john chrysostom and worldliness

We celebrated a fascinating saint from the second half of the 4th century on September 13, St. John Chrysostom. We’ve been spending a lot of time in that era of the church lately in classes about early monasticism with our postulants. John Chrysostom was someone who was caught up in the controversy around Origen and Origenism, mainly because he was defending a group of monks called “The Tall Brothers” who were heavily influenced by Origen and then in turn introduced Origen to Evagrius of Pontus. John Chrysostom is not remembered as a monk himself, but he did spend some years living as a hermit, and practiced a severe asceticism. As a matter of fact, he had to leave the solitary life because he had damaged his physical health so much by his asceticism, causing permanent damage to his stomach and kidneys. He went on to be ordained deacon, then presbyter, then archbishop of Constantinople. He was mainly known, of course, for his eloquent preaching, from which he gets the name chrysos-stoma––the “golden mouth.”[1]

John Chrysostom, unlike Origen, shied away from the symbolic, allegorical interpretation of scripture. He was quite keen on the moral meaning, practical application, especially the call to simplicity and charity. He himself continued to live ascetically even as an archbishop and was a fierce critic of excess as well as a fierce advocate for the poor, which was quite irritating to powerful people around him, including the Empress. He was not afraid to speak truth to power! He ended his life in exile, though it’s not clear exactly why he was exiled––but this may have had something to do with it. He was not afraid to call the powerful to conversion.

Our Fr. Bruno used to say about this era in the church, “When bishops were theologians and theologians were mystics.” I always marvel how the folks of this era were so much closer to the heart of the gospel, as well as closer to the ground in general. This is why we go back to the patristic era, but more importantly why we go back to the gospels. One example, was John Chrysostom’s fantastic Eucharistic theology. This is from his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew:

Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Then do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him where he is cold and ill clad. The one who said, “This is my body” is the same one who said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did for least of these you did for me.” What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

It’s not enough to adore the Eucharist as the Body of Christ if you ignore the poor, the lonely, your sister or brother as real presence of the Body of Christ as well. This reminds me again of Holy Thursday where we learn that washing feet and Eucharis are part of the same movement. Also Holy Thursday is the one day of the year (besides weddings) when gifts to the poor are also suggested to be offered with the bread and wine––the Body of Christ that is the Eucharist and the Body of Christ that is the poor are “not two.” This is the full range of meaning of Eucharistic spirituality at its best; the sacred species is never abstracted from our lives as disciples.

I was imagining what it would be like if a modern priest, bishop, cardinal, pope, imitated this or had these qualities: being learned and eloquent, but at the same time committed to simplicity and an advocate of the poor. I read a good column by Michael Sean Winters on the current crisis facing the American church and all the responses to it, the discussions it is raising.[2] He says that there are three main aspects that are being pointed to. It is certainly mainly about clergy sex abuse and that must be addressed. But it is also very much about bishops who failed to respond adequately. Some say that homosexuality has to be addressed as well. As Bishop Barron pointed out in an interview a few weeks ago, that does need to be part of the discussion, but Winters points out that that’s not exhaustive, not the overarching problem, and too easily gets distorted. Others argue that a kind of clericalism is the problem, or as the Holy Father named it, “careerism” within the church, which seems to have been part and parcel of Cardinal McCarrick’s acting out. Certainly that is a part of it too. Maybe there’s something else overarching all these things, and all of these other things are symptoms, not the disease.

Winters let himself be challenged by reading from the Letter of James that we heard on the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, which he says invites us to precision: it’s the orientation to worldliness that is the overarching problem. “Worldliness is the sin the apostle James was diagnosing and it is the very heart of the crisis,” he wrote. As the apostle James diagnosed it, it’s favoring the well dressed and wealthy over the poor and weak. But it is also favoring power and position over being real servants like the Suffering Servant, wanting comfort and honor rather than embracing the kenosis of the cross. (A good reminder as we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross the next day…)

I’ve been around the church long enough to know how much priests, to some extent, but especially bishops and cardinals are obliged to hang around the halls of power and to court the favor of the rich and influential. That always comes with a price (even Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote about it in regards himself) and has a subtle way of eating at the soul and the integrity of the gospel message if one is not scrupulously careful. There’s a passage of Bruno’s from The Future of Wisdom that I have used so often I almost have it memorized that also diagnoses the problem well:

The church seems at once too matter-of-fact, too ordinary, and too exalted in an artificial (and obviously human) rather than a spiritual way. The church often seems a kind of intermediate world of institutional pseudo-reality, sometimes even a solemn out-of-date world of clerical artificiality, tediously mediating between two realities which are already one: God and humanity. It is this church which is not real but a comic fantasy; the reality is the body of Christ.[3]

And that Body of Christ, as John Chrysostom reminds us, includes the poor in need, the lost and the lonely, and all the areas where we are called to pour our lives out in Eucharistic service––not set ourselves up for control and power. Some wealthy supporters of the Vatican are threatening to withhold funds until the Holy Father addresses this situation in a way that they see fit, so he actually may get his wish, as he said when he began his papacy, that the Church be “a poor church for the poor.” That vision is right, and very much in keeping with John Chrysostom.

This is where I want to sympathize more with Chrysostom than with Origen, and not worry for a moment about the symbolic or allegorical or even the mystical meaning of the gospel. Let’s just take it literally––practically. We little guys can’t address the big problems in the church––and thanks be to God we are a little community in a tiny congregation at the edge of the world! But we can build something different here, wherever we are. What people say about politics, I say about religion: “All religion is local.” We can build something based on today’s gospel, an environment where we take Jesus literally in his message of mutual love, love of enemies, inclusion… the actions of love.

I always recommend to people who are struggling with their faith, struggling with the Church, “Stay close to Jesus in the gospels and the Eucharist.” And for us too: when in doubt and all the time, let’s keep going back to the gospels and stay close to the Body of Christ––the whole Body of Christ, in the sacrament, in the poor, and in each other.

cyprian 13 sept 18


[1] Unfortunately it must be admitted that when misogyny in the early church gets brought up, John Chrysostom is one of the culprits usually mentioned. He is also known for virulent anti-Jewish preaching.

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[3] Bruno Barnhart, The Future of Wisdom, 171.

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