Sunset in Istanbul (once Constantinople)
‘God does not refuse it [the gift of celibacy] to anyone who asks Him for it with fervour … this gift is granted to all those who wish for it and who ask for it.’
‘The root and flower of celibacy is a crucified life.’
To celibates: ‘You have a heavenly bridegroom, indeed for whom it is well worth making any sacrifice here on earth.’
John Chrysostom 344? – 407
Soon after his death this celebrated leader of the eastern church gained the virtue name Chrysostom, meaning ‘golden mouth’, due to his great eloquence and ability to preach the gospel in a way that everyone could understand.
John Chrysostom was born in Antioch, Syria, and his father, Secundus, was chief commander of the imperial troops there. Secundus died young and the care of his young family was left to his wife, Anthusa, who was only twenty. She was a devoted Christian and never remarried. One of John’s pagan tutors, on seeing her courage in widowhood commented, ‘God, what women these Christians have!’
Around the year 374, John retired to the mountains near Antioch and for four years lived with some monks who lived in community there. Describing the experience he says, ‘The cold words mine and thine were banished … no one possessed anything as his own and the quality of life there was as different from the world as the security of a peaceful harbour is from the most tempestuous ocean.’ Later he lived as a hermit in a cave but ill health caused him to return to the city.
In 381 John became a deacon, in 384 he was ordained a priest and in 398 he was appointed, against his will, Archbishop of Constantinople but, from the start, his no-compromise stance and his powerful and controversial preaching made him enemies as well as friends. The previous bishop of Constantinople had lived at great expense but John lived very frugally and gave all excess money to the poor and sick of the city. Not only did he sell the luxurious furniture belonging to his extravagant predecessor, he even smelted down some sacred church vessels and gave the proceeds to the poor. He started many hospitals in the city which were staffed by priests whom, he insisted, had to be not only of holy character but full of tenderness, compassion and wisdom too.
John reformed the priesthood and with his eloquent, fiery, persuasive preaching, fearlessly attacked unholiness in the church. Yet, underlying this, was a tender and passionate love for his flock. He could describe himself as their ‘slave’ and said that same slavery was his delight. Particularly knowing his special care and oversight were a very devoted group of celibate women belonging to his flock led by a certain woman, Nicareta, and in his preaching he never tired of recommending that celibacy chosen for God’s sake was the better way, for those who were called to it. He wrote:
“God does not refuse it [the gift of celibacy] to anyone who asks Him for it with fervour … this gift is granted to all those who wish for it and who ask for it.”
John was a man of action, sending missionaries abroad and serving the underprivileged in his home city, Constantinople. Yet, undergirding his powerful ministry and great productiveness was a heart which loved quietness, contemplation and prayer.
John Chrysostom wrote a good deal, and included amongst his writings are three small works, entitled: ‘On Virginity,’ ‘To a Young Widow’ and ‘Single Marriage’. In these he sets out his views on the single life. For him celibacy was not so much about abstinence but about giving oneself wholesale to purity and finding a special consecration to Christ. It is not an easy way, he writes, for ‘one must walk on burning coals without being
a crucified life
scorched, on a naked sword without being wounded, since lust is as overpowering as fire and steel.’ But these temptations, writes John, can be overcome and the rewards one finds in the celibate call are beyond any price. Indeed, through the power of the Spirit the gift of celibacy can have a transforming effect on human beings. ‘The root and flower of celibacy is a crucified life,’ John writes to celibates and yet, ‘You have a heavenly Bridegroom, indeed for Whom it is well worth making any sacrifice here on earth.’
John’s outspokenness against the city’s vices won him enemies, not least the Empress, Eudoxia, who secured his banishment from Constantinople on two occasions. The second time he was exiled he was dispatched to the far reaches of the empire where the inhospitable climate caused his weakening strength to finally fail. If he had had a thousand lives he would be ready to lay them all down for his flock, he had said at his first banishment and now, on the eve of his death he had a vision of a former martyr standing before him saying: “Be of good courage, brother John; tomorrow we shall be together.”
And so he died, greatly venerated; his remains were eventually taken in honour first to Constantinople and then to Rome.