On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty as Taught by St. John Chrysostom

062514There is a saying that you cannot steal from a man who has nothing, and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. Of Jesus, the Son of Man who had no where to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on him, nothing to hook him or claim his loyalty. Even his life could not be taken from him for he had already laid it down freely (cf Jn 10:18).

St. John Chrysostom spoke of it boldly in a sermon that paints well the paradoxical freedom of poverty and the enslavement of riches and possessions.  More on that in a moment…

But first, consider that the heart of the slavery most of us experience comes from our attachments to this world. So easily do we sell our souls to its allurements; so easily does the world ensnare us with its empty promises and trinkets that so quickly become duties, distractions, and requirements. In our heart, we know how the things of the world weigh us down. But even knowing this, our addiction to things draws us further into the endless cycle of ever-deepening desires and the increasing inability to live without many burdensome things.

And it isn’t just things. The world hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, even fame. And in our desperate addiction to being popular, we come too easily to the point that we will do almost anything and make almost any compromise for popularity and advancement.

Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).

Scripture elsewhere says,

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).

Adulterers! Do you not know that the love of this world is hatred toward God? Therefore whoever chooses to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).

But in the end, most of our slavery and anxiety is rooted in our love for this world and our fear of losing its pleasures, and its promises of power and popularity. It is without doubt the greatest of human struggles to get free from this world’s hooks and shackles and to become utterly free—free to follow the Lord unreservedly and with no fear of what the world might do in retaliation.

In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom describes well the human being who is utterly free. It is a magnificent portrait, and one he was largely able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his very life.

Born in 344 at Antioch, he became a young man very much admired for his brilliance and oratorical skills. In 374 he fled to the mountains to live quietly and to break the hold that the world had on him. After six years of “holy silence,” he worked quietly as a priest. But in 398, he was summoned to be bishop of Constantinople. He was beloved for his powerful capacity to preach and received the name “Chrysostom” (Golden mouth). Yet not all appreciated the freedom with which he preached, a freedom that led him to denounce vice openly, no matter who was doing it. He was exiled twice (in 403 and 407) by powerful enemies. And though his enemies tried to break his spirit and rob him of his joy, they could not prevail. Although he died on his way to his final exile (during a miserable journey in terrible weather), he died with joy, saying, “Glory be to God for all things. Amen.”

The world could not prevail over him; he did not fear it, for he owned nothing of it, and owed nothing to it. It had no hold on him.

And thus speaking not only from Scripture but from experience as he was being led into exile, St. John Chrysostom said,

The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence …

Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!

If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider’s web … For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful …

For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people (Ante exsilium, nn. 1-3).

Here is freedom. You cannot steal from a man who owns nothing, and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose; you cannot deprive a man who has Jesus Christ.

Pray for this freedom.

4 Replies to “On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty as Taught by St. John Chrysostom”

  1. Obviously St. John Chrysostom didn’t live during “Shrimp Fest at Red Lobster”, buy one get one at “Wal-Mart” or “Toyotathon”! OK I digress.

    As always Monsignor the pleasure is all ours – God Bless You!

  2. As always, the author of Ecclesiastes said it best (5:9-11):

    9. A covetous man shall not be satisfied with money: and he that loveth riches shall reap no fruit from them: so this also is vanity.
    10. Where there are great riches, there are also many to eat them. And what doth it profit the owner, but that he seeth the riches with his eyes?
    11. Sleep is sweet to a labouring man, whether he eat little or much: but the fulness of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.

  3. I can honestly say that not having a home has made me more grateful.

    When you have a home, you naturally tend to stay in that home, and it’s there that you take for granted the fact that you have a place to eat and bathe and relax and sleep. You have a place to retreat to, and it becomes easy to cocoon yourself away.

    But when you’re without a home you begin to look around and it’s then that you notice what an amazing place a restaurant is, or how nice a bookstore is with overstuffed chairs, or how beautifully appointed a restroom is in the lobby of a nice hotel. When you have no place to call your own, you begin to rely on the beauty that you find in society at large. All of these places become yours in a new and profound way and the world becomes a much bigger place. Your living room, for example, now becomes the size of a large city. And as a result, you’re grateful.

    My day at work is over and I’m in a local bookstore. I browse through the various sections and am amazed by the sheer number of topics: hobbies and vehicles, sports and business, cooking and sciences, stories and life experiences. I’ve seen all of this before but never before have I been so receptive to it. I’m finally at a point in my life where I can appreciate the perspective of another person. And so once again here are all of these books (and all of these experiences) before me, but the difference is that now I actually see them.

    Something else has changed in me, too. I used to be daunted by the sheer size of these books. I’d look at a 200-page hardcover book on some topic and think “Yeah, right. Like I’m going to read that.”

    But that’s not what the book is asking me.

    It’s asking if I am interested in this topic or idea. The page count is just the body, housing the idea inside. But the idea bubbles up to the surface pretty quickly, simply as the result of flipping a few pages.

    The book is not asking me to read it in-depth (unless I want to). It’s simply asking if I’d care to crack the cover and exchange a few pleasantries with it by way of turning a few pages. (Books are so coy this way.)

    So now I go through the aisles and pick books as one might pick apples. Soon I have an armful and I go to find a comfortable spot where I can peel these apples, not completely, but just enough to get the sense of each one.

    But the books I really tend to delve into now are the ones that I previously scorned: the self-help books.

    These are the books that give advice on how to see yourself, or other people, or the world around you. Instead of you cracking the book, it’s the book that is cracking you, as it helps you to align yourself and your thinking to what is most beneficial for you. (Determining what is most beneficial is not as easy to define as it is to know. Most of us know what it is to be burned by something that seemed good at first. We come to know love by experiencing love, and we come to know what it is to be used or manipulated by experiencing this, too. So in time and with age, we come to know what is most beneficial, and to know where to put our trust.)

    I used to think that I knew so much better than other people. I thought self-help books were for weak, wimpy, broken people; the kind of people that were obviously lost and confused; the kind of people that need to stop at gas stations and ask directions. And maybe they are. But the difference is that now I realize that I’m one of these people. I’m someone who’s broken. I’m homeless. I’ve messed up in life. I’m weak, and divorced, and alone.

    So I take armfuls of these books and take a look at the lives of so many different kinds of people, and see the problems they face (that I face) and listen to their advice, some of which I take, and some which somehow doesn’t ring true and which I let fall. But the point is, now I’m ready to listen to advice rather than to have to experience all of the bumps and falls for myself. I’m beginning to trust people, and to trust that many people are sincerely trying to help others, since they themselves have been helped by others, or have experienced something that has helped them, too.

    Joy (and it is joy that inspires them to write) is contagious this way.

    Yet even here, these books can only travel so far. Books and ideas and other people and myself; we are all too small for what I’m really after. And what I’m really after is the Infinite One in whose image I’m made.

    I desire Desire. I love Love. I want the highest peak of love, the fullest and most sincere exchange of love.

    I want God.

    I have only experienced God’s love intensely a few times, but in those times I have come to understand why God wants my whole heart, my whole soul, all of my mind and all of my will. It’s because love cannot be content with anything less. And not only this, but when I love God this way, a most incredible exchange occurs: I give God my whole self, and He gives His whole Self to me!

    This is like a poor man meeting a rich man, and the rich man saying “Give me everything you have, and I will give you everything I have.” So the poor man gives the rich man his penny, and the rich man gives the poor man his limitless bank account, his estates, his fine clothes, his everything. It’s completely out of balance, and yet it’s perfectly fair too, because each has given the other everything.

    Now I find myself at dinner, seated in a family style restaurant. There’s a nice tablecloth on the table and a waitress fills my coffee cup for me. I browse through the menu and choose a bowl of soup and a sandwich.

    I feel a deep appreciation for this table, its nice place setting, the warmth and light, soft chair, pleasant wait staff. It’s all a gift. I enjoy my dinner as I have rarely done (and as I have rarely been recollected enough to do.) I feel as if I’m intensely in this moment, living moment to moment but in profound connection to One in whose care I am.

    Thank you, God, for everything.

    Thank you for loving me and for making me.

    Thank you for my life.

    After dinner I stop in at a Catholic church to say goodnight to God. I kneel there in the quiet. The church is bathed in light from the streetlights outside, yet the sanctuary candle burns with its gentle light showing that Jesus is present here, in the tabernacle on the altar, under the appearance of small, consecrated, unleavened hosts of bread.

    I kneel and say nothing but simply gaze where Jesus is. It must have been the same for the shepherds who came to adore at the stable in Bethlehem. I am near Him and it is enough.

    I think about my life and I don’t know what to ask for. Too many times I have asked for things that I didn’t want, and rebelled against the very things I did need.

    “You choose,” I say to God. “Do whatever you want with me.”

    After a while I pray for my children, and I pray for Sandy, but then I fall silent again and wait to see if there’s anything else that I’m drawn to say or think about.

    The quiet stretches out and lingers. There are no thoughts. No words. There is nothing to be done. I simply wait, and yet this particular quiet is alive with Presence.

    In all of life, the greatest moments are those that have no words. The deepest communication is a knowing; a thing expressed that needs no expression. At such moments there’s a meeting of the eyes, a shared recognition, but no words. In fact the quieter such moments are, the more they are packed with meaning.

    It is for such moments as these that I linger in my prayer.

    Then, finally, I close my prayer, make the sign of the cross, and rise.

    As I go out to my truck I notice that the wind has picked up. Dark clouds are scuttling past the moon making it look as if it’s the moon that is moving. Trees nod and bow at each new gust and their shadows dance on the pavement in the streetlight.

    I enjoy a deep sense of security as I climb into the cab of my truck and slam the door, feeling the resulting stillness of the air within.

    I drive to my spot for the night and as I go to sleep I listen to the rain beat on the car and the wind blow and whistle, and every now and then I feel the wind shake the car as I drift off, so grateful.

    So grateful.

    (For more, see “The Other Side of the Ring” available on Amazon.)

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