Deception and intrigue worthy of any James Bond movie seem to surround the life of this great preacher. Given the title ‘Chrysostom’ which translates from the Greek as “golden mouthed” because of his great oratory capabilities, St John won and lost many who sought to listen to his sometimes very long (they could be over two hours) sermons.
Born to noble parents in 347 at Antioch, John was raised by his mother, Anthusa, after his father’s death shortly after he was born. His mother made sure her son received a good education and he became well-versed in Greek and Classical culture.
A turning point came in this young man’s life when he met Bishop Meletius, a gentle unassuming man whose preaching had a profound impact on John’s life. John more and more withdrew himself from his former teachings and began to study Scripture.
After three years he was baptized by the Bishop and became a lector. During this period John led a life devoted to manual labour and studying the Scriptures. After about four years he took himself off to live as a hermit in some caves just outside Antioch. He remained there praying and fasting for about two years until ill health forced him to return.
During the next twelve years St John did some of his most famous writings and preaching. However, life was about to change when the Bishop of Constantinople died and the streets of this great City were rife with rivalry, both public and in private, as people fought for the vacant seat. It was with great disappointment to many when John was announced as the new Bishop. He arrived in this metropolis at a time when there was great wealth and the Emperor’s court held much sway.
John saw the need to reform. He started with his own household. He stopped all the great banquets and lived a very simple life. He told his fellow priests to get rid of their “housekeepers”, and to stop living such luxurious lives. He sacked deacons who were not living as they should be, and declared to the ecclesiastical widows, some of whom were living very worldly lives, to either re-marry or to observe the rules of decorum demanded by their state.
After this he turned his attention to his flock. This is where things began to become complicated. John frequently began to preach against the extravagant lifestyles and dress of the women, which he felt was inappropriate. The upper classes of Constantinople had never been spoken to in such a way before and they did not take kindly to this priest whom some felt was discrediting them publicly. However, many others applauded John for his outbursts, even those who were rich and among the courtiers of the Emperor. One such was Olympias a wealthy widow who befriended John. He became her spiritual director, and their friendship gave rise to much gossip and slanderous accusations.
Between the Empress, would be politicians, and other local Bishops who resented the growth of the importance of the Bishop of Constantinople, St. John began to make enemies. His forthright preaching just did not sit well with them. Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, and Empress Eudoxia were determined to discredit John. Theophilus accused John of heresy and he had the support of other disgruntled Bishops who for their own good reasons wanted John out. They mounted what looked like a leadership bid and with the help of the Empress had John deposed. To save any bloodshed John surrendered himself to the soldiers who were going to escort him into exile.
But an accident at the royal palace frightened the Empress and she thought she was being punished by Heaven for John’s exile. She immediately issued a recall and John re-entered the City to much excitement from his followers. However this was short lived. Two months later a huge silver statue of the Empress was unveiled outside the Cathedral. Unfortunately the Bishop had a thing or two to say about this which the Empress took exception to and she once again had him sent into exile. John was hauled off by the soldders to Armenia.
When the West became aware of his predicament much was done to try and reinstate him, but all to no avail. John was taken to the furthest boundary of the empire. En route he was very mistreated by some of the soldiers. His weakened body could take no more and he died on September 14th 407.
The Church is blessed to have so many records of this great Bishop’s writings. He has left a legacy that has endured down through the centuries. Words of wisdom which we can still listen to and apply to our lives today. This unassuming man who was always so generous to the poor and needy would be very humbled to know that all of these hundreds of years later his words are still being read.
Maybe in honour of this great Saint and Doctor of the Church a feast of all things Turkish would be good for dinner. Certainly some Turkish delight, maybe lemon flavored to honour this “golden mouthed” man who spoke so eloquently about his faith.
Tags: St John Chrysostom