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November 13, 2009

Saint John Chrysostom and 21st Century Christians

The following portion of a lecture (all of which I recommend to be read) delivered by the Very Reverend Josiah Trenham in 2007 I found to be a very edifying piece on how Christians can implement at least some of the counsels of St. John Chrysostom into our own lives today. Of course, this is by no means exhaustive, but it gives us enough to think about and to hopefully inspire us to dig deeper into the rich treasures of one of the great Fathers of the Orthodox Church.

In this last portion of my lecture I would like to focus upon what I perceive to be several areas in which Saint John Chrysostom’s life and teachings may render the 21st century Christian particular assistance. The Church finds Herself in this new millennium faced by unique particularities, which demand an articulate word from the Holy Fathers to guide us through the unique challenges of post-modern life.

The Sanctification of City Life in an Age of Global Urbanization

We live in a historic moment in time. Sometime in the next few months demographers predict that, for the first time in recorded history, more than ½ of the human population will live in cities. The next 25 years are expected to witness a radical increase in what has already been decades of high speed urbanization. This increase will be most acute in developing countries, and much of it will not be a move to mega-cities but to cities of 500,000 persons or less. With such intensive populations relocation and the growing number and importance of the world’s cities comes tremendous sociological, political and economic consequences. This is particularly true if the growth is unplanned growth, such as is taking place in Dhaka, Bangladesh - where 3.4 million of the city’s 13 million people live in slums. In 1987 I visited Dhaka and witnessed the immense flood damage and human destruction that was the fruit of radical and unplanned urbanization. Health crises, access to water, poverty, all of these are concentrated in cities, and yet these same cities are the way out of such trials for most. Urbanization is one of the central issues of the 21st century. Much attention is now being given to the physical realities of urbanization, but still little to the spiritual realities. Churches, clergy, spiritual and charitable resources, these are all immediate and just as concrete needs of urbanization.

Here is where Saint John Chrysostom’s witness shines so brightly and holds forth such importance for us today. Chrysostom was a city boy. Born and raised in one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, Antioch, and finished his life in Constantinople. He did not lead a life detached from the surging city crowds. He knew human traffic. He loved it and sought to save it. St. John considered Christians to be saviors of the city, guardians of the city, patrons of the city, and teachers of the city. [15] Besides his own practical experience of the city, from his Hellenic intellectual inheritance Saint John possessed a tremendous appreciation for the πόλις as the very center of civilization. [16] No Father of the Church has left us a more articulate vision for the sanctification of the city than Saint John Chrysostom. It is our Christian task to plumb his depths in crafting a responsible vision for Christian ministry in this urban context.

As we do so we should note a number of things. Chrysostom believed that the Church sanctifies all. Cities should be full of churches. Chrysostom built them and served in them, and he believed that there was absolutely no substitute for urban Christians participating regularly in the divine services of the Church. The chaos and buzz of urban life is regulated and sanctified and elevated by participation in the morning and evening prayers offered in God’s temples. Chrysostom expected to see his people in church many times during the week, and many of his famous homilies were not delivered on Lord’s Day gatherings but during week day prayers. Chrysostom also believed that the key to sanctifying the city was to sanctify the home. The quality of home life will determine the quality of city life. All legitimate work should be embraced as true vocation, and it is the duty of the clergy to help the faithful appreciate their employment as a means to serving the Lord God.

City Christians must also, according to the Saint, make regular pilgrimage outside the hubbub of the city to the shrine of the sacred martyrs, and the desert dwellings of the holy monastics. The practice of regular pilgrimage is of great importance for those who live in the dense and pressure filled dwelling of the city. And though we should visit the hermits outside the city, we should also establish within the city a strong monastic presence. To make the city a monastery was Chrysostom’s dream. Though we have just a small number of monasteries in our land, yet even most of them are far outside the city. Chrysostom experienced something quite different, and just as traditional. Saint John promoted and invested in the perfection of city monasticism. Where was Saint Olympias’ convent but in the center of Constantinople? Where was Monk Isaac’s monastery but in the center of Constantinople? City monasticism provides both a refreshing reminder of our heavenly ambitions to city dwellers, and a strong force in the concrete and political expression of Christianity in our urban centers. Chrysostom exerted great energy to fight what he deemed a demonic and sensuous city culture and to Christianize it. He was not content to merely observe, let alone participate in, the endless stream of illicit entertainments and spiritual distractions that the great cities in this fallen world inevitably produce. He attacked the pagan forms of wedding celebrations, the sensuous theatre, the public excesses, the race track, and the immodesty of the Roman bath house. [17] Saint John Chrysostom can greatly assist us in our quest to sanctify city life in this age of radical urbanization.

The Supreme Importance of Churchmanship in an Age of Radical Individualism

Saint John taught that the κοινωνοία of the Church is a profound miracle. Whence is the origin of the Church? From where did our sacred community arise, brothers and sisters? It has no mere human foundation. The apostles did not simply gather together and come up with the idea of this organization, with certain goals, members, and dues. Not at all. The Church is the continuation of the miracle of the Nativity of Christ. The Son of God was enfleshed in the womb of the Holy Virgin, and born into the world. The Son of God is progressively enfleshed in the establishment and propagation of the Church in the world. The Church is His very Body, the miraculous expansion of His Incarnation in the world. The supernatural origin of the Church is demonstrated, according to St John Chrysostom, by the miracle that took place on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. When our Savior was hanging upon the Cross He was pierced with a spear, and suddenly blood and water poured out from His sacred side. [18] This blood and water is Holy Baptism by which one is incorporated into the Church, and the Holy Eucharist by which one grows in the Church. These holy mysteries came forth from the side of our Savior in the same way that Eve was taken from the side of Adam. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and so was taken from His side while on the Cross as a fruit of His sacred atonement. She is a miracle of new creation.

Our unity in the Church, according to Chrysostom, is a supernatural wonder. In the Church we experience an intimate union with Jesus Christ. This reality of being “in Christ” is the most used image by the great Apostle Paul in describing the Christian life. The Christian life is a Church life, for it is by Holy Baptism that we are incorporated into Christ and His Church. As Christians we possess a unity far greater than that of earthly organizations. We share a common womb, a common mother in the Church, a common Father in God, a common table from which we eat our food of everlasting life, a common language of doxology, a common quest, a common animating spirit, a common ethic, and a common destiny. This unity is expressed each Divine Liturgy, according to Saint John Chrysostom, in our partaking of the Holy Eucharist in which partaking we are actualized together as the Body of Christ. This is the reason that we celebrate the Holy Liturgy with one single holy chalice. The singular sacred cup bears witness to our unity. Even should we distribute Holy Communion in multiple chalices we do not bless multiple chalices. We consecrate one alone, and then we bring other empty chalices and fill them from the one sacred chalice.

Our experience of Church is transformative. The sacredness of our community is testified to by what actually happens when we gather together around the holy altar. Divine services are the single most powerful agent in personal holiness. “Nothing contributes to a virtuous and moral way of life as does the time you spend here in church.” [19] There is grace behind every action of the Holy Liturgy. Chrysostom often waxes eloquent concerning the liturgical movements of the service. When the deacon exclaims “Stand upright,” he is addressing our souls primarily, and not just our bodies. The preaching sanctifies. The Holy Eucharist enlivens and flames leap from our mouths, blood is painted on the doorposts of our bodies and the angel of death passes over us. Nothing is more precious, more central, more transformative and miraculous, in our human existence than life in the Church.

With the gift of this sacred community come sacred obligations to every Christian. True sacred fellowship is the power of the Church. Listen to the words of Chrysostom,

“Let us prefer the time we spend here in church to any occupation or concern. Tell me this. What profit do you gain which can outweigh the loss you bring on yourself and your whole household when you stay away from the religious services? Suppose you find a whole treasure house full of gold, and this discovery is your reason for staying away. You have lost more than you found, and your loss is as much greater as things of the spirit are better than things we see. Attendance in the divine services greatly encourages your brothers and sisters in the faith and spiritual battle ... the Church went from 11 to 120 to three thousand to five thousand to the whole world and the reason for this growth was that they never left their gathering. They were constantly with each other, spending the whole day in the temple, and turning their attention to prayers and sacred readings. This is why they kindled a great fire. We too must imitate them.” [20]

Chrysostom taught that the communal responsibilities of Christian people far exceeded their merely needing to be faithful participants in the divine services. He called upon them to take responsibility for each other, and to function as an authentic family. If a faithful Christian is friends with a lazy Christian, the faithful one should go to the lazy one on Sunday, and literally drag him along to liturgy. While commenting on Psalm 50 Chrysostom stated that if an immoral Christian was seen by other congregants getting into the communion line the faithful should report this immediately to the priest so he can exclude him from communion. If a faithful Christian hears his brother blaspheme he should strike him in the mouth, and “sanctify his right hand.” The picture of communal responsibility is clear, and in our individualistic live-and-let-live context, appears extreme. But Chrysostom holds membership in the Church very high and assumes that there are many communal responsibilities associated with it designed by a loving God to work for the salvation of the entire community. And the responsibilities do not lie solely with the laity. The clergy must be serious pastors. They must not leave their sheep diseased or in danger. An example of such serious pastoring can be found in Chrysostom’s own life as a priest at the time of the tax riots in Antioch. Saint John preached a series of 21 sermons during the tense days following the riots. During this series Chrysostom sought to reform his people from the habit of swearing. No less than 15 times did Saint John address the subject in a period of just a few weeks, sermon after sermon. He knew his people were growing very weary of him preaching with the same focus, yet they had not ceased their bad habit and Chrysostom refused to pretend that they had and move on. Finally, he acknowledged their grievances and assured them that he could move on very quickly if they wished. They only needed to stop swearing and then he would move on. It was completely in their hands. He was a faithful physician, and not a professional or a show-man. He insisted on bettering his patients. The result was that swearing decreased and Chrysostom moved on, but a most important point about life in the Church had been expressed by the Saint. The life we lead in the Church is a life centered on personal change.

Brother and sisters, many of our Orthodox people do not have an authentic experience of what true ecclesial life is. We do not appreciate the miracle of life in the Church, and we content ourselves with an empty and alienating individualism. An evil spirit of “it’s just me and Jesus, baby” has permeated much of American Christianity today to our nation’s detriment. Our faith teaches us that there is no dichotomy between Jesus and the Church. Our Savior is not a floating head to be communed with apart from His sacred Body. Churchmanship is at an astonishing low in our times. Saint John Chrysostom stands at the throne of God ready to illumine us and our people about the miracle of sacred community, and to save us from the death of self-worship. [21] This age of individualism and religious game playing is a time for serious pastoring, revived churchmanship, and sacred obedience to the Church.

The Call to Trust the Lord in an Age of Acute Anxiety

Besides being an age of urbanization and radical individualism, contemporary life is an age of acute anxiety. The 20th century has been dubbed by some intellectuals the “age of anxiety.” That the last 100 years has witnessed a marked increase in anxiety levels and the numerous pathologies, such as depression, which stem from acute anxiety is a matter of scientific fact. In an authoritative and widely distributed article entitled "The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism", 1952-1993, [22] and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Case Western Reserve University Psychology Professor, Jean M. Twenge, documents through two meta-analyses of various sociological groups in America the effect of changing cultural times on personality development. Twenge documents the increase in anxiety levels in our culture in the last half-century, and argues that changes in the larger sociocultural environment have been a leading cause: changes such as the increase in violent crime,[23] worries concerning nuclear war, fear of disease such as AIDS, and the entrance of women into higher education and the workplace (a place of great stress). These contributing factors are exacerbated by media coverage, which leads to a greater perception of overall environmental threat.

More people visit doctors for anxiety than for colds. Anxiety is a predisposing factor for major depression and suicide attempts. Another area in which anxiety levels can be measured is in the prevalence of drug treatment for anxiety and depression. The common use of Prozac, so common that in recent times some one-fourth of the adult American population had been treated with it, is a major signal. Depression is an epidemic in our society. We live in an age of melancholy.

Many of our contemporary spiritual elders, such as Elder Paisios the Athonite, have addressed the anxiety of modern man. Elder Paisios taught that modern man is afflicted with three unique pains: divorce, cancer, and mental anxiety and illness. Out of his great love for his fellow man, Father Paisios wished to bear some of the burden. He could not bear the pain of divorce since he was not married, and he did not want to suffer mental anxiety and illness because it would affect his prayer. So he prayed for and received cancer, and taught modern men how to bear it for God. He wrote that cancer, with its typical drawn out process of killing its victim, has led untold numbers to repentance and has populated Paradise.

We have become an anxious people because our sins have increased, and our faith has waned. The 20th century was a century of acute anxiety because it was a century of hideous violence and unbridled licentiousness. Several years ago, in an effort to understand the 20th century better, I read Sir Martin Gilbert’s three-volume History of the 20th Century. His masterful work left me with a profound awareness of the 20th century as the most violent hundred years in the history of mankind. This is a judgment made by the World Wars and atrocities against human rights that filled the century. When the new abortion holocaust, which has taken the lives of more than 50 million unborn children in the last 34 years, is taken account violence becomes the defining motif of the century. Violence was the particular sin of Noah’s age that provoked the wrath of the Lord God to bring the universal flood upon mankind.[24] Certainly the Almighty cannot be pleased with the last hundred years, a century that many would like to forget.

We Christian believers must address our culture’s worry head-on. We are called by Jesus Christ to witness by our confidence and trust in Him in an anxious age. [25] We must live a life of serene trust in the Lord, the life of faith, and call our fellow man to such a trust. Saint John Chrysostom can be of great assistance to us in this calling. Chrysostom’s life was full of earthly sorrows: the loss of his father as an infant, and of his mother and sister as a young man; physical illnesses; tormenting passions; a turbulent and unstable civil and ecclesiastical ethos;[26] kidnapping and displacement; immense pastoral responsibilities; sustained opposition; false accusation by his brother bishops at the Synod of the Oak; imperial trickery; banishment and death in exile. Yes, it sounds like a Saint’s life does it not? One large cross upon which the Saint resolved to stay.

In the midst of these very sorrows Chrysostom found tremendous joy, and lived through them all by trusting confidently in the will of God. His most precious writings on this subject of faith in time of anxiety are, no doubt, those that were written by him while in exile. Here we have words crafted out of the very heat of the furnace, and we see the triumph of his faith. Two treatises particularly I would like to call to your attention. These two treatises were composed by Chrysostom in exile, not long before his death, in order to comfort his dear friend the Deaconess, Saint Olympias, who was suffering from extreme depression due to her spiritual father’s banishment.

The first is a small work, some fifteen pages, entitled That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself. In this beautiful work, Chrysostom teaches that there is only one thing in life to fear, only one thing to be anxious about. That one thing is sin. It is the only thing we should fear, and if we do fear it, then we will never have to fear anything else at all because the good God will see to it that nothing harms him who puts his trust in Him. I commend to each of you the reading of this profound treatise. The second work is longer, perhaps 100 pages (and needing its first English translation), entitled On Providence. In this more extended treatise, Chrysostom provides numerous justifications from reason and the creation to put one’s complete confidence in the governance of the Lord God, reminds his readers of the security of being a child of the one God, Who is the Father Almighty. God has the heart of a Father for us, and the resources of the Almighty to put a Father’s heart into action. There is no suffering endured in faith by the believer which will not be redemptive. And lastly, Chrysostom calls upon believers to remain in reverent silence before human outcomes and developments that are beyond our comprehension. Confident silence is the best response to events which we cannot understand. It was with such faith, such serene trust in the Lord God, that Chrysostom came to his end,lay down, received the Holy Gifts, made his Cross, and uttered his final words, with which I will conclude my lecture: “Glory to God for all things.”


15 Homily 1 on the Statues, NPNF, p. 343. He expected Christians by their zeal for God and His law to strike fear in their perverse fellow citizens. Chrysostom expected the Jews and Greeks to tremble at the shadows of the Christians for fear that they might rebuke their blasphemy and immorality.

16. This is most clear in his Homilies on the Statues delivered in A.D. 387 at the time of the tax riot. Throughout these homilies Chrysostom appeals to his congregation’s pride of belonging to such an esteemed πόλις, calls to mind the distinguished history of Antioch, and calls upon his listeners to prove themselves worthy of the city’s greatness by their virtue.

17. The replacement of the public bath with the private bath is largely a fruition of Christian vision and of the preaching of Chrysostom and other Holy Fathers of his age. Ward, Roy Bowen (1992). ‘Women in the Roman Baths,’ in Harvard Theological Review, 85:2.125-47. Principles from the Christianization of public baths ought to be applied today to the recent outcrop of coed gymnasia, which share many of the same features of the old Roman public bath.

18. Cat, ill 3, 17.

19. Homily 12 On the Incomprehensible Nature of God.

20. Homily 11 On the Incomprehensible Nature of God.

21. For those who wish to explore more fully Saint John Chrysostom’s ecclesiology and immense vision of church life I recommend Protopresbyter Gus George Christo’s (2006), The Church’s Identity Established through Images according to Saint John Chrysostom, Rollingsford, New Hampshire: Orthodox Research Institute.

22. Twenge (2000), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 79, No. 6, 1007-1021.

23. Twenge’s article does not address the holocaust of abortion in the last 34 years. Mother Theresa of Calcutta powerfully articulated the point as no other that as long as a society sanctions the most violent crime possible, the murder of an infant in the womb by its own mother, no chance exists for controlling other violent crimes.

24. Genesis 6.

25. Perhaps now more than at any time in the history of the Church the three petitions for peace of the Great Litany that opens the Divine Liturgy resonate with great power among the congregants.

26. When I was new in the priesthood and disturbed by the many sorrows I had become privy to, a certain pious nun, Abbess Victoria of St Barbara Monastery, used to counsel me, “Father, if we could live through 4th century Antioch, we can live through anything.” It was a great encouragement.