St. John Chrysostom (Ad 347-407)

At this time lived St. John Chrysostom, whose name is known to us all from the prayer in our service which is called "A Prayer of St. Chrysostom."

He was born at Antioch about the year 347. While he was still a little child, he lost his father; but his mother, Anthusa, who was left a widow at the age of twenty, remained unmarried, and devoted herself to the training of her son. During his early years, she brought him up with religious care, and he was afterwards sent to finish his education under a famous heathen philosopher. I have already had occasion to tell you that Christian youths, while in the schools of such teachers, ran a great risk of being turned from the Gospel, and that many of them fell away (p 67); but John was preserved from the danger by daily studying the Scriptures, and thus his faith was kept fresh and warm. The philosopher had such a high notion of his talents, that he long after spoke of John as the best of all the pupils he had ever had, and said that he would have been the worthiest to succeed him as a teacher, "if the Christians had not stolen him."

When he left this master, John studied law; but, after trying it for a time, he found that there were things about the business of an Antioch lawyer which went against his conscience; so he resolved to give up the law, and to become a monk. But his mother thought that he might lead a really Christian life without rushing away into the wilderness and leaving his natural duties behind him. She took him by the hand, led him into her chamber, and made him sit down beside her on the bed. Then she burst into tears: she reminded him of all the kindness which she had shown him, and of the cares and troubles which she had borne for his sake. She told him that it had been her chief comfort to look on his face, which put her in mind of the husband whom she had lost. "Make me not once more a widow," she said: "Wait only for my death, which may, perhaps, not be far off. When you have laid me in the grave, then you may go where you will -- even beyond the sea, if such be your wish, but so long as I live, bear to stay with me, and do not offend God by afflicting your mother." The young man yielded to these entreaties, and remained in his mother's house, although he gave up all worldly business, and lived after the strict manner of the monks. But when the good Anthusa was dead, he withdrew to the mountains, near Antioch, in which a great number of monks dwelt. There he spent four years in a monastery, and two as a hermit in a cave. But at last his hard life made him very weak and ill, so that he was obliged to return to Antioch; and soon after this he was ordained to be one of the clergy, and was appointed chief preacher of the city (AD 386).

Of all the great men of the ancient Church, John was the most famous for eloquence; and from this it was that he got the name of "Chrysostom," which means "golden-mouthed". His sermons (of which hundreds still remain) were not mere displays of fine words, but were always meant to instruct and to improve those who heard them. And, while he was chief preacher at Antioch, he had a very remarkable opportunity of using his gifts of speech. An outbreak had taken place in the city, on account of a new tax which Theodosius, who was then emperor, had laid on the people (AD 387). The statues of the emperor and of his family, which stood in public places, were thrown down, and were dragged about the streets with all sorts of mockery and insult. But the riot was easily put down, and then the inhabitants began to be in great anxiety and terror as to the punishment which Theodosius might inflict on them. For although the frightful massacre of Thessalonica (p 75) had not at that time taken place, they knew that the emperor was not to be trifled with, and that his fits of anger were terrible. They expected that they might be given up to slaughter, and their city to destruction. For a time, few of them ventured out of their houses, and those few slunk along the streets as if they were afraid of being seized. Many were imprisoned, and were cruelly tortured or put to death; others ran away, leaving all that they had behind them; and the public amusements, of which the people of Antioch were excessively fond, were, for a time, quite given up.

The bishop, Flavian, who was a very aged man, in bad health and infirm, left the bedside of his sister (who was supposed to be dying) to set out for Constantinople and implore the emperor's mercy. And while he was absent Chrysostom took the lead among the clergy. He preached every day in a solemn and awakening tone; he tried to turn the terrors of the people to their lasting good, by directing their thoughts to the great judgment, in which all men must hereafter appear, urging them, whatever their present fate might be, to strive after peace with God, and a share in his mercy, through Christ, in that awful day. The effect of his preaching was wonderful; -- day after day, vast crowds flocked to listen to it, forgetting every thing else: even many heathens were among them.

The news of the disturbances at Antioch had reached Constantinople long before Flavian; and the bishop, as he was on his way, met two commissioners, who had been sent by the emperor to declare his sentence to the people. The buildings of the city were to be spared; but it was to lose its rank among the cities of the empire. The baths, which in those countries were reckoned almost as a necessary of life, were to be shut up, and all public amusements were to be at an end. The officers, after reaching Antioch, and publishing this sentence, set about inquiring who had taken a part in the tumult. Judgment was to be executed without mercy on all whose guilt could be proved; and the anxiety of the people became extreme. A number of monks and hermits came down from the mountains, and busied themselves in trying to comfort those who were in distress. One of these monks, Macedonius, a man of rough and simple appearance, but of great note for holiness, met the emperor's commissioners as they were riding through the market-place, whereupon he laid hold of one of them by the cloak, and desired them both to dismount. At first they were angry; but, on being told who he was, they alighted and fell on their knees before him; for, in those days, monks famous for their holiness were looked on much as if they had been prophets. And Macedonius spoke to them in the tone of a prophet: -- "Go," he said, "say to the emperor: You are a man; your subjects too are men, made in the image of God. You are enraged on account of images of brass; but a living and reasonable image is of far higher worth than these. Destroy the brazen images, and it is easy to make others; but you cannot restore a single hair of the heads of the men whom you have put to death.'" The commissioners were much struck with the way in which Macedonius uttered this, although they did not understand what he said (as he spoke in the Syrian language); and when his words were explained to them in Greek, they agreed that one of them should go to the emperor, to tell him how things were at Antioch, and to beg for further instructions.

In the mean time, Bishop Flavian had made his way to the emperor's presence. Theodosius received him with kindness, and spoke calmly of the favour which he had always shown to Antioch, and of the base return which the citizens had made for it. The bishop wept bitterly when he heard this. He owned that his flock had deserved the worst of punishments; but, he said, no punishment could be so severe as undeserved mercy. He told the emperor that, instead of the statues which had been thrown down, he had now the opportunity of setting up far better monuments in the hearts of his people, by showing them forgiveness. He urged the duty of forgiveness in all the ways that he could think of, he drew a moving picture of the misery of the inhabitants of Antioch, which he could not bear to see again; and he declared that, unless he gained the favour which he had come to beg for, he would never return to his city.

Theodosius was moved almost to tears by the old man's words. "What wonder is it," he said, "if I, who am but a man, should pardon my fellow men, when the Maker of the world has come on earth, and has submitted to death, for the forgiveness of mankind?" and he pressed Flavian to return to Antioch with all speed, for the comfort of his people. The bishop, on reaching home, found that his sister, whom he had not hoped to see any more in this world, was recovered; and we may well imagine that his flock were full of gratitude to him for what he had done. But he refused all thanks or credit on account of the success of his mission. "It was not my doing," he said "it was God who softened the emperor's heart."


When Chrysostom had been chief preacher of Antioch about twelve years, the bishopric of Constantinople fell vacant (AD 397); and there was so much strife for it, that at length the people, as the only way of settling the matter quietly, begged the emperor Arcadius to name a bishop for them. Now it happened that the emperor's favourite counsellor, Eutropius, had been at Antioch a short time before, and had been very much struck with Chrysostom's preaching; so he advised the emperor to choose him. Chrysostom was appointed accordingly; and, as he was so much beloved by the people of Antioch that they might perhaps have made a disturbance rather than part with him, he was decoyed outside the city, and was then secretly sent off to Constantinople. Eutropius was so worthless a man that we can hardly suppose him to have acted from quite pure motives in this affair. Perhaps he wished to get credit with the people for making so good a choice. Perhaps, too, he may have hoped that he might be able to do as he liked with a bishop of his own choosing. But if he thought so, he was much disappointed; for Chrysostom behaved as a faithful and true pastor, without any fear of man.

The new bishop's preaching was as much admired at Constantinople as it had been at Antioch, and he soon gained great influence among his flock. And besides attending diligently to his work at home, he set on foot missions to some heathen nations, and also to the Goths, who, as we have seen (p 93), were Arians. But besides the Goths at a distance, there were then a great number of the same people at Constantinople; for the Greeks and Romans of those days were so much fallen away from the bravery of their forefathers, that the emperors were obliged to hire Gothic soldiers to defend their dominions. Chrysostom, therefore, took great pains to bring over these Goths at Constantinople to the Church. He ordained clergy of their own station for them, and set apart a church for them. And he often went himself to this church, and preached to them in Greek, while an interpreter repeated his words to then in their own language.

But unhappily he soon made enemies at Constantinople. For he found the church there in a very bad state and, by trying to set things right, he gave offence to many people of various kinds, and although he was indeed an excellent man, perhaps he did not always act with such wisdom and such calmness of temper as might have been wished. The last bishop, Nectarius, was a man of high rank, who had never dreamt of being a bishop or any such thing, until at the council of Constantinople he was suddenly chosen instead of the good Gregory (p 71). At that time Nectarius was not even baptized; so that he had first to receive baptism, and then within a week he was consecrated as bishop of the second church in the whole Christian world. And it proved that he was too old to change his ways very much. He continued to live in a costly style, as he had done all his life before; and he let the clergy go on much as they pleased, so that they generally fell into easy and luxurious habits, and some of them were even quite scandalous in their conduct. Now Chrysostom's ways and notions were quite opposite to all this. He sold the rich carpets and other valuable furniture which he found in the bishop's palace; nay, he even sold some of the church ornaments, that he might get money for building hospitals and for other charitable purposes. He did not care for company, and his health was delicate; and for these reasons he always took his meals by himself, and did not ask bishops who came to Constantinople to lodge in his palace or to dine with him, as Nectarius had done. This does not seem to be quite according to St Paul's saying, that a bishop should be "given to hospitality" (1 Tim. iii.2); but Chrysostom thought that among the Christians of a great city like Constantinople the strange bishops could be at no loss for entertainment, and that his own time and money might be better spent than in entertaining them. But many of them were very much offended, and it is said that one, Acacias, of Berrhoea, in Syria, declared in anger, "I will cook his pot for him!"

Chrysostom's reforms also interfered much with the habits of his clergy. He made them perform service at night in their churches for people who were too busy to attend during the day; and many of them were very unwilling to leave their homes at late hours and to do additional work. Some of them, too, were envious of him because he was so famous as a preacher, and they looked eagerly to find something in his sermons which might be turned against him. And besides all these enemies among the clergy, he provoked many among the courtiers and the rich people of Constantinople, by plainly attacking their vices.

Although Chrysostom had chiefly owed his bishopric to Eutropius, he was afterwards drawn into many disputes with him. For in that age and in that country things were very different from what they happily are among ourselves, and a person in power like Eutropius might commit great acts of tyranny and oppression, while the poor people who suffered had no means of redress. But many of those whom Eutropius meant to plunder or to imprison took refuge in churches, where debtors and others were then considered to be safe, as it was not lawful to seize them in the holy buildings. Eutropius persuaded the emperor to make a law by which this right of shelter (or "Sanctuary", as it was called) was taken away from churches. But soon after he himself fell into disgrace, and in his terror he rushed to the cathedral, and laid hold of the altar for protection. Some soldiers were sent to seize him; but Chrysostom would not let them enter; and next day, when the church was crowded by a multitude of people who had flocked to see what would become of Eutropius, the bishop preached on the uncertainty of all earthly greatness. While Eutropius lay crouching under the holy table, Chrysostom turned to him and reminded him how he had tried to take away that very privilege of churches from which he was now seeking protection; and he desired the people to beg both God and the emperor to pardon the fallen favourite. By all this he did not mean to insult the wretched Eutropius, but to turn the rage of the multitude into pity. It was said, however, by some that he had triumphed over his enemy's misfortunes; and he also got into trouble for giving Eutropius shelter, and was carried before the emperor to answer for doing so. But the bishop boldly upheld the right of the Church to protect the defenceless, and Eutropius was, for the time, allowed to go free.


Thus there were many at Constantinople who were ready to take part against Chrysostom, if an opportunity should offer, and it was not long before they found one.

The bishop of Alexandria at this time was a bold and bad man, named Theophilus. He was jealous of the see of Constantinople, because the second general council had lately placed it above his own (p 84); he disliked the bishop because he had hoped to put one of his own clergy into the place, and had seen enough of Chrysostom at his first meeting to know that he could not make a tool of him; and although he had been obliged by the emperor and Eutropius to consecrate Chrysostom as bishop, it was with a very bad grace that he did so.

There were then great quarrels as to the opinions of the famous Origen, who had lived two hundred years before (Chapter VII). Some of his opinions were really wrong, and others were very strange, if they were not wrong too. But besides these, a number of things had been laid to his charge of which he seems to have been quite innocent. If Theophilus really cared at all about the matter, he was in his heart favourable to Origen. But he found it convenient to take the opposite side; and he cruelly, persecuted such of the Egyptian monks as were said to be touched with Origen's errors. The chief of these monks were four brothers, called the "long" or "tall brothers". One of them was that same Ammonias who cut off his ear, and was ready to cut out his tongue, rather than be a bishop (p 65). Theophilus had made much of these brothers, and had employed two of them in managing his accounts. But these two found out such practices of his in money-matters as quite shocked them, and as, after this, they refused to stay with the bishop any longer, he charged them and their brothers with Origenism (as the following of Origen's opinions was called). They denied that they held any of the errors which Theophilus laid to their charge; but he went with soldiers into the desert, hunted out the brothers, destroyed their cells, burnt a number of books, and even killed some persons. The tall brothers and some of their friends fled into the Holy Land, but their enemy had power enough to prevent their remaining there, and they then sought a refuge at Constantinople.

On hearing of their arrival in his city, Chrysostom inquired about them, and, finding that they bore a good character, he treated them kindly; but he would not admit them to communion until he knew what Theophilus had to say against them. Theophilus, however, was told that Chrysostom had admitted them, and he wrote a furious letter to him about it. The brothers were very much alarmed lest they should be turned away at Constantinople as they had been in the Holy Land, and one day when the empress Eudoxia was in a church, they went to her and entreated her to get the emperor's leave that a council might be held to examine their case.

Theophilus was summoned to appear before this council, and give an account of his behaviour to the brothers; but when he got to Constantinople, he acted as if, instead of being under a charge of misbehaviour himself, he had been called to judge the bishop of the capital. He would have nothing to do with Chrysostom. He spent large sums of money in bribing courtiers and others to favour his own side; and, when he thought he had made all sure, he held a meeting of six and thirty bishops, at a place called the Oak, which lay on the Asiatic shore, opposite to Constantinople (AD 403). A number of trumpery charges were brought against Chrysostom, and, as he refused to appear before such a meeting, which was almost entirely made up of Egyptian bishops, and had no right whatever to try him, they found him guilty of various offences, and, among the rest, of high treason! The emperor and empress had been drawn into taking part against him, and he was condemned to banishment. But on the night after he had been sent across the Bosphorus (the strait which divides Constantinople from the Asiatic shore), the city was shaken by an earthquake. The empress in her terror supposed this to be a judgment against the injustice which had been committed, and hastily sent off a messenger to beg that the bishop would return. And when it was known next day that he was on his way back, so great was the joy of his flock that the Bosphorus was covered with vessels, carrying vast multitudes of people, who eagerly crowded to welcome him.


Within a few months after his return, Chrysostom again got into trouble for finding fault with some disorderly and almost heathenish rejoicings which were held around a new statue of the empress, close to the door of his cathedral. Theophilus had returned to Egypt, and did not again appear at Constantinople, but directed the proceedings of Chrysostom's other enemies who were on the spot. Another council was held, and, of course, found the bishop guilty of whatever was laid to his charge. He did not mean to desert his flock, unless he were forced to do so; he, therefore, kept possession of the cathedral and of the episcopal house for some months. During this time he was often disturbed by his enemies; nay, more than once, attempts were even made to murder him. At last, on receiving an order from the emperor to leave his house, he saw that the time was come when he must yield to force. His flock guarded the cathedral day and night, and would have resisted any attempt to seize him; but he did not think it right to risk disorder and bloodshed. He, therefore took a solemn leave of his chief friends, giving good advice and speaking words of comfort to each. He begged them not to despair for the loss of him, but to submit to any bishop who should be chosen by general consent to succeed him. And then, while, in order to take off the people's attention, his mule was held at one door of the church, as if he might be expected to come out there, he quietly left the building by another door, and gave himself up as a prisoner, declaring that he wished his case to be fairly tried by a council (AD 404).

He was first carried to Nicaea, where he remained nearly a month. During this time he pressed for a fresh inquiry into his conduct, but in vain; and neither he nor his friends could obtain leave for him to retire to some place where he might live with comfort. He was sentenced to be carried to Cucusus, among the mountains of Taurus -- a name which seemed to bode him no good, as an earlier bishop of Constantinople, Paul, had been starved and afterwards strangled there, in the time of the Arian troubles (AD 351).

On his way to Cucusus, he was often in danger from robbers who infested the road, and still more from monks of the opposite party, who were furious against him. When he arrived at the place, he found it a wretched little town, where he was frozen by cold in winter, and parched by excessive heat in summer. Sometimes he could hardly get provisions; and when he was ill (as often happened), he could not get proper medicines. Sometimes, too, the robbers, from the neighbouring country of Isauria, made plundering attacks, so that Chrysostom was obliged to leave Cucusus in haste, and to take refuge in a castle called Arabissus.

But, although there was much to distress him in his banishment, there was also much to comfort him. His great name, his sufferings, and his innocence were known throughout all Christian churches. Letters of consolation and sympathy poured in on him from all quarters. The bishop of Rome himself wrote to him as to an equal, and even the emperor of the West, Honorius, interceded for him, although without success. The bishop of Cucusus, and his other neighbours, treated him with all respect and kindness, and many pilgrims made their way over the rough mountain roads to see him, and to express their reverence for him. His friends at a distance sent him such large sums of money that he was able to redeem captives and to support missions to the Goths and to the Persians, and, after all, had to desire that they would not send him so much, as their gifts were more than he could use. In truth, no part of his life was so full of honour and of influence as the three years which he spent in exile.

At length the court became jealous of the interest which was so generally felt in Chrysostom, and he was suddenly hurried off from Cucusus, with the intention of removing him to a still wilder and more desolate place at the farthest border of the empire. He had to travel rapidly in the height of summer, and the great heat renewed the ailments from which he had often suffered. At length he became so ill that he felt his end to be near, and desired the soldiers who had the charge of him to stop at a town called Comana. There he exchanged his mean travelling dress for the best which he possessed; he once more received the sacrament of his Saviour's body and blood; and, after uttering the words "Glory be to God for all things," with his last breath he added "Amen!" (September 14th, 407).

Thirty years after this, Chrysostom's body was removed to Constantinople. When the vessel which conveyed it was seen leaving the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, a multitude, far greater than that which had hailed his first return from banishment, poured forth from Constantinople, in shipping and boats of all kinds, which covered the narrow strait. And the emperor, Theodosius II, son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, bent humbly over the coffin, and lamented with tears the guilt of his parents in the persecution of the great and holy bishop.

chapter xix arcadius and honorius
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