Re-posted from November 19, 2005.
St. John (later called "Chrysostom") was born around 349 A.D. in the prosperous city of Antioch. His family were socially prominent citizens, and his mother was a Christian. John’s father died soon after he was born, leaving John’s mother a widow. She decided to remain single, learned to manage her household, and brought up her children as a single mother. Rather than waste her late husband’s estate on John’s education, she paid for it from her own dowry.
In 367, John completed his education in rhetoric under the pagan professor Libanios. John described himself at that age as quick-tempered and assertive, loving to watch the action in the law courts, and passionately loving the theater. He was being prepared for the work of drafting legal documents and legislation, a career that could lead to a place as a senator. However, around that time, he underwent a spiritual transformation, and he chose instead to become an ascetic aide to Antioch’s bishop Meletios, in love with the Bible, and spending his nights in prayer.
When the Arian emperor Valens set up his winter camp in Antioch in 371, Meletios went into hiding, and some other clergy left town. John soon withdrew to nearby Mt. Silpios for four years, living among the huts of a group of Syrian monks. As was then the expected next step for an ascetic, he spent the next two years living alone in a mountain cave, learning the Bible by heart, sleeping little, and fasting much. The resulting lifelong health problems forced his return to the city in 378, but he remained a monk at heart for the rest of his days.
Valens died and was replaced by the orthodox western emperor Gratian, who allowed the return of all exiled bishops. Meletios again lead the Antioch church until his death in May, 381.
John developed a warm friendship with the next bishop, Flavian. As a deacon under Flavian, John tended to the needs of the poor, the sick and widows, and wrote books advocating an austere lifestyle of complete commitment, a position that he would later soften, but would only soften in small measure. In 386, Flavian ordained him to the priesthood. John became a sensation as Antioch’s celebrated preacher, preaching several times a week without notes, while others wrote down his words as he spoke. He could make complex theology understandable to the average person. He gave sermon commentaries on the Bible to make it accessible to the ordinary layperson. As Flavian aged, moreover, John also took on the work of a bishop, respected by the other clergy, and expecting to be obeyed.
Around the age of 50, John was ordered by Emperor Arkadios to become the new bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire. He was secreted out of Antioch, and a synod quickly elected him bishop. The position brought him into the role of pastor to the imperial family.
The ascetic John did not fare well in an affluent environment. Rather than adapt, he sought to reform the monks and clergy. Some of them reacted with resentment and became bitter enemies. His sermons still drew adoring crowds from the laity, but his preaching against the rich won more enemies among the rich and powerful.
In September 403, a series of charges was brought against John, compiled by two deacons he had discharged and by a revered abbot he had mistreated. John was deposed, not for the various charges but for failing to appear at the hearing. He was exiled, prompting popular fury, and he was persuaded to return with promises of a new hearing. However, another scathing sermon from John infuriated the imperial family, ending the plans to undo his deposition, and he was held prisoner in his episcopal residence on Easter Even, 404. On June 20, 404, he was exiled to Armenia without a further hearing. In the tumult of public protest, an unknown person started a fire, burning the cathedral and senate house to the ground.
John’s supporters appealed to Pope Innocent, who determined that the charges were unfounded and intervened on John’s behalf. The western church supported John, and the pope sent an embassy to Constantinople, but this was to no avail against the sentence imposed by the Eastern emperor. The furious government imposed on John an even more distant exile, and the journey proved to be too much for the weakened bishop. John collapsed and soon died on September 14, 407, in a hamlet on the Black Sea coast. He was buried there near the grave of a local martyr named Basiliskos.
In 418, Constantinople finally gave in to pressure from Rome and from John’s supporters, and inscribed John’s name in the list of bishops. John’s memory was first celebrated in the liturgy at Constantinople in 428, and his body was brought back to Constantinople in triumph on January 27, 438. His nickname “Chrysostom” meant “Golden Mouth.”