|11th century Georgian miniature of St. John Chrysostom|
In his earlier letters to Theodore, John Chrysostom mourns for the soul of one who has decided to marry. In his later letter to a young widow, he counsels an end to mourning for the body of a good husband who has died. These situations are opposite in many respects. He addresses his former letter to a young man planning marriage – his latter to a widowed young woman. Each reflects considerably and distinctly on the theme of marriage. He writes the former letters as an ascetic monastic with limited experience – the latter as a cleric with more experience. A comparison of these letters does much to show both the evolution and the consistencies of Chrysostom’s thought and ministerial approach.
Chrysostom’s earlier letter to his friend Theodore is more accusatory and harsher in tone than his more temperate and gentle letter to the young widow. For example, he accuses Theodore of opening his mind, which “the devil has now set on fire… to all manner of soul-destroying and shameful thoughts.” However, he does not write to condemn. In an effort to strengthen Theodore against despair, he gives many examples from scripture of figures that have fallen and repented, returning to their former glory. He then threatens Theodore with a long description of the fires of hell and the torments of the damned, tempered somewhat by an attempt to inspire him with a description of the blessedness of heaven.
Only after thirteen long pages of such bulwarks and admonishments, does Chrysostom get to the point
that occasioned his concern for Theodore’s immortal soul: “Thou art now admiring the grace of Hermione.” Theodore, who apparently had formerly committed himself to a celibate and ascetic life of devotion to Christ, has been smitten. Chrysostom’s scorn for this lady is unmatched. With an intense scorn for the body bordering on dualism, he calls her “well-shaped body” a “whited sepulcher” filled with “uncleaness” and nothing but one of the “storehouses and depositories of [phlegm or spittle].” He calls the potential marriage to her an “accursed bondage” and seems to imply, by comparing it to the fall of David, that it would be adulterous. Only in his second letter to Theodore do we learn what he means by this.
|Hermione likes Ron better anyway.|
Probably following his reception of Chrysostom’s first letter, Theodore attempts to defend himself by pointing out that “marriage is right.” Chrysostom responds,
It is no longer possible for thee to observe the right conditions of marriage. For if he who has been attached to a heavenly bridegroom deserts him, and joins himself to a wife the act is adultery, even if you call it marriage ten thousand times over; or rather it is worse than adultery in proportion as God is greater than man.
Chrysostom here makes it clear that he regards Theodore as already married, in a greater mysterious sense, to Christ, “the heavenly bridegroom.”
In his zeal to convince Theodore to repent and return to his former holy and celibate way of life, Chrysostom hyperbolically and intemperately disparages marriage itself, writing: “It is an evil thing to wed…. It is a grievous thing to have children…. Is this then life, Theodore… when a man has to serve so many, to live for so many, and never for himself?” This statement is flabbergastingly contrary to the Christian message of serving others, well taught, for example, by St. Basil, who wrote of monastic life as best lived in community, serving many.
Theodore, when he receives these harsh admonishments from Chrysostom, “has not yet completed [his] twentieth year.” In today’s world, most representatives of the Church would probably say that he made his prior commitment youthfully and without full and proper discernment. Such is the contemporary understanding of compassion. Chrysostom, however, seems firmly convinced that he can see the condition of Theodore’s soul and knows that it is in great peril. “Not in vain” does Chrysostom threaten Theodore “with hell fire,” he says. Compassion certainly motivates Chrysostom to admonish the one he believes to be sinning.
He better expresses his compassion in his later, gentler, and more mature letter to the young widow of Therasius. This letter purposes “consolation” and “comfort” rather than admonishment. It would be interesting to see how Chrysostom would handle a necessity of admonishment after some years of experience, but this letter does not give us that opportunity. Nonetheless, his change in approach is palpable and probably not only due to the difference of intention, but due to his growth as a person and as a minister to the needs of others.
Chrysostom has not changed in every respect. He has maintained, for example, an assurance of his own ability to judge the condition of other people’s souls, but in this letter applies that power to laudatory rather than condemnatory ends by veritably canonizing Therasius, the departed husband of the young widow. Chrysostom writes that “he has… sailed into the tranquil haven,” that his “death is not death,” and that he has emigrated “from earth to heaven.” This man’s example of virtue and goodness in (or despite) marriage may have helped improve Chrysostom’s estimation of marriage itself.
Showing development of his thinking, Chrysostom speaks approvingly of marriage in this letter, writing, “As long as that blessed husband of thine was with thee, thou didst enjoy honour, and care and zealous attention; in fact you enjoyed such as you might expect to enjoy from a husband.” Chrysostom here describes marriage as a blessed condition that one might expect to enjoy rather than as a grievous evil.
If he approves of the state of marriage, however, he prefers the state of widowhood, which he describes as “a position of honor and dignity” (122). “They who have lost their husbands are wedded to Christ in their stead,” Chrysostom tells the young widow, having earlier made it clear that a second marriage would be “her fall.” In this respect, widowhood is very like the state of celibacy in which Theodore earlier found himself. It is a state of heavenly marriage.
The widow’s marital union is not to Christ only, but also continues with her departed beloved husband. Chrysostom advises her:
The affection which you bestowed on him you can keep now just as you formerly did. For such is the power of love, it embraces, and unites, and fastens together not only those who are present, and near, and visible but also those who are far distant.
Chrysostom here elucidates the Byzantine understanding of marriage as a lasting, even eternal, relationship. It is a relationship of such closeness that he even hopes the young widow will have visions of her departed blessed husband (124) and he still invariably refers to him as her “husband.” Death has not ended their marital relationship, and nothing will. In fact, Chrysostom ends this letter on this note:
You may… be united to him again through the everlasting ages, not in this union of marriage but another far better. For this is only a bodily kind of intercourse, but then there will be a union of soul with soul more perfect, and of a far more delightful and far nobler kind.
On all counts, this later letter is kinder and more pastoral than those he wrote to Theodore earlier in life. Its view of marriage is more refined and elevated. Its purpose is more charitable. Chrysostom’s experience in ministry has softened his heart, it seems, and much for the better.