Supping over Ashure, one of Turkey's most delicious puddings I realised how difficult St John Chrysostom must have had it. How could a man of God, used to ascetic living, charm the members of a Byzantine Court that took luxury, intrigue and luscious food for granted? Byzantium is alive and well here in Istanbul and you can taste it in the food: it is beautiful.
St John was an ascetic, not in the sense that he rejected the beautiful things of the world, but in the sense of not being dominated by those things in order to enjoy them properly. To a court wallowing in excess such subtleties are incomprehensible, but to the Saint they are the difference between the life of virtuous living and the life of gradual degradation. St John of the Cross in his teaching advises us to control our desires, not in the Buddhist sense in order to fall into what Chesterton saw as despair, but rather to appreciate what God has given without allowing it become a barrier to achieving what God has in store for us. Eden was an earthly paradise because man and woman had everything without being lost in it. When we fell and had to come out of Eden we seemed to throw ourselves into the fruits of the earth perhaps in order to forget the One who produced this fruit.
From his pulpit in the Constantinian basilica, St John took the Word of God and applied it to ordinary life and this was where he got into trouble. If he had been a holy man proclaiming lofty, mystical homilies, sermons so far from ordinary Byzantine lives then he would have been left in peace, perhaps even paraded around as the pearl of Constantinople, it's great living Saint. The court would have been left undisturbed because the teaching would have been too high for them. But John was no mystical fool. He took the mystical, the way of the Gospel and translated it down into ordinary life - he showed them how it could be lived and they were caught like rats in an alley. With nowhere to run, being unable to soak themselves in the honey of denial, they had to either convert, turn from their luxury, or silence the one who tormented their consciences. Their desire for the things of this world was too strong, their desire for the things of heaven too weak. Perhaps reassuring themselves that they were God's elect they decided they could dismiss the idealistic ascetic and get on with their supping rose water.
I believe the fall of Constantinople was the result of their high living, their refusal to heed the warnings of St John and the other Saints sent into their midst. By the time the Muslims arrived, Byzantium was jaded and folded beneath the crushing advance of men with more courage and determination, and perhaps God just stepped to one side to allow it happen. Perhaps, on a controversial note, the awful Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade saved our ancient Christian relics from being destroyed in the fall two centuries later. Who knows.
St John and his mission in Constantinople has lessons for us in the West. We Christians must take account of the Word of God, not as "nice teaching" but as an instrument of God which cuts more finely than a double edged sword; as a Person who died on the cross for us and now invites us into a deep relationship with him, not as just another relationship among others, but the one on which our very salvation literally depends. We can still enjoy the things this world has to offer, even rose scented Turkish puddings, but not to weaken our desire for God nor prevent us living the radical life of the Gospel. May St John Chrysostom assist us in this, pray for us, guide us and be standing at the gate of heaven calling out to us to keep coming closer for he, and many others, are waiting for us. There may well be Ashure in heaven, if so, it will taste even better.