St. John Chrysostom, Almsgiving, and Persons with Disability

by Ephrem Gall

St. John Chrysostom, having sought the face of God through the strictest forms of asceticism in the mountains near Antioch, only to find his health fail in the process, returned to the city. He rose through the deaconate of service to the poor to the priesthood, where his gift for preaching made him “the right hand man” of the archbishop. His faith and talents were noticed. Eventually he was chosen for the archbishop’s throne in Constantinople.

Among the vices which he encountered in the capital, St. John found that the many destitute persons of the city were being neglected or altogether ignored. He responded by delivering sermons that to this day remain among the most powerful expositions of the Christian faith. One of his major themes was the challenge to recognize Christ in the poor.

Many were brought to repentance, but St. John also made many powerful enemies, including the Empress. Eventually he was sent into exile. His fragile health failed on the way to a remote place of banishment. His life in this world ended on September 14, 407.

St. John usually worked his way through a book of Holy Scripture from beginning to end. In the latter part of each homily, he would apply the Scriptural content to an aspect of contemporary life. Two of his major subjects were, negatively, denunciations of time wasted on entertainment, especially the theater, which some preferred to Church services, and, positively, the encouragement of almsgiving, not only in the monetary sense, but the gift of time and attention to those in need.

It’s not difficult to relate his exhortations to those tempted by the allurements of popular culture. As to the other matter, the poor are still very much with us. So let us pay attention to his words on almsgiving.

While many of St. John’s exhortations encourage giving money to the destitute, one also finds passages in his sermons that bring out the deeper aspects of almsgiving, involving a more comprehensive approach to the support of those with special needs, such as persons with developmental disabilities.

Commenting on the text in First Corinthians: “Not many mighty, not many noble are chosen. Rather, God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise,” St. John says, “Persons of great insignificance are chosen to pull down boasting.” He warns the self-confident that it is faith that saves, not one’s reasoning ability. In fact, lines of reasoning can lead one into subtle traps away from God. “The Faith, received with trust, is a sure foundation. As the Lord says, we must become like a child.” And so the “insignificant,” simpler people are not objects of pity, but the bearers of a frame of mind that is essential for all of us to acquire.

As Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). St. John comments that jostling for position, vanity, and ambition are foreign to a childlike disposition. Children are generally uncomplicated and humble, and eager to be taught. St. John says the Lord means by “children” grown men and women who are “simple and lowly, and abject and contemptible in the judgment of the common sort.”

Those of us who work in group homes and other settings with persons having developmental disabilities can attest to the way that the simple, straightforward, and trustingly appreciative character of these people brings us down to earth. While there are irritations involved, in the end we receive, within ourselves, more than we give. Simply the words, “Good night, I love you,” repeated night after night, water a seed within our souls.

Persons with developmental disabilities typically exemplify, into their adult years, the childlike qualities Jesus calls for. They are icons by which these qualities may be learned. But often their simplicity is despised in the community, for cleverness serves to advance selfish ambitions that retain a fierce grip on the heart unless the cross and the Kingdom are seized “with violence.” Persons with developmental disabilities thus often suffer neglect to the detriment of their sense of belonging and their development, or socialization, and those who ignore and neglect them, unless they repent, face the judgment of God.

St. Paul, speaking of roles in the Body of Christ, writes, “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). In a homily on that text, St. John asks, “What in the body is more insignificant than a hair?” Yet the removal of eyelashes or eyebrows not only endangers the eyes, but endangers their function. Showing greater honor is urged toward weaker members, St. John says, so “that they might not meet with less care.” The result is “equal sympathy.” But these dynamics do not operate automatically; effort is needed.

The gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are a non-exhaustive list that shows the dimensions of almsgiving. St. John asks, in homily 32 on 1 Corinthians, “What is, ‘helps?’ … To support the weak … this too is a gift of God.” Helping, he says, must flow from real sympathy, which leads to a bond of charity and a thorough, mutual fervency between helper and helped, resulting in friendship.

Friendship Community residents in Millersville, Pennsylvania

Money sent to pan-Orthodox ministries is certainly almsgiving, but it cannot take the place of face-to-face involvement in one’s family, parish, and community. “By developing such bonds of hand and heart,” St. John says, “one becomes “a loving and merciful soul, a fountain for all his brethren’s needs.”

Day-to-day life and friendship with persons with developmental disabilities has its moments of mutual fervency and celebration – birthday parties are major events – as well as its stresses, but these stresses can ultimately be related to the Cross, through which “joy comes into all the world.”

The efforts that are made in a group home to honor all the successes which our friends with disabilities struggle to achieve in daily living provide a premonition of the disproportionate “eternal weight of glory” our Lord has promised to His faithful strugglers. In saying “Well done!” to the proper setting of a dinner table, we see the great Banquet of God coming into view. Frequent, sincere commendations of our friends as well as asking their forgiveness when we have misunderstood them have been key elements to the maintenance of our mutual fervency.

In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, St. John identifies the dealers of oil as the poor, and the oil is alms. He warns against wasting goods for “luxury and vainglory. For before Christ’s judgment seat you will have need of much oil … Let us contribute wealth, diligence, protection, and all things for our neighbor’s advantage. Nothing pleases God so much as to live for the common good.”

St. John refers to the parable of the sheep and the goats before Christ’s glorious throne of judgment (Matt. 25) as “this most delightful portion of Scripture, unto which we do not cease continually revolving.” He asks why brethren would be called “least,” and responds that “the lowly, the poor, and the outcast” are the sort that the Lord most greatly desires to “invite to brotherhood.” The Lord’s way of valuing people is contrary to what is typical in human society.

In his homily on St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, St. John Chrysostom asks whether his hearers would rather take part in a sumptuous banquet with the rich and famous or enjoy a simple meal with the poor and those with disabilities. He gives his reasons for choosing the latter. I encourage you to find and read that homily in its entirety, to discover his entire answer and to enjoy a full meal of St. John’s golden words. (“Chrysostom” means golden-mouthed.)

Almsgiving affects one’s personal transformation as well. St. John says, “There is no sin, which alms cannot cleanse; it is a medicine adapted to every wound.” Genuine, sympathetic almsgiving heals the giver as well as the receiver. He also says, “Let us hold fast to Mercy: she is the teacher of that higher Wisdom.”

He explains that habitual attention to suffering leads to being able to bear slights, and finally, to the love of enemies. “Let us learn to feel for the ills our neighbors suffer, and we shall learn to endure the ills they inflict.” Contributing to the full socialization of others, including persons with developmental disabilities, leads to one’s own transformation into the likeness of the Lord Jesus. (Homilies 14 and 25 on the Acts of the Apostles)

St. John Chrysostom exhorts us all:

If you ever wish to associate with someone, make sure that you do not give your attention to those who enjoy health and wealth and fame as the world sees it, but take care of those in affliction, in critical circumstances, who are utterly deserted and enjoy no consolation. Put a high value on associating with these, for from them you shall receive much profit, and you will do all for the glory of God. God Himself has said: I am the father of orphans and the protector of widows [Ps. 67:6]. (Baptismal Instructions, 6.12; Paulist Press, 1963)

There is much in St. John Chrysostom’s words for us to reflect upon. He expresses an Orthodox Christianity that is robust and compassionate. A fuller study of his exhortations reveals a standard of personal commitment, relinquishment, and community that has monastic roots. Yet, while he could be thunderous in his denunciations, he often gently gave suggestions on how to approximate the narrow way he held high, such as recommending a simple, no-frills lifestyle focused on generosity, and the monastic life for those who are able to accept that calling. Much more could be said on his practical exhortations to married couples and families. See St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

We are all disabled in some way, by sin and in our weaknesses, which mercifully drive us from narcissism to community. And we all have a special intelligence given to us by God to contribute to the community. As we discern our communion in the Body of Christ, let us remember this aspect as well.

Ephrem and his wife Margaret are house parents of a Friendship Community group home for persons with developmental disabilities in Millersville, Pennsylvania. They are also members of St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church in York, where they were chrismated in 2000. Ephrem has written a thesis for the Antiochian House of Studies, “St. John Chrysostom and the Socialization of Persons with Developmental Disabilities,” which is available on the “About” section of the web log “Arms Open Wide: Orthodox Christian Disability Resources” (http://armsopenwide.wordpress.com). A good resource on St. John Chrysostom’s life and writings is found online at www.chrysostom.org/life.html.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47