Father, the Translator has ventured to make a small selection, which, together with the translation itself, is entirely her own; and for which her excuse is the desire to bring in the easiest form specimens of so great a writer, and of one greater yet in deed than in writing, greatest of all in his death, before some who know him rather by the reputation he has left in the Church than by his actual words.

About This File

The text of this file is taken from the book Leaves from Saint John Chrysostom. This biographical preface was written by Thomas William Allies, the book‘s editor, and tagged as being finished on 11 July 1888. The edition used was published by the Catholic Publication Society, New York, New York in 1889, and a scan is available at archive.org. It has the Imprimatur of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Archdiocese of Westminster, England, 28 November 1888.