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The first exile of St. John Chrysostom

8 min • Digitized on January 30, 2022

From The Greek Fathers, page 133
By Adrian Fortescue

8. The Synod at the oak tree and first exile (403)

A more serious trouble was the quarrel between the patriarch and the empress. Eudoxia offended the saint in many ways.

She was vain and frivolous; she set the fashion of wearing false hair, painting cheeks and aping the manners of a young girl among matrons.

These were the very vanities that had long moved the saint’s indignation at Antioch. He did not abate a jot of his denunciation of them at Constantinople, in spite of the danger of offending the empress.

Worse still, she misgoverned the empire. She had robbed a widow of her field; there were other cases of tyranny and injustice committed by her.

Against all these things the patriarch spoke openly. So very soon he knew that he had to count this lady as his enemy. She hated him and began to consider how she could get rid of him.

Then came a great quarrel with Theophilos of Alexandria. We have seen that Theophilos had had other plans for the succession at Constantinople. Although he had pretended to give in and had himself ordained John, he was always secretly his enemy. Now his enmity breaks out openly.

Origenes († 254), the greatest scholar of the eastern Church, perhaps the most wonderful genius of all Christian writers, was destined to be the source of endless disputes for centuries after his death. He is the father of the fathers of the Church. Every school had learned from him; but, on the other hand, he was more than suspect of various heretical opinions.

He had been a Subordinationist* and a Chiliast,* and had taught the pre-existence of souls. So for centuries the fathers were divided between his ardent admirers, who forgave or ignored these errors, and his enemies, who looked upon him as the father of all heresies.*

This question, then, was the immediate ostensible cause of the quarrel between Theophilos of Alexandria and John of Constantinople.

Theophilos had in his patriarchate many monks, and monks were nearly always Origenists. Chief among these Origenist monks were four who were called by the strange name of the “Tall Brothers.”*

The patriarch held a synod in 399, condemned Origenes and forbade his writings. The Tall Brothers then refused to accept his decision. They were joined by a priest named Isidore, who had quarrelled with Theophilos.

The brothers and Isidore escape from Egypt, where their patriarch meant to punish them, come to Constantinople and beg John to protect them.

St John behaved very prudently. When he had heard their tale he allowed them to lodge in a monastery, but would not admit them to communion till he had heard from their own bishop. So he writes to Theophilos asking him what it is all about.

Meanwhile there was already a strong party in his own city against him. The leader was the empress. She was furious because she had heard the patriarch in a sermon speak of Jezebel, and she thought he meant her. Very likely he did. That she was a Jezebel is abundantly evident.

Then there were three bishops, some monks and a good many ladies who did not like the patriarch’s sermons. The bishops and monks thought him too severe, and the ladies could not bear his ideas about wigs and painted faces.

Two deacons whom he had suspended for bad conduct joined the party. So the empress persuades Theophilos to come to Constantinople, on the strength of this affair of the Tall Brothers, and to hold a synod against John.

Theophilos came in 403. He had, of course, no shadow of right to judge the patriarch of Constantinople; it was an additional insult to do so in that patriarch’s own city. He brought a number of his Egyptians with him; joined with the rebellious Byzantines they held a synod of thirty-six bishops.

They sat at Chalcedon,* across the water, in a property that possessed that rare adornment in those parts—a splendid oak tree. This is the famous Oak-Tree Synod [*] in 403.

From the saint’s sermon after his return from exile and Photius’ collection* we know what the case against St John was. The points are so absurdly frivolous that it is quite evident that he was condemned really only because the empress wanted to get rid of him.

He was charged with having suspended a deacon who had beaten his slave, with being friendly towards pagans, with squandering Church property in almsgiving, with treating his clergy harshly and saying they were not worth three oboles, with being too easy in forgiving sins, eating honey-cakes, making classical allusions in his sermons, exciting the lower classes and interfering in Theophilos’ jurisdiction by receiving the Tall Brothers.

This last accusation is a most brazen piece of impudence. He had done nothing of the kind, as we have seen. And if Theophilos was so jealous of patriarchal independence, what was he doing at Chalcedon?

Lastly comes the real matter, a vague allusion to treason against the empress. John naturally refused to attend this entirely uncanonical synod. So he was declared contumacious, deposed and sentenced to banishment.

When he heard his sentence, he preached a famous sermon. “Tell me, what am I to fear? Death? Christ is my life and death my gain (Phil, i, 21). Banishment? The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Ps. xxiii, i). The loss of goods? Naked I came into the world and naked I shall leave it (Job i, 21).”

But still, he says, even in exile nothing can separate him from the church of which he is lawful bishop, for “whom God has joined together, no man can put asunder” (Matt, xix, 6) *.

He gave himself up to the officer who came to take him away and a great crowd of his faithful people accompanied him to the ship on the Bosphorus that was to carry him to Bithynia.

But this first exile did not last long. Soon after he was gone there was a great earthquake at Constantinople, and Eudoxia was frightened at what she took to be a judgment of God.

Also the people, faithful to their patriarch, began to show signs of revolt. So she sent for him very soon after, inviting him back. At first John declared that he would not return till another and greater synod had pronounced his innocence. *

But the insistence of the empress, who was now as anxious to have him back as she had been to get rid of him, and the rumour of trouble among the people overcame his scruple.

He came back in triumph (403), Eudoxia herself came down to the quay to receive him, and this first trouble was over. As usual, he preached his next sermon on the subject, the Homily at his return. * He tells the whole story of his trial and banishment, and then praises Eudoxia, for bringing him back, in a way that seems almost too flattering.

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