Singing Against Disharmony: St John Chrysostom on Natural Disasters

Deacon Mark Roosien, PhD


Fr Mark Roosien holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. His doctoral dissertation, "The Liturgical Commemoration of Earthquakes in Late Antique Constantinople: At the Intersection of Ritual, Environment, and Empire" was completed in 2018 and is presently under review for publication. Deacon Mark is currently pursuing a ThM degree at St Vladimir's Seminary. He has kindly offered this essay to the Pappas Patristic Institute in connection with the upcoming commemoration of the Great Earthquake at Constantinople (October 26), connected with the memory of the Great Martyr St Demetrios.


In one of his influential homilies on the six days of creation, St Basil the Great said that the kosmos, the whole creation, is an image of divine order and harmony: “The whole world, with all its various parts, was bound together by God through an indissoluble law of attraction into one fellowship and harmony.”[1] The earth is arranged according to the order of beauty; it is a creation of the great Artist (St. Gregory the Theologian) and Sculptor (St. John Chrysostom).[2] For St Basil and other patristic authors, the kosmos is an icon, a manifestation of divine creativity that returns to God that for which it was created: the glorification of its creator. However, this patristic view of creation as an icon of beauty and harmony was challenged when the earth shook, when floods rose, when fires burned, and cities, homes, and fields were destroyed. Where was the order and harmony of the kosmos in these moments? Was there any meaning in these tragedies? Where was God? The questions of early Christians in the face of natural disasters cannot have been so different from ours today. How did the Church Fathers guide their flocks during these difficult situations?



One place that frequently experienced natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, was the city of Constantinople. Located on the North Anatolian Fault, Constantinople (today Istanbul) has experienced countless earthquakes over the course of its history. St John Chrysostom, famous preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople from 397 to 404, offered an impromptu sermon just days after an earthquake struck the city in the year 400. In this homily, the Golden Mouth named collective sin as the cause of the earthquake and its remedy as collective repentance, a collective repentance he witnessed in his congregation.


St John Chrysostom and the Earthquake of 400 in Constantinople


In his homily, Chrysostom reports that during the earthquake, the people of his congregation walked in procession singing psalms, hymns, and prayers of repentance through the streets and squares of the city of hundreds of thousands.[3] At night, as seismic aftershocks continued, vigils were hosted by churches:


It is possible to hear the singing of psalms in the marketplace, and [to hear] those sitting at home, one singing psalms, another singing hymns. Night arrives, and all [run] to the church, the waveless harbor, the calm that has been freed of waves.[4]


Although he often organized vigils and processions through the streets of Constantinople on other occasions, Chrysostom did not initiate this evidently spontaneous response to the quake of 400. Having been unable to participate in the prayers and vigils due to illness, he praised his people for performing them without him:


For who would not gladly shed even his own blood for you, men so ardent in piety, so ardent in observance, who have shown such repentance (metanoia) in a small space of time. You do not know day and night, but you make both times into day, not by dismissing the gloom, but by enlightening the nights with vigils; your nights are sleepless, and the tyranny of sleep has been destroyed.[5]


In the homily, Chrysostom explicitly attributes the halting of the quake to the actions of those in his church community at the time the quake struck. He says,


The wrath is from above, your voice from below. The voice, sent up from below, restrained the wrath, flowing from above. The heavens were opened, and a judgment was brought down, the whetted sword. The city [is] on the earth, the wrath is inevitable. We have need of nothing but repentance, tears and lamentations, and all things were dissolved. God appeared, and we dissolved his wrath.[6]


For St John, repentance was a powerful tool to bring peace, not only to the soul but also to the earth itself. Strikingly, his understanding of repentance in this homily is not for the personal sins of individuals in his congregation, for they are not blamed for the quake at all, but rather the collective sins of the broader community in Constantinople.


Natural Disasters, Sin, and the City

John Chrysostom, Patristics
Jean-Paul Laurens, "Saint John Chrysostom and the Empress Eudoxia," 1893

As in other homilies, Chrysostom comes down hard on the rich and powerful, which in Constantinople included the imperial court. It was their sin, St John argues, that brought the earthquake, while the Christians’ acts of collective repentance in vigils and hymns reversed its ill effects. In the following passage, Chrysostom praises his congregation liberally while condemning those he saw as most responsible for the quake:


One would not err should he call you the caretakers and saviors of the city. Where are the rulers? Where are the great saviors? Of the city you are truly the towers, the wall, and its security. For they, on the one hand through their own wickedness allowed the city to rot, but you, through your own virtue, made the city firm. And if someone should be asked why the city was shaken, even if he wouldn’t say [it], it has been agreed that it was because of sins, because of acts of greed, because of injustices, because of acts of lawlessness, because of acts of arrogance, because of pleasures, because of deceit. Whose? The rich. Again, if someone should be asked why the city was made firm, it is agreed that it is because of the singing of psalms, because of the prayers, because of the vigils. Whose are these? The poor’s.[7]


In spite of the earth-rending and society-destroying actions of the rich and powerful, the church (here identified with “the poor”) could rectify this evil situation. Processions and hymns, says St John, restored harmony to the earth through “cleansing” and “making holy” the land, the air, and the built environment of Constantinople. If the earthquake signaled a defilement of the land and air through sin, then the prayers and hymns of penitent Christian bodies “cleansed” those places:


Constantinople map, patristics
Map of Constantinople in the Byzantine period, showing individual regions (Roman numerals) and the growth of the city from the Akropolis (dark) through the Constantinian (medium) and the Theodosian (light) expansions. From Sarah Bassett, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Constantinople (Cambridge: CUP, 2022), 34.

But you completed so great a vigil, and you cleansed the entire city by the stepping of your holy feet, having measured out the marketplace with your walking, and having made the air holy. For the air becomes holy from the singing of psalms, just as today you heard God saying to Moses, ‘The place where you are standing is holy ground’ (Exod 3:5). You sanctified the ground, the marketplace; you made our city a church.[8]


Chrysostom saw earthquakes as allies in his efforts at creating a Christian politeia, to “enchurch” the capital city by reestablishing just relations between rich and poor, among other things.[9] Because of the fear they provoked, earthquakes brought people together, shrinking, temporarily, the yawning gap between social classes that marked late antique urban life, which he often condemned.[10] The earthquake of 400 thus created a situation not unlike that of the apostolic community as recorded in the book of Acts. In a homily a year after the quake of 400, in the context of a discussion of the church in Acts, Chrysostom said,


If you remember how it was when God shook our city with an earthquake, how subdued all were. Such was the case with them. There was no deceit, no maliciousness then. This is the effect of fear, this is the effect of affliction! There was no talk of mine and yours then. Because of this, gladness waited at their table; it was as if no one ate of his own or another’s.... Nor did they consider anything to be their own; it belonged to the brethren. Hence, the poor person was not ashamed, and the rich person was not haughty.[11]


Chrysostom praised the earthquake of 400 because by prompting repentance, it brought an end, albeit briefly, to the social sins that provoked God’s wrath in the quake.


Repentance and the Harmony of the Natural World

St John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia, Patristics
St John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia

John Chrysostom appears convinced that ongoing collective sin (especially by the rich and powerful) was the cause of the earthquake, and equally convinced that collective repentance was a necessary and effective response. It must be admitted that the command to “Repent!” is a deeply unsatisfying response to questions that arise when natural disasters strike, especially questions raised by the victims of tragedy. However, it would be a mistake to read Chrysostom as espousing a simplistic “divine punishment theology” in which God inflicts disasters upon us because of our sins, like naughty boys and girls. Rather, he is saying something profound about the intimate relationship between the human person, the human community, and the harmony of the natural world.


St John, like the Hebrew prophets, preached that the disharmony of the natural world reflected a more primordial disharmony, both in the soul and in society. The prophet Amos wrote, “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end.... Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it?” (Amos 8:4, 8 [RSV]). For Chrysostom, it was not only the case that the original sin of Adam and Eve tainted the original harmony of the kosmos. It is also the case that ongoing sin—both within each person and between people—is mirrored in the outside world. Man is a microcosm, the kosmos in miniature, and the surrounding kosmos reflects the state of his soul.[12] Environmental instability, for Chrysostom, was pedagogical, teaching through its own disharmony that human beings ought not to exhibit such disharmony within and amongst themselves. The earth is both a site of blessing and a site of danger. As pedagogue, the earth is “mother and nurse for us”, but also “both homeland and tomb.”[13]


Just as the disharmony in and among human beings is reflected the earth’s convulsions, so also repentance and reconciliation portend, and mysteriously enact, its restoration to harmony. This is the idea underlying John Chrysostom’s profound confidence in the power of repentance to turn away the wrath of God and halt earthquakes. In this context, repentance, literally meaning “turning around” (metanoia) toward God once again, is not simply saying “sorry,” but is an act of cosmic reconciliation. In his homily after the earthquake, St John uses the Psalms as a script to show his listeners that earthquakes were not simply punishments but rather tools used by God to turn His people back toward Him. He depicts the sound of the earthquake as the voice of God: "I remain silent and the earthquake sends forth a voice more sonorous than a trumpet, saying this: ‘The Lord is compassionate and merciful, patient and rich in mercy’” (Psalm 102:8 [LXX]).[14] Speaking in first person as if in the voice of God in the quake, Chrysostom continues, “I was present, not in order to overwhelm you, but in order to strengthen you.”[15]


Anyone who has experienced a natural disaster knows the feeling of cosmic disharmony. One day the earth can hum in tune like a complex and delicate concerto, while the next day it becomes dissonant and cacophonous, signaling some deep disorder. After the earthquake of 400, St John Chrysostom made the argument that the responsibility for restoring cosmic harmony rests in the hands of a human utterance: singing psalms and hymns of repentance, and reconciling with one’s neighbor. Unlike today, when natural disasters appear to be signs of divine absence, for John Chrysostom, they were signs of divine presence: dangerous, wild, but in the end, merciful. God is with human beings, even in natural disasters, reaching out through the veil rent by sin, seeking the return of mankind to Himself and the reestablishment of a sustained harmony in the created order.


 

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Hexaemeron 2.2.

[2] See Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28 (Second Theological Oration); John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 10.32. Further, see Veronica Della Dora, Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 62.

[3] John Chrysostom, Homily after the Earthquake (=Terr. mot.) (PG 50:714). English translation, by Bryson Sewell here.

[4] Terr. mot. (PG 50:715), trans. Sewell.

[5] Terr. mot. (PG 50:714).

[6] Terr. mot. (PG 50:716), trans. Sewell. Emphasis added.

[7] Terr. mot. (PG 50:716), trans. Sewell.

[8] Terr. mot.(PG 50:714), trans. Sewell. Modified.

[9] See Blake Leyerle, “John Chrysostom and the Strategic Use of Fear,” in Social Control in Late Antiquity: The Violence of Small Worlds, ed. Kate Cooper and Jamie Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 173-187.

[10] See Wendy Mayer, “Poverty and Generosity towards the Poor in the Time of John Chrysostom,” in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, ed. Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 140-158.

[11] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Acts 7, 2 (PG 60.66). trans. NPNF, 47, modified.

[12] See Morwenna Ludlow, “Power and Dominion: Patristic Interpretations of Genesis 1,” in Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives David Horrell, ed. Cherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate and Francesca Stavrakopoulou (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 140-153.

[13] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 9.4; English translation in John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 119.

[14] Terr. Mot. (PG 50:714), trans. Sewell.

[15] Terr. mot. (PG 50:714), trans. Sewell.