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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

HE had taken a high office. After the Roman, he was the most important bishop in Christendom. He was not only the first preacher for the court, but as superior bishop, or patriarch, to use a later designation, he had the oversight and guidance of the church in large regions of Europe and Asia. Twenty-eight bishops, with hundreds of the inferior clergy, were under his supervision. Such an office always brings its peculiar labors, cares, and burdens, but then and there it brought an unwonted amount of these. Many, very many of the clergy subordinated to him were not what they should be. His predecessor, Nectarius, had not wisely cared for his flock. Previously an officer of state, and seduced perhaps to accept the high post by a desire for the honor and revenues connected with it, he hardly possessed the capacities and the mind required for a good bishop.

Hence under him many were put into the clerical office who could be of no use there, nor was there any proper oversight and guidance of those already in that office. Chrysostom to be sure found men also, who were like-minded with himself, or who could be guided by him and brought to share his sentiments; and these clung to him with great love and veneration, supported him in his labors and remained true to him in misfortune and death, because they were conscious of the debt they owed to him and his influence. But a great number of men, those who were indifferent, or evil or exceedingly wicked in heart, caused him much sorrow and many a sleepless night, during the years which passed before they succeeded in working his overthrow. On one occasion, weighed down by the painful circumstances in which he was placed by these men, he said with a sigh:—

“How hard it is to find the right, and not to mistake on the one side or the other! An unworthy ecclesiastic ought not to remain in office;—with entire equity and according to my own inclination, I should at once remove him. But what now if there exist no judicial ground for the act?—Then he must remain in office;—but I thus permit what, properly, as superior bishop, I ought not to permit. What then? Should I at least prevent his rising to a higher office? But the church will then perceive that I do not respect their spiritual guide,—this is bad; but to let him advance higher, that is yet worse.”

And at the present day many, who fill subordinate places, look upon higher posts as very inviting, and presume a minister or consistorial adviser able to do as he pleases. If they but imagined all which fatigues the head and weighs upon the heart of such an officer, their envy and fault-finding would cease. They would no longer blame one of these functionaries for doing that which, in their opinion, he ought not to do, nor for omitting that which they presume he ought to perform, but which he, from his position, perceives should not be done.

“Truly,” says Chrysostom, “whoever will not trouble himself about his office, who does not feel the duties of it even as a burden, he may well have good days; but to him who longs for the salvation of the church, who watches over the souls of his flock—!! If thou couldst know how we must bear the burdens of all, how no one will pardon us for anger, no one find an excuse for us when we err, thou wouldst think otherwise of our position. We are like a city “set on an hill,” exposed to the judgment of all, wise and foolish. We are surrounded by the envious and the hostile, and are tortured day and night. Whoever has to oversee a dozen boys in his house, though they are wholly dependent upon him, feels to some extent the difficulty of his task; but how different is it, if we are called to guide men, not in our own house, and each one of whom feels his importance as a man and hesitates whether to follow or not.”

Meanwhile Chrysostom did not satisfy himself with sighs and complaints, he must and did act with vigor. At a later period, as we shall hear, he deposed a whole circle of bishops, and in the first years of his office he proceeded energetically against men who had clearly been guilty of serious transgressions. This naturally stirred up evil blood both in them and in all their adherents. He had at the outset and by less important matters awakened dissatisfaction. The entire Chrysostom, his spirit and his way of life, gave offence to many of the clergy. Let us hear something of it.

The beautiful custom of having Divine service on weekdays, as well as the Sabbath, prevailed in Constantinople. A formal sermon was not always delivered, the hour was sacred to prayer and devotion. The churches were daily opened, there was singing, the preacher made a short address, and offered prayer to God in the name of all. This custom might well be revived among us. The churches ought daily to be thrown open, that whoever is moved by his heart to pray, and has at home no place, quiet, or silence, may sit down here for a half hour, be with God, and in the consecrated place where man is attracted to God, draw down from Him Divine grace. This was the usage in Constantinople, and the clergy led the devotions. But it was found that few besides women took part in this worship, and very naturally, for the men were too busy during the day. Hence the new bishop appointed an hour of prayer also in the night, when labor was done, and this seemed wholly right to many an earnest man, who esteemed it a privilege after the toil and perplexity of the day to meet in the church. But not all the clergy of the city were satisfied. They were too indolent to resort with pleasure again at an unwonted hour into the church, and were furious at their new superior, who did not leave the old order undisturbed.

Further: the bishop of the capital had large revenues; and his predecessor had expended much in his style of living. Soon after entering upon his office Chrysostom made an inventory of the household expenses, struck off a large sum which had been paid for unnecessary articles, and appropriated it to the erection of a hospital for strangers, who were taken sick in the capital and were unable to provide for themselves. Hence arose gradually large and noble establishments, in which for decades after, many a poor sick man was taken care of and recovered his health. In this spirit Chrysostom acted everywhere, and desired the servants of the church to proceed in the same way. Yet he gave his clergy no reason to be offended; where it was right he took them under his protection. He demanded for them a respectable salary, that, devoid of care for the support and wants of the body, they might give themselves with undivided solicitude to their office. With reference to this he once said from the pulpit:—

“Those who build splendid houses and possess great estates never think they have enough; but if an ecclesiastic for once has a good dress or keeps a servant, so as not to be compelled to wash his own garments, there are those among the rich who esteem it unbecoming luxury.”

But Chrysostom lived himself, and desired his clergy to live, as became their holy calling. Hitherto, however, the higher ecclesiastics had there played a part in the great world and in the court. They enjoyed high consideration in the capital. Bishops from the provinces were accustomed therefore to spend much time in this city, in order to taste the pleasures of high life. Chrysostom once said in a sermon:—

“The heads of government enjoy no such honor as do the overseers of the church. Who is first, if he appears at the court, or enters a social circle of the great, or of ladies? No one takes rank before them.”

They were welcomed and desired to be present at great social gatherings, and were expected to hold such in their own houses, not without splendor and expense. This now was not for Chrysostom. When he was not occupied abroad in the duties of his office, either in the church, or with the sick, or among the prisoners, he lived a retired life at home. He took but a simple meal. This was necessary in view of his health. For he had not a strong nature; his body was small and slender, at an early age his head was bald and his cheeks sunken, he suffered much and seriously by indigestion and pain in the chest. “I have a cobweb body,” he said in sport. Hence he observed great simplicity; he lived but for his calling, his God, and his books. This excited displeasure. The example of such a life in the patriarch cast no favorable light upon the clergy who proceeded otherwise. They must be ashamed of their worldly conduct. But since they had no wish to change, they were offended and embittered against the man, whose holy light cast them into the shade. We shall hear by and by what sort of charges proceeded thence against the bishop; but we will now study his relation to, and his activity in, the church of the capital.

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