An eloquent saint

What is the essence of eloquent speech? Blessed John Henry Newman, the best-known homilist of his day, thought about this often, and answered the question in part by pointing to the example of St John Chrysostom.

St John’s genius, said Newman, was his naturalness. “His oratorical power was but the instrument, by which he readily, gracefully, adequately expressed … the keen

feelings, the living ideas, the earnest practical lessons which he had to communicate to his hearers. He spoke because his heart, his head, were brimful of things to speak about.” St John Chrysostom knew, simply and exactly, what he wanted to say; and so he was able to say it powerfully.

Pagans and Christians

One would not necessarily have expected the young Chrysostom to have become famous for his public life. Born in Antioch in 349, educated by some of the city’s brilliant pagan scholars, he came under the influence of the city’s kind-hearted bishop, Meletius, and began to live a life of prayer and mortification. He went to the mountains and lived with the monks.

At first he hated the penances: “I was forever inquiring and busying myself how I was to get a supply of provisions; whether it would be possible to procure fresh bread for my eating, whether I should be ordered to use the same oil for my lamp and for my food, to undergo the hardship of peas and beans, or of severe toil, such as digging, carrying wood or water, and the like; in a word, I made much account of bodily comfort.” But he grew to love these small participations in the Cross.

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