HEROES OF THE FOURTH CENTURY (PART III)

ST. GREGORY OF NYSSA AND ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

 

Great changes took place in the position and outlook of the Christian Church in the fourth century. Its very first years were marked by the final persecutions of Diocletian, followed very closely by Constantine's edict of toleration in 313, so that actually the fourth century was the first period in which the Church was able to express openly her doctrines, practices, and way of life, The first three centuries had proved that the Christian faith could survive in a hostile world; in fact, the loyalty and steadfastness which it inspired produced an age of martyrs who joyfully faced death rather than betray their faith in Christ. This faith was regarded as a religion of self-sacrifice, a way of life which would withstand every adversity; in fact, the Christian really needed adversity in order to live his faith to the fullest extent.

When Constantine altered the status of the Church from that of an underground movement to the favored cultus of the state, it looked as if the faithful might be deprived of that very element which had made Christianity great. The lives of St. Athansius, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory Nazianzen have showed us that this was not to be the case. The battle between paganism and the Christian Church, which had been going on since the beginning, entered a new phase; it became a battle within the Church between the forces of Orthodoxy and the forces of Arianism, and the great men of this age whom the Church honors as saints were those who thrashed out the issues once and for all and determined the course which the Orthodox Church has followed ever since.

Today the western world is engaged in the same controversy all over again. Instead of Arians we have the modern theologians. Instead of the pagans we have those who emphasize the practical aspects of education to the detriment of moral and spiritual values. In the fourth century the victory was won by such men as St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom, who not only contributed to the form of our Church Services but made it clear that the Church would not sacrifice her Divine Commission and other worldliness to become another Jewish or pagan philosophical system. The Mystery of Christ's Incarnation was to remain a mystery and it was to be the rock on which she was to stand.

The world of the fourth century was every bit as secular as ours. People loved luxury and pleasure. There was hardly any aspect of social life, of intellectual life, of psychology that we are familiar with which was not familiar to the people of that time. It was by no means a "primitive" society. The men we are considering here came of well-to-do families who gave them the very best education, and instead of following careers which would have earned them money and worldly pleasures, they chose to live as monks and ascetics. This may seem strange to us today, because we are still in love with our technological progress, but it was in keeping with the belief that the Christian life demands self-denial. Monasticiam and its ascetic practices were really an attempt to impose a self-created adversity and submit to it gladly.

 

GREGORY OF NYSSA

Gregory, the younger brother of St. Basil the Great, was born about A.D. 335. He was the third son in this remarkable saintly family of five boys and five girls. Unlike his older brother and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, this Gregory apparently did not go to school in Caesarea, but was taught at home. This may have been due to his delicate health, but in any case the other members of the family were more than competent to deal with his education. The principle drawback to this procedure was the fact that it prevented him from having sufficient experience with other people, and did not help him to overcome his shy and retiring nature or to develop firmness of character.

Like others of the period, he was not baptized until he was an adult, and the decision to do so came as a result of a dream which he had while attending services in honor of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the chapel dedicated to them in his mother's convent. Fatigued by the long services and the weary journey, he went out into the garden and fell asleep. He dreamed that the martyrs came and reproached him for his indifference and beat him with rods. He was so upset by this experience that he not only decided to be baptized but also readily agreed to become a reader.

Not long thereafter, however, he changed his mind about entering holy orders, and decided to become a teacher of speech. Both his brother Basil and friend Gregory were so opposed to this that he changed his mind again and joined them in their monastery in Pontus. Here he studied the Scriptures and the works of Origen. One trait of his character, most unusual for the times, was his love of nature. He has left us delightful descriptions of the natural beauties of the surrounding country.

 

Gregory as Bishop of Nyssa

From A.D. 365 when Basil was summoned to be assistant to Bishop Eusebius in Caesarea, Gregory's life was closely patterned after his brother's. In 370, shortly after Basil's consecration as bishop in the place vacated by the death of Eusebius, Gregory was forced to play a part in his brother's plan to resist the emperor's partition of his diocese. He was sent to Nyssa to be its bishop while the other Gregory was assigned to Sasima.

In this position his utter lack of experience got him into difficulties. Because of his zeal for the Orthodox faith, he devoted himself to promoting synods, and if it had not been for Basil's intervention, he would have placed himself on a delegation to Pope Damasus for the purpose of interfering in the Meletian schism at Antioch. Basil had fortunately already learned that Latin Christians were not very interested in theological arguments. The issues, which depended on the interpretation of Greek words, did not mean much to the Latins, and if they accepted the invitation to interfere, it would be for political reasons. Added to these difficulties was the fact that Gregory made himself a good target for Arian and Sabellian persecution because he so zealously defended the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. His enemies were not slow in thinking up ways to torment him. He received a summons to appear before the synod of Ancyra to defend himself against the charge of being improperly ordained, and his brother's old enemy Demosthenes, the emperor's cook, charged him with misuse of church funds.

 

Gregory and the Imperial Administration

Gregory was not the person to tangle with issues like these. He was so upset that he became ill, and Basil arranged for a local synod of bishops to declare him innocent on the excuse that he was unfit to travel to Ancyra. Basil also tried to prevent a civil trial, but Demosthenes succeeded in convening a synod in Nyssa. Gregory refused to attend. He was deposed and banished. This was in A.D. 376. He took refuge in Seleucia, but even there he was harassed, forced to keep changing his residence, subjected to cruel discomforts, and driven into a state of extreme despondency.

When the Emperor Valens died in AD. 378, Gregory was one of those who gained the most, for when the succeeding emperor Gratian decreed that all Orthodox bishops banished by the Arian emperor should be allowed to return to their sees, Gregory returned to Nyssa and was received with popular acclaim.

Gratian had been brought up Orthodox and was a friend of the great St. Ambrose of Milan. One of his first objectives was to destroy paganism in Italy. He began by refusing to assume the title pontifex maximus which all the Roman heads of state from the time of Julius Caesar had held. He also ordered that pagan ceremonies no longer be paid for out of the imperial treasury, and he cut off the endowments which the ancient priestly families had enjoyed since pagan times.

Gratian also chose as his coemperor in the East Theodosius, who as the first Orthodox emperor in the East since Constantine, reversed the policy of Arians.

 

Gregory, the Successor of Basil

In 379 Gregory had the sad duty of preaching the funeral of his brother Basil. Shortly thereafter he made a trip to Pontus to visit his saintly sister Macrina in the family retreat, only to find her, too, on her death bed. The meeting between them was one of great spiritual assistance for Gregory. His sister expressed her unwavering faith in the certainty of resurrection, supporting her belief with complete arguments, and scolded him for expressing sadness at her imminent departure from this life. When she died, one of her companions from the convent brought Gregory a ring which contained a relic of the true cross which his sister had worn.

From this time on Gregory stepped into the shoes of his brother Basil and became one of the foremost defenders of the Nicene Faith. The people of Ibera in Pontus expressed their desire to have him as bishop with such enthusiasm that the disturbance had to be quelled with armed force. His reputation as a teacher was such that he was invited to the Synod of Antioch, the seat of Meletius, to heal the schism there. By this same synod he was sent to reform the churches in Arabia and Babylon. On his return from this mission he visited Jerusalem, and said how shocked he was by all that he had seen, not only in Arabia and Babylon, but even in Jerusalem. He was particularly outraged by the liberties which people enjoyed on pilgrimages, and he denounced them as morally dangerous, especially for women. He went on all these journeys in carriages provided by the emperor.

 

Gregory and the Second Ecumenical Council

"Gregory's reputation was by this time so great that he was among the 150 bishops invited to attend the Council of Constantinople in 381. It was the one over which Bishop Meletius presided, and later after his death, Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory of Nyssa brought with him his treatises which denounced the Eunomians and explained Basil's position on the Incarnation and the Trinity. There is a tradition that he was responsible for the explanatory clauses which were added to the Nicene Creed at this council.

In any case, he did deliver the inaugural address at the council, and when Meletius, Bishop of Antioch and president of the council, died, he preached the funeral oration. It was at this same council that the transfer of Gregory Nazianzen from Sasima to the archbishopric of Constantinople was approved. Gregory of Nyssa preached the enthronement, and shortly after was nominated by the emperor as one of the bishops to act as the central authority of the Orthodox communion. This followed the council's decree that henceforth Constantinople should enjoy a place of honor second only to Rome.

In A.D. 383 Gregory was again in the capital for a synod, and on this occasion he had the sad duty of preaching the eulogy for the infant princess Pulcheria. A few years later when the Empress Placidia died, he performed a similar honor for her. Except for his presence at a synod in Constantinople in 394, which pretended to be concerned with a see in Arabia, but was really to glorify the consecration of the architect Rufinus' new church for which Gregory preached a magnificent sermon, we know very little of his later years.

 

Death of Gregory

One thing is certain, however, and that is that he continued his mission as a great preacher and defender of Orthodoxy. When he died, about A.D. 395, the words of his brother Basil had been truly justified: Gregory had conferred honor upon Nyssa rather than that Nyssa conferred honor upon her bishop. Gregory is known as "The Father of Fathers," "The Star of Nyssa." It was he who said that "all religious truth consists in mystery."

The Arian controversy was really over by this time. Arianism survived only among the barbarian converts in the north and west, but as a theological or political issue it was dead. At the very moment when these great events were taking place in the eastern empire, the Goths were knocking at the door of Rome, and for the next four hundred years it was not so much a question of which argument would prevail in the west but whether the Church could survive at all.

The political unity of the empire, which had been preserved with such difficulty for four centuries was at an end. From this time on, the Latin west and the Greek east became more and more detached as each fought encroaching barbarian hordes and tried to preserve their respective political and territorial unity. The theological battle over the creed had been settled. The Nicene creed was to be the official expression of Christian doctrine, and it is this which has come down to us through the ages, preserved by the devotion and self-sacrifice of these great saints of the fourth century.

 

EARLY YEARS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

St. John Chrysostom was born in Antioch, which was then in Syria, in AD. 347. The name "Chrysostom", which means in Greek "the golden-mouthed", was not given him until after he died. It was conferred upon him because of his marvelous preaching which has had no equal or superior among any of the Greek or Latin Fathers of the Church. The Divine Liturgy which is performed in Orthodox Churches on almost every day of the year bears his name, because he was responsible for composing some of the prayers and for otherwise modifying the Liturgy of St. Basil.

John's father was an officer in the imperial army and died while John was still an infant, leaving John's mother a widow at the age of twenty. Anthusa, as she was named, holds a place in history with those other women, the mothers of St. Basil (Macrina), of St. Gregory Nazianzen (Nonna), and of St. Augustine (Monica), who so strongly influenced their sons' spiritual careers. She refused all offers of remarriage and devoted herself to educating John and his older sister in scholarship and in the Christian life. The great pagan scholar Libanius, who taught St. Basil and St. Gregory and now also St. John, was quoted as saying of Anthusa, "What wonderful women there are among the Christians!" This same Libanius, when asked in later years whom he would like to be his successor, said, "John, if only the Christians had not stolen him from us!"

After being educated in classical scholarship and rhetoric at Athens, John practiced law. It was a profitable career, for there was much litigation then, just as there is now, and it was a stepping stone to a public career through the offices of vice-prefect, prefect, and consul. But John tired of it, because it seemed to him that he was required "to make the worse reason appear the better." Finally, under the influence of his mother, of St. Basil, and of Bishop Meletius of Antioch, he retired from practice, and for three years studied as a catechumen before being baptized by Meletius at the age of twenty-three. These years had made a complete and permanent change in him, and he wanted to become a monk. His mother, however, with tears in her eyes took him aside and begged him, "Do not make me a widow a second time; wait until I die."

 

Founder of the Antiochian School of Theology

John yielded to her entreaties, remaining at home and living like a monk. Here he was joined by two others, Maximus who later became bishop of Seleucia, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The three studied the Scriptures under Diodorus who was later bishop of Tarsus. In consequence of these studies John became the founder of what is known as the Antiochian school of theology. Instead of interpreting the Scriptures allegorically, as the school of Alexandria did, the Antiochian school tried to clarify what was actually being said, just as we do today.

During this period many bishoprics fell vacant because of the violence of the strife between the Orthodox and Arians. Like his older friends Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, John was offered a bishopric. While he did not welcome this office for himself, he was one of those who exerted pressure upon Basil to accept the see of Caesarea, and he added force to his persuasion by implying that he was on the point of accepting an appointment himself. By way of expressing his views on the office of priesthood, John wrote six books on the priesthood in the form of a dialogue between himself and Basil.

After the death of his mother John spent six happy years (AD. 374-380) in monastic seclusion in the mountains south of Antioch. He was a strong believer in active and useful life as a monk and during this time wrote three books "Against Opponents of Monasticism" because in the year 373 the Arian emperor Valens had issued a decree condemning monasticism.

 

Antioch in the Fourth Century

In 381, the year of the Second Ecumenical Council, John returned to Antioch and was ordained deacon by Meletius. For five years he ministered to the poor and the sick and then was ordained priest by Meletius' successor Flavian. The years between 381 and 398 were John's golden years, during which he became an ornament to the Christian Church through his preaching. At that time Antioch was one of the great capitals of the world. Located on the beautiful Orontes river, it was a city of lakes, hills, fertile plains, great wide streets paved with beautifully cut smooth stone and covered with colonnades. The main street was four miles long.

The streets were ornamented with beautiful buildings, public baths, gardens, schools and churches. At night everything was lit with lanterns. The population consisted of Syrians, Greeks, Jews and Romans; half of the 200,000 inhabitants were Christian. Commerce flourished; wealth and luxury abounded. The people were devoted to the circus, the theater, and the acquisition of wealth. It was here that the emperor Julian had tried to revive the oracle of Apollo. John said that the depravity of the people was so great that a stranger comparing the practices of the people with the Gospel teachings would think that the people were the enemies of Christianity!

This same city was for eighty-five years, from A.D. 330 until 415, the scene of the famous Antiochian schism in which St. Meletius was from time to time a figure. Loyalties were split three ways: Meletius was the leader of the Orthodox; a man named Eudoxius, who was a tool of the emperor Valens, led the Arian sympathizers; and another named Eustathius was leader of another heretical group known as Sabellians who obtained the support of Pope Damasus in Rome and succeeded in persuading the Pope to condemn Meletius. John was the person instrumental in healing the schism, for he succeeded in bringing about a reconciliation between Flavian and the bishops of Alexandria and Rome, but it was not until after John's death that the final end was put to the schism by Flavian's successor who led Eustathius back to Orthodoxy in 415.

 

John as Priest and Preacher

During these golden years of his priesthood John preached in the church which had been begun by Constantine and finished by Constantius. He directed many of his sermons against the immorality of the times, especially against the theater and chariot races. But his great opportunity came in the year 387. Theodosius, the emperor, had levied new taxes which so aroused the indignation of the Antiochians that they staged a demonstration in which they tore down and destroyed the statues of the emperor, his wife (the excellent Placidia who had died in 385), and his son Arcadius. The next day there was great consternation when the people viewed their impulsive act in the cold light of day. They knew that Theodosius had a violent temper and they feared his vengeance. Flavian immediately set forth on the long journey to Constantinople to intercede.

It was Great Lent, and John took advantage of the situation to preach daily extemporaneous sermons for twenty-one days, calling upon the people to repent of their wrong-doings and setting forth the ideals of Christian conduct. John's sermons were so eloquent that many pagans were converted, and the throngs that came to listen were so enthralled that notice was given the congregation to beware of pickpockets, for it was discovered that people's pockets were emptied while their attention was drawn by John's words.

These twenty-one sermons were known as the Homilies on the Statues. Most of John's homilies and commentaries date from this period. In the end Theodosius was persuaded to be merciful, but the narrowness of the city's escape was made clear a few years later when the emperor put to death 3,000 citizens of Thessalonika for a comparable offence.

 

Patriarch of Constantinople

In the year 397, two years after the death of Theodosius, John at the age of fifty was chosen archbishop of Constantinople to succeed Nectarius, the successor of Gregory Nazianzen. The appointment was entirely unsought by him, and he was hurried away in the night by a military escort for fear that the people would create an uproar. He was consecrated on February 26, 398, by Theophilos, Archbishop of Alexandria. Theophilos was extremely hostile to John, not merely because of personal jealousy, but because the position of Alexandria had been undermined by a decree of the Council of 381 bestowing upon the see of Constantinople primacy of honor second only to that of Rome.

As Archbishop, John ministered to the Goths in Constantinople. He had part of the Bible translated for them and preached to them through an interpreter. He sent missionaries to the Goths and the Scythians on the Danube. For a short time he enjoyed great popularity, but gradually he made enemies among the clergy because he constantly denounced vice and folly and criticized them for not being ascetic enough. His health, which had for some time been undermined by his extreme asceticism, made him obstinate and irritable. He sold the furniture and plate belonging to the episcopal palace and used the money to help the poor and to build hospitals. Instead of entertaining lavishly and attending banquets, he ate by himself in solitary simplicity.

 

Troubles with the Empress

Most particularly John antagonized the empress, and from the beginning of the year 401 until his death in 407 John was gradually destroyed by her machinations. Theodosius' son Arcadius was a feeble-minded and incompetent person who was a victim of persons stronger than himself, and Eudoxia the empress, who was herself a beautiful, vain, self-willed person, was jealous of John's influence over her husband. Early in 401 John was absent for several months on a mission to Ephesus where he had been invited to intervene in a dispute over several bishops who were accused of accepting money for clerical appointments.

Actually, in going so far afield John was overextending his authority, but the synod over which he presided succeeded in deposing the six guilty bishops. Meanwhile, in his absence Eudoxia plotted together with the man to whom John had temporarily entrusted his office. On his return he preached a sermon in which he referred to Elijah and Jezebel, and the empress did not fail to understand this as a reference to herself.

Shortly thereafter John laid himself open to further criticism by accepting under his protection four bishops who had been banished from Alexandria by Theophilos for supporting the theology of Origen. John was always more interested in seeing Christians live together in the spirit of love than in getting upset about theological differences, so his act was in complete accordance with his principles, but this was the only excuse which Theophilos needed to interfere. After sending an aged emissary who died without fulfilling his mission, Theophilos himself came to Constantinople in 403 and convened a secret council of thirty-six bishops who had reason to dislike John. The council deposed and banished John for immorality and high treason!

 

First Banishment

John quite sensibly refused to appear before a synod composed entirely of his enemies, and appealed for a general council. This was refused, and although the people would have come to his defense by staging an insurrection, he prevented this by submitting willingly to the imperial officers who came to arrest him. He was taken at night and put on board a boat for Pontus. Theophilos entered the city and immediately took vengeance on all who were known to be John's friends. The people besieged the palace and demanded John's return. Their pleas were given additional force when on the following night there occurred an earthquake which shook the imperial palace. The terrified empress saw in this the expression of the will of God and immediately besought the emperor to send messengers to secure John's return.

 

Second Banishment

This was in September of 403. From that time on Eudoxia exerted her persuasion upon her imperial husband to banish John again. In the spring of the following year, on the eve of the Resurrection, while John was performing the sacrament of baptism for hundreds of catechumens, he was dragged from the cathedral by the imperial guards. The baptismal waters were tainted with blood, the candidates were chased through the city half clothed, the sacred elements were profaned. A week of terror ensued during which the clergy were pursued and even private houses were invaded on the pretext that they might be harboring John's sympathizers. People were imprisoned, scourged, and tortured, On June 5 the emperor finally signed the decree of banishment.

John characteristically surrendered without opposition and was immediately taken to the Astiatic shore. The cathedral burst into flame immediately after his departure. All the clergy faithful to him were deposed and banished. The Roman Pope Innocent condemned the synod which had banished John and urged Arcadius to convene a general council, but to no avail. In the scorching heat of July and August John was conveyed through Galatia and Cappadocia to Cucusus on the border of Cilicia and Armenia. John, whose health had long been precarious, was tortured by fever, headaches, and general debilitation. The bishop of Cucusus was kind, and under his hospitality John rallied somewhat. He received many visits and wrote many letters. Two hundred and forty-two of these are extant, and they are unsurpassed as expressions of a noble Christian spirit, clear, brilliant, and persuasive. Seventeen of them are written to the deaconess Olympia, a woman of remarkable qualities of mind and spirit, who after becoming a widow devoted her remaining life and all her wealth to the care of the poor and sick. John wrote her, "No one is really injured except by himself."

Even so, Eudoxia could not curb her vengeance. She was infuriated by the continuation of John's influence from even this remote region. She could not let him die in peace, but demanded his removal first to Arabissus, then Pityus in the Caucasus, the worst spot in the whole empire. By the mercy of God, John did not survive the three months' journey. He died on September 14, 407, at Comana in Pontus and was laid to rest in the chapel of the martyr Basiliscus. His last words were "Glory be to God for all things, amen."

On January 27, 438, his body was transferred to Constantinople and placed beneath the altar in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The procession which conveyed his body was met by Theodosius II and his wife Pulcheria at Chalcedon across the Bosphorus. They knelt together before the relics and prayed forgiveness for their imperial parents.

The life which came to an end in 407 has lighted the path of Christians ever since, for no other Church Father has left as many writings as did St. John Chrysostom or has made his influence on the day-to-day life of the church more strongly felt. His feast day is November 13, but he is also celebrated with St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen (the theologian) on January 30.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
March 1968
pp. 10-15

PUBLICATIONS BY ORI

Keep up with the latest news and stay in touch with ORI