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


WHENCE is this devotion to St. John Chrysostom, which leads me to dwell upon the thought of him, and makes me kindle at his name, when so many other great Saints, as the year brings round their festivals, command indeed my veneration, but exert no personal claim upon my heart? Many holy men have died in exile, many holy men have been successful preachers; and what more can we write upon St. Chrysostom’s monument than this, that he was eloquent and that he suffered persecution? He is not an Athanasius, expounding a sacred dogma with a luminousness which is almost an inspiration; nor is he Athanasius, again, in his romantic life-long adventures, in his sublime solitariness, in his ascendency over all classes of men, in his series of triumphs over material force and civil tyranny. Nor, except by the contrast, does he remind us of that Ambrose who kept his ground obstinately in an imperial city, and fortified himself against the heresy of a court by the living rampart of a devoted population. Nor is he Gregory or Basil, rich in the literature and philosophy of Greece, and embellishing the Church with the spoils of heathenism. Again, he is not an Augustine, devoting long years to one masterpiece of thought, and laying, in successive controversies, the foundations of theology. Nor is he a Jerome, so dead to the world that he can imitate the point and wit of its writers without danger to himself or scandal to his brethren. He has not trampled upon heresy, nor smitten emperors, nor beautified the house or the service of God, nor knit together the portions of Christendom, nor founded a religious order, nor built up the framework of doctrine, nor expounded the science of the Saints; yet I love him, as I love David or St. Paul.

How am I to account for it? It has not happened to me, as it might happen to many a man, that I have devoted time and toil to the study of his writings or of his history, and cry up that upon which I have made an outlay, or love what has become familiar to me. Cases may occur when our admiration for an author is only admiration of our own comments on him, and when our love of an old acquaintance is only our love of old times. For me, I have not written the life of Chrysostom, nor translated his works, nor studied Scripture in his exposition, nor forged weapons of controversy out of his sayings or his doings. Nor is his eloquence of a kind to carry any one away who has ever so little knowledge of the oratory of Greece and Rome. It is not force of words, nor cogency of argument, nor harmony of composition, nor depth or richness of thought, which constitutes his power,—whence, then, has he this influence, so mysterious, yet so strong?

I consider St. Chrysostom’s charm to lie in his intimate sympathy and compassionateness for the whole world, not only in its strength, but in its weakness in the lively regard with which he views every thing that comes before him, taken in the concrete, whether as made after its own kind or as gifted with a nature higher than its own. Not that any religious man,—above all, not that any Saint,—could possibly contrive to abstract the love of the work from the love of its Maker, or could feel a tenderness for earth which did not spring from devotion to heaven; or as if he would not love every thing just in that degree in which the Creator loves it, and according to the measure of gifts which the Creator has bestowed upon it, and pre-eminently for the Creator’s sake. But this is the characteristic of all Saints; and I am speaking, not of what St. Chrysostom had in common with others, but what he had special to himself; and this specialty, I conceive, is the interest which he takes in all things, not so far as God has made them alike, but as He has made them different from each other. I speak of the discriminating affectionateness with which he accepts every one for what is personal in him and unlike others. I speak of his versatile recognition of men, one by one, for the sake of that portion of good, be it more or less, of a lower order or a higher, which has severally been lodged in them; his eager contemplation of the many things they do, effect, or produce, of all their great works, as nations or as states; nay, even as they are corrupted or disguised by evil, so far as that evil may in imagination be disjoined from their proper nature, or may be regarded as a mere material disorder apart from its formal character of guilt. I speak of the kindly spirit and the genial temper with which he looks round at all things which this wonderful world contains; of the graphic fidelity with which he notes them down upon the tablets of his mind, and of the promptitude and propriety with which he calls them up as arguments or illustrations in the course of his teaching as the occasion requires. Possessed though he be by the fire of divine charity, he has not lost one fibre, he does not miss one vibration, of the complicated whole of human sentiment and affection; like the miraculous bush in the desert, which, for all the flame that wrapt it round, was not thereby consumed.

Such, in a transcendent perfection, was the gaze, as we may reverently suppose, with which the loving Father of all surveyed in eternity that universe even in its minutest details which He had decreed to create; such the loving pity with which He spoke the word when the due moment came, and began to mould the finite, as He created it, in His infinite hands; such the watchful solicitude with which he now keeps His catalogue of the innumerable birds of heaven, and counts day by day the very hairs of our head and the alternations of our breathing. Such, much more, is the awful contemplation with which He encompasses incessantly every one of those souls on whom He heaps His mercies here, in order to make them the intimate associates of His own eternity hereafter. And we too, in our measure, are bound to imitate Him in our exact and vivid apprehension of Himself and of His works. As to Himself, we love Him, not simply in His nature, but in His triple personality, lest we become mere pantheists. And so, again, we choose our patron Saints, not for what they have in common with each other (else there could be no room for choice at all), but for what is peculiar to them severally. That which is my warrant, therefore, for particular devotions at all, becomes itself my reason for devotion to St. John Chrysostom. In him I recognize a special pattern of that very gift of discrimination. He may indeed be said in some sense to have a devotion of his own for every one who comes across him,—for persons, ranks, classes, callings, societies, considered as divine works and the subjects of his good offices or good will, and therefore I have a devotion for him.

It is this observant benevolence which gives to his exposition of Scripture its chief characteristic. He is known in ecclesiastical literature as the expounder, above all others, of its literal sense. Now in mystical comments the direct object which the writer sets before him is the Divine Author Himself of the written Word. Such a writer sees in Scripture, not so much the works of God, as His nature and attributes; the Teacher more than the definite teaching, or its human instruments, with their drifts and motives, their courses of thought, their circumstances and personal peculiarities. He loses the creature in the glory which surrounds the Creator. The problem before him is not what the inspired writer directly meant, and why, but, out of the myriad of meanings present to the Infinite Being who inspired him, which it is that is most illustrative of that Great Being’s all-holy attributes and solemn dispositions. Thus, in the Psalter, he will drop David and Israel and the Temple together, and will recognise nothing there but the shadows of those greater truths which remain for ever. Accordingly, the mystical comment will be of an objective character; whereas a writer who delights to ponder human nature and human affairs, to analyse the workings of the mind, and to contemplate what is subjective to it, is naturally drawn to investigate the sense of the sacred writer himself, who was the organ of the revelation, that is, he will investigate the literal sense. Now, in the instance of St. Chrysostom, it so happens that literal exposition is the historical characteristic of the school in which he was brought up; so that if he commented on Scripture at all, he any how would have adopted that method; still, there have been many literal expositors, but only one Chrysostom. It is St. Chrysostom who is the charm of the method, not the method that is the charm of St. Chrysostom.

That charm lies, as I have said, in his habit and his power of throwing himself into the minds of others, of imagining with exactness and with sympathy circumstances or scenes which were not before him, and of bringing out what he has apprehended in words as direct and vivid as the apprehension. His page is like the table of a camera lucida, which represents to us the living action and interaction of all that goes on around us. That loving scrutiny, with which he follows the Apostles as they reveal themselves to us in their writings, he practises in various ways towards all men, living and dead, high and low, those whom he admires and those whom he weeps over. He writes as one who was ever looking out with sharp but kind eyes upon the world of men and their history; and hence he has always something to produce about them, new or old, to the purpose of his argument, whether from books or from the experience of life. Head and heart were full to overflowing with a stream of mingled “wine and milk,” of rich vigorous thought and affectionate feeling. This is why his manner of writing is so rare and special; and why, when once a student enters into it, he will ever recognize him, wherever he meets with extracts from him.


But I must go on with the history of his banishment, which I have left in order to enlarge upon the character of his mind and of his teaching. The evils which he first denounced at Antioch came to a crisis at Constantinople, and he himself was the principal victim of them. His cause was that of the strict party in the Church, and the fire of envy and malice, of which he had spoken, burst forth against him as its representative. For a time, in a city which boasted that it never had been pagan, the goodly fabric of Christianity was little better than a heap of ruins. The transportation of its saintly Bishop was the signal for a schism which it took years to heal; and, worse still, it was a triumph of the secular party, which has never been reversed down to this day. In the present state of the Greek Church we read the moral of the conflict in which St. Chrysostom was engaged. Accordingly, there was much of significance in the coincidence that, on the very day on which he was carried over to Asia, fire literally did break out in the cathedral, where he had so lately preached, and in his very pulpit. “There suddenly appeared,” to use the words of Fleury, “a great flame in the church, from the pulpit from which he used to preach. The fire ascended to the roof, and then burst forth on the outside, so that it was burnt to the ground. The flames, driven by a violent wind, spanned the square like a bridge, seized upon the palace where the senate assembled, and burnt it down in three hours. The Catholics looked upon it as a miracle; some accused the schismatical party of it; they, and after them the pagans, imputed it to the Catholics.” However originating, it typified the spiritual devastation of the Church of Constantinople,

The court party would perhaps give the catastrophe a different application; they might see in it the fortunes of St. Chrysostom himself. Thus blazed and burnt out, they might say, the glories of that eloquent preacher, who had been so hastily brought to the imperial city. It was a great pity that he had ever left Antioch; for what had he done since he came but create confusion in the Church? No one denied his oratorical powers; but he had neither discretion nor patience; and, after two or three years, here was the end of it. As some brilliant meteor, he had glared and disappeared. He thought, forsooth, to get back from banishment; but that never would be. His enemies were far too strong and too determined to allow him the chance of it. They were resolved utterly to blot out his name and his memory; he would be written in the sand; posterity would not know him, except as one who had caused great scandals, and had undergone the penalty of them.

Such anticipations, plausible as they were, have been falsified by the event; the cause of truth and sanctity cannot utterly be defeated, however poor be the measure of justice which is accorded to it even on the long-run. The Saint, however, was over-sanguine, as we have seen, in his anticipations of a contrary kind. Certainly at length he was brought back in triumph to his see; but he was brought back in his coffin. That first momentary presentiment, when he took leave of his deaconesses at Constantinople, was the true one. His earthly career was coming to an end. Here, then, we are come round to the point from which I have digressed, and I resume the narrative where I left off.


The reader may recollect that St. Chrysostom got to Cucusus in the autumn. His enemies seemed to have hoped that the winter would complete for them what they had begun; he, on the contrary, looked forward to it with cheerfulness. Both parties were disappointed; it did not kill him, but it inflicted on him great suffering; it told most for his enemies, for they would infer that he could not possibly bear the recurrence of many such trials.

In the early spring of the following year (405) he wrote to Olympias thus:

“I write to you after a recovery from the very gates of death; on this account it was a great joy to me that your servants have not reached me till now, when I am getting into port; for, had they come while I was still tossing out at sea, and shipping the heavy waves of my illness, it would not have been easy for me to deceive you with good tidings, when there could only be bad. The winter was more severe than usual, and brought on, what was worse than itself, my stomach complaint; and for two whole months I was no better than the dead, or even worse. So far I lived as to be alive to the miseries that encompassed me; day, dawn, and noon, all were night to me; I was confined to my bed all day. With a thousand contrivances, I could not avoid the mischief which the cold did me; though I had a fire, and submitted to the oppressive smoke, and imprisoned myself in one room, and had coverings without number, and never ventured to pass the threshold, nevertheless I used to suffer in the most grievous way from continual vomitings, headache, disgust at food, and obstinate sleeplessness, through the long interminable nights. But I will not distress you longer with this account of my troubles; I am now rid of them all.”—Ep. 6.

Later in the spring he reports that the marauding bands had again made their appearance:

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