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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

AS already mentioned, he was born in the year 347, A. D., in Antioch. This city was in Syria, a Roman province of Asia, lying north-east of Palestine. In this city, as we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, a Christian church was first formed from the heathen; here Barnabas and Paul labored so long; here the name “Christians” (Acts 11:20–30) was first applied to believers; here, finally, that earnest strife between Jewish and Gentile Christians began, which was terminated by the labors of Paul and the decision of all the apostles in Jerusalem. (Acts 15.)

Antioch was a great city, one of the four principal cities of the Roman Empire (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch). It was more than twelve miles in circumference, and had beautiful streets, paved with slabs of marble. At an earlier period it had been the residence of the Syrian kings; now it was a populous and commercial city, in which not only traders, but also scholars and men of culture in the arts and sciences were living. Moreover, strangers from all quarters of the world here met. “People of every land,” says a scholar of Antioch, “may be found with us; and whoever takes his seat in the market-place can learn the customs of all cities.” But, as often in great cities, luxury reigned here; the high gave themselves up to feasting, the low were familiar with vice; a wild rabble drove about in the city, so that Christians were not only exposed to heavy temptations, but were already infected by the prevalent wickedness. Their pastors, when faithful, had a hard and often thankless labor to perform.

Anthusa, the mother of John, belonged to the best part of the church; she was a pious and superior young woman. Soon after the birth of the child, and while in her twentieth year, she lost her husband, an officer of high rank. His name was Secundus. In consequence of hearty love to her deceased husband, and of a desire to attend with undivided mind to the education of her child, she remained a widow.

She saw in the boy a treasure committed to her by God. Henceforth the end of her life, of all which she did or forbore to do, was to train him up for God, to make of him, by Divine aid, a genuine Christian. During the first years of his life, she kept him with herself; the child enjoyed the instruction, and, what was equally important, the society of his excellent mother. When he had become a youth, and showed unusual capacities, his mother decided to give him the benefits of good learning, and put him in the school of a man named Libanius. This may be thought rash, for Libanius was a pagan, soul and body, and, therefore, a foe to Christianity; nay, more, he was a man who, at that time, strove and wrought beyond any other to uphold Paganism, to exalt it on high again, and, if possible, to destroy the power of Christianity. Nor was he deficient in ability. He was a learned, shrewd, eloquent man; he could boast that Asia, Europe, Africa, and all their islands, were filled with his scholars. The eyes of the pagan world were turned to him, and they hoped from him much aid to their cause.

Yet Anthusa placed her son in the school of this man, because, in respect to human knowledge and culture, he could receive more thorough instruction and skilful guidance than from any other teacher of that time. This, I said, may be thought perilous rashness. But Anthusa knew her son. She knew he had not merely received Christianity into his memory and his thoughts, it had taken root also in his heart and conscience; he had experienced it as a living power in his soul, and had entered into communion with God. Hence she trusted, and had a right to trust, that words and thoughts, even the finest pleas of a man for what had no truth and no power, as the pagan faith of that age, would not injure her son. She was not mistaken. John remained in the heathen school what he had become by intercourse with his mother, a devout, believing Christian, and often thanked his mother both for the Christianity to which she led him when a child, and for the liberal culture which she afterwards procured for him in the school of Libanius.

Have all Christian mothers such courage, such firm trust in the vital power of Christianity? There are many pious people who would fain seclude their children from all connection with the world, that they may not be led astray by it. We have no desire to express a judgment upon their course, for not all sons of Christian parents are like Chrysostom, and youth of weak character who have never experienced to any great extent the power of religion, ought certainly to be guarded. Yet the bold action of Anthusa surely testifies of a high mind, of deep and broad views. Libanius himself, though a stranger to the mother’s faith, conceived great respect for her, and once said to a friend in allusion to her: “What wives these Christians have!”

After John had studied for a series of years in the school of this man, had accumulated much knowledge and cultivated his fine gifts and talents, he resolved, under the influence of his teacher’s advice, to devote himself to the law. He became an advocate. But he did not hold out long in this calling. After he had learned the wicked arts which, especially at that time, were resorted to in the practice of law, he became convinced: this is not for me; my nature and mind do not incline to it. His heart drew him to divine things, and he determined to pass over into the clerical order. In conformity with the ecclesiastical usages of that age, he must choose between entering as a monk the silent cloister, and being consecrated as a priest to active service in the church. Had he followed his inclination at this period of his life, he would have chosen the former. He longed for quiet, for retirement; but his mother, who wished to retain his society, and Meletius, bishop of the city, who knew the heart and gifts of the young man, and hoped for a blessing to the church from his labors, moved him to self-denial, and he accepted service in the church. The bishop made him “reader.” The young clergy at that time began as readers; they did not preach at once, but only read from the Holy Scriptures in the church. But a light shines, even if it is concealed. What was in the young man soon became known. Presently they wished to bring him forward and give him the office of bishop. Yet John did not suffer himself to be bribed by the honorable and splendid prospect; he believed himself too young, not ripe enough for it. He therefore rejected the offer, remained in the subordinate position of a reader, and sought to prepare himself in silence, especially by an earnest study of the Bible, for more responsible offices. For this object good assistance was afforded him.

There was living in Antioch a distinguished presbyter, Diodorus by name. He was truly pious, and, full of zeal for the cause of God among men, labored for that part of the church intrusted to his care. He went about, as Chrysostom relates, among the church members in the old city, over the Orontes, knew the individual houses and persons, and sought to arouse, edify, strengthen, or console each one according to his need. But he found time for other work, by which he effected much for the good of succeeding ages. He joined with himself a number of capable young men, for the purpose of leading them to a thorough study of the Bible. The Sacred Record was indeed read by all Christians, but by most of them only to be edified for the moment, to cherishpious thoughts and feelings; by scholars also from a different motive; but among these there were many at that time who found in the Bible whatever they wished to find. Diodorus saw this, and with pain. He thought: If I read the Word of God, my wishes and inclinations must be silent. I must open my eyes and see what is written therein, and hearken to what Christ and the apostles will say. This demands a conquest of self and strenuous labor, together with learning and meditation. The knowledge, he had acquired; to the rest he applied himself. His plan was to train, in that union, a number of young men to his own views, and through them to diffuse a correct and thorough understanding of the Bible. John attached himself to this union, and, under the direction of Diodorus, obtained that clear, genuine, fundamental knowledge of the Scriptures, which distinguished him above most of his contemporaries.

And this man, who loved these serious studies and lived in them for years, we find again, perhaps to our surprise, as a lonely eremite. It appears that after the death of his mother he left the city and his office, and retired to a circle of men, who lived not far from Antioch in the stillness of a cloister. There he was blessed, and to that retirement he ever looked back with pleasure. He often spoke with visible joy of the peace of God which reigned in the life of those monks. We have, in our time, very bad accounts of cloister life; but whoever has heard the words of Chrysostom on this matter, knows at least that near Antioch there was a circle of men who strove to live before God silently and ever conscious of His presence; but whose hands were not idle nor forgetful of labor for the sake of prayer. During the four years which he passed there, Chrysostom could and did continue his study of the Bible; nor did he cease from this work when, in the fifth year, he withdrew into the perfect solitude of a grotto in the mountain. In this place he dwelt two years; in labor, but not with his hands; in conflicts, which were known only to him and to God, but which terminated in victory. Most persons have scarcely an idea of that which those men desired, of that for which they struggled with the deepest earnestness and with all their powers; but whoever feels his soul go out after Chrysostom, in view of the labors which he subsequently performed, as a genuine disciple of Christ, in his agitated life, should know; for the man became what he was by the work performed in that solitude.

In the sixth year, 380, he came back from his retirement to Antioch, where he was well known before, and was now received with joy into, the service of the church.

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