The Eloquent Witness of John Chrysostom

by Michael Healy

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“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.

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Tags: Syria Christianity Prayers/Hymns/Saints