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

“I have learned at last to bear the Armenian winter, with some suffering, indeed, such as may be expected in the instance of so feeble a frame, but still with real success. This is, by means of rigidly confining myself indoors when the cold is unbearable. As to the other seasons, I find them most pleasant and enjoyable, so as to enable me comfortably to recover from the illness brought on by the winter.”—Ep. 142.

And to Olympias:

“Do not be anxious on my account. It is true that the winter was what the season is in Armenia; one need say no more; but it has not done me any great harm, since I take great precautions against it. I keep up a constant fire, and have every part of my small room closed. I put on a great deal of clothing, and I never stir out. A few days ago, nothing would stay on my stomach, from the severity of the weather. I took, among other remedies, the medicine which Syncletium gave me, and, after using it, I got well by the end of three days. I had a second attack; I used it again, and got completely well. Do not, then, make yourself anxious about my wintering here, for I feel much easier and better than I did last year.”—Ep. 4.

It was at this date that he wrote to the same correspondent the striking letter, part of which I quoted in my foregoing Chapter; in which he confidently foretells his return from banishment, on the ground of his having been so wonderfully preserved hitherto, and enabled to triumph over the accumulated trials which bodily weakness, the seasons, and his wanderings and privations brought upon him. So hopefully for him, so unsatisfactorily for his enemies, opened the third year of his exile at the place which was to have been his death.

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But the fairer were his prospects, the more certain was their disappointment. He was in their hands; they had sentenced him to die, and only hesitated how his death was to be brought about. They had no wish to do the deed themselves, if it could be done without them; but do it they must, if circumstances would not do it for them. Cucusus promised to spare them the odium of his murder; and doubtless they would listen with complacency to the complaints about his discomforts and his ailments which from time to time he transmitted to Constantinople. It was easy to fancy them the tokens of a broken spirit, and the harbingers of the consummation they desired, when they were but his protests against injustice and cruelty, and the spontaneous relief of a soul too great to care about being misinterpreted. When time went on, and the end did not come, when even his wanderings in the mountains and his flight to Arabissus did not subdue him, they were prompted to more violent and summary dealings with him.

He must be carried off to some still more inhospitable region; he must undergo the slow torture of a still more exhausting journey. Cold and heat, wind and rain, night-air, bad lodging, unwholesome water, long foot-marches, rough-paced mules,—these were to be the instruments of his martyrdom. He was to die by inches; want of sleep, want of rest, want of food and medicine, and the collapse certain to follow, were to extinguish the brave spirit which hitherto had risen superior to all sorrows. A rescript was gained from the Emperor Arcadius, banishing him to Pityus upon the north-east coast of the Euxine.

In that sentence the curtain falls upon the history of the Saint. His correspondence ceases; the letter, so full of sunshine, to which I have several times referred, was apparently his last. He leaves us with the language of hope upon his lips. It is well that he should thus close the great drama, in which he was the chief actor. Bright, pleasant thoughts, nought but what is radiant, nought but what is enlivening and consolatory, attaches to the historical memory of St. Chrysostom. But the devout heart seeks to lift the veil; it desires even amid the changes of mortality notas audire et reddere voces: it would fain be near to comfort him in his agony, and to hear his last cry.

It may not be; when his letters would be most precious, they are, as I have said, denied to us. In the case of a Saint, we are left to faith. It has been otherwise with others. There was a Protestant missionary, in the first years of this century, who, after attempting the conversion of a Mahometan country, was committed to the rough charge of a Tartar courier, not for exile, but for return to his own England. Hurried on by forced journeys, and having at the time a deadly malady upon him, he gradually sank under the cruel punishment, and breathed out his wearied spirit at the very spot which, 1400 years before, had witnessed the death of John Chrysostom. Let us trust that that zealous preacher came under the shadow of the Catholic doctor, that he touched the bones of Eliseus, and that, all errors forgiven, he lives to God through the intercession of the Confessor, to whom in place and manner of death he was united. The friends of Henry Martyn are in possession of his journal up to within ten days of his death; for us, we must wait till we are admitted to the company of St. Chrysostom above, if such be our blessedness, before we know the last sufferings, the last thoughts, the prayers and consolations, the patience, sweetness, gentleness, and charity in his death, of that great mind.

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Let us glean what we can from history and tradition of that last unknown journey.

First, we know that Pityus is on the very verge of the Roman empire, to the north of Colchis, close to Sarmatia, and under the Caucasus. It had been a large and rich city in an earlier century, and was situated in a region so peculiarly a border country, that in Dioscurias, which lay south of it, as many as seventy languages or dialects were spoken. From that city it was distant about fifty miles, and Dioscurias was distant as much as 280 miles from Trapezus.* This portion, however, of his journey was held in reserve for the Saint’s destruction: he never got so far as Trapezus; and it concerns us more to consider how he travelled towards it. There were three routes from Cucusus thither; the most direct lay through Melitene and Satala; but this he certainly did not pursue, or he could not have died in the neighbourhood of Neocæsarea. To direct his course to Neocæsarea, he must have passed through Sebaste, and Sebaste he might reach by either of two routes,—by Cæsarea or by Melitene. Both of these were high military roads, and beyond Sebaste he might be helped on still further by another high road at least as far as Sebastopolis, which is either 365 or 330 miles from Cucusus, according to the route which was chosen for him. Thus we may say, that it took, more or less, 400 miles to kill him. The narrative which I shall presently transcribe says that his journey lasted three months, which is hardly conceivable, unless he was detained from time to time by illness or other causes on the way.

So much for his route; next, as to the place of his death, we have historical information that he died at Comana in Pontus; and thence it was that his sacred body was conveyed some years afterwards to Constantinople.

Then, as to the day: Socrates tells us that it was the 14th of September, the day since set apart, in consequence of the events of later history, as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

So far we can speak without hesitation; but when we set ourselves to trace the occurrences of his closing months, and the particulars of his journey, we find ourselves without any materials for the undertaking. We have neither public documents nor the private letters of himself or of his friends to assist us in the task. The narrative which commonly, and by great authorities, is received as authentic, is written by one of his contemporaries and friends; but he was no eye-witness of what he relates, nor does he tell us how he got his information. However, I present it to the reader as it stands:

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“The rescript,” said Palladius, “ordered that he should be transported to Pityus, a most wild place of the Tyanians, lying on the coast of the Euxine. And the Prætorian soldiers, who conveyed him, urged him forward on his journey with such haste, saying that it was according to their orders, that it appeared as if their promotion depended on his dying in the course of it. One, indeed, of them, having less solicitude for this earthly warfare, secretly showed him some sort of kindness; but the other carried his brutality so far as even to take as an affront the very attentions which were shown to himself by strangers, with the hope of softening him towards his prisoner, having this solicitude, and no other, that John should miserably die. So, when rain was profuse, the man went on, not caring for it, so that floods of water poured down the bishop’s back and breast; and again, the fierce heat of the sun he considered a treat, as knowing that the bald head of blessed Eliseus would suffer from it. Moreover at city or village, where the refreshment of a bath was to be found, the wretch would not consent to stop for a moment.

“And all these sufferings the Saint endured for three months, travelling that most difficult way with the brightness of a star, baked red by the sun as fruit upon the top branches of a tree. And when they came to Comana, they passed through it as if its street were no more than a bridge, and halted outside the walls at the shrine, which is five or six miles in advance.

“In that very night the martyr of the place stood before him, Basiliscus by name, who had been Bishop of Comana, and died by martyrdom in Nicomedia, in the reign of Maximinus, together with Lucian of Bithynia, who had been a priest of Antioch. And he said, ‘Be of good heart, brother John, for to-morrow we shall be together.’ It is said that the martyr had already made the same announcement to the priest of the place: ‘Prepare the place for brother John, for he is coming.’ And John, believing the divine oracle, upon the morrow besought his guards to remain there until the fifth hour. They refused, and set forward; but when they had proceeded about thirty stadia, he was so ill that they returned back to the martyr’s shrine whence they had started.

“When he got there, he asked for white vestments, suitable to the tenor of his past life; and taking off his clothes of travel, he clad himself in them from head to foot, being still fasting, and then gave away his old ones to those about him. Then, having communicated in the symbols of the Lord, he made the closing prayer ‘On present needs.’ He said his customary words, ‘Glory be to God for all things;’ and having concluded it with his last Amen, he stretched forth those feet of his which had been so beautiful in their running, whether to convey salvation to the penitent or reproof to the hardened in sin.… And being gathered to his fathers, and shaking off this mortal dust, he passed to Christ.”

The translation of his relics to Constantinople took place a little more than thirty years afterwards. “A great multitude of the faithful,” says Theodoret, “crowded the sea in vessels, and lighted up a part of the Bosphorus, near the mouth of the Propontis, with torches. These sacred treasures were brought to the city by the present emperor (Theodosius the Younger). He laid his face upon the coffin, and entreated that his parents might be forgiven for having so unadvisedly persecuted the Bishop.”*

So died, and so was buried, St. John Chrysostom, one of that select company whom men begin to understand and honour when they are removed from them. It is the general law of the world, which the new law of the Gospel has not reversed:

“Virtutem incolumem odimus,

Sublatam ex oculis quærimus, invidi.”








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