Lecture given by the Ver Rev Tony Bridge
In order to get to know a civilisation other than your own, you may do one of two things: you may take a great, sweeping, bird’s eye view of it, or you may focus your historical telescope upon one particular period in all its human variety, colour, and living detail; probably it is good to do both, but you can only do one or the other in the short compass of a single lecture. I have chosen to speak about John Chrysostom tonight because I believe that, as a man, he illuminates, not only his own age, but a whole facet of Byzantine civilisation with many of its virtues and some of its faults, as well as being undeniably one of its great men. Whether I am right in thus judging him and his significance, you must decide.
So, who was he? Well, he was the son of a Christian couple – a good family in Antioch; and he was not called Chrysostom; that was a later nickname. His mother, who was very young, was named Anthusa, and his father, Secundus was supreme commander of the Romany Army in Syria. John was born sometime between AD 344 and 347, and his father died very soon afterwards, leaving Anthusa a widow at twenty.
She never remarried, but devoted her life instead to bringing up John who adored her. She gave him the best education that money could buy, and he proved to be a brilliant pupil: so brilliant, in fact, that when he was eighteen years old he was offered a place in the class of the most sought after of all the teachers in Antioch, the great pagan sophist, Libanius, who taught law there. It wasn’t long before he was recognized both by his fellow pupils and by Libanius himself as by far the most talented of them all, and Libanius even wanted to bequeath his class to John if only he hadn’t been a Christian. Meanwhile, what sort of a young man was he? He has been painted by some of his biographers as something of a plaster saint. One of them called him – and I’m quoting now - “a pure soul who seems never to have been disturbed by earthly passions”, while another wrote of him that “ his pure and upright disposition recoiled from the licentiousness which corrupted society”. But this, I think, is pious nonsense. For one thing, as a young man he was passionately devoted to the theatre, and the theatre in Antioch in the mid-fourth century was a pretty bawdy place. People either went to see Rabelaisian farces or to watch naked girls in highly erotic shows very like those put on in the striptease clubs today. Boys dressed as women appealed to those with other tastes, and most of the performers were readily available for closer inspection after the show was over. All this John found fascinating, as he confessed at the time, and as the strength of his later reaction against it all demonstrated in its own way. The fact is that he seems to have been the kind of person who thoroughly enjoyed the life of a typical fashionable young man about town of the day. Physically, he was rather small and very dark. His head was large, his forehead high and domed, and his eyes deeply set below dark eyebrows. He was never very robust, and even in his student days he was as thin as a rail, while later he became so emaciated that used to describe himself with a laugh as more like a spider than a man, all gangling legs and spindly arms. But apparently he was immensely attractive; even his enemies admitted that, and came under his spell: not that he had any enemies at this time. One the contrary, he was popular and extremely successful both as a student under Libanius and as a young advocate with an increasing reputation for golden-mouthed oratory in the law courts: hence his nickname Chrysostom. And he had as great a passion for the Law as he had for the theatre, He loved every moment of it.
But then in 374 when he was about 30 he gave it all up. I can’t go into this part of his life in any detail for lack of time; but, briefly what happened was that he suffered a gradual revulsion from his old ways and pleasures, while a conviction grew on him that God was calling him to be a monk. When his mother, Anthusa died, he left everything to go and join a monastery in the barren mountains of Syria, where he lived an ascetic life of moderate austerity. But this wasn’t enough for him, and after four years he got permission from his superior, the Abbot. To go and live the life of a hermit in a cave way up in the mountains high above the monastery entirely alone. His brother monks brought him a minimal amount of food from time to time; he greatly increased the austerity of his ways, and in two years he managed completely and permanently to ruin his health. He became so ill that he wasn’t even allowed to return to the life of the monastery, but was ordered to return to Antioch instead. Yet for the rest of his life he looked back on his years in the Syrian mountains as the nearest he had ever come to real happiness.
In Antioch, when he had sufficiently recovered to lead a normal life, John was ordained deacon and five years later priest. During these unspectacular and largely hidden years when we know little about him, he acquired the deep and lasting love of the poor which was to characterise the rest of his ministry; and the poor of the Roman world were really poor; many of them derelict, destitute, or classed as slaves. He not only loved them, but he lived like them, possessing nothing, eating little, and sleeping frugally. He hated the institution of slavery, attacking it and making himself exceedingly unpopular in the process; he didn’t much like the rich; and he deeply disapproved of private property. All this made him both very well-known and very much loved by the ordinary people of Antioch, even by the pagans who still formed more than half its population; but he didn’t become famous until he was in his later thirties. Theodosius the Great was Emperor, and one of the ways in which he had earned his title to his greatness had been the success he had had driving Rome’s enemies back over her ancient frontiers; but his wars had been costly, and he had to raise the money to pay for them somehow. One of the ways he resorted to was to tax the richer cities of the Empire. Syria and the other eastern provinces were far richer than those of the west in the fourth century – the barbarian invasions of the west saw to that – and Antioch was one of the richest cities in the East. Theodosius decided to levy some special taxes on Antioch, and on February 26, 387 the citizens were summoned to listen to a proclamation to that effect. Not very many went along to the square outside the Praetorium to hear the imperial edict, but those who did so listened in stony silence. After a bit some women began wailing as though they were at a funeral, and soon they were joined by some of the men who shouted angrily for the governor; but the governor refused to make an appearance.
The Antiochenes were a turbulent lot by nature, and they soon began to riot, shouting, throwing stones, and making a hell of a racket which drew even more and more people to the scene. Mob hysteria got a grip on them all, and the Praetorium was physically attacked by a howling mass of humanity, and only defended with difficult by a few guards. When the mob failed to take the place, they rushed off on a rampage of violence leaving a trail of destruction behind them, and coming back reinforced to the Praetorium which this time they carried. Then they did a very stupid thing; they burst into the Hall of Judgement, toppled the statues of the Emperors from their pedestals and destroyed them, including one of Theodosius himself and another of Flacilla his wife, and generally wrecked the place. A few hours later, the mob was dispersed by some hastily summoned soldiers; but the damage had been done. Theodosius was known to be subject to bouts of terrifying passion, and when he was angry he was capable of great brutality. Three years later, he had the entire population of Thessalonica massacred for a very similar insurrection, and the Antiochenes had every reason to be apprehensive. They were more than that; they were out of their wits. A period of agonising waiting followed; the city was like a desert; no one dared to go outside in case they were arrested; the markets were deserted, and rumours of all sorts circulated like wildfire. It was during this time of extreme tension and crisis that John came into his own; he preached daily in the Cathedral to crowds so dense that people were in danger of being crushed. He was the one man who kept their hopes alive; he didn’t try to minimise their danger or their stupidity; he tried to lift their minds beyond the immediate predicament to the grater predicament and mystery of being alive – of being human – at all; and the entire city hung on the wings of his words. In the end, as a result of the intercession of the Bishop of Antioch, Theodosius granted the city a complete and free pardon. The people of Antioch went wild, and John was the hero of the hour. Not only that, but his fame spread throughout the Roman world. But it was not until ten years later that he entered into the years which were to ensure that his fame should be not only widespread in his own day, but lasting.
At the age of about fifty in 397 John was elected Archbishop of Constantinople. A brilliant speaker, deeply in love with the poor and under-privileged in God’s world, as thin as a victim of Belsen and by this time bearded with a straggly little greying beard, frequently subject to fits of irritation and ill-temper because of stomach pain caused by his ruined digestion, afraid of no one and at his best in a crisis, with a taste of austerity, silence and prayer, John was a shock to the capital of the Byzantine world. It was used to worldly prelates who were at ease in polite society, and entertained the beau monde both as a duty and a pleasure natural to men of their station. Not so John; he sold the furniture and plate belonging to the Patriarchate and gave the proceeds to the poor, slept on the floor, and ate a minimal meal once a day on his own or in company with tramps, derelicts and social outcasts to whom he was giving hospitality. However, rather surprisingly, to begin with at any rate, he got on famously with the Emperor and, much more important, the Empress of the day. The Emperor was a miserable little creature whose weakness of intellect was only excelled by the infirmity of his will. His name was Arcadius, and he had married an extremely pretty girl, half German and half Byzantine, the daughter of a Gothic general and a Roman mother, named Eudoxia, who was incomparably superior to her wet and weedy consort, and who very properly ruled the roost and wore the trousers, if I may be allowed irretrievably to mix my metaphors. But the honeymoon period with the new Archbishop did not last very long. John fell foul of her first by denouncing some of her ladies-in-waiting for their frivolity, luxurious ways, and immoral living, and he antagonised her too by playing far too prominent and successful a role in the defeat of a Gothic rebellion which rocked the Byzantine world at this time: far too prominent, that is to say, in comparison with that played by her miserable husband, who was so weak and terrified by the whole thing, that he earned himself the utter contempt of his subjects, while John on the contrary became a popular national hero.
He made other enemies at this time too, for he pushed through a number of extremely unpopular reforms in the church which were long overdue. Worldly bishops, time-serving and immoral priests and others of the same ilk became his sworn foes, but these same reforms, which so infuriated some people, made him even more of an idol to the people of Constantinople; to them he was a rare thing, a prelate in the highest office of the church who actually practised what he preached, living a life as humble as Christ himself, speaking the truth without fear or favour to everyone regardless of their position or power, and genuinely loving ordinary poor people; what is more, they flocked to hear him preach, for he had the rare ability to make the gospel both intelligible and deeply relevant to their everyday lives.
As a result of all this, it was not very long before the great feud between John and Eudoxia – Archbishop and Empress – the outcome of what was to determine for centuries the relationship between the Imperial Palace and the Patriarchate, began. The Emperor Constantine had made sure that he and his successors should be not only heads of state but heads of the church as well – vice-regents of Christ on earth; now it was John’s turn to make sure that he and his successors as Archbishops and Patriarchs of Constantinople should be brakes upon the power of the Emperors; should be powers in their own right to counter-balance the autocracy of the Emperors, even if they should do so in a very Byzantine way. But the feud between John and Eudoxia did not burst into the open until he was called away from the capital for several months to Ephesus to clear up an ecclesiastic scandal there; then, while he was away, Eudoxia joined a small circle of his enemies who took advantage of his absence to hatch a plot against him. They included several of her own ladies-in-waiting whom John had offended by his blunt denunciations of their immorality, one or two disgruntled bishops, the Patriarch of Alexandria – a proud and brutal man named Theophilus, who had been furious at John’s appointment to the See of Constantinople which he had wanted for one of his own proteges – and a number of other people who had been antagonised by John’s uncompromising integrity and out-spokenness. They were a dangerous bunch – a small cabal, but one with great power – and John was warned of their machinations long before he came back to the capital. Rumours of the plot against him spread through the city too, and when he did return he was greatly heartened by the warmth of the welcome he received from the citizens who turned out in their thousands to show their support and affection for him. Deciding that attack was the best form of defence, he made up his mind to denounce the plot against him from the pulpit.
There has been controversy about what he actually said. He preached two sermons against his adversaries, and some of his apologists have suggested that some of the more extreme language used in them was not used by John; it was inserted into their texts later by people wishing to discredit his memory. But John never minced words, and on the whole it is much more likely that he said things which, though immensely telling, were to say the least unwise. The Church of the Holy Wisdom – not the present Santa Sophia, which was built by Justinian, but its predecessor – was as crowded as usual to hear him preach on the first Sunday after his return from Ephesus, and the people sat spellbound as he began to tell them in a quiet voice about the plot against him, naming those involved in it, though not naming the Empress directly.
He denounced them all as liars, parasites, and flatterers, and accused them of acting worse than villains in a play. On the following Sunday, understandably, the Church was even more crowded, and this time John really went to town, taking his text from the first book of Kings, where the story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal is told. “Gather together to me”, he said in the stillness of the densely crowded church, “those priests who eat at Jezebel’s table, that I may say to them as Elijah said of old, ‘How long will you go limping between two opinions?’ If Jezebel’s table be the table of the Lord, eat at it; eat at it until you vomit.” There was a dead silence. Everyone recognized that this was tantamount to a declaration of war, for no one could call the Empress, Jezebel, even if only obliquely, and get away with it. The news of what John had said spread through the city like a sudden wind stirring the leaves of a forest as a presage of a coming storm, and the people of Constantinople, who loved nothing better than a good political fight, hugged themselves with anticipatory delight.But although Eudoxia was furious when she heard what the Archbishop had said, she bided her time, she was no fool and she knew how popular John was at this time, and how unpopular was her wretched husband by comparison.
Her opportunity came sooner than she expected. John fell out with the infamous Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, by welcoming kindly to Constantinople some monks called the Tall Brethren whom Theophilus had driven out of his Archdiocese with great brutality on a series of trumped up charges. The monks brought counter-charges against their Archbishop, who was summoned to Constantinople to stand trial. Theophilus was livid with rage; how dare John welcome heretics and rebels to his diocese? How dare he countenance a trial of his ecclesiastic superior brought by a bunch of liars and perverts? And so on. The Patriarchs of Alexandria weren’t superior to those of Constantinople, but when Theophilus arrived accompanied by a retinue of thugs and strong-arm boys from the docks of Alexandria, and thirty north African bishops, he refused to recognise John’s existence and openly said that he had come to depose him. Eudoxia welcomed him and put a palace at his disposal; he dispensed a fortune in bribes to all who would take them – and there were plenty of takers – and before you could turn round, the charges against him by the Tall Brethren had been quietly dropped,. And in their place a series of thirty charges had been brought against John.
A Synod was called to sit in a suburb of Chalcedon called the Oak, and John was summoned to appear before it. He refused. Its members were all Theophilus’s paid toadies except for two bishops who were men he had deprived of their Sees at Ephesus because of the crimes proved against them. But while he refused to plead before such an obviously rigged tribunal, he offered to summon an unbiased Synod to judge his cause and actually sent out invitations to a number of bishops to attend it. This, of course, terrified the Empress and Theophilus; the last thing either of them wanted was an unbiased Synod, so Eudoxia wrote to the Synod of the Oak and ordered its members to hurry up and condemn John as soon as they decently could do so. They duly did just that, even though they had never heard a word in his defence and the witnesses against him were plainly crooked. He was pronounced deposed and banished. They had triumphed, and nothing else mattered. They soon found out that something else mattered very much; it was one thing to pronounce John to be deposed; it was another thing altogether to dislodge him from his archiepiscopal throne or to remove him physically from his diocese.
It was evening when the news of his condemnation became known, and at once a crowd began to gather round his house. As the hours of darkness went by, it grew in numbers and in anger. The Church of the Holy Wisdom which was next door to his residence was also surrounded, and if anyone had tried to abduct the Archbishop by force he would have been lynched on the spot. For three days and nights this voluntary guard of ordinary citizens protected John from harm. If he had chosen to give the word, the city would have risen in violent insurrection against Eudoxia and the whole miserable cabal which had been forged against him; the people were seething with anger and longing to overturn the government which had done this thing to their Archbishop; but instead of inciting his supporters to violence, John preached each day to great crowds of people in the Church of the Holy Wisdom on patience and submission to the will of God.
“Tell me,” he asked them, “What should I fear? Death? But to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. Or exile? The earth is God’s and the fullness of it. Or confiscation of property? We brought nothing into the world, and we can carry nothing out. I don’t fear poverty. I don’t desire wealth. I don’t dread death. So don’t let anything bother you. I am ready to be slaughtered ten thousand times over since death is to me the pledge of immortality.”
He meant what he said, for in his way John was truly and deeply Christian even if at times he was ill-tempered and irritable through pain and ill health. Christ had advocated peace, submission, and the turning of cheeks, and John was determined to stop the people of Constantinople resorting to violence on his behalf. So at church time on the third day of the crisis, he slipped quietly out of a side-door if his residence, and made his way as unobtrusively as possible to give himself up to an extremely surprised party of soldiers. The Empress and her fellow conspirators, who were told of this wholly unexpected turn of events as soon as a messenger could reach them, were as relieved as they were delighted. Victory seemed to have been handed to them on a plate, just when they had become convinced that they had been defeated after all. By Eudoxia’s orders, John was hustled as secretly as possible down to the harbour and put on a vessel which was about to sail to Herion, a port at the mouth of the Black Sea. The whole thing seemed to be finished at last
It was not. When the news broke, the city rose in open revolt against John’s exile. Eudoxia had sent troops into the streets, but they were few in number and were chased back into their quarters by crowds so large that it would have taken an army to control them. The Sacred Palace was besieged: some of Theophilus’s retinue of Egyptians were caught and pulled to pieces by the mob, and not for the first time in Byzantine history, the lives of the Emperor and Empress were in real and imminent danger. But while it was one thing to chase the soldiers off the streets, it was another to attack the well-garrisoned Sacred Palace, so the crowd hesitated. This precarious and explosive situation lasted 24 hours; the mob did not attack, the Palace Guards didn’t go over to the offensive, and Eudoxia and Arcadius trembled for their lives in a paroxysm of indecision. During the night which followed, the stalemate was broken. Constantinople was shaken by a violent earthquake, and as it happened the bedroom in which the Empress was sleeping was damaged worse than anywhere else in the city. As the news spread, the people went wild with delight, judging it to be an unmistakable sign of the wrath of God on the Empress for her treatment of John; a verdict with which the terrified Eudoxia, who wasn’t half barbarian and half Byzantine for nothing, tearfully agreed. Demented with fear, she begged her husband to get John back as soon as possible, and a messenger was sent to recall him. As the news of his reprieve spread, people poured into the streets laughing and singing in the hundreds of thousands to welcome him home. Every boat in the place was commandeered, and half the city set sail with torches to greet him; the Bosphorus danced and sparkled with light, and the night air was filled with the sound of people singing songs and hymns of welcome to their archbishop as he returned to them. When he reached the city he was carried shoulder high to the church of the Holy Apostles before he was allowed to go home, his triumph complete.
I must – alas – compress the rest of the story. For a time, John and a deeply humbled Eudoxia seemed to become friends; but his enemies, though beaten and humiliated, were still powerful, and they hated him even more than before. They bided their time. They didn’t have to wait long; for a few months later John fell out with Eudoxia again and even more violently. It was all over a statue she had erected to herself just outside the Church of the Holy Wisdom, dedicated and with almost pagan rites on the day that the thing was unveiled as if she was some goddess like Athene, the protectress of the city. John denounced her in language which left no room for reconciliation, and once again his enemies gathered round the Empress to destroy him. Another crooked synod was convened; another verdict of condemnation, deposition, and banishment was passed as a foregone conclusion; and yet again John refused to take any notice of it.
Arcadius, trembling and undecided as usual, didn’t dare arrest John for fear of the mob, but ordered him not to leave his residence or enter his cathedral. “I received this church from God,” John told his imperial messengers, “and I am charged with the care of this flock, which I am not free to abandon. Expel me by force if you will, since the city belongs to you, that I may have your authority for deserting my post.” Needless to say, Arcadius did nothing. But Easter was approaching, and John’s enemies were determined to stop him preaching to the great crowds which always came to church on Easter Eve and Day. Three hostile bishops persuaded the feeble Emperor to delegate all authority to them, and when they were told that John had, as usual, gone to his cathedral for the great baptism service on Easter Eve when about three thousand catechumens were gathered there, they loosed a regiment of pagan soldiers on the place with orders to break it up. This the soldiers did with a good deal of violence and sacrilege, and from that day there was unloosed a vicious persecution of anyone who dared support John.
A virtual reign of terror followed; the churches were empty, for no one dared go to them for fear of arrest and torture; people met to worship in woods outside the city; and the old days of paganism seemed to have returned. But still Arcadius did not dare arrest the Archbishop for fear of another earthquake or some such sign of divine anger. But five days after Whitsun that year – 404 – the Emperor was at last persuaded to order his arrest; extra troops were drafted into the city to quell the smallest sign of rioting, and John was duly told that unless he surrendered himself, he would be taken by force. He saddled his mule, left his house by a side door once again, and quietly gave himself up.
When the news broke, his supporters burned the church of the Holy Wisdom to the ground in fury; but this time the troops outnumbered them, and they were brutally repressed. John, meanwhile was taken on a long and arduous journey, which he was far too weak in health to undertake and which utterly exhausted him, to a place of exile in a remote part of the Taurus mountains in Armenia Secunda at the eastern end of Asia Minor where he arrived at the tiny village of Cucusus in a state bordering collapse. But though he suffered terribly from the cold in winter, he gradually recovered what little strength he had ever had; friends were kind to him, one of them putting a house at his disposal, and an old deaconess who adored him coming from Constantinople to share his exile and look after him; and he slowly picked up the threads of his life again.
When he had been there a couple of months, the news arrived that the Empress Eudoxia was dead. His friends greeted it with grim delight as a proof of God’s anger, but it did John little good, for his enemies were still very much in the ascendant in the capital, and he was firmly left in his place of exile. But, in fact, there now began perhaps the most extraordinary years of his life, few as they were destined to be; for while he lived in Cucusus he exercised an authority and influence throughout the Roman world which was almost greater than it had been when he was in possession of his diocese. He did so by correspondence. Everyone from Pope Innocent in Rome, who refused to recognize his deposition, down to the least deacon in Constantinople or Antioch or wherever, wrote to John for advice, for authority, or for guidance exactly as if he were still in full possession of his See. At times this correspondence was perforce broken off, for in winter the village was cut off from the outside world by snow, and in the winter of 405 John was forced to flee and take refuge in a mountain fortress sixty miles away because Cucusus was threatened by some savage barbarians called Isaurians. He only just survived the rigours of that winter, but survive them he did; and when he got back to Cucusus in the spring and the wild almond trees which grew on the foothills of the Taurus mountains burst into blossom, he was so grateful to be alive that he wrote to some friends in Constantinople to tell them of his belief that God must have preserved him in order to restore him to his diocese. But it was not to be
Although Eudoxia was dead, John’s enemies still dominated the Sacred Palace, and they were both angry and frightened; angry at his continued influence even from his place of exile, and frightened that even now he might stage a come-back and humiliate them as he had done one before. They persuaded Arcadius to sign an order banishing him to an even more remote and inhospitable place: Pityus, a village on the bleak north eastern shore of the Black Sea, and they chose two Praetorian Guardsmen, who were known for their brutality, to be his escorts on the journey.
Their instructions were to make it as exhausting and unpleasant as possible; it was to be made on foot; John was to be allowed as little rest as possible and no comforts at all, and if he tried to speak to anyone on the way he was to be beaten. Hints were dropped that if he happened to die en route, his guards were not to be unduly worried; indeed, they might even expect promotion on return to the capital. The pitiless journey lasted for nearly three months, and in spite of something like the beginnings of kindness on the part of one of John’s guards it killed him. On September, 13 A.D. 407, the small party reached Comano, a small town in Potus, with John in a state of near-collapse. He asked if he might rest a little but he wasn’t allowed to do so; he was driven relentlessly on by his guards without a halt even for a drink of water.
Five or six miles outside the town stood a chapel which had been built over the tomb of a martyred bishop, Basiliscus. John could go no further and his guards decided to stay the night there. In his sleep he dreamed that the martyr stood by his side bidding him “to be of good cheer for on the morrow they would be together”. When he awoke in the morning, he begged once again to be allowed a little rest, however short, but it was forbidden him; he was forced to rise and take to the road. They had travelled only three or four miles when he collapsed, and his guards were obliged to carry him back to the chapel they had just left. They supported him to the altar where he clothed himself in white baptismal robes which, at his own request, he borrowed from the priest who looked after the place. He gave his own clothes away to some poor bystanders who had gathered on the scene. Calm as usual in this last crisis of his life, he asked to be given the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and having received it he uttered his accustomed doxology: “Glory be to God for all things”, and died.
He was buried in the Martyry beside Basiliscus, and a great concourse of monks and nuns and hermits came down from the surrounding hills to see him laid to rest. Thirty years later, when the son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, whom John had baptised as a baby, reigned as Theodosius the Younger, his body was taken from its grave in the little chapel at Comano and carried with great pomp to Constantinople. As once before, so now John returned by night to his diocese down the Bosphorus, and the people of the capital came down to the water’s edge in their hundreds of thousand bearing torches to greet him. His body was laid close the altar in the Church of the Holy Apostles, while the young Emperor and his sister Pulchereia asked forgiveness of God for the terrible wrongs inflicted on him by their parents. The last triumph was John’s. It was a triumph, as his was a spirit which was to shape Byzantine civilization at its most glorious and Orthodox Christianity at its best for centuries and therein lay the greatness of John Chrystostom.