Feast of St. John Chrysostom
In 1940, Fr. Gregory Petrov, a Russian Orthodox priest, died in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. Among his possessions was found a copy of a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” It is uncertain whether Petrov composed the hymn, but it is clear that it was written during the period of intense, coordinated persecution of the Church in Russia begun under Lenin. The systematic attempt to annihilate religious identity in Russia continued in waves of varying intensity until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The hymn so cherished by Petrov was copied and distributed secretly, sung and recited in clandestine gatherings of the faithful during those years, as Christians in the millions were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals, barred from worshipping, praying, training new clergy or building churches. The hymn is now easy to find in English translation. I discovered it a few years ago, and my gratitude to God is always kindled anew when I return to its litanies of undaunted thanksgiving:
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen.
Glory to Thee though every sigh of my sorrow.
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey, for every moment of glory.
Glory to Thee, curing affliction and emptiness with the healing flow of time.
Glory to Thee for every happening, every condition Thy providence has placed me in.
Glory to Thee, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love.
Glory to Thee for our unquenchable thirst for communion with God.
Glory to Thee for All Things.
Those six words – “Glory to God for All Things”— appear again and again as a guiding star, a scandalous riddle, an anchor, a leitmotif, and a powerful summary of the Christian hope. “Glory to God for All Things”: these were the final words of St. John Chrysostom, as he lay dying in exile on September 14, in the year 407. What the hymn’s inspired author knew, what Fr. Petrov knew, and what the persecuted faithful knew as they recited these words in prayer was that a holy man centuries before them had maintained hope in the midst of great suffering, and had thanked his crucifiedand risen Savior for everything with his final breath.
It is difficult to underestimate the significance of St. John Chrysostom for the Eastern Church. In his deserved popularity among the common people, in his uncompromising criticism of luxury and waste, in his refusal to show deference to the wealthy or the powerfuland in his tireless advocacy for the poor, St. John Chrysostom is to the Christian East what a saint like Francis of Assisi has been for the Western Church. He was a preacher of intense spiritual magnetism famed for his beautiful words; Chrysostomos they came to call him, the “Golden-Mouthed.” But listeners flocked to hear him, as they flocked to St. Francis, because of the obvious sincerity of his faith and the integrity of his personal behavior, qualities which gave his beautiful phrases a genuine authority.
Chrysostom was born and raised in Antioch in around 347, to wealthy pagan parents. He received an early education in Greek and was influenced by Libanius, a celebrated teacher of rhetoric. Rhetors were professional public speakers, crafters of words with the capacity to convince or pacify the people, to inform or inflame public opinion. The young John quickly displayed natural talent for rhetoric. But at about the age of twenty, inspired by the personality and sermons of a bishop named Meletius, he enrolled in the Asketerion of Antioch. This was a Christian school governed by a monastic code of conduct. He was immensely happy and went on to test a monastic vocation for six years, two of which were spent as an anchorite, a cave-dwelling hermit. Though he returned to a more active form of service in the Church, he became one of the leading apologists for the monastic movement.
After ordination as a priest in 387, be began preaching missions as the personal representative of Antioch’s bishop, Flavian. This earned him a reputation far beyond Antioch. In 398, Chrysostom was summoned to the capital by order of the emperor, Arcadius, and made Bishop of Constantinople, with great reluctance. The historian Palladius remarks that he “began sweeping the stairs from the top.”[i] Byzantium had been re-named Constantinople and dedicated as the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 by the emperor Constantine. It was a wealthy, new metropolis with an imperial court dominated by complex network of political intrigue and personal ambition. Among the factions competing for influence were the clergy, many of whom now wielded significant secular power and a marked taste for urban luxury. The protection and privileges extended by Constantine to the once persecuted Church meant that, by the late fourth century, Christianity was normative and professing Christ carried social advantage.
As Bishop, Chrysostom continued his simple manner of life, reduced the expenses of the episcopal palace by half, discontinued its frequent banquets, sold its silver furniture, and built a hospital. In this milieu, he quickly earned the permanent loyalty of the people, but found that those in positions of political prominence, many of whom were nominal Christians at best, resisted his message. Chrysostom did not mince words, and was specific in his critique of lavish consumption:
“Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”[ii]
By 402, Chrysostom had proven himself impartial in matters of imperial dispute and unwilling to compromise his ethical standards. The empress, Eudoxia, managed to convince the emperor to banish him from the capital. On the eve of Easter, 404, as he prepared to baptize the catachumens, imperial soldiers entered the cathedral, dispersed the congregation, and arrested the the bishop.In a sermon shortly before his arrest, he seemed to anticipate this inevitable confrontation: “Let the waves rise,” he preached, “they cannot sink the boat of Jesus.”
What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of our goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, I have no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.[iii]
He lived for several years in a remote fort on the frontier of Armenia, until the order was given to conduct him on foot to a remote corner of the empire near the Caucusus. He collapsed on the march, and died with the words “Glory to God for all things,” as his brief, final sermon.
A spirit of radical dispossession gave John Chrysostom the grace to glorify God in all things. Though raised in a wealthy family, he grew to love the spirit of poverty and the equanimity of Christ toward not only material possessions but the interior treasures and idols we often think of as our unique property. Our minds, our voices, our words, and our lives are gifted to us, to be held in trust, and to be used as God sees fit. Chrysostom wrote, “A person who owns nothing – or, more precisely, who desires to own nothing, and regards nothing as a personal possession – in spirit owns everything.”[iv] Along with the materially poor, he had great compassion for wealthy Christians of sincere faith, and understood the spiritual challenge and burden of responsibility it gave them. He gave thanks in all circumstances because he experienced each moment of existence, however painful or apparently meaningless, as a divine gift with a mysterious but definite purpose in God’s plan for the salvation, renewal, and consummation of creation.
In John Chrysostom’s life we see as well how the way of Christ draws us into inevitable conflict with the powers of the world. Few of us will be brought before kings and governors, but vulnerable opportunities to bear witness for Christ will find us. If we are living lives of faithful obedience to Christ’s radical simplicity and deep compassion, the prevailing logic and assumptions that govern and enslave the world will cause us pain. When the fresh air of the Gospel becomes our oxygen, when we become Spirit-breathers, the collective sin of the world, of others and our own, will burn our sensitized lungs like toxic fumes. We will notice injustice everywhere we turn, and though we will do all we are able in response, we will feel powerless against so much of it, and that powerlessness will crucify our hearts. Then, Chrysostom’s life reminds us, we will know the hope of the Resurrection from the inside, through the mind of Christ. We will touch it with the hands of Christ. God’s power to raise, to heal, and to save will flow through us, because God will be our only lasting hope. This is a hope that manifests itself in Christ’s suffering servants in every generation: in the Christians of Soviet Russia, in the Christians of apartheid South Africa, in the Christians of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. It is an undying, regenerative hope that rolls the stone away from each new tomb that the world invents. Chrysostom admitted feeling dark and all too human emotions on the eve of what would become his death march. He wrote:
“I shall be driven by evil men from the place where God has called me to live and work. I confess that I am sad. I may even say that I am bitter. I will add that I am angry. But I do not despair. On the contrary, I feel hope. After Christ’s death, his brothers and sisters knew him in the very depths of their hearts. When I am separated in the body from my brothers and sisters, I shall know them even more deeply than I know them at present. In this knowledge my sadness will melt away, my bitter emotions will grow sweet again, and my anger will be soothed. Nothing can destroy love which is rooted and found in Christ.”[v]
In our own ways, many of us have known the frozen ground of the Siberian labor camp. Perhaps you are there now. Many of us have had our own version of that long, bleak march to the end of the known world, or are marching at this moment. There are moments when all hope threatens to harden into cynical despair, when our compromises with the powers of the world threaten to exile us from God, our neighbor, and ourselves. It is there, at the brink of the grave, that Christ stands most ready to save, most eager to hold our loss in the fire of love, most thankful that we have come this far, and most able to transfigure everything. Glory to God for All Things. Amen.
[i]Palladius, Dialogue cum Theodoro, EcclesioeRomanoeDiacono, de vitetconversatione b. Joh. Chrysostomi (written c. 408; best source; ed. BIGOT, Paris, 1680; P.G., XLVII, 5-82).
[ii]Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. Barbarians and Bishops: Army, Church, and State in the age of Arcadius and Chrysostom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 175–176.
[iii]Oratio ante exilium, 1-3. Text: PG 52, cols. 427-430. Trans.:RLH IV, 1377-78.
[iv]Van de Weyer, Robert. On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom. Liguori: Triumph, 1997, p. 37.
[v]Van de Weyer, ibid. p. 84.
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