Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
In matters of piety, freedom from oppression is the worst form of persecution. It is worse than any other persecution. No one understands or senses this danger because safety gives birth to carelessness. It weakens the soul and lulls to sleep, and the devil destroys sleeping men. St. John Chrysostom
With the commemoration of St. John Chrysostom this last Tuesday, November 13, I spent some time looking over his fascinating, tumultuous, and ultimately tragic life, together with some of his teaching as it has come down to us. Once ordained to the priesthood, St. John was passionately committed to his vocation as a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel. Yet, he was deeply distressed at what he interpreted as laxity and indifference among his large flock in Constantinople, once he became archbishop there in 398. In fact, he once famously said: "From among so many thousands, it is impossible to find more than one hundred who are truly saving their souls, and I am not even sure that there are that many." In fact, the large number of "Christians" that he encountered in the city, led him to further lament: "This is all the more fuel for the fire."
I would argue that our living conditions as Christians today far more resemble - at least in certain key aspects - the times of St. John in the 4th c. than perhaps that of Christians as recent as the 19th c. St. John was then contending with what we now call religious pluralism and the vast intellectual and religious choices that people had before them. Besides this, however, he had pressing pastoral problems that remain universal given the consistency of (fallen) human nature. His ministry was practiced within a large and cosmopolitan urban center that revealed great social inequality, and all the enticements and temptations that gather around affluence. Wealth, entertainment, expensive dressing and lavish dining were among the more obvious signs of the dulling effects of affluence. St. John even sarcastically spoke of the golden and silver chamber pots found among the wealthy in their bedrooms - while the poor were among them unattended on a daily basis! Concentration on these empty and trivial attractions is what led him to openly question the salvation of his flock.
It is precisely this affluence that "gives birth to carelessness" referred to in the text above. Further, "it weakens the soul and lulls to sleep," and "the devil destroys sleeping men." In a society of affluence and material comfort, "the worst form of persecution" is precisely "freedom from oppression!" With great insight, St. John declares that "it is worse than any other persecution." We may choose to debate that and to disagree with him, but his point remains a telling one. St. John, though, is on to something in the realization that the comforts we so cherish work upon us stealthily, steadily and slowly, so that it is no longer God, but the comfort of affluence that receives the focus of our attention. Hence, it is a form of "persecution" because it takes us away from God. Affluence breeds a desire for more of the same and our "souls" are preoccupied with just about anything and everything else - except perhaps our salvation! (Christmas has itself become a dreary exercise for many to flaunt their affluence in the number, novelty and expense of the gifts purchased). Thus, our affluence may remain today as our contemporary form of persecution, though we would hardly assess it to be so. Otherwise, why pursue it with such passion, commitment and dedication?
The author Peter Whybrow wrote a book entitled: American Mania: When More is Not Enough. That title says it all. Compare that with the aphorism of the English essayist Charles Lamb (+1831): "Enough is as good as a feast." Who among us is satisfied with enough? These are two very different "ideals" to live by, so "meditating" upon the choice before us may be worth the time and effort. Would that mean great changes in our lives? Cutting back? Simplifying? Sharing more with others? A change in worldview will mean a change in lifestyle, and that can be a painful process.
Returning to another of the deep themes raised above, St. John wondered aloud if there are "more than one hundred who are truly saving their souls." Only the merciful God knows, of course; and St. John tirelessly preached about the limitless mercy of God. But the question remains both painful and poignant. To what extent are we actually concerned with the salvation of our souls? Our liturgical prayer is very much concerned with the salvation of our souls ("Soul" does not so much mean a distinct substance, as it does our very lives in their totality). Of course, that could lead to a morbid and fearful preoccupation and that would only be another form of egoism. But assuming that the phrase "the salvation of our souls" refers to a spiritually healthy desire for communion with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit; or "the knowledge of Thy truth, and in the world to come, life everlasting" as we pray in every Divine Liturgy. To what extent do we pursue this with passion, commitment and dedication? If taken seriously, can it be anything other than the top "priority" of our lives? How does it "rank" with our pursuit of affluence? St. John referred to this as a process; he spoke of "saving our souls," not "saved souls." This takes time and effort as we synergistically cooperate with God in the process of working out our salvation in "fear and trembling." This is a worthy goal that dignifies and lends meaning to our existence.
As our Lord Jesus Christ said: "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (MK. 8:36)