After the death of his mother, Chrysostom fled from the seductions and tumults of city life to the monastic solitude of the mountains south of Antioch, and there spent six happy years in theological study and sacred meditation and prayer. Monasticism was to him (as to many other great teachers of the church, and even to Luther) a profitable school of spiritual experience and self-government. He embraced this mode of life as “the true philosophy” from the purest motives, and brought into it intellect and cultivation enough to make the seclusion available for moral and spiritual growth. 10
He gives us a lively description of the bright side of this monastic life. The monks lived in separate cells or huts (κ€λυβαι), but according to a common rule and under the authority of an abbot. They wore coarse garments of camels hair or goats hair over their linen tunics. They rose before sunrise, and began the day by singing a hymn of praise and common prayer under the leadership of the abbot. Then they went to their allotted task, some to read, others to write, others to manual labor for the support of the poor. Four hours in each day were devoted to prayer and singing. Their only food was bread and water, except in case of sickness. They slept on straw couches, free from care and anxiety. There was no need of bolts and bars. They held all things in common, and the words of “mine and thine,” which cause innumerable strifes in the world, were unknown among the brethren. If one died, he caused no lamentation, but thanksgiving, and was carried to the grave amidst hymns of praise; for he was not dead, but “perfected,” and permitted to behold the face of Christ. For them to live was Christ, and to die was gain.
Chrysostom was an admirer of active and useful monasticism, and warns against the dangers of idle contemplation. He shows that the words of our Lord, “One thing is needful;” “Take no anxious thought for the morrow;” “Labor not for the meat that perisheth,” do not inculcate total abstinence from work, but only undue anxiety about worldly things, and must be harmonized with the apostolic exhortation to labor and to do good. He defends monastic seclusion on account of the prevailing immorality in the cities, which made it almost impossible to cultivate there a higher Christian life.
In this period, from 374 to 381, Chrysostom composed his earliest writings in praise of monasticism and celibacy. 11 The letters “to the fallen Theodore,” have already been mentioned. The three books against the Opponents of Monasticism were occasioned by a decree of the Arian Emperor Valens in 373, which aimed at the destruction of that system and compelled the monks to discharge their duties to the state by military or civil service. Chrysostom regarded this decree as a sacrilege, and the worst kind of persecution.
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