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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman


JOHN of Antioch, from his sanctity and his eloquence called Chrysostom, was approaching sixty years of age, when he had to deliver himself up to the imperial officers, and to leave Constantinople for a distant exile. He had been the great preacher of the day now for nearly twenty years; first at Antioch, then in the metropolis of the East; and his gift of speech, as in the instance of the two great classical orators before him, was to be his ruin. He had made an Empress his enemy, more powerful than Antipater,—as passionate, if not so vindictive, as Fulvia. Nor was this all; a zealous Christian preacher offends not individuals merely, but classes of men, and much more so when he is pastor and ruler too, and has to punish as well as to denounce. Eudoxia, the Empress, might be taken off suddenly,—as indeed she was taken off a few weeks after the Saint arrived at the place of exile, which she personally, in spite of his entreaties, had marked out for him;—but her death did but serve to increase the violence of the persecution directed against him. She had done her part in it, perhaps she might have even changed her mind in his favour; probably the agitation of a bad conscience was, in her critical condition, the cause of her death. She was taken out of the way; but her partisans, who had made use of her, went on vigorously with the evil work which she had begun. When Cucusus would not kill him, they sent him on his travels anew, across a far wilder country than he had already traversed, to a remote town on the eastern coast of the Euxine; and he sank under this fresh trial.

The Euxine! that strange mysterious sea, which typifies the abyss of outer darkness, as the blue Mediterranean basks under the smile of heaven in the centre of civilization and religion. The awful, yet splendid drama of man’s history has mainly been carried on upon the Mediterranean shores; while the Black Sea has ever been on the very outskirts of the habitable world, and the scene of wild unnatural portents; with legends of Prometheus on the savage Caucasus, of Medea gathering witch-herbs in the moist meadows of the Phasis, and of Iphigenia sacrificing the shipwrecked stranger in Taurica; and then again, with the more historical, yet not more grateful visions of barbarous tribes, Goths, Huns, Scythians, Tartars, flitting over the steppes and wastes which encircle its inhospitable waters. To be driven from the bright cities and sunny clime of Italy or Greece to such a region, was worse than death; and the luxurious Roman actually preferred death to exile. The suicide of Gallus, under this dread doom, is well known; Ovid, too cowardly to be desperate, drained out the dregs of a vicious life on the cold marshes between the Danube and the sea. I need scarcely allude to the heroic Popes who patiently lived on in the Crimea, till a martyrdom, in which they had no part but the suffering, released them.

But banishment was an immense evil in itself. Cicero, even though he had liberty of person, the choice of a home, and the prospect of a return, roamed disconsolate through the cities of Greece, because he was debarred access to the senate-house and forum. Chrysostom had his own rostra, his own curia; it was the Holy Temple, where his eloquence gained for him victories not less real, and more momentous, than the detection and overthrow of Catiline. Great as was his gift of oratory, it was not by the fertility of his imagination, or the splendour of his diction that he gained the surname of “Mouth of Gold.” We shall be very wrong if we suppose that fine expressions, or rounded periods, or figures of speech, were the credentials by which he claimed to be the first doctor of the East. His oratorical power was but the instrument, by which he readily, gracefully, adequately expressed,—expressed without effort and with felicity,—the keen feelings, the living ideas, the earnest practical lessons which he had to communicate to his hearers. He spoke, because his heart, his head, were brimful of things to speak about. His elocution corresponded to that strength and flexibility of limb, that quickness of eye, hand, and foot, by which a man excels in manly games or in mechanical skill. It would be a great mistake, in speaking of it, to ask whether it was Attic or Asiatic, terse or flowing, when its distinctive praise was that it was natural. His unrivalled charm, as that of every really eloquent man, lies in his singleness of purpose, his fixed grasp of his aim, his noble earnestness.

A bright, cheerful, gentle soul; a sensitive heart, a temperament open to emotion and impulse; and all this elevated, refined, transformed by the touch of heaven,—such was St. John Chrysostom; winning followers, riveting affections, by his sweetness, frankness, and neglect of self. In his labours, in his preaching, he thought of others only. “I am always in admiration of that thrice-blessed man,” says an able critic,* “because he ever in all his writings puts before him as his object, to be useful to his hearers; and as to all other matters, he either simply put them aside, or took the least possible notice of them. Nay, as to his seeming ignorant of some of the thoughts of Scripture, or careless of entering into its depths, and similar defects, all this he utterly disregarded in comparison of the profit of his hearers.”

There was as little affectation of sanctity in his dress or living as there was effort in his eloquence. In his youth he had been one of the most austere of men; at the age of twenty-one, renouncing bright prospects of the world, he had devoted himself to prayer and study of the Scriptures. He had retired to the mountains near Antioch, his native place, and had lived among the monks. This had been his home for six years, and he had chosen it in order to subdue the daintiness of his natural appetite. “Lately,” he wrote to a friend at the time,—“lately, when I had made up my mind to leave the city and betake myself to the tabernacle of the monks, I was for ever inquiring and busying myself how I was to get a supply of provisions; whether it would be possible to procure fresh bread for my eating, whether I should be ordered to use the same oil for my lamp and for my food, to undergo the hardship of peas and beans, or of severe toil, such as digging, carrying wood or water, and the like; in a word, I made much account of bodily comfort.”* Such was the nervous anxiety and fidget of mind with which he had begun: but this rough discipline soon effected its object, and at length, even by preference, he took upon him mortifications which at first were a trouble to him. For the last two years of his monastic exercise, he lived by himself in a cave; he slept, when he did sleep, without lying down; he exposed himself to the extremities of cold. At length he found he was passing the bounds of discretion, nature would bear no more; he fell ill, and returned to the city.

A course of ascetic practice such as this would leave its spiritual effects upon him for life. It sank deep into him, though the surface might not show it. His duty at Constantinople was to mix with the world; and he lived as others, except as regards such restraints as his sacred office and station demanded of him. He wore shoes, and an under garment; but his stomach was ever delicate, and at meals he was obliged to have his own dish, such as it was, to himself. However, he mixed freely with all ranks of men; and he made friends, affectionate friends, of young and old, men and women, rich and poor, by condescending to all of every degree. How he was loved at Antioch, is shown by the expedient used to transfer him thence to Constantinople. Asterius, count of the East, had orders to send for him, and ask his company to a church without the city. Having got him into his carriage, he drove off with him to the first station on the high-road to Constantinople, where imperial officers were in readiness to convey him thither. Thus he was brought upon the scene of those trials which have given him a name in history, and a place in the catalogue of the Saints. At the imperial city he was as much followed, if not as popular, as at Antioch. “The people flocked to him,” says Sozomen, “as often as he preached; some of them to hear what would profit them, others to make trial of him. He carried them away, one and all, and persuaded them to think as he did about the Divine Nature. They hung upon his words, and could not have enough of them; so that, when they thrust and jammed themselves together in an alarming way, every one making an effort to get nearer to him, and to hear him more perfectly, he took his seat in the midst of them, and taught from the pulpit of the Reader.”* He was, indeed, a man to make both friends and enemies; to inspire affection, and to kindle resentment; but his friends loved him with a love “stronger” than “death,” and more burning than “hell;” and it was well to be so hated, if he was so beloved.


Here he differs, as far as I can judge, from his brother saints and doctors of the Greek Church, St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen. They were scholars, shy perhaps and reserved; and though they had not given up the secular state, they were essentially monks. There is no evidence, that I remember, to show that they attached men to their persons. They, as well as John, had a multitude of enemies; and were regarded, the one with dislike, the other perhaps with contempt; but they had not, on the other hand, warm, eager, sympathetic, indignant, agonized friends. There is another characteristic in Chrysostom, which perhaps gained for him this great blessing. He had, as it would seem, a vigour, elasticity, and, what may be called, sunniness of mind, all his own. He was ever sanguine, seldom sad. Basil had a life-long malady, involving continual gnawing pain and a weight of physical dejection. He bore his burden well and gracefully, like the great Saint he was, as Job bore his; but it was a burden like Job’s. He was a calm, mild, grave, autumnal day; St. John Chrysostom was a day in springtime, bright and rainy, and glittering through its rain. Gregory was the full summer, with a long spell of pleasant stillness, its monotony relieved by thunder and lightning. And St. Athanasius figures to us the stern persecuting winter, with its wild winds, its dreary wastes, its sleep of the great mother, and the bright stars shining overhead. He and Chrysostom have no points in common; but Gregory was a dethroned Archbishop of Constantinople, like Chrysostom, and, again, dethroned by his brethren the Bishops. Like Basil, too, Chrysostom was bowed with infirmities of body; he was often ill; he was thin and wizened; cold was a misery to him; heat affected his head; he scarcely dare touch wine; he was obliged to use the bath; obliged to take exercise, or rather to be continually on the move. Whether from a nervous or febrile complexion, he was warm in temper; or at least, at certain times, his emotion struggled hard with his reason. But he had that noble spirit which complains as little as possible; which makes the best of things; which soon recovers its equanimity, and hopes on in circumstances when others sink down in despair.

Every one has his own gifts. I often muse upon, I have quoted, I here would copy what is told us of St. Antony; how the young ascetic went first to this holy man, and then to that, according as each was qualified to teach him; “marking down in his own thoughts the special attainment of each; his refinement, or his continuance in prayer, or his meekness, or his kindness, or his power of long-watching, or his studiousness.” And thus there was in Basil tenderness, gravity, self-possession, resignation, penance; in Gregory, innocence, amiablenesss, an inward peace, a self-resource, an independence of external things; and all these graces in both Saints grafted upon Christian perfection, and raised to an heroic standard. The Giver of all good suits His gifts to the circumstances of the recipient. John, in like manner, was endowed with those which John required.

But now all these fragrant and beautiful flowers of grace are to be hurried where, to all seeming, they will “waste their sweetness on the desert air,” and then wither away, as far as this earth is concerned. The eloquent voice is to be mute: Chrysostom has preached his last sermon; for the last time crowds of devoted followers—holy bishops, zealous priests, youths whom he is training to virtue, noble ladies who have become deaconesses of the Church,—for the last time the court, the populace, his faithful poor,—have lingered on the sound of his touching accents. They shall never hear him again. The silver cord is to be broken; the golden fillet is to shrink; he is vanishing from the eyes of men. It was just at the summer solstice, in the year 404, that the order came to him from the Emperor to go. He had resisted a like order already; but now the state of things was so near upon a bloody quarrel, that it seemed expedient to obey. He went into his church for the last time; to take leave, as he said, of the Angel who had the charge of it. Then he bade farewell to some ecclesiastics, his intimate friends: “I am going to take some rest,” he said, so calling his exile; “but do you remain here.” And then, lastly, he took leave in the baptistery of some heart-broken pious women, to whom he spoke with greater sadness and effusion of heart. “O my daughters,” he said, “come and hear what I have to say; my matters have an end, as I see well. I have finished my course, it may be, you will not see my face again. But one thing I ask of you, continue your services to the church; and, if there be one put into my place against his will, and without his seeking, and with the consent of all, him obey as if he were John; for a church cannot be without a Bishop: so shall ye find mercy. And remember me in your prayers.”* Then, ordering the beast he rode to the western gate of the ecclesiastical buildings, to mislead his people, who were keeping guard over his person, he issued by the eastern, and, with a protest, surrendered himself to the imperial guard. He was at once put into a boat, and carried over into Asia. Oh, how down was his heart, and what sorrowful thoughts chased one another across it; and how his life seemed to him a dream, and his long labours to have done nothing at all, and to be lost, as he landed on the opposite coast, and was conducted up the country to Nicæa, there to stay awhile, till his place of banishment was finally determined!


His sadness, however, was of no long duration; “weeping may take place in the evening, but there is gladness in the morning.” The change of air and scene, the quiet, and above all, his own cheerful spirit, came to his aid; and he began to hope again. Men of gentle and generous tempers cannot understand how any one can be a good hater; and certainly our Saint did not realise the inveterate malice and the savage determination of his enemies. He might forgive them; they could not forgive him. This, however, was not as yet a matter of experience with him; accordingly he began to speculate on the possibility of the Emperor’s relenting, and changing his place of exile to some neighbouring city. He was soon undeceived in his anticipation. He was to prepare for a long journey. Scythia was mentioned as his destination; then Sebaste in Pontus; at length, Cucusus. It was his custom in all his afflictions, as we shall see in his letters, to use the words “Glory to God” upon every event; and he now soon reconciled himself to his disappointment. He had to remain at Nicæa about a fortnight, and during that delay wrote various letters to Constantinople, some of which have been preserved.

One of his most devoted of friends, and most zealous of correspondents, was St. Olympias. This celebrated lady was the daughter of Count Seleucus, and the grand-child of Ablavius, the powerful minister in the reign of Constantine. She had been left an orphan and a pagan; and she did not change her single state for marriage before she had relieved her worse desolateness by entering into the family of Saints and Angels. In St. Chrysostom’s words, she “deserted to Christian truth from the ranks of an impious family.” Her husband, who was Prefect of Constantinople, died not many months after the marriage; on which, in spite of her great friends, she became a deaconess of the Church. At this time she was between thirty and forty years of age. The exiled Bishop wrote to her from Nicæa as follows:

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