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CHRISTIAN MORALITY

Christian Morality

BY ST. NIKODEMOS THE HAGIORITE

PREFACE

To the Readers of This Book

I am not hesitant to declare with a loud voice that I am inexpert in the art of rhetoric and in the marvelous persuasiveness that goes with it, and also that whatever of it I studied whilst in my adolescence has ebbed away from my memory with the passage of time and has disappeared. Indeed, since I have devoted myself to living the life hidden in Christ, I have eschewed ostentation in words, and whatever good words I once had (if, in fact, I had any) I have offered as a sacrifice and a most paltry gift to the pre-eternal Word, from Whom and through Whom and with Whom are the inner principles of all things. And if it were admissible for me to say so, I would utter concerning my discourses the verses of St. Gregory the Theologian—I who am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoes:”On these I labored long and hard; but them too did I lay before Christ face down upon the ground.”

And in truth, such a popular art as rhetoric, as the wise Synesios called it, requires men of the people to pursue it, whereas it is wholly inappropriate for a monk and yokel such as I am, who avoids large crowds of citizenry. Hence, these discourses, which I in my weakness have produced and which are now being presented in the theatre of the world, are not adorned with rhetorical figures, do not have artful and high-sounding prefaces, do not abound in elaborate narratives, are not bedecked with quadrimembral and rolling periods, are not splendidly dignified by so-called figures of thought and speech, are not so apt to arouse the passions, are not rich in beautiful passages, and, to put it simply, are not embellished by multifarious blooms and graces from the meadows of rhetoric, from which there follow applause and praise from one’s audience. No, they proceed to the light through the printing press, unadorned, unrhetorical, and clad in rags and tatters, just like our rustic wilderness. For I, who have composed these discourses, am not only unskilled in any way in the methods of rhetoric, but am also not a devotee of them or of the plaudits that follow from them, and quite reasonably so. For if that great John, who was surnamed “Chrysostomos” on account of the surpassing grace of his eloquence and who outclassed the ancient orator Demosthenes by the power of his rhetoric, as stated by the rhetorician Libanios in the presence of Emperor Julian, according to the anonymous author of the Life of St. John Chrysostomos—that Demosthenes, I mean, who proved that all things are at one time possible and at another time impossible, as St. Isidore of Pelousion said—if he, who is exceedingly extolled by Segneri, himself regarded by the Italians as a new Demosthenes, and whom he called his own rhetor (for thus does he speak of Chrysostomos in Italian: “Mio Avvocatore,” that is,”My own Rhetor”); if, I say, he, to whom speaking well came as easily as simply speaking does to others, in whose lips persuasion resided, to quote the comedic poet,and who spoke, according to some, in a manner that transcended the art of rhetoric, and was for this reason frequently applauded by those beneath the Ambon (see note) who heard the words from the tongue of his truly golden mouth, did not like to compose technical and rhetorical discourses, and not only this, but also reproved those Christians who cherished such discourses, how could it be right for me, who am so far removed from the oratory of Chrysostomos as the earth is from heaven, how, I repeat, could it be right for me to labor over such discourses, which are foreign to my calling? And if he, who was deserving of innumerable laudations, had no liking for the plaudits and acclamations that came from his hearers, how could it be proper for me, an anchorite and tree-dweller, to angle for praises and encomia?

That this Divine man, he who was truly golden-tongued and golden-mouthed, disliked rhetorical discourses, and in fact reproached those who both cherished and wrote such, he himself attests in these words:

This has turned the Churches upside down, that, on the one hand, you seek not to hear a discourse that will arouse you to compunction, but one that is capable of delighting you both by the sound and the composition of the words, as though you were listening to singers and lyrists, while, on the other hand, we act in a fatuous and pitiful manner in dancing attendance on your desires, when we ought to be eradicating them. It is just as if the father of a cold-blooded child, more delicate than it ought to be, should, notwithstanding its frailty, give it cake and cold drinks and only such things as please the child, and have no concern for what would be beneficial to it. Just such is the case with us, when we busy ourselves over beautiful words and their composition and harmony, in order to please, not to profit; in order to be admired, not to teach; in order to delight, not to bring to compunction; in order to be applauded and depart with praises, yet not to correct people’s morals.

That the Divine Father was appalled and displeased with the applause of the audience, and sought and cherished only one kind of applause, namely that his hearers would do as he told them, this, too, is attested by his masterful tongue, when it says:

What profit do I derive from these plaudits, from these praises and acclamations? My praise is for all of you to give proof of what I have said through your deeds. I am enviable and blessed, not when you approve, but only when you carry out with all eagerness what you hear from me.

And elsewhere: “One thing alone do I wish: that you listen to me quietly and with understanding and do what is said; this, for me, is applause, this is laudation.”17 Hence, ever after he put a stop to the applause that his audiences were accustomed to making; he decreed that they listen only in silence to what he was saying, as is evident from the foregoing “Homily xxx on Acts,” in which he says:

I have often thought of laying down a law that would forestall applause and persuade you to listen in silence and with due orderliness. But bear with me, I beseech you, and be persuaded by me. If it seems good to you, let us ratify this law now, that no one in the audience is permitted to applaud while someone is speaking. If one should wish to express his admiration, let him do so silently; no one is going to prevent him. Let all your endeavor and eagerness be to receive what is said.

Therefore, emulating this truly golden orator of the Church of Christ and thrice-blessed man, whose feet I am not worthy to clasp, I have composed the present discourses in simple and unrhetorical diction, with a view not to the praises of the wise few, but to the spiritual benefit of the many unsophisticated Christians. For firstly, while praises and plaudits are dispersed into the air and disappear, the benefit of silence remains immortal and confers imperishable rewards both on the speaker and on the hearer, according to the same Chrysostomos:

For what profit is there for me in praises, when I do not see you progressing in virtue? …For the praise of a speaker consists not in applause, but in the zeal of his hearers for piety. No sooner does applause come forth from the mouth than it is dispersed into the air and disappears; but the moral improvement of one’s audience confers an ageless and immortal reward both upon the speaker and upon those whom he persuades.

Secondly, those who, looking to praise from men, compose discourses for the purpose of display, with obscure metaphors, Gorgianic and evenly-balanced figures, and all the fire-breathing method of their art, thereby cause three kinds of harm: firstly, because they deprive the majority of simple Christians of spiritual benefit, for their rhetorical and technical discourses do not register in their ears and consequently are not understood; secondly, because those few who do understand such rhetorical discourses merely praise them and fail to put them into practice, and sin all the more; thirdly, because those who speak for show become themselves worthy of laughter, for they fail in the purpose and end for which they compose technical discourses, which is the spiritual benefit of their audience. The only thing they do is to make the Church of Christ not a place of instruction and a spiritual school, but a kind of theatre, in which only applause and praises from the spectators are heard, and nothing more. Thus did the pen of the golden orator John write:

If you praise what is said, but do not practice what you praise, greater is the chastisement and graver the reproach, and for us, it is shame and ridicule; for the present situation is not a theatre, nor are you now sitting watching actors in a tragedy, merely that you may applaud. This place is a spiritual school.

For this reason, in the composition of the present discourses I have not been concerned about rhetorical eloquence or beautiful phraseology, since I am destitute of these. One kind of beauty I have been diligent to preserve: that of truth and fact. This is the hallmark of spiritual philosophy, as St. Gregory the Theologian says:

I think that it is admitted by all judicious people that education is first among things reckoned good by us; and not only this, [but] our more noble [form of] education, which disfavors all verbal elegance and pretension and cleaves only to salvation and the beauty of what is apprehended by the mind.

This is why I have employed unsophisticated and simple words: solely in order that my unsophisticated and simple brother Christians might understand them. For I see that St. Basil the Great, in his epistle to Diodoros, praises such a style of composition when he says: “I read the books sent to me by Your Reverence…. [Their] simple and ingenuous diction seems to me to befit the purpose of a Christian who writes less for show than for the common good.”24 But even before St. Basil the Great, the Divine Apostle reproved those who talk to simple and illiterate people in a language which they do not understand; on the contrary, he praises those who speak to simple folk in simple language, so that they might understand. In one place he says: “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you?” And: “[I]f I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian.” In another place he says:

Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen’ at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

And: “[I]n the Church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” And: “Let all things be done unto edifying.”

Therefore, receive graciously the present simple and soul-profiting discourses, my dearly-beloved brothers and sisters in Christ; receive these discourses, which we have deemed it meet to call “The Good Morality of Christians.” Their purpose is, for the most part, to correct the morals of contemporary Christians. I assure you that if you constantly study and read them, and also put into practice what you read, you will within a short time change the perverse, evil, and un-Christian morals that you now have and acquire other morals that are upright, good, and truly Christian. Through such morals you can save yourselves, and as for the pagans and unbelievers who see you, you can arouse them to admire your outwardly virtuous way of life and the inward doctrines of your Faith; and that pagans should admire these things is not a small matter, but a great one, for they are hereby stimulated to admire Christ, in whom Christians believe, and in a short time they will be drawn also to believe in Him. Hence, St. John Chrysostomos said:

How will the pagan admire our doctrine? For not by doctrines do pagans judge doctrines, but doctrines by conduct and life; this is no small matter, but a very great one, that our doctrine be admired on the basis of our conduct.

For, indeed, life and faith, morals and doctrines, are, I say, causative one of the other, and together bring about each other, such that whoever has one of these must, of necessity, also have the other, as St. Gregory the Theologian says in one of his apophthegmatic elegiac couplets: “To me, a sinful life and sinful speech are an equal evil; whichever of them thou hast, thou shalt also obtain the other.”

For this reason, if Christians have a virtuous life and upright morals, they inevitably give pagans who see them to understand that they consequently also have the true Faith and correct doctrines. But if they lead an evil life and have wicked morals, they give pagans cause to say that Christians have a false faith and rotten doctrines. For life and morals are a proof of faith and doctrines, and not vice versa. “I will shew thee my faith by my works,” says the Brother of God.33 The human tongue cannot portray the degree of condemnation and chastisement that one incurs by causing the Faith and Christian doctrine to be censured and reviled by pagans.

Do not be astonished, my brother Christians, if you see these discourses stretching out to a very great length. This we have done, firstly, in order to give substance and many points of argumentation to the one who requested these discourses, the Reverend FatherGeorge, most pious among Priests, who hails from a municipality in the region of Caesarea, called Nem Seer in Turkish, and to any otherwise inexperienced Preacher of the Divine Gospel. Secondly, because the blessed Divine Chrysostomos, my rhetor, with the most sweet Siren of his eloquent tongue and the magnetic and effective power of his golden words (which we cite in their entirety, in the original Greek, for the sake of fidelity), from which we have gathered the majority of our arguments, so attracted and entranced us that when we would find some golden saying of his that contributed to the subject at hand, we were often prompted (indeed, I avow the emotion that I felt) to forgo it, and yet were unable to do so. Hence, without our so willing, our discourses became very protracted, for which we ask the forgiveness of our readers. However, their length is alleviated and the weariness of readers is lightened by the division of these discourses into different sections and by the variety afforded by the many passages from the Holy Scriptures and the judgments of the Divine Fathers, and indeed by this maxim of St. Basil the Great: “For the Church there is no satiety of such hearings, for she confirms the saying of Ecclesiastes, that ‘the ear shall not be filled with hearing.’”

Therefore, if you read these discourses and are edified by them, I beseech you, brethren, to remember to entreat the Lord for the forgiveness of the sins of him who composed them, of him who prompted their composition, and of the Christian man who arranged for their publication. Farewell.

Notes:

*In the time of St. John Chrysostomos (the late fourth and early fifth centuries), the Ambon was a raised platform in the middle of the Church, somewhat akin to the modern pulpit, from which the Scriptures were read and other portions of Church services were conducted—trans.

*Literally, “bough-dweller” , a word otherwise unattested in extant Greek literature. Even tree-dwellers were rather rare in the annals of Eastern Christian monasticism, the only prominent example being that of St. David of Thessalonica (commemorated on June 25 in the Orthodox Church)—TRANS.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite