Title: Sing to Your Soul: Selected Passages by St. John Chrysostom, Vols. 1–3, translated by David C. Ford
Published by:St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press (2020, 2021, 2023)
ISBN: 979-8-9867879-2-3, 979-8-9867879-3-0, 978-1-7361723-7-7
Pages: xv +156, 146, 227
It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Saint John Chrysostom on the lives of lay English-speaking Orthodox Christians today. Much of Saint John’s enormous corpus has been translated into English over the past one hundred years and made available to both scholars and non-scholars. It is my observation that more than any other Church Father, Saint John’s words have been embraced within parish and family life today. In addition to hearing his Paschal Homily every year and what are probably his anaphora prayers during every eponymous liturgy, we now have his homilies, letters, and treatises excerpted in church bulletins, referenced from the pulpit, cited in the welcome pamphlets in the narthex, and spread across the bookstore for perusal at coffee hour. Just as it would be hard to overestimate Saint John’s influence on parish life today, it would also be hard to overestimate the contribution Dr. David C. Ford has made to this phenomenon, both in his scholarship and translation work.
Ford’s dissertation was focused on Saint John and later fashioned into Women and Men in the Early Church: The Vision of Saint John Chrysostom (St. Tikhon’s, 2017), which was a welcome antidote to some scholars who wished to summarily dismiss Saint John as a misogynist. Ford also translated all of Saint John’s extant letters written in the final days of his life to one of his closest friends, Deaconess Olympia: Saint John Chrysostom: Letters to Saint Olympia (St. Vladimir’s, 2017). It is from those letters that the title for the series at hand comes; Saint John wrote to Deaconess Olympia: “Therefore, meditating on all these things continually, sing to your soul and you will be able to scatter this dust” (Letter Eight). The Sing to Your Soul series is comprised of three parts: Volume One: The Narrative of Salvation History, Volume Two: Our Life in the Church, and Volume 3: On Daily Christian Living.
All three volumes are comprised of passages from Saint John selected and translated by Ford and organized into thematic groupings. For example, Volume 3: On Daily Christian Living includes Saint John excerpts collated into such themes as: “Living a Life of Virtue,” “On Repentance,” and “Joy.” Ford explains in the Introduction in Volume One that while reading Saint John in preparation for writing his dissertation, he made notations inside each volume’s front cover of the passages that were striking to him, grouped by topic. To these notes he returned when designing the Sing to Your Soul series. Student and young scholars take note: this is an excellent way to interact with a text and will serve you for years to come.
Sing to Your Soul is a valuable series for many readers. Saint John Chrysostom was one of our most prolific saints; his corpus of written or recorded (such as his homilies that were written down by transcribers) works is enormous. Also, while Saint John often wrote or spoke on one topic (such as a passage from scripture), he was famously discursive and covered a great deal of ground. Thus, Ford has done us a favor with his manageably sized thematic groupings. For example, if one wishes to get a sense of Saint John’s thinking about Christ’s Ascension, one can go to that section in Volume One and find selections from three of Saint John’s homilies. This selection and organization will be helpful for everyone — pious laypeople wishing to better know the Church Fathers, priests and deacons preparing homilies, and scholars.
My insufficient Greek does not allow me to comment on the quality of the translation, so I will leave that assessment to others, but the English prose is lucid and accessible in the best sense of the word. We get a real sense of encounter with the “Golden-mouthed,” whose personal piety and zeal are present on every page. As I read these volumes, I was pleasantly reminded of Saint John’s conviction of the goodness of creation (e.g., Vol 1, 17–21 and 143–144; Vol 2, 33–37) and his strong words on the importance of unity in the church body (e.g., Vol 2, 1–2), which are especially poignant in this day and age when it is getting hard to accurately speak of one Orthodox Church. Awake last night, I thought of Saint John’s encouragement to understand nighttime prayer as a “spiritual forge” that I can use for the fashioning of my own soul (Vol 3, 63).
In addition to the excerpted writings of Saint John, Ford offers an introduction to the series in its first volume. In it, Ford rightly states that Saint John of the fourth century has a great deal to offer us here in the twenty-first. I share the opinion of Saint John’s ongoing relevance—his understanding of human proclivities alone is profound—but perhaps not to the same degree as Ford. I understand the phronema of the Church that Ford points to in Saint John and admonishes us to heed (Vol 1, 7–8) as not a static ethos but as an ongoing development of the mind of the church, which was given its foundation by such figures as Saint John and continues to be formed by the faithful of every age. I would even go so far as to say that the Orthodox Church’s phronema will not be fully developed until the voices forming it are not predominantly male voices. All this is to say that Ford may overestimate the relevance of Saint John for today, particularly for conversations about sex differentiation and gender. The one other shortcoming was the lack of an index. It would have been interesting to have an overview of which of Saint John’s writings were excerpted within the different thematic sections of Ford’s volumes.
None of this diminishes the gift that is the Sing to Your Soul series. Ford does a great service by collecting, translating, and collating so much of Saint John’s work into these three attractive volumes. I have no doubt that the words of Saint John Chrysostom will continue to “sing to our souls” for many generations, and David C. Ford is to be thanked for that.
Carrie Frederick Frost