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Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis ævum.—Hor.
Happy years of fruitful and blessed work flowed over Chrysostom after the memorable events of 387. They were the most peaceful and untroubled years of his life. He used them in the highest duties of his sacred office as a writer and a preacher. Two hundred homilies are still extant as a proof of his industry. As a preacher he did not merely thrill his audience with witching oratory, but built them up in Christ, fearlessly exposing every form of fashionable vice. He made some enemies by the plainness of his speaking and the uncompromising loftiness of his denunciations. He would have been utterly ashamed of himself had he not done so. He knew that friendship with the world was enmity with God, and the tumultuous applause which accompanied his grander outbursts troubled more than it pleased him. It made him fear that the moral lesson would be lost in the intellectual excitement, and that his arrows of lightnings had but played before the imagination instead of blazing in the conscience. But if he made some bitter foes, there were many who loved him, both in the Church and in the world, and, happy in the comparative obscurity of his rank, he was less obnoxious to the hatred of the bad.
His one intense desire was to change nominal Christians into real Christians. To the heathen he was gentle and generous, understanding their difficulties, and trying to win them by the force of his arguments and the beauty of his ideal. He did his utmost to turn Christians from the Pagan corruptions which had begun to invade the Church on every side. Hence his energetic warnings 66 against the drunkenness and luxury of wedding and funeral feasts, the superstitious use of amulets, and the orgies of immorality which strangely disgraced the nightly celebration of saints’ days and festivals.
Nor was his preaching only moral. Antioch was full of error and heresies, and he endeavoured to refute them, not by virulence and venom, not by misrepresentations and anathemas, but by fair, honourable, and kindly reasoning.
During these years, too, he added to his already vast stores of Biblical knowledge, and enriched Christian literature with commentaries which, like those of his friend Theodore of Mopsuestia, were framed on principles of true criticism, and, if less learned than those of St. Jerome, were saner and more beneficial than any which were written for a thousand years.
Of course the happy years were chequered with the natural sorrows of life which happen to us all. His heaviest loss was the death of his mother, Anthusa, whose unbroken love and care he repaid with the deepest filial affection. Her death, though in many respects an irreparable calamity, yet did not alter his domestic circumstances. She left him surrounded by faithful and attached servants, and Philip, now a fine youth, full of vigour, shrewd sense, and practical capacity, attended his steps, lightened his burdens, relieved him of all worrying details, acted as his amanuensis, and amused his leisure hours with the flow of his natural gaiety. Philip would not allow himself to be ordained a reader. Chrysostom represented to him the best ideal of manhood he ever hoped to see, and the youth knew that in helping him and brightening his life he was rendering higher services to the world than any which could come from his independent action. Old friends of Chrysostom died as the years flowed on. His Christian teacher, Diodore of Tarsus, died in 394, and his Pagan teacher, Libanius, in 395; but Philip’s companionship saved him from being lonely, and Philip’s younger friends, who all looked up to and loved the great Presbyter, surrounded him with a garland of their young enthusiasm.
Meanwhile Chrysostom was ever watching with the deepest interest, and often with profoundest apprehension, 67 the menacing horizon of the future, both in the Church and in the world.. The year after the riot he had rejoiced in the victory of Theodosius over the usurper Maximus. That bad adventurer had been an accomplice in the murder of the young Emperor Gratian; and at the instigation of Spanish bishops, but to the disgust of St. Ambrose and St. Martin of Tours, he was the first who allowed Christians to be murdered by their fellow-Christians because of their opinions. Theodosius defeated the usurper in two great battles, and drove him to Aquileia. There Maximus was seized by his own soldiers, the purple robe was torn off his back, the purple sandals from his feet, the purple and jewelled diadem from his brow, and, bound hand and foot, he was dragged into the presence of Theodosius. It was August 25, 388, five years almost to a day since the murdered Gratian had suffered the same fate. Theodosius looked at the defeated usurper with a mixture of pity and contempt, and after a few disdainful questions dismissed him without deciding his fate. His captors took the law into their own hands, and struck off his head outside the imperial tent. Andragathius, the admiral of Maximus, and the actual murderer of Gratian, hearing of his master’s defeat, drowned himself in the Adriatic; and Ambrose, of whose deeds Chrysostom always heard with the profoundest admiration, secured the mercy of Theodosius for the common herd of the vanquished.
But heart-shaking news came fast and thick. The year 390 was marked by terrible events. The people of Thessalonica were passionately devoted to chariot-races. They rose in fury against Botheric, their governor, because, on the complaint of his cupbearer, he had righteously punished a charioteer, who was their favourite, for one of those enormities which were the plague-spot of Pagan antiquity. Refusing to release the man from prison, Botheric fell a victim to the rage of the mob, who murdered him and many of his chief officials, and dragged their bodies with insults through the streets. There was every circumstance in this heinous crime to awaken the uttermost indignation of Theodosius. He loved Thessalonica. There he had long resided; there he had been baptised; and he had been to the city a conspicuous benefactor. And now the lewd 68 factions of the multitude had brutally murdered his personal friend and his responsible officials. The news transported him into one of those paroxysms of fury to which his Spanish temperament was liable.
At last, mad with rage, Theodosius committed the one crime which most deeply stained his life. There was to be another great race in the circus at Thessalonica, and he knew that the people would assemble in thousands to witness it. He issued an edict worthy of a Caligula or a Nero, that when the multitude was assembled the doors of the circus should be closed, and the soldiers should enter and massacre indiscriminately the innocent and the guilty. The moment that his insane wrath had thus found expression he repented, and, like the Athenians after their atrocious mandate to massacre the people of Mitylene, he sent messengers of mercy to overtake the avengers of blood.
But our words and deeds are often made retributively irrevocable that they may transform themselves into their own avenging furies. The repentance came too late to prevent the consequences of the crime. The frightful command arrived before the news that it was already rescinded. There was no Flavian, no Chrysostom at Thessalonica; and if there were any hermits to interpose, the horrid deed was not known till it had been accomplished.
The scene which ensued was one of the most horrible recorded in history. With drawn swords the soldiers entered the crowded circus, and slew and slew, alike the innocent and the guilty, alike strangers and citizens, alike young and old, till their swords were blunt, and their hearts sick, and their arms weary, and their eyes dim with the mist of blood, and themselves intoxicated with its sickening fumes. They struck to the ground, they stabbed, they murdered even children on the bosoms of their mothers, till they left only bleeding and ghastly heaps, where the living writhed among the wounded and the slain, and a horrid silence buried the wild shrieks of agony and fear. For three hours of inconceivable and brutalising horror the work of hell went on. One historian says that 15,000 fell; but even if we accept the lowest computation, and place the number of victims at 7,000, such guilt must have made 69 the remorseful heart of the Christian Emperor exclaim with the midnight murderer:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No! this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red!
The dreadful news reached the Antiochenes. That fate they too might have suffered if the voice of the Church had not mollified the swelling anger of the Emperor. But Chrysostom heard with proud thankfulness how the dauntless Ambrose, overwhelmed as he was with shame and anguish, had maintained the violated rights of humanity; how he had towered above the repentant Emperor like his embodied moral sense; how he had written for his private eye a letter full, indeed, of manly tact, yet stern and uncompromising as that of a Hebrew prophet; how he had refused to him the Holy Communion; how he had declined to admit him into the Church without a public penance; how he had repulsed from the door of the Basilica of Milan the foremost man in all the world.
The conscience of the Emperor sided with the rebukes of the great bishop. The hands which were red with innocent blood were impotent to strike his judge. Theodosius could be transported out of himself by the evil genius of his anger, but he could not act like a deliberate tyrant. He accepted the penance imposed on him. After long exclusion from the Church Ambrose required him to renew the admirable law of Gratian, which enacted that a period of thirty days must always intervene between judgment and punishment. Then the Emperor laid aside all the insignia of royalty, and, prostrate on the ground, bewept the sin into which he had been misled, and cried, ’ My soul cleaveth to the dust; quicken Thou me according to Thy word.’
Fortunately, Ambrose had to deal with an emperor who was emphatically a man—a man of ability, and not deaf to the dictates of conscience. Such a person as his minister, Rufinus, would have cared nothing for ecclesiastical penalties. One day, when he found the Emperor bathed in tears, he could hardly conceal the disdainful smile which 70 passed over his features. ‘You smile,’ said Theodosius, because you do not feel my misery. The Church of God is opened to slaves and beggars: to me it is closed, and with it the gates of heaven.’
The year 392 was darkened by the murder of the youthful emperor, Valentinian II., who had been found dead—probably murdered by Arbogast the Frank. Chrysostom mourned his sad fate. An emperor since his childhood, that magnificent inheritance had brought him nothing but misery. He had suffered terror, flight, exile, and manifold perils, only to become the puppet of an insolent barbarian. He was devoted to Ambrose, whom he longed to see once more, and he had struggled out of every fault and error of his boyhood. As he was strolling in his garden on the banks of the Rhone at Vienne, Arbogast had strangled this pure and innocent boy, and had hung his body on the branch of a tree with his own handkerchief, to make it supposed that he had committed suicide. When the assassin seized him, he had called on the name of Ambrose, and cried, ‘Alas! what will become of my unhappy sisters?’ Arbogast, being a barbarian, dared not make himself emperor, but he chose the tenth-rate rhetorician, Eugenius, as a suitable block on which to hang the imperial purple. Utterly condemned by the Church, Arbogast and his puppet-emperor could only stand for a moment by posing as the champions of Arianism and Paganism. In 394 Theodosius advanced into Italy, with young Alaric—among others—as one of his allied chieftains, and defeated the rebel army in the memorable battle of the Frigidus. Eugenius was put to death, and Arbogast, flying to the mountains, fell on his own sword.
Then Chrysostom heard the alarming news that on January 16, 395, the great Theodosius had breathed his last in the arms of Ambrose, leaving his life ‘like a ruined sea-wall amidst the fierce barbarian tide, beyond which were ravaged lands.’ There could not but be vast changes for the worse in the reigns of his two orphan sons—the stupidly dull Arcadius, who was now eighteen, and the malignantly dull Honorius, who was six or seven years younger. The Empire was divided between them, never again to be reunited. The successors of the brave and 71 upright Spanish soldier were two vapid and lymphatic boys, the one sullen and stupid, the other impotent and half imbecile: neither of them capable of being aroused, unless it were to some transport of murderous jealousy against the men who overshadowed their insignificance. And both of them were left under the tutelage of rival aliens, who, it was clear, would wield all the real power. The governor of Arcadius was the Gaul Rufinus; of Honorius, the Vandal Stilico. The main object of each was to undermine and overthrow the other.
But amid all these tragic and solemn events Chrysostom was still pursuing his daily duties. He had made more than one effort to win over to Christianity his old tutor, Libanius; but the sophist, though he was an honourable and open-minded man, could not be convinced. Chrysostom powerfully met all his other arguments and objections, but there was one on which Libanius dwelt with cogent force, and to which the Presbyter could give no reply which satisfied either Libanius or himself. It was the evil lives of so many nominal Christians; the fact that genuine, untainted goodness seemed to have become entirely etiolated; the usurping claims and worldly lives of so many priests; the haughty and tyrannous ambition of so many prelates; the furies of mutual antagonism which rent Christians into fierce dissensions respecting incomprehensible minutiæ of theological definition; the violence and fury of hordes of intolerant monks; the revolting self-maceration of multitudes of half-idiotic hermits. As Libanius dwelt on these evils, and quoted in proof of his allegation, not only Pagans like Eunapius, Zosimus, and Ammianus Marcellinus, but even the writings of St. Basil, of the Gregories, of Ambrose, and of Jerome, Chrysostom bitterly felt that such facts must be a terrible stumbling-block in the path of Pagan inquirers, as the chief argument against Christianity. Yet were we not forewarned of this? ’ When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?’
Philip had been present during the discussion between the Presbyter and Libanius; and Chrysostom, deeply attached to the boy, and ever anxious for his welfare, 72 exclaimed, ‘O Philip, my son! Libanius has not shaken your faith, I trust?’
‘Nay,’ said the boy smiling. ‘Many things which Libanius said were sad—and yet seemed true. But the Argonauts could not listen to the Sirens while Orpheus sang to them, and he who has heard Christ’s voice cannot listen to any other.’
‘May He be with thee, my son, now and evermore!’ said Chrysostom; and he laid his right hand gently on the boy’s dark hair.
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