Friday, September 13, 2013

Saint of the Month: St. John Chrysostom

A Fifteenth Century icon of
St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom

AKA: Giovanni Crisostomo, sometimes just "Chrysostom," familiarly. Chrysostum is literally "Golden Mouth."
Feast Day: September 13.

Really Existed? Certainly.
Timeframe: c. 347 - 407
Place: The Roman Empire.

Credentials: Recognized by tradition since the fifth century.
Martyrdom: Exiled from Constantinople on two occasions; died in exile.

Patron Saint of: Orators, epileptics, preachers, Constantinople.
Symbolism: Shown with or around bees, a dove, or a pen. As a Doctor of the Church, likely to be shown with a book.

St. John Chrysostom was the best preacher ever. Like, literally. Which is to say, he is often cited in summaries of his life as the most successful Christian orator in history. He is considered a very important figure in the history of Christian thought. I have to admit I had never heard at him before I began looking into hagiography, but it turns out he is on the shortlist that will show up on any saints’ roster of any length. Like a word newly learned, now that I’ve heard of him, I notice him everywhere.

As a bishop in two high-profile posts, his hometown Antioch and Constantinople, the Imperial capital, Chrysostom was obviously an important public person in his own day. A prolific writer, he left a large body of work that managed to survive through the Dark Ages. In Orthodoxy, he was one of the original three Doctors or “Hierarchs” of the Church, which means he was deemed one of the three people who were thought to have made the strongest contribution to doctrine and practice. In 1568, Pope Pius V declared that the three Eastern Doctors (plus one, for symmetry) could join the original four Doctors of the Western Church (Saints Augustine, Gregory, Jerome, and Ambrose). So theologically speaking, St. John Chrysostom is a really big deal.

The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia waffles a little bit, though, on exactly what points of theology Chrysostom contributed to Christian tradition. “Chrysostom's was not a speculative mind, nor was he involved in his lifetime in great dogmatic controversies,” it says, adding that with a few exceptions of omission the Saint’s teachings were pitched pretty much right over the plate of Catholic thought. He seems to be well-regarded for his works of exegesis, which is to say interpretation and commentary of the gospels and Psalms. A darker line of opinion about Chrysostom holds that he advanced anti-Semitism, or at least left writings that have been mined and exploited by anti-Semites.

Chrysostom has traditionally been revered for his exegesis of the letters of Paul.  This icon
represents a story about a servant boy who witnesses the image of St. Paul whispering
truth into Chrysostom's ear as he works.

Now, when I look into some of the more obscure Saints, I sometimes dig very hard to find out as much as possible about them, and sadly, for a few of them my write-ups immediately become the most definitive, most scholarly resources available in English online. With somebody like St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, you could get your doctorate in Theology without ever running out of things to read about him, especially if your classical Greek is less rusty than mine. This is one case where we can be very confident indeed that the Wiki article on our Saint of the Month is more authoritative than mine.

Did you know? One rule of Michael5000’s Saint of the Month project is that he never looks at the Wikipedia article on a Saint until his own piece is finished. 

From our extremely sketchy outline of Chrysostom’s role in Church history, however, we can ask one interesting (albeit unanswerable) question. That is this: Given that he was not involved in “great dogmatic controversies” – which would imply that he was not instrumental in influencing any great theological decisions – then why is he a Doctor of the Church? I wonder about his well-preserved body of writings, and I wonder how many other leading Christian figures of the First Millennium wrote or spoke great libraries of theological wisdom that did not survive into the modern written record. If somebody else’s work had survived, and Chrysostom’s had not, would modern Christianity be substantially different? Would Chrysostom be remembered as anything more than a footnote? Would the guy with the extant body of work be the alternative Doctor of the Church? Clearly, this would be a promising topic for an incredibly erudite novel of science fiction.

St. John Chrysostum flanked by St. Paul (left) and St. Basil (right).  Carlo Crivelli, c. 1493.

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