People of the Books: Six Books on the Priesthood by John Chrysostom

This came to my attention in a legitimate scholarly enterprise—I wrote a paper last term on the effects of confession on the priests who gave it.  Sadly, I didn’t end up using this because the paper narrowed to confession after it was mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1415, but I kept the book to read for fun.  “Nerd” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.

So, John Chrysostom, besides being an announcer for Lent Madness this year from The Great Beyond, was a fourth-century example of how incredibly human saints are.  “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed,” a descriptor he picked up for his excellence in sermons and general awesomeness at communicating.  And it’s true—even in translation (and this translation by Graham Neville is really readable and lovely, an appreciated thing from someone who can’t read Greek and knows how thorny Latin can be) John is sly, eloquent, and smart.  As well he should be, considering he studied rhetoric for umpteen years.

The thing about John is that he eventually became archbishop of Constantinople (which means he was Important People), but he has his very own “before” story—enter this book, in which John is a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, and someone who wants no truck with ordination.

In other words, my kind of guy.

The books are actually a long argument with his friend Basil on John’s having double-crossed him.  Both were to be promoted to the priesthood, but John wanted no part of this.  He wanted to take care of his mom and then wander off into the desert and be a hermit (which he actually did for a bit, but it screwed up his health so badly he had to come back.  Not uncommon; asceticism is hard on the internal organs).  Basil wasn’t all that sure about this, either, but John felt Basil would make a really good priest, so he told Basil, “Sure, when they come to call, I’ll go with you and become a priest.”

Lies!  He hid out while Basil went alone, thinking he would meet John there.  So the books are really letters of John totally not apologizing but explaining why he basically tricked his friend into the priesthood.   “A timely deception used with a right purpose is such an advantage that a lot of men have been called to account on many occasions for failing to deceive.”  (48)

And this guy’s a saint.  You wonder if God can use you?  I’m pretty sure He can work with whatever He’s given.  (Hey self—are you listening to yourself, self?)

Basil is a bit heartbreaking to read, as he really does feel cheated—and well he should.  He knows just as well as John how hard this profession is going to be and all that it asks of him, but he’s stuck now.  John, chauvinistic jerk that he is, spends the whole work telling Basil why he (John) is totally unworthy of the position and why Basil is going to be awesome at it.

(I say chauvinistic tongue-in-cheek, as I know right well it was the mindset of the time; church leaders had at this point completely forgotten about women like Lydia of Philippi or Joanna and set out with Paul’s writings on females in power positions with a vengeance.  “The divine law excluded women from this ministry, but they forcibly push themselves in, and, since they can do nothing personally, they do everything by proxy…I have heard it said that they have assumed such freedom of speech that they even rebuke the prelates of the churches and upbraid them more bitterly than masters would their slaves.” [78])

This takes the humility trope to a whole other level, mostly because John is totally right.  Everyone considering any form of any faith-based leadership should read this at some point—perhaps not at the beginning, because it’s actually rather disheartening, but definitely at some point.  Because, to my shock, this cleric who lived 1600 years ago had a lot of the same reservations about taking up that mantle that I do.  Imagine that.

John talks about how incredibly weighty the pastorate is, in terms of the fact that you’ve just been appointed an Official Go-Between for God.  Don’t screw it up, because you’re responsible for the sheep God has given you, shepherd.  No pressure.  John also talks about how much people expect from their pastors (guilty!), how they demand their time, energy, faith without much consideration for what that takes out of the person.  He describes the manipulation of that kind of position, warning against accepting flattery or against getting caught up in the idea that a pastor can save anyone on his own power/merit.  He laments the fact that people don’t listen to the Word but to the pastor’s words, judging God by His people’s sermons, basing their faith on another’s eloquence, never forgetting a misstep on the part of the leader.  (Yeah, that never happens anymore.)  John goes into the supernatural realm, too, discussing how he knows he would be unable to stand up to the temptations of that position, how he would fall to the weakness of his humanity that desires comfort, peace, and power.

I can get behind this.  I know darn well that ministry scares the hell out of me because I’m afraid of who it will make me, of how I will fail at it, of all the people I’ll be letting down, of the God I will forget as I get buried in the day-to-day stuff.  John offers no real comfort against that, as the main theme throughout the book(s) is that Basil can stand against this and be good at it and he would not be able to—hence the deception.

But you can see the archbishop John eventually became coming out:  “[W]e must not mind insulting men, if by respecting them we offend God.” (65)  And, at the end, he promises to be Basil’s strength and friend:  “[W]henever it proves possible for you to have a respite from the cares of your office, I will come to your side and encourage you, and nothing shall be left undone that lies within my power.”  (160)

May we all have the friends that come back when it truly matters, and may we have the courage to forgive them for when they’ve screwed us over for love of who we could be.


Rating:  4/5 stars 

3 thoughts on “People of the Books: Six Books on the Priesthood by John Chrysostom

  1. […] without any assistance at all.  Plus, the biggie saints are awesome because a lot of them are scoundrels.  They were so very human and yet God could use them, could love them, could change the world with […]


  2. Sheila Bigelow says:

    What beautiful words at the end, and ones I sort of needed to read at this moment for an entirely different reason: I just got a call that I am about to lose a dear, dear friend, a true sister-in-spirit, who has always been there for me, even from afar. On another note, your essay made me smile, because of the truth of your words and of what is probably the universal struggle of those who are called by God for whatever purpose. Thank you. Sheila



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