A Housewife Teaches Chrysostom to Preach

23 June 2021

Saint John Chrysostom is almost the only Father of the Church about whom his contemporaries and later generations wrote a significant number of biographies. So far, we have more than eight (Byzantine) biographies. Some of these represent a kind of reworking of an earlier version, though not, of course, slavish imitation of the original. In these texts, we occasionally come across information which is entirely new and sometimes significant. How far this information is trustworthy is something which research will determine. It may well be that some of this information will never be confirmed. Apart from anything else, there’s a suspicion that some of it was included by the biographer principally in order to make a good point. When describing a particular form of behavior of the person whose life he’s narrating, the biographer indirectly teaches those who honor the saint that they should imitate him or her in their lives and behave accordingly.

It was no doubt in such circumstances that the following incident was recorded by Kosmas Vestitor*, who seems to have lived in 8th/9th centuries. There’s no similar record in any of the other biographies of the saint. After telling the story of Chrysostom’s ordination to the diaconate and then the priesthood, Vestitor goes on to speak of his literary activity and concludes that Saint John ‘addressed the people and interpreted the divinely-inspired Scriptures’. In the next paragraph he mentions an incident which involved an ordinary woman of the people, who, because she didn’t understand him, had no hesitation in interrupting the saint at the time he was preaching.

‘One day, when he [Chrysostom] was teaching and speaking to the people about salvation, he used words of an elevated register in order to express very profound concepts. Then a woman of the people who was in the audience addressed him in a loud voice, as follows:

“Father, your word is blessed as are the thoughts you’re explaining. Blessed also are all those who can manage to understand what you’re saying. But we of weaker brain-power should also understand your teachings, which are full of divine grace. I abandoned all my jobs at home and came running like a thirsty hart to be slaked by your words, which flow like a pleasing torrent and to hear the thoughts of your teaching which spring forth like abundant water. I’m leaving, because I’ve been unable to take anything away that will cure my thirst and I’ve wasted most of the day in useless pursuits”.

When the godly man heard this, he altered the manner of his teaching and from then on treated the wounds of the injured with more appropriate remedies.

*Probably a title, rather than a name. A vestitor, approximately ‘Keeper of the Wardrobe’ was a minor official at the imperial court.