My Catholic guru – the late Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory (a very patient man, for one of his penitents was me) – used to give assurances to those whose attention had been distracted.
Christian doctrine and dogma is not what it might appear to be in textbooks, he said. God, for all his many peculiarities, is not a bureaucrat. And the Christian, rather in company with his Maker, should look for such mysterious things as beauty, goodness, truth, as they present themselves – not in the rules, but in reality.
This is especially worth remembering when it comes to our inevitable judgments on people from another background, upbringing, vocation, place. They are not “simply different” from us, or from what we are used to.
For better or worse they are “wired differently,” and it is wise to reserve judgment until we have made some slight progress in understanding them. While they might seem to be heretics by the rulebook, the truth may be that we are reckless fools, determined as it were to send innocents to their graves.
Let us take St. John Chrysostom, the “golden-mouthed” orator from Antioch, for example. Priests, I assume, come into contact with his De Sacerdotio (“On the priesthood”) in the course of their training, or did before the collapse of Western civilization.
One cannot enter into the meat of the book without being put off by the taste. For in the course of avoiding an episcopal appointment (that of bishop when he was still quite young), this celebrated Father of the Church commits a pious fraud.
He makes a deal with his good friend Basil (not, apparently, Basil the Great), who was also called. They will either both agree to their appointments, or both will decline. For John Chrysostom, and presumably his friend, are troubled by the hugeness of the responsibilities they would be taking on, and feel insufficient.
Those days, in the fourth century, were perhaps different in some respects from these days, now. It appears the Church had to capture many of her senior clerics. This followed naturally from a tradition in which senior clerics of the Church became candidates for martyrdom. The young and the sane are not, necessarily, eager to be martyred.
Yet their reticence might be sincerely for other reasons, too deep for us to inquire into. The greatest priests throughout the history of the Church, including those who served her in times of safety, felt themselves unready for the calling, and often required somewhat brutal persuading.
Consider the functions of a bishop, which St John Chrysostom will review. He must not only be a good preacher, and administrator of discipline among those who have accepted his authority. He is a financial officer, with all the botheration that accompanies that, and has duties beyond this to settle disputes that will make him enemies. He has solemn responsibilities towards the distressed and helpless – widows, orphans, prisoners, and so on. He will be the primary source of hospitality towards a horde of visitors and strangers.
It does not require much imagination to grasp the challenges, especially when a much younger Church took all of these responsibilities more seriously. After all these centuries, we cannot easily imagine what impediments young men might find to episcopal advancement.
To avoid whatever they were, our John simply went into hiding. He thought Basil was a good choice, and so set him up. But then he seems almost to be boasting about his own escape, at the beginning of this profoundly consequential priestly tract.
Rather than entering immediately into the public life in which he would be a renowned homilist, he withdrew to a wilderness hermitage. He tirelessly committed the Bible to memory; indeed he sacrificed sleep and health to this urgent cause.
He was not a flippant soul, as becomes obvious from the little glimpses we get of him, through the occlusions. He had been in fact a student of Libanius, the classic Antiochian orator and lawyer, who regretted losing John as his successor because the Christian Church had got him.
But here I still wonder about the pious fraud. It wouldn’t have been so striking had the author not admitted it in his own words, and as I say, almost seemed to boast. In this one moment, St. John Chrysostom becomes, for me, a visitor from another planet.
In similar ways, through Church history, the leading personalities are “full of surprises.” No more examples will be needed, for everyone who reads in the subject will find plenty to puzzle him.
To try to make sense of the “secret lives” of, say, any of the famous popes in the Renaissance, may be a challenge to Christian fidelity. Yet it is equally hard to doubt the Christian fervor of men who were not indifferently committed.
The sincerity we have come to admire, even at the price of truth, shines through the behavior of men we might not have wished to know. And as we know from the most elementary Catholic Christian teaching, it is not finally for us to judge the fates or deserts of any of them.
In the end, we can only learn by wondering, and finding truths that may actually be concealed within the external covers of time and remoteness.
Still, there is a continuous feature in holiness, that helps us to recognize what is genuine from what is actually fraudulent. It is not the love of the institutional Church, but of Her Founder, that gleams at any distance.
It is in this way that even Protestants, and Orthodox churchmen, stand out from their fellows in present or past. And even among non-Christians, born in cultures that make Church membership quite unlikely for them, Christ is not received with contempt.
For from my own youthful experiences in Asia, I was subtly drawn to Christ by the high regard in which He was held by so many Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims.
*Image: St. John Chrysostom by Pedro de Orrente, first half of the XVII century [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s ‘Nulla Scriptura’
Stephen P. White’s Going for Broke