Well, it’s Wednesday again and that means another Midweek Blog coming. However, this week, I wanted to interrupt our series on the Apostolic Fathers to discuss an intriguing theme from a fourth-century preacher, John Chrysostom. Chrysostom is the focus of my dissertation research, so I am happy to get to blog about him today. For those who don’t know, Chrysostom lived from 349-407 CE and spent time first as a presbyter in Antioch and then as the bishop of Constantinople. He is probably the most famous preacher from the Patristic period other than Augustine. He preached on many topics, including martyrs, which will be the focus of this blog.
The time in which Chrysostom lived, particularly his time in Antioch, was characterized by a heightened practice of martyr veneration. The martyr cults were rather strong in Antioch, with Christians regularly observing feast days at the martyrs’ gravesites outside the city. The bishop Meletius of Anitoch even had a church built to house the remains of a martyr Babylas. During one of these martyr festivals, Chrysostom preached a sermon, A Homily on Pelagia, Virgin and Martyr. The version I cite is translated by Wendy Mayer (a well-known Chrysostom scholar) in a terrific book entitled “Let Us Die that We May Live:” Greek Homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine, and Syria (c. AD 350-AD 450).
Just a disclaimer here: as indicted in the title, suicide will figure into this blog rather prominently. This blog is a focus on the history of Christianity and the way the Christian church has viewed suicide over the years. If you are looking for resources on suicide and prevention, please visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Chrysostom preaches that Pelagia, a woman committed to chastity, was in her home, due to be arrested, tortured, and executed as a Christian. Her house was surrounded by soldiers waiting to take her away. She told them she would go willingly and asked if she could change her clothes. They let her, but she instead went up to the rooftop and threw herself off, landing amidst the soldiers below. Chrysostom praises Pelagia’s actions:
“While she was prepared for tortures and punishments and every kind of penalty, even so she was afraid that she would destroy the crown of her virginity. Indeed, that you might learn that she was afraid of the sexual predation of the unholy men, she got in first and snatched herself away in advance from the shameful violence” (1.1; Mayer, 150).
Chrysostom here is alluding to the fact that Pelagia was bound to be raped by these soldiers as part of her torture. Breaking her vow of virginity just so she could endure death afterwards was not as important to Pelagia as keeping her vow and also enduring death (through suicide). What is interesting about this particular sermon of Chrysostom’s is that he appears to praise women who engaged in such actions (yes only women).
He notes elsewhere, “For many women, it seems, gave themselves up to a cliff or hurled themselves into the sea or drove a sword through their breast or fastened a noose” (1.2; Mayer, 152). Chrysostom elsewhere preached a homily On Saints Bernike, Prosdoke, and Domnina that praised a mother and her two daughters for drowning themselves instead of allowing their captors to have their way with them and thus break their vows of chastity. There is a general theme in both of these homilies that women who embrace suicide to protect their virginity are worthy of praise.
Chrysostom, in another sermon on another martyr named Julian, effectively notes that male ascetics who commit suicide should be looked at as an “obvious defeat” (A Homily on Julian the Martyr, 1.3; Mayer, 134). Chrysostom echoes this line of thought back in his homily on Pelagia by noting that “none of the men in her situation ever attempted any such act at all” (1.1; Mayer 150).
So what do we make of all of this? Haven’t many churches condemned suicide as an unforgivable sin for centuries? Is suicide allowed for women only? I think the answers to these questions are complicated. While it’s clear that Chrysostom views virgin women committing suicide in order to preserve their chastity as a type of martyrdom and therefore praiseworthy action, he is quick to note in this very homily that Pelagia only did it because she had no other option.
Chrysostom attempts to clear up the reasoning here: “Yet women, by nature vulnerable to harm, conceived for themselves this manner of death. My point is that, were it possible both to preserve one’s virginity and attain martyrdom’s crowns, she wouldn’t have refused to go to court” (1.1, Mayer 150). Here we see a bit of Chrysostom’s worldview, which was very common in the ancient world, that women “were by nature vulnerable to harm.” His point is that since men don’t have to fear the authorities raping them when they are arrested, they are supposed to endure tortures and eventual, traditional martyrdom. There were added risks for women ascetics who were arrested in a similar manner in the ancient world.
Now, I don’t want to condone Chrysostom’s line of reasoning here, and many articles and books have been written on Chrysostom’s rhetoric regarding women. He has other passages which are way more incendiary in the way they refer to women. As a man of his time, Chrysostom views circumstances for men and women differently. He also provides a window into how the ancient Christian church viewed suicide. It could be preferable if and only if, as a woman who had vowed to be chaste, you were facing rape, torture, and execution.
I want to close by underscoring that Chrysostom is writing about martyrdom accounts from the past, from a time when Christianity was illegal. In Chrysostom’s own day, men and women who claimed to be Christians and who had taken vows of celibacy were protected and even revered by both commoners and authorities. Suffice it to say, Chrysostom is attempting to provide commentary on past incidents which no longer would occur in the Christian Roman empire.
So what do you think? Should he still praise these martyrs? Should they still have a feast day? Do you think that Chrysostom would have condemned suicide as potently as later Christians would?