Monday, June 18, 2012

St John Chrysostom on Virtue

When we normally think of virtue we tend to think of ethical behavior, following the rules, obeying the commandments. Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that virtue is much more than just being a good person living according to the rules.

He writes,

Virtue is to scorn all human affairs, to keep the mind on future realities at each hour of the day, to seek no present good but to know that everything human is a shadow and a dream or even worse. Virtue is to adopt the attitude of a corpse in regard to the affairs of this life and like a corpse take no active interest in what threatens the soul's salvation, but only in regard to spiritual things to be alive and take active interest, as Paul also said, "I am alive, though it is no longer me but Christ alive in me." (Gal 2:20)
He says, "virtue is to scorn all human affairs". What could this mean? He is trying to emphasize that virtue is not about gaining any kind of recognition in this world. Any good act we do for esteem of ourselves or others is in vain. What is essential is our love of God, and to be united with Him in His kingdom. He further says that to be virtuous we have to be like a "corpse" in regards to all things of this life. Virtue is beyond the expression of all we can gain in this life. He is saying that virtue comes when we are in union with Christ and are acting out of His love for us and us for Him. Virtuous actions must be done out of His will and not our earthly human will. Of course we must make an effort to purify our heart so that we are able to do so. Like Christ did, we too must align our human will with His divine will. Then we can be said to act with virtue. We will then act as Paul says, as "though it is not longer me but Christ alive in me." This is the idea of virtue that Saint John Chrysostom is trying to express.

Once we have gained this high state of virtuous action, He goes on to ask us to protect this virtue just like a rich person protects his material wealth.

We should guard it with great care, not expose it to the gaze of all but conceal it in the inmost recesses of our heart, and thus repel all the attacks on the one anxious to despoil us of it; in this way we will keep it intact and be able to leave this life with some resource for the life hereafter. (Homily 5 on Genesis, p 65)
Once we are able to act with true virtue then we must conceal our motivations, the source of our actions, and never seek recognition of any kind for our actions. This is a stance of humility that is essential, and, once we boast of our relationship with God, we will lose it.

Prayer is a key to developing the proper relationship with God. Prayer is to be done in silence, as an inner work. Saint John tells us the following in His Homily on Gospel by Saint Matthew.

Let us not then make our prayer by the gesture of our body, nor by the loudness of our voice, but by the earnestness of our mind: neither with noise and clamor and for display, so as even to disturb those that are near us, but with all modesty, and with contrition in the mind, and with inward tears.....
He continues reminding us that we are seeking an inner voice that comes from God. Prayer is a mystery , he says. Prayer come out of silence.


From beneath, out of the heart, draw forth a voice,make thy prayer a mystery. Seest thou not that even in the houses of kings all tumult is put away, and great on all sides is the silence? Do thou also therefore, entering as into a palace,--not that on the earth,but what is far more awful than it, that which is in heaven,--show forth great seemliness. Yea, for thou art joined to the choirs of angels, and art in communion with archangels, and art singing with the seraphim. And all these tribes show forth much goodly order, singing with great awe that mystical strain, and their sacred hymns to God, the King of all. With these then mingle thyself, when thou art praying, and emulate their mystical order.
It is prayer that we enter into the kingdom of heaven. With our minds purified of the passions of the body we can enter into this silence and truly join with the "choirs of angels." In Prayer we are called to mingle with heavenly bodies and participate in their "mystical order."

He also writes,
For not unto men art thou praying, but to God, who is everywhere present, who hears even before the voice, who knows the secrets of the mind. If thou so pray, great is the reward thou shalt receive.
More on Prayer


Reference: Homily 5 on Genesis, p 65; Homily19 on Matthew

4 comments:

  1. I'd like to thank you for this post as well. Very helpful...

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    1. With apologies, one small correction just noticed: in the second paragraph you seem to misquote St John Chrysostom by stating that "virtue is the scorn of all human affairs," compared with his "virtue is to scorn all human affairs." A bit of a different meaning. (Please feel free to delete this reply when you see fit.)

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