July 25, 2023

Saint Olympia the Deaconess

 Archimandrite Elias Mastrogiannopoulos

Seventeen whole centuries separate us from the bright figure of a forgotten social worker, who lived and worked in Byzantium at the end of the 4th century. And yet Olympia, although she is so far removed from us, presents an extraordinary interest for modern social people. This wonderful figure is the glory of the body of "deaconesses".

Many of her contemporaries and later historians dealt with the life and actions of Olympia. And everyone mentions her next to John Chrysostom, who stood by her as a father and guide, in glory and in pain. But was she not also an advisor and support and partner of the great man in his difficult and rough work? This is why her work can only be understood when studied within the context of close collaboration with Chrysostom. After all, perhaps this collaboration, which came from a deeper psychic similarity of those two wonderful souls, is also the secret of the greatness and glory of Olympia. A look at her life, first, will help us delve further into her personality and work.

Olympia was born around 370 to pagan parents. Her family was aristocratic. The father was a count of the Roman Empire. The education she was given could only be commensurate with her wealth and social status. But the orphanhood that came prematurely to overshadow her childhood was the prelude to the long chain of sorrows, which were to become her inseparable life companion. Her uncle Prokopios, who now took care of her, was a friend of Gregory of Nazianzus.

Little Olympia liked to call Gregory "father" while he was in Constantinople. The paternal love of Gregory for Olympia also explains the poem he later dedicated to her at her wedding. Olympias' marriage to Nevridius, a young man of high social status, before two years have even passed, plunges her into new mourning with his untimely death. Before long, proposals for a second marriage literally besiege the new widow.

Emperor Theodosius put tremendous pressure on her, wanting to force her to marry his relative Elpidios. But Olympia steadfastly refused. She considered her early widowhood to be a divine calling and decided to dedicate her life to the service of God and society. But the pressure of the emperor did not subside. His cruelty reached such a point that he ordered the confiscation of her great fortune. Olympias' reply to Theodosius is a letter of "dignified sarcasm." The confiscation of the colossal property was followed by other restrictions. Elpidios, in order to force her to accept him as her husband, deprived her of her sweetest occupation: he forbids her to go to church. But what can external coercion and pressure achieve in a soul unbound, in a heart aflame with love? Spirit conquers matter and love conquers violence. The emperor, finally ashamed of his tyrannical behavior, revoked his order and Olympias' property is once again in her hands. Now Olympia was free to regulate her life as she wants. She had all the external and internal conditions for a life of joy and therefore she gladly devotes it to the works of love. With the joy of one who knows what she believes and what she seeks. Henceforth the life of the faithful widow is a life dedicated "to love that believes and to faith that loves."

She offered her enormous wealth (gold, silver, estates, mansions) to the Church. At the age of thirty, she was ordained a deaconess by Chrysostom's predecessor on the patriarchal throne of Constantinople, Nektarios, and thus she joined an organized group, she voluntarily joined the army of women of love. 250 devoted Christian women were at her command.

Meanwhile, John Chrysostom ascended the patriarchal throne. Olympia becomes his right hand. But it didn't take long for harsh wolves to scatter both shepherd and sheep. The persecutions and the exile, the various sufferings of the great Hierarch were shared by her from afar and her sensitive feminine heart was literally torn apart. She was slandered, dragged to the courts with the heavy accusation that she is guilty of the fire at the Basilica of Hagia Sophia. In the most rigorous interrogation that took place, her calm courage and the biting irony in her answers amazed everyone.

But the moral pains and the bleeding of the heart were not enough. Serious illness also came, to ally with the other sufferings, with the heavy fine that was imposed on her and with the persecutions from place to place, which slowly and steadily emptied the glass of her life with bitterness. She too had to taste the sufferings of exile like her teacher for such a trivial reason: because she did not want to communicate with the unworthy bishop Arsakios.

It is not known how many years after the death of Chrysostom that Olympias lived, nor do we know the exact date of her death. But it seems that she was certainly alive when Palladius wrote (408 AD) the well-known dialogue about John Chrysostom.

Courage, heroic patience, education, are three of the spiritual pearls that adorn the "manly woman", as Palladius calls her. None of those who judge rightly find fault with her. Amidst the pain that accompanied her from childhood to the grave, Olympia unfolded her great stature. It is distinguished by moral superiority and dignity, nobility of soul, stability, simplicity, the spirit of sacrifice and heroism. Which of these priceless ornaments should one first admire? "I know the kindness of your thoughts," her respected teacher assured her. He did not bend even in the face of the threats and pressures of the strongest person of the Roman Empire, the emperor. With dignity he scorned judges and mighty men of the earth, and respected a young thin widow.

And these in an era of unspeakable luxury within the Queen City and by a lady of the upper aristocracy! But precisely this lady stands out from all her contemporaries and peers, because she was not worn out by her wealth and her external qualities, but cultivated and enriched her psychic treasure. And that is precisely why she did such a great work, which it is time to look at.

It is true, it is difficult to present a work of benevolence and love, when it has been done by a person who does it invisibly and with the motto "let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing". And it is certain that this presentation will fall far short of reality.

At the great station of her life, at the critical moment when her big decisions are formed for a life completely dedicated, she immediately decongested the unnecessary things she had in her house. Now her house had another destination: it was going to become a spiritual center, a hospitality center, which would unite East and West and would provide free housing to the Christians who flocked to Constantinople from all over the Christian world.

But was it only hospitality, such a fitting virtue, for the Christian woman? There were also so many other manifestations of the multifaceted selfless love that make the Christian heart of the woman contain the whole world. But where the ingenuity of Olympias' love exceeded all limits, it was in the care for Chrysostom. What did not the kind deaconess contrive, to relieve him!

But Olympia did not spread her wealth only in Constantinople to those in need. The radiation of her love reached distant and desolate countries, as far as the ends of the Roman Empire. And she used as an instrument in the holy ministry of love, the golden-mouthed preacher of love, Chrysostom, in the place of his martyric exile.

And it was not only the feeding of the hungry, the visiting of the sick and the thousand and two acts of charity that were Olympia's unique occupation. She had other difficult and responsible duties: and it is true that it is said that Olympias was the support of the Queen City. John Chrysostom's predecessor on the patriarchal throne, Nektarios, had Olympia as his adviser on ecclesiastical matters no less than Chrysostom himself. And thus she became an adviser to the one who held the first ecclesiastical throne of the East. Such was her prudence and judgment! But also when the terrible storm came to cast out the loving shepherd to the mountains of Armenia, then Olympia remained faithful to the offer of her valuable services. According to the instructions she gives her in his long letters, Olympia took care of the settlement of serious issues of the Church. She never thought she had done anything great.

How many superhuman actions did she not perform to save the respected Hierarch from exile! To "leave no stone unturned" to bring him back, or, at least, to improve his living conditions. Futile efforts increased the pain and tore the steel-willed woman's heart. And one admires, in the letters, these immortal masterpieces of Christian literature, the admiration of the great father before the moral greatness of Olympia. He comforted her and at the same time sings her praises. "I know the nerves of your philosophical soul", he wrote to her, that as the sorrows and persecutions grew, so they became more intense and the psychic endurance grew, strengthened by the words of prayer, which are a distillation of the words of the Bible, where "the God of all prayer" has treasured them.

And when the heroic shepherd succumbed to unimaginable hardships and passed from this life to the life of eternity, Olympia still remained to spread joy to the suffering, which she felt so deeply! She continues the life of offering at the altar of love and foreshadowed from this world the joy of heaven.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.


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