Introduction to the Life and Works of St John Chryosotom (the Golden Mouthed)
His Feast in the Maronite Church on 13 November
“It pleases our Synod to remind Maronites that the conversion of many Syrian and Lebanese to Christianity during the Roman era occurred at the hands of preachers motivated by apostolic zeal, and foremost among them were monks, disciples of Saint Maron of Cyrrhus, Saint John Chrysostom, and Simon Stylite.
Antiochan Syriac Maronite Church Synod Text of 2006 (In English)
This article is intended as an entrée into the life and works of St John Chrysostom. The name Chrysostom means “the golden-mouthed” (in Arabic “Al-Qadis Yuhanna al-Thahabi al-Fam”). As a Church of the Syriac Antoichene Rite, the writings of St John of Chrysostom have been influential in the development of Maronite spirituality. St John Chrysostom was a contemporary of St Maroun. His extraordinary collections of homilies on the scriptures give us a wonderful insight into the thinking and teachings of the early Eastern Church Fathers and are a wonderful lesson for anyone looking to understand certain aspects of Maronite Spirituality. We are also blessed to recently have the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom for use in English, as it is one of the two new Anaphora included in the English Book of Offering.
This article is not intended to be an in depth study of any one aspect of St John Chrysostom or his teachings, as they are widely available in English for anyone to access. Rather the article is intended to encourage Maronites (and others) to further explore the writings of St John Chrysostom and discover his influence on Maronite Spirituality.
Understanding St John Chrysostom’s life also helps us understand the context of his writing. Many of the writings developed in the context of what was going on around him.
St John Chrysostom was born at Antioch in 347, and died in Pontus on 14 September 407.
Antioch was a major center of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Many religions existed at the time including Pagans, Manicheans, Arians, Gnostics and Jews and at times these religions were in conflict. Certain schisms (theological divisions) started to emerge amongst the Christians as well.
St John Chrysostom’s father was a high-ranking officer in the army and died soon after St John’s birth. His mother was only 20 years old at the time and she raised St John and his sister alone after her husband’s death. She devoted herself to her children and never married again. She sent St John to the best schools of Antioch and he studied with some of the best Greek orators of the time.
In about 367AD, he met the Bishop Meletius who was a great influence on St John. He turned from his classical studies and began listening to the Bishops sermons and studying the scriptures. About three years later he was baptized and ordained a lector. St John entered one of the ascetic societies near Antioch. During this time he focused on prayer, manual labour and studied the Scriptures. He also began to write about monastic and ascetic life. After about four years he decided to live as an anchorite (hermit) in caves near Antioch, where he remained for two years.
Due to ill health he returned to Antioch and his position as Lector in the Church. Some time after this he was made a deacon and he focused on looking after the sick and poor and writing. It is likely that at this time he wrote his seminal book “On the Priesthood.” In the year 386 he was ordained a Priest and it is during this time that he started preaching and delivering his sermons and homilies, many of which we have been passed on to us today.
His sermons and homilies attracted great crowds who would happily listen to him for long periods. He provided detailed commentaries on the Scriptures. His fame began to spread the throughout the Empire.
On 27 September 397, the then Bishop of Constantinople died. St John Chrysostom was sent to Constantinople and ordained Bishop on 26 February 398. Constantinople had many internal problems, including a lifestyle of excess. One of his first acts was to bring reconciliation with Rome and St John maintained a close relationship with the “Bishop of Rome” for the rest of his life.
St John also brought sweeping reforms to Constantinople. Those reforms also created powerful enemies. He reduced the expenses of the episcopal household, put an end to lavish banquets and reformed the way in which the clergy lived (including forbidding them to have syneusactoe, women housekeepers who had vowed to virginity). He took action against clergy involved in scandal. He instigated stricter rules for clergy and monks. He preached to the laity about excessive riches including extravagant dress.
While some resented this, he also endeared himself to other nobility in the court and to the people who loved his sermons. He cared for the poor and in his first year built a hospital with the money he had saved from his household.
Initially, he had good relations with the Emperor and Empress, but that changed when he interceded for those less fortunate who were being mistreated by the nobility. As time progressed, the politics of Constantinople got more and more difficult for St John to navigate. In 403 after St John delivered a sermon against the excesses of the women of the court, the Empress took particular offence and began working against St John. Other Bishops who were also hostile to him drew up long lists of accusations against him. St John was summonsed to a Synod to apologise. He opposed the legality of the Synod and was later deposed as Bishop. In order to avoid bloodshed in the area he surrendered himself to the soldiers (his first exile). The people started to protests for his release and the Empress recalled St John and he returned to rejoicing crowds in Constantinople. However, after St John again complained about the excesses of a celebration around a silver statue for the Empress, she was again offended and St John was sent into exile for a second time.
This time he was exiled for a much longer time to a remote and difficult area in present day Armenia. During this time St John corresponded with many friends, including his friend St Maroun. We still have records of those letters. When Pope Innocent I and the Bishops of the West heard of St John’s exile they attempted to intercede, however this failed. As a result of this and other controversies, the Pope broke off communion with the Patriarchs of Alexandria.
St John’s exile continued for over three years. In 407, St John was moved to a further remote area of the empire and he was forced to endure all sorts of tortures. He died on 14 September 407. His last words were “Glory be to God for all things”. On 27 January 438 his body was taken back to Constantinople and received with great celebration and entombed in the Church of the Apostles.
St John Chrysostom and the Maronite Church
"To Maron, the Monk Priest:
We are bound to you by love and interior disposition, and see you here before us as if you were actually present. For such are the eyes of love; their vision is neither interrupted by distance nor dimmed by time. We wished to write more frequently to your reverence, but since this is not easy on account of the difficulty of the road and the problems to which travellers are subject, whenever opportunity allows we address ourselves to your honour and assure you that we hold you constantly in our mind and carry you about in our soul wherever we may be. And take care yourself that you write to us as often as you can, telling us how you are, so that although separated physically we might be cheered by learning constantly about your health and receive much consolation as we sit in solitude. For it brings us no small joy to hear about your health. And above all please pray for us".
St John Chrysostom is one of the two main sources that refer to Saint Maroun, our founding Maronite Father. From the excerpt above we can see that he held him in great esteem and at his most difficult time he asked St Maroun to pray for him. In the same letter he dedicated his 36th epistle to Saint Maroun.
A relationship with Rome
The Maronites have always been in communion with Rome. St John maintained a relationship with Rome. One of his first acts as Bishop of Constantinople was to reconcile Constantinople with Rome.
Correspondence between St John and the Bishops of Rome and Pope Innocent, remain available. The letters provide an interesting insight into the relations between the eastern and western Churches during the period. Pope Innocent, in a letter to Constantinople wrote in St John’s defence:
“At the present time, by a perversion of custom, guiltless priests are expelled from the presidency of their own Churches. And this is what your chief brother, and fellow minister, John, your bishop has unjustly suffered, not having obtained any hearing: no crime is charged against him, none is heard. And what is the object of this iniquitous device? that no pretext for a trial may occur, or be sought, other men are introduced into the places of living priests, as if those who start from an offence of this description could be judged by any one to have anything good or to have done anything right.”
Today, as Maronites, we continue to pray for the unity of the Christian Churches, in particular in the east. In the words of Pope Francis at a recent delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on the occasion of the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.
“The search for unity among Christians is an urgency from which today, more than ever, we cannot subtract ourselves. In our world, hungry and thirsty for truth, love, hope, peace and unity, it is important for our own witness to be able to, finally, proclaim with one voice the happy news of the Gospel and to celebrate together the Divine Mysteries of our new life in Christ! We know well that unity is primarily a gift from God for which we must pray incessantly for, but to all of us have the task of preparing the conditions, of cultivating the ground of the heart, so that this extraordinary grace will be received.”
Asceticism and Monastic Life
As we can see from the introductory quote of the Maronite Synod, monks have been an important part of the evanglisation of the Christians during the Roman era in the early Church in the east. Christian asceticism and monastic life were an important aspect of Christian life in the Antiochan society at the time. St John wrote on priesthood and the virtues and challenges of asceticism. He also lived it himself. The Maronites developed from a climate of asceticism. Many of our Maronites fathers have carried a very authentic ascetic tradition. While living an ascetic life, they have remained close to the hearts of the people, one of the most prominent of them being of course St Charbel.
A simple life
Speaking of the people of Antioch, St John said:
"I think today must be a great festival, on account of the presence of our brothers, who have adorned our city today and embellished our church. In language, they are to us a backwards people, but in faith we harmonize. They lead quiet lives, having a temperate and reverend existence. For amongst these people are no disorderly theatres, nor horse races, nor immoral women, nor other urban chaos; instead, every indication of licentiousness is driven out and great temperance blossoms everywhere."
St John praised the Syriac speaking Antiochan people for their simplicity. Even though they may not have been educated he saw them as reverend. Many of our Maronite forebearers, lived simple and holy lives. St John promotes that simplicity. In his later sermons in Constantinople he fervently discourages excess.
Influences on the Maronite Liturgy
“The Maronite Church in its liturgy is fortunate in being the heir of at least two rich traditions, those of Edessa and Antioch. The Church of Edessa traces its origins to the preaching of the liturgical contributors included St. Ephrem and James of Saroug…. The Church of Antioch was the ancient See of Peter and developed its liturgy with influences from the Church of Jerusalem. The Maronite Anaphora of the Twelve Apostles represents the oldest tradition of the Church of Antioch. St. John Chrysostom took this Anaphora with him to Constantinople and became the basis of the Byzantine liturgy. As heir to the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Maronite Church represents the Antiochene liturgy in its fullness. Thus, the Maronite Church, in its prayer life, preserves the way of worship of the Apostles and their earliest disciples.”
The Maronite Church is very rich in the number of Anaphora’s that it has retained in its Liturgy. We have also preserved the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom (not to be confused with the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) and this has recently been translated for us into English.
St John Chrysostom and his Teachings
‘The Golden Mouth’ has left us a treasure trove of works that are as relevant today as they were in the fifth century. Of course this paper can’t reproduce all of them and it is not intended to. The reader is encouraged to go out and read the wonderful works of St John Chrysostom to better understand their faith and the scriptures. However below are some of his wonderful quotes related to just some of the themes St John writes about.
“For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels.”
From his Treatise on Priesthood.
St John is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its teachings on marrage.
“2365 Fidelity expresses constancy in keeping one's given word. God is faithful. The Sacrament of Matrimony enables man and woman to enter into Christ's fidelity for his Church. Through conjugal chastity, they bear witness to this mystery before the world.
St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us.... I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you. 150”
'Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness.'
On Raising Children
“Never deem it an unnecessary thing that he should be a diligent hearer of the divine Scriptures. For there the first thing he hears will be this, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’; so that this makes for thee. Never say, this is the business of monks. Am I making a monk of him? No. There is no need he should become a monk. Why be so afraid of a thing so replete with so much advantage? Make him a Christian.” – Homilies on Ephesisans, Homily 21
“Youth is wild, and requires many governors, teachers, directors, attendants, and tutors; and after all these , it is a happiness if it be restrained. For as a horse not broken in, or a wild beast untamed, such is youth. But if from the beginning, from the earliest age, we fix it in good rules, much pains will not be required afterwards; for good habits formed will be to them as a law. Let us not suffer them to do anything which is agreeable, but injurious; nor let us indulge them, as forsooth but children. Especially let us train them in chastity, for there is the very bane of youth. For this many struggles, much attention will be necessary. Let us take wives for them early, so that their brides may receive their bodies pure and unpolluted, so their loves will be more ardent. He that is chaste before marriage, much more will be chaste after it; and he that practiced fornication before, will practice it after marriage. ‘All bread,’ it is said, ‘is sweet to the fornicator.’ Garland are wont to be worn on the heads of bridegrooms, as a symbol of victory, betokening that they approach the marriage bed unconquered by pleasure. But it captivated by pleasure he has given himself up to harlots, why does he wear the garland, since he has been subdued? — Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily 9
St John Chrysostom Pray for us Always!
 Adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08452b.htm)
 Quoted from Hourani, G . Saint Maron's Relic "Ornament of the Divine Choir of Saints" at http://maroniteinstitute.org/MARI/JMS/january97/Saint_Marons_Relic.htm#7
 Stephens, W. Correspondence of St. Chrysostom with the Bishop of Rome at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers2/NPNF1-09/npnf1-09-48.htm
 Childers, J, Studies in the Syriac versions of St John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the New Testament at http://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid%3A1d934fa6-8614-45bc-a61f-6de883846adb/datastreams/ATTACHMENT1