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FACE TO FACE WITH SHAMS
Vien dietro a me, e lascia dir le genti,
Sta come torre ferma, che non crolla
Giammai la cima per sofflar de’ venti.
Dante, Purg., v. 13–15.
The errors of Chrysostom were errors of judgment only. He might have been equally inflexible without producing so deadly an exacerbation. Ambrose had been no less masterful than he, and no less fearless; but the training of Ambrose in civil offices had taught him the art of dealing with men. Even in his most bold proceedings he displayed a certain tact. We are apt to despise tact as a petty accomplishment; but just as a trivial oversight may ruin the smooth working of complicated machinery, so trivial faults of tone and manner, or a little lack of conciliatoriness, which is something wholly different from unfaithful concession, may throw out of gear the movement of great societies.
Certainly there had been little in the past experience of Chrysostom to bring this quality prominently forward. He had as little of it as Savonarola, whom he resembled more closely than any other historic parallel.
His long years of ascetic, monastic, and eremitic solitude, while they revealed to him many abysses of the deceitful human heart, and burned into his conviction the indefeasible supremacy of the moral law, had but little fitted him to bear the infirmities of the weak. He was out of touch with his surroundings.
Men are sometimes called upon to cleanse Augean stables without the Herculean strength by which alone the task can be accomplished. Men of unflinching honesty and flaming zeal are sometimes placed in the 179 midst of societies hopelessly corrupt, and their heroic efforts only seem to precipitate their own destruction. Such a man was Gregory of Nazianzus, and Chrysostom, and Hus, and Luther, and Whitefield. Such men are forced, as it were, to dash themselves against barriers of adamant.
And his experiences in the mountain-cave had done Chrysostom another disservice. By hopelessly ruining his health they had caused also a sort of irritability—not so much of feeling as of tone and manner—which was more a physical accident than a moral defect, but which made what he said seem less easy to bear than otherwise it might have been. To this we must add the fact that his inexhaustible vocabulary and impassioned style made his words smite their hearers like a storm of hail. He was himself unaware of the effect produced by his own utterances. It was often more tremendous than he had intended. Even a platitude, wrapped round in the lightning of his fervent rhetoric, sounded like a paradox and a defiance. Sometimes, when he had preached a sermon in which he only seemed to himself to have enunciated the most obvious moral certainties, he found to his astonishment that he had thrown all Constantinople into a ferment of agitation. If, for instance, oppressed by social problems and the glaring contrast between plethoric wealth and starving populations, he simply enunciated the plainest truths inculcated by Christianity and the Apostles, he found himself on the one hand besieged by applications from gross impostors who cursed him as a hypocrite if he refused their claims, while at the same time the upper classes were denouncing him as a dangerous Socialist and a reckless demagogue.
‘How is it, my son,’ he once said to Philip, ‘that over and over again I only utter truths which hundreds have said before me, yet when I say them they seem to rouse men to fury, and when others say the very same thing they are set down as commonplaces?’
‘There are ways of saying things, father,’ said Philip, smiling; ‘the gnats buzz, and the thunder roars, and the ultimate elements of sound are much the same, but they produce different effects.’180
‘You odd boy!’ said Chrysostom—for their intercourse was always playful and unrestrained—’I think you must have learnt your style of talking at Antioch.’
‘I thought we were both Antiochenes,’ said Philip, demurely; ‘but as you don’t appreciate my simile, I will give you another. I shake this table, and no one notices it except a fly or two; but when an earthquake shakes things, even emperors and empresses get in a fright.’
‘You haven’t solved my perplexity, Philip. Gregory, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome—they are all every bit as much earthquakes as I am, but they didn’t shake everything round them into a chaos of hatred.’
‘Didn’t they?’ said Philip, innocently. ’Gregory had to leave Constantinople, shaking the dust off his feet, and comparing the Œcumenical Council to geese and cranes. Basil, I have heard you say, almost broke his heart at the savagery with which he was attacked, especially by bishops like Eusebius and Atarbius. Ambrose had to be defended in his church by the populace for days together. Jerome was driven from Rome by the rich, and by the monks, and by the clergy, and as he left Rome he called the city a purpurata meretrix, and compared her to Babylon.’
‘Nevertheless, Philip,’ said Chrysostom, ‘it remains true that when Severian, for instance, or Antiochus, say the very same things that I do, the air does not become full of flame. You don’t help me, Philip; I shall ask Serapion.’
‘It all comes to this, father,’ said Philip, ‘there are ways of saying things, and it makes a difference whether they are spoken from the heart, or through masks and cotton-wool. One man may steal a horse, another may not look over the hedge.’
‘You are as riddling as the Sphinx, Philip. Send Serapion to me; I will ask him.’
Philip left the room laughing. He had but little experience of life to help his natural shrewdness, but he felt that what made Chrysostom’s enunciation of a truth sound so tremendous, when on the lips of a Severian or an Isaac the Monk it would seem like a mere dulcet platitude, was that the one meant and acted on what he said, whereas everyone knew that the others did not.181
But Chrysostom asked Serapion whether he spoke too strongly, and Serapion, akin to him in all his feelings, entirely repudiated the suggestion.
‘You have rebuked the luxury of the rich,’ he said. ’Have you said anything stronger than St. James? You have warned voluptuous women. Have you spoken more plainly than Isaiah?’
Chrysostom had asked these opinions because he had long had it in his mind to summon in the Thomaites two large meetings—first, of the virgins, the widows, and the deaconesses; then of the monks and clergy; and while he felt it to be his duty to address them with the utter faithfulness which they needed, he was anxious to tell the truth in love and not willingly or needlessly to exacerbate or wound.
The meeting of the ‘consecrated’ women took place first, and Chrysostom was grieved that he could not spare their vices. He was infected with the unscriptural and dangerous error of his times about the inherent sanctity of celibacy. Ignorant of marriage, and living at a period when, owing to the down-trodden position of most women in the East, the loftiest ideal of matrimony was but rarely realised, he could paint with caustic severity its trials and drawbacks, but did not fully recognise its supreme sanctity.
So far as words were concerned he repudiated the Manichean notion of the inherent taint of matter, and maintained that outward chastity was worthless if accompanied by inward depravity; yet he looked on marriage as an inferior condition. He drew for himself the loveliest ideals of virginity and consecrated widowhood. In such a consecration of womanhood he saw the existence of a new and unsuspected force on the side of Christianity, such as had already baffled the Emperor Julian at Antioch, and might still stem the swelling tide of corruption. It was, then, infinitely painful to him to think that worldliness, frivolity, and corruption could so invade the inmost recesses of the sanctuary as to falsify the conditions which ought to have been a pattern to all mankind. An Olympias, a Salvina, a Pentadia, seemed to him to have attained a conception of life which, if it became more common, 182 might regenerate the world. But to see virgins wearing their ostentatiously coarse robes with almost meretricious coquetry; to see them adopt a demeanour so piquant that the dress was actually adopted by the lowest of their sex to enhance their own fascinations; to see them use the freedom and emancipation gained from their position to overstep the bounds of modesty, to gad about in promiscuous assemblies, to be seen in questionable places of amusement; to see widows who were so far from being ‘widows indeed’ that, like the women whom Isaiah denounced, they ’ sewed pillows to all armholes,’ and abounded in wimples and crisping pins; to see deaconesses at once bold and mincing, to see them forward, intriguing, uncharitable, slanderous—all this was as gall and wormwood to the burning sincerity of the Archbishop. And of all this he spoke to the seething throng of official religionism with a directness and power which made their cheeks blush and then hearts burn. The few of them who were sincere rejoiced to be reminded that position is one thing and character another; but the majority of them winced, and hated him with the quintessence of perverted femininity. He had carefully avoided what could be regarded as obvious personality, and spoke to classes, not to individuals; but his style was so picturesque, and his rebukes so unsparing, that not a few felt as if the masks as well as the veils had been torn off their faces, and their becoming religious costumes, which had fascinated so many sacerdotal eyes, had been torn and tattered on their backs. These were not in the smallest degree penitent; on the contrary, in their hearts they cursed and raged. They swelled with indignation, and their noses seemed more vengefully sharp than ever as they peered out of their hoods. Was it not monstrous that they, ‘the religious,’ they, so accustomed to veneration for saintliness, should be treated thus! How unlike their dear Nectarius was this Antiochene intruder! He was no bishop! They could only pray for better times. And so all the well-springs of ‘human vinegar, sour and cold’, were stirred up, and Chrysostom, who had hitherto had so little experience in that line, had to learn the ’Notumque furens quid femina possit!’ Henceforward as he met 183 these ladies in the street, young or old, not a few of them drew back their garment’s hem as though it were a pollution to touch him, and he was struck dead by forked lightnings from female eyes.
Then came the meeting of the clergy. To them the Patriarch had to speak truths even more disagreeable, and again he did not spare. He began with denouncing their ambitious worldliness. What had they to do with idle luxuries, when they ought to be setting the pure example of plain living and high thinking? Had not the eremite of Bethlehem, one of the ablest writers of the West, warned even a bishop against giving sumptuous banquets, and feeling flattered by the sight of the lictors and guards of a consul hanging outside his doors? ‘You ought,’ said Chrysostom, ‘to live more frugally and more simply. It is painful to see presbyters of Christ indulging in parasitical flatteries to nobles who deserve their sternest rebukes. Do not tell me that you want to get money from them for your charities, or to intercede for poor criminals. Simplicity and sincerity would procure you an influence ten times more legitimate and ten times more availing. How can you rebuke extravagance when you practise it? and avarice when you are yourselves so deeply tainted with it? and luxury when you indulge in it? and ambition when the one aim of so many of you seems to be to induce some palace eunuch to get you a bishopric? I would not speak of myself, but have I not tried to set you an example in these respects? I do not give wasteful entertainments.’
‘No,’ whispered Antiochus to Severian; ‘witness the dinner he gave to the poor Bishop of Berœa, of which Acacius is never tired of complaining.’
‘No,’ hissed Cyrinus in the ear of one of his presbyters, ’but they say, at any rate, that he indulges in enormous feasts all by himself.’
‘Even in the palace of the Patriarch,’ continued Chrysostom, not noticing the whispering bishops, ‘I try still to live the life of a monk and an ascetic. I never so much as set foot in the Court of the Emperor unless I am summoned, or unless some great need of the Church demands my intervention.184
‘But though these evils are bad enough, there are others which are worse. You are unmarried. Though the Council of Nicæa did not require this of the clergy, the Council of Eliberis demanded it, and so does the custom of the East. The Fathers of Nicæa allowed you to retain your wives, and listened to the impassioned appeal of the monk and hermit, Paphnutius, when he pleaded as St. Paul pleaded—and in accordance with the words of Him Who said that all men were not able to bear celibacy—that this burden should not be laid on your shoulders, and become a snare to you. But this celibacy has led to the all but universal adoption of a custom unseemly, nay, dangerous, nay, disgraceful, a custom which naturally and necessarily defames you, sometimes, not even rarely, with absolute criminality, but always with inevitable suspicion. It is a custom at which the very buffoons in the circus and the theatre aim their broadest sneers, amid the laughter of the multitude. The Council of Nice allowed you, if unmarried, to have your houses managed by a mother, a sister, or an aunt; but many have shamefully abused this rule. You live in the same narrow house with epeisactæ—with maidens who are no relations to you at all. You call them your “spiritual sisters,” and this has become an offence and a source of untold iniquity. You are either weak or strong. If you are weak, it becomes the most sacred of your duties to shun temptation, to beat it back as you would beat back with a redhot iron a raging beast; but you surround yourselves with temptation, you court temptation, you live in the very atmosphere of temptation. But if you are strong, then you have no excuse, for in encouraging others to follow an example, which you profess to be harmless to yourselves, so far from bearing the infirmities of the weak, you render them fatal. It were far better than this that you should marry outright. A married presbyter could not possibly diminish his influence so much as one who, living with a young, perhaps attractive, maiden as the manager of his house, either tampers with sacred chastity, or leads others to think that he does so, and to do so themselves. Heaven’s shame upon you!’
As he thus poured out the lava stream of his moral indignation, scorching the consciences of most of his hearers—185for there were very few who had not rendered themselves liable to this reproach—a deep murmur of wrath rose among the offended presbyters, and fierce exclamations were heard.
Serapion started indignantly from his seat at Chrysostom’s right hand. ‘Bishop!’ he exclaimed, ‘you will never subdue these mutinous priests till you drive them all before you with a single rod.’
‘Nay, nay, Serapion,’ said Chrysostom, with a deprecatory gesture, ’I speak not of all. There are some, I know, who live alone, or only with their nearest relations, or with poor and aged women. But I speak of those whose rooms you cannot enter, though they profess to be celibate priests, without seeing the place strewn with caps and ribbons, and wool-baskets, and fashionable trumpery. Is it not monstrous to see such a man going to the silversmith’s to ask for his lady’s mirror, and thence to the perfumer’s for her scents, and thence to the haberdasher’s for her furbelows? Is it not even more distressing and unseemly to see them making room for these ladies in the very churches, and proudly stalking in front of them as though they were young dandies or gallants? Oh, my brethren, my brethren! when I see all this my heart bleeds and my spirit faints within me. And now, turning to you monks, I know not whether a still sharper pang does not strike into my soul when I see you—you who profess the sole Divine philosophy, you who should lead the angelic life—when I see you going about idle, oiled and curled, haunting the antechambers of the wealthy, whispering into the ear of painted matrons, begging in every direction for dubious objects, vending sham relics, merged in the black mud of ignorance, stirring up turbulent fanaticism, mixing yourselves with worldly intrigues, breaking your vows every day and in every direction. When I see this I feel inclined to cry, with Elijah, “Now, O Lord, take away my life!”’
In the description of false monks Chrysostom had not intended to depict one person in particular. But it was characteristic of the pictorial character of his intellect that he always saw everything in the concrete, and that, in describing a class, some prominent representative of the class rose spontaneously before his view. There were 186 many monks and clerical adventurers of the kind which he had denounced. Every great city of the Empire swarmed with them, and in country places there were whole sets of them—like the Remoboth—who were regarded as positive nuisances. Bonaventura tells us that even in the second generation of the Franciscans people fled from mendicant friars as from the pestilence; and Augustine and others had said much the same of the wandering monks who belonged to no definite community. But on the lips of Chrysostom all this sounded like a new and unheard-of attack. While he spoke many, with the facility which most men have of applying the sermon to the man in the next pew, and being keenly alive to the way in which he must feel it, had turned their glances towards Isaac, the Syrian monk. That portly and despicable personage, who went about Constantinopolitan society like a sort of saintly dandy, oozing over with unctuous nonentity, and with his hair gilded and essenced and carefully arranged in curls, answered in every particular to Chrysostom’s description. He thought that the harangue had been designedly and exclusively aimed at him. He left the hall with the rage of a demon in his false heart, a rage which, with his access to all the great officials, ecclesiastics, and Court ladies, he felt sure that sooner or later he would be able to gratify to the full. The Church of the fourth century reeked—by the confession of her own best saints—with frightful phenomena, but the most portentous of them all were men like Isaac the Monk.
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