If you run a Google search on the terms “John Chrysostom” and “sex,” you’ll soon find a mess of conflicting statements. Part of the problem is with the saint’s interpreters, and part of it is with his own voluminous writings — some 700 sermons, 246 letters, plus biblical commentaries, moral discourses, and theological treatises.
When a man publishes so many thousands of words, an industrious enemy can pull together enough strands to make a strong rope for his hanging. And on the subject of marriage, John made it easy for his enemies. Indeed, his paper trail is so ambiguous as to seem bipolar.
On the one hand, when libertines want to caricature Christian teaching, they inevitably quote Chrysostom. One anti-Christian website condemns him as the archvillain among “the Fathers of the Dark Age,” pronouncing him guilty of an “anti-sex, prudish, kill-joy morality.” Another site produces this gem from one of John’s homilies: “It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?”
The sexologist Havelock Ellis judged John to be more than a little repressed. And even so great an historian as Peter Brown found Chrysostom’s vision of sexuality to be “anxious” and “bleak.”
Yet John is the Father most invoked by those who wish to exalt the Christian vision of marriage. The Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian speaks of “Chrysostom’s virtually unique contribution” to a positive Christian understanding of family life. He quotes John’s famous description of love-making: “How do they become one flesh?” John asks. “As if she were gold receiving purest gold, the woman receives the man’s seed with rich pleasure, and within her it is nourished, cherished, and refined. It is mingled with her own substance and she then returns it as a child!”
A necessary evil … gold receiving gold . . . How do we reconcile these two sides of Chrysostom? Do we dismiss him as a hypocrite or a clericalist who held married people to a lower standard than monks?
No. Both quotations — the harangue and the poetry — make sense in the context of John’s life.
St. John was born in Antioch around 349 A.D. His father, a high-ranking civil servant named Secundus died shortly after his birth, leaving his wife Anthousa a widow at age twenty. She could have remarried, but she chose to follow the biblical counsel “to the unmarried and the widows . . . to remain single” (1 Cor 7:8), enrolling in the Church’s order of widows and committing herself to a life of prayer, continence, and service.
Anthousa’s piety made a deep impression on young John. He also lived with an aunt, Sabiniana, who served the Church of Antioch as a deaconess. Her contemporaries tell us that she “conversed intimately with God.” Needless to say, John grew up in an unusual, almost monastic household.
He seemed destined to be a civil servant like his father, but after graduation he and a friend decided to form a “brotherhood,” a household sharing a common life of voluntary poverty, prayer, and contemplation. They had gone far with their plans when John broke the news to his mother.
And she hit the roof. She begged him not to make her a widow all over again. He could not resist her pleading, so he agreed to pursue his life of renunciation at home. He adopted the dress of monks, a coarse, sleeveless garment, took up Scripture study under a renowned master, and applied himself in service to the bishop of Antioch.
After three years, he managed to break free and join the solitaries in the wilderness nearby. He read the Scriptures for hours each day until he had memorized entire books.
He lived in a cave by himself. He did not permit himself to lie down, by day or night. He slept hardly at all, and went without protection from the heat and cold. His diet was wretched. So zealous was he that he continued even after his health began to fail. After two years, he could go on no longer. He needed medical care. So he returned, disappointed, to the city.
About this time, one of his fellows in the ascetic life, Theodore, began having second thoughts. His folks needed him to run the family business. And there was a young woman beckoning, too. Her name was Hermione. He erased his name from the rolls of the brotherhood, and went home.
The situation demanded a response from John, and respond he did. His response has come down to us with the title Letter to Theodore After His Fall. We have it in two parts, totaling 24,000 words — the words of a furious man shaking his friend by the lapels.
It is an evil thing to wed a very poor wife, or a very rich one; for the former is injurious to the husband’s means, the latter to his authority and independence. It is a grievous thing to have children, still more grievous not to have any. . . . Is this then life, Theodore, when one’s soul is distracted in so many directions, when a man has to serve so many, to live for so many, and never for himself?
The rhetoric heats up and boils over, as John tries to show the transitory nature of bodily beauty, and the grossness of its constituent parts. Hermione may be beautiful, but “the groundwork of this bodily beauty is nothing but phlegm, blood, rheum, bile, and the fluid of digested food.” Consider, he continues, “what is stored inside those beautiful eyes, that straight nose, and the mouth and cheeks, and you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing but a whited sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.”
John goes on to compare such illusory and passing beauty with the true and lasting beauty of the soul of a monk steeped in prayer. Needless to say, the earthly beauty comes up the loser.
He is careful to acknowledge that marriage is an honorable estate, citing Hebrews 13:4, but insists it cannot be honorable for Theodore. “It is no longer possible for you 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 . . . worse than adultery in proportion as God is greater than man.”
For these passages, John has been vilified by secularists, feminists, and hedonists. But I’d like to plead his case. John was, after all, operating in crisis mode. His friend had already gone back on a lifelong commitment, checked himself out of the holy brotherhood. Theodore was breaking a promise he had made to God. John recognized this as an emergency demanding forceful intervention.
So he used his rhetoric the way some men might use their muscles. And he succeeded in talking Theodore back to the brotherhood. Theodore would go on to become one of the most influential theologians in antiquity, the celebrated theologian-bishop of Mopsuestia.
We should also recognize that John probably had, at this point, only the remotest experience of normal family life — mom, dad, and kids. His father died when he was an infant and his mother’s household was practically monastic. From this extraordinary upbringing, he proceeded to an even greater remove as he joined the mountain solitaries.
I am not saying that John’s upbringing was warped or harmful, nor am I sneering at his formation by the hermits. Both periods gave him the discipline he would need to withstand the hardships of his later life. But they were unusual circumstances, and they hardly equipped him for a realistic view of domestic life.
But that, too, would come with time.
John wrote his negative statements about marriage when he was young and inexperienced. As he emerged from relative isolation and entered the bustling life of the Church of Antioch, however, he encountered many families, real families, ordinary families, Christian families. He shared their life. He counseled them.
And he grew to appreciate marriage not as a mere concession to weakness, or a second-class citizenship in the Church, but as a distinct vocation from God and a path to holiness. Even more, he came to see it as a powerful image of God in the world: a sacrament of God.
But, again, that came only with time and experience. In 381 he was ordained a deacon and licensed to preach. It was then that he earned the nickname Chrysostom (Golden Mouth), as he drew enormous crowds to church. After five years as a deacon, he was ordained to the priesthood.
Another several years passed before John preached the first of the sermons in which we find his mature teaching on marriage: his homilies on First Corinthians. A few years later, he would return to the same themes in his homilies on Ephesians and Colossians and his sermons on vainglory. That first decade of his priesthood was a time of intense pastoral work in the second city of the empire. In a moving expression of his love, he told his congregation: “I know no other life but you and the care of souls.” And what did he learn from all that work with all those souls? “There is nothing that so welds our life together as the love of a man and his wife.” “There is nothing in the world sweeter for a man than having children and a wife.”
In that first decade of priesthood, John had come to the see that Christian marriage was as much a divine vocation as Syrian monasticism — and that Christian perfection was, by God’s grace, attainable in marriage. Indeed, he laments to his people “that you think that monks are the only persons properly concerned with decency and chastity.”
In the strongest terms, he assures his congregation that their calling is nothing less than perfection. He says: “If the beatitudes were spoken only to solitaries, and the secular person cannot fulfill them, yet [Jesus] permitted marriage anyway — then all things have perished, and Christian virtue is boxed in.” But that cannot be true, and so he continues: “If persons have been hindered by their marriage state, let them know that marriage is not the hindrance, but rather their intentions, which made an ill use of marriage.”
What caused John’s change of heart? Had he grown worldly, as pastors sometimes do, concerned as they are with budgets and leaky roofs? No. For we’re told that he continued to live by all the monastic disciplines, including fairly rigorous fasting, and that he always took his meager meals alone.
I believe that John grew deeper in his appreciation for marriage as he grew in the work of Christian initiation — as he taught group after group of new Christians to appreciate the radical transformation God was working in their lives. In a city like Antioch in the late fourth century, a pastor could prepare hundreds of adult converts every year. He would lead them to the mysteries, and he would tell them of the mysteries. In baptism God would give them new eyes of faith, and John would teach them to open those eyes.
This is what the Church calls mystagogy: the doctrine of the mysteries, guidance in things hidden since the foundation of the world (see Mt 13:35), often, in the ancient Church, in daily homilies throughout the eight days after Easter that revealed doctrines that had, till then, been kept hidden: the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the deifying grace of baptism.
The mystagogue guides the new Christian through the external, material appearances to grasp the unseen reality that is interior, spiritual, hidden, and divine. As John told his class of new Christians: “What is performed here requires faith and the eyes of the soul: we are not merely to notice what is seen, but to go from this to imagine what cannot be seen. Such is the power of the eyes of faith. . . . For faith is the capacity to attend to the invisible as if it were visible.”
A mystagogical quality pervades John’s works. We see it in his homilies on the Letter to the Hebrews and his treatise on the priesthood. And, I contend, it is the principle that gives life to his mature doctrine of marriage.
We could honestly and accurately describe it as a mystagogy of marriage. He wants us to move from the icon to the reality. Still, he insists that we must also learn to venerate the icon. “Learn the power of the type,” he says, “so that you may learn the strength of the truth.”
It is important for us to realize that John’s mature doctrine of marriage is almost unique in ancient Christianity. His contemporaries tended to look upon marriage as an institution that was passing away, as more and more Christians turned to celibacy. The best thing Jerome could say about marriage was that it produced future celibates. In Antioch in John’s day, there were 3,000 consecrated virgins and widows in a city of perhaps 250,000, and that number does not include the celibate men in brotherhoods or the hermits who filled the nearby mountains.
Yet John glorified marriage. It pained him that Christian couples continued to practice the old, obscene pagan wedding customs. So shameful were these practices that few couples dared to invite their parish priests to attend and give a blessing.
“Is the wedding then a theater?” he told them in a sermon. “It is a sacrament, a mystery, and a model of the Church of Christ. . . . They dance at pagan ceremonies; but at ours, silence and decorum should prevail, respect and modesty. Here a great mystery is accomplished.”
This is the language of mystagogy. John is guiding us through the mystery of marriage.
His mystagogy of marriage was unusual in his day, but it had deep biblical roots. John grounded his doctrine firmly in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:31-32: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”
Paul is drawing from the first chapters of Genesis. Indeed, any preacher who memorized most of the Scriptures, as John did, would notice that marriage is a dominant theme in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible begins with a wedding — of Adam and Eve — and ends with a wedding: the marriage supper of the Lamb. And in between, God, speaking through the Prophets, repeatedly invokes marriage as the pre-eminent symbol of his covenant.
For John, marriage is both an image of baptism, where the believer is wed to Christ, and an image of the Eucharist, which makes “one flesh” of the believer and Christ. He tells the new Christians to “Keep the marriage robe in its integrity, that with it you may enter forever into this spiritual marriage.”
Marriage, moreover, is an icon of the Trinity. “The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh. . . . And here the bridge is formed from the substance of each!” That, he continues,
is why Scripture does not say, “They shall be one flesh.” But they shall be joined together “into one flesh,” namely the child. But suppose there is no child; do they then remain two and not one? No: their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.
At that point, John must have looked out at a congregation full of people fanning themselves and averting their eyes, because he was moved to cry out
Why are you blushing? Leave that to the heretics and pagans, with their impure and immodest customs. For this reason I want marriage to be thoroughly purified, to bring it back again to its proper nobility. You should not be ashamed of these things. If you are ashamed, then you condemn God who made marriage. So I shall tell you how marriage is a mystery of the Church!
John did not want us to blush at the mention of married love. But, most of all, he wanted us to have no reason to blush.
Among all the ancient mystagogues, John stands out for his unique emphasis on morals. He insists that the sacraments should leave their mark on everything we do. The sacraments have consequences for every moment of every day.
Through baptism and Eucharist, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). John would have us, then, live our marriages purely, as Christ lives His.
And John speaks plainly. He does not care if he makes parishioners squirm. None of the Fathers preached as frankly as John did on sexual matters.
What did this mean, practically? He repeatedly condemns contraception as unworthy of Christian marriage and calls it pre-emptive murder. “Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit?” he asks.
Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you despise the gift of God, and fight with his law?
John saw contraception as a violation of the type, a desecration of the icon, a defiling of the sacrament. If marriage is a sacrament of God, then it should be a true communion and truly fruitful, as God is.
John also condemned adultery, domestic violence, sodomy, abortion, divorce, and other acts that are unworthy of the sacrament of Jesus Christ and His Church.
John learned to love marriage. As a celibate, he lost nothing in the bargain. For renouncing something second-rate is no big deal. But renouncing something so great as Holy Matrimony — a sign of the Trinity — in order to live with the Trinity even now as an angel in heaven, renouncing the sign in order to possess the Signified — increases the value of celibacy by orders of magnitude.
As John himself said. denigrating marriage “diminishes the glory of virginity”; and praising it “makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be particularly good. It is something better than what is admitted to be good that is the most excellent good.”
Marriage cannot get any better than St. John Chrysostom, in his mature years, made it out to be. For a married man or woman to read his homilies on Colossians and Ephesians is to simultaneously be humbled and exalted. Humbled because we must confront our own sin, our own clinging to the mud of this earth. Exalted because God has lifted us up so high.