Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In preparation for a paper on the Christian response to late antique views of sexuality, I have been reading a number of books and articles, some of which I have read previously, that deal with celibacy, sexuality, and asceticism. One of the Church Fathers whose position on sex has generally, and properly, been considered highly negative is John Chrysostom, an intense, gifted and popular priest from Antioch in the late 4th century CE, who later had an unhappy tenure as Patriarch of Constantiniple. Chrysostom, in his text On Vainglory, or the Right Way to Raise Children 19, states that he would prefer all children to be celibate, but since he knows this is not possible, they ought to be engaged and married as soon as possible. But Chrysostom was more than just a representative of celibacy - he wrote, unfortunately, many vicious homilies against the Jews in Antioch. There are historical contexts for these homilies, but none of these contexts excuse his content or tone.

Like all people, though, he was complex. Chrysostom had a genuine love for the poor and was constantly reaching out to them. "He founded a leper colony on the edge of a fashionable suburb" of Constantinople, which was no more a popular move then than it would be today; ancient NIMBY studies await (Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, 318).  Peter Brown says that from themes directly borrowed from Chrysostom's writing, the Church composer Romanos Melodes wrote a hymn that summed up Chrysostom's view of the necessity of care for the poor and contrasts it with his deeply held view of virginity, by which is meant here the specific view of consecrated virginity or celibacy chosen on behalf of the Church (321). Peter Brown writes about this in his chapter on John Chrysostom, "Sexuality and the City" in The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual renunciation in Early Christianity:

Chanted in the urban churches at great festivals, the solemn music of kontakia maintained, for early Byzantines, a language of compassion that had first been carried by the voice of Chrysostom. Echoing a sermon of Chrysostom, Romanos insisted, in his great hymn On The Ten Virgins, that Christ regarded compassion for the poor, and not their virginity, as the rich oil with which the virgins must prime their lamps for His coming:

I renounce the fasts     of those who show no mercy.
I accept the prayers    of those who eat with kindness.
I hate all virgins           who shun human feeling.
I love the married        who love their fellow-creatures.
[and Romanos added, speaking of himself]
I do not do what I now say, and what I urge the people.
For this reason, I fall down. Oh Savior, give me tears,
Contrition in my heart, and in all those who hear me.(321-22)

So often today we contrast fellow Christians, I believe technically these gangs are known as "the Sharks" and "the Jets," as either those who focus on ethical matters dealing with sexuality or those who care for the poor. Chrysostom, for all of his own limitations, focused on both, but it is interesting to see emerging out of the ancient Byzantine Church this focus on the compassion for the poor as the rich oil necessary to prepare for the coming of Christ and not their sexual stance: "I hate all virgins who shun human feeling;
I love the married who love their fellow-creatures." Now, like Romanos, I just need to do what I say.

John W. Martens

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