When discussing the great Church Fathers, names like the three Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) come to mind, as do John Chrysostom, and Augustine. However, in most cases, we truly have forgotten their mothers: Emmelia, who we just considered; Nonna, the mother of Gregory of Nazianzus; Anthusa, the mother of John Chrysostom; and Monica, the mother of Augustine. It is to this lost tradition that we now turn our attention.
Anthusa: Lamenting Loss, Gripping Grace
Endeared as one of the four great doctors of the Church, John Chrysostom was born in 347 AD in Antioch, Syria and was prepared for a career in law under the renowned Libanius, who marveled at his pupil’s eloquence and foresaw a brilliant career for him as statesman and lawgiver. But John decided, after he had been baptized at the age of twenty-three, to abandon law in favour of service to Christ. In his renowned pulpit ministry, he emerged as “Golden Mouth,” a preacher whose oratorical excellence gained him a reputation throughout the Christian world.
Unfortunately, we know little about John’s upbringing and even less about his mother, Anthusa. What we do know should resonate with every woman who has ever been left bereft of a husband.
Anthusa repeated her story of widowhood to her son when he planned to leave home at age twenty to share a residence with his best friend, Basil. John recounts the scene.
“But the continual lamentations of my mother hindered me from granting him the favor, or rather from receiving this boon at his hands. For when she perceived that I was meditating this step, she took me into her own private chamber, and, sitting near me on the bed where she had given birth to me, she shed torrents of tears, to which she added words yet more pitiable than her weeping, in the following lamentable strain.”[i]
An Emotional EKG
Anthusa then shared and bared her soul.
“My child, it was not the will of Heaven that I should long enjoy the benefit of thy father’s virtue. For his death soon followed the pangs which I endured at thy birth, leaving thee an orphan and me a widow before my time to face all the horrors of widowhood, which only those who have experienced them can fairly understand. For no words are adequate to describe the tempest-tossed condition of a young woman who, having but lately left her paternal home . . . is suddenly racked by an overwhelming sorrow, and compelled to support a load of care too great for her age . . .”[ii]
Though distressing, in many ways hearing Anthusa’s candor is refreshing. Sometimes we have the false impression that the “saints of old” sailed through life’s sorrows without a single word of complaint or even a blip on their emotional EKG. Anthusa reminds us that this is fictitious. She also modeled for us the great Old Testament tradition of lamentation, which is so vital in the sustaining process.
Grace from Above
Anthusa offered insight into the healing process as she shared with her son how she survived and eventually thrived.
“None of these things, however, induced me to enter into a second marriage, or introduce a second husband into thy father’s house: but I held on as I was, in the midst of the storm and uproar, and did not shun the iron furnace of widowhood. My foremost help indeed was the grace from above.”[iii]
In the midst of the storm and uproar, our foremost healing help is always grace from above.