Born For Adversity: The Life of St. Olympia the Deaconess

Posted By on October 16, 2019


In Constantinople, in the fourth century,
a newly-widowed noble woman of enormous wealth found herself at a monumental crossroads. Either she could marry a wealthy suitor, arranged
for her by the Emperor himself, or dedicate her life to consecrated virginity, prayer,
and almsgiving. A conventional life of comfort or a prophetic
life of hardship and adversity. For Olympia, the decision was easy–she would
flee her life of wealth and luxury and devote herself wholeheartedly to her Heavenly Bridegroom,
Jesus Christ, spending the rest of her days distributing her wealth with great liberality
to the poor of the imperial city. Additionally, she would become the greatest
friend, confidante and spiritual child to the golden-mouthed or Chysostomos orator of
Constantinople, the Archbishop John. Little is known of the details of Olympia’s
life, yet her journey, however hidden, is bejeweled with the virtues of self-effacing
love and patient endurance. Born in 362 into a pagan family of the upper
aristocracy of Constantinople, Olympia’s parents died when she was young, leaving her
to the care of her uncle Ablabius and a governess Theodosia; both pious Christians, who raised
her in the love of Christ. She inherited an enormous fortune from her
paternal grandfather, who was a senator during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. Likewise, she received a great spiritual inheritance
from her uncle and governess, surrounded as they were by fellowship with pillars of the
Church such as Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory the Theologian. St. Gregory the Theologian, for example, took
great interest in Olympia after he arrived in Constantinople in 379 when, at the age
of 17, she became one of the great benefactors of the Church of the Anastasis where Gregory
preached his renowned orations against the Arians. Olympia sought the counsel of St. Gregory
of Nyssa concerning the Song of Songs, thus prompting him to write his acclaimed Commentary. In its prologue he greets “the most worthy
Olympias” by humbly deferring to her great spiritual stature: “I do not offer you anything
that would benefit your conduct, for I am persuaded that your soul’s eye is pure from
every passionate, unclean thought, and that it looks without hindrance at God’s grace
by means of these divine words of the Song. However, I hope that my commentary will be
a guide for the more fleshly-minded, since the wisdom hidden in the Song of Songs leads
to a spiritual state of the soul.” At the age of twenty one she married a man
of high rank named Nebridius, but their relationship ended suddenly, when he died soon after, leaving
Olympia as a young widow, alone in the world bearing the burden of an enormous family fortune. Olympia decided to devote herself to virginity
for Christ. Emperor Theodosius desired to marry her to
one of his relatives, but Olympia adamantly refused, expressing her wishes to devote herself
to consecrated celibacy. As a result, he threatened to take away her
inheritance until the time that she would either agree to marry his suitor or turn thirty
years old. He changed his mind, however, after hearing
her bold and unexpected response: “You have demonstrated toward my lowly person
a kindness most becoming an emperor and commendable in a bishop when you entrusted this great
burden, which has been my worry, to proper administration. You will do much better should you order it
to be distributed to the poor and the churches. I have been praying for quite a while that
i be set free from the embarrassment of vainglory, which would be mine if I distributed it to
charity. Let me not be so seduced by earthly things
as to lose the soul’s true riches.” From then on her life was dedicated to caring
for the poor, serving the Church as an ordained deaconess, and growing in her relationship
as spiritual child and confidante to the great John Chrysostom. Years before the Gold Mouth theologian would
come to Constantinople, however, Olympia established a monastery in a palace on one of her many
properties. There she directed 250 female monastics as
their abbess, modeling a life of extreme asceticism and fervent prayer to God. After she turned thirty years old, she was
ordained to the diaconate by Archbishop Nektarios, St. John Chrysostom’s predecessor, due to
her many virtues and in spite of the imperial and scriptural prohibitions against consecrated
widows under the age of 60. While the full extent of her duties as a deaconess
is not clear, it is known that she was tasked with tending to the needs of women as well
as for those who were bedridden or sick. Her anonymous biographer, writing only decades
after her repose, beautifully captures the entirety of her Christian devotion in the
following way: “She lived faultlessly in unmeasured tears
night and day, ‘submitting to every ordinance of man for the sake of the Lord,’ full of
every reverence, bowing before the saints, venerating the bishops, honoring the presbyters,
respecting the priests, welcoming the ascetics, being anxious for the virgins, supplying the
widows, raising the orphans, shielding the elderly, looking after the weak, having compassion
on sinners, guiding the lost, having pity on all, attending with all her heart to the
poor, catechizing many unbelieving women and making provision for all their material necessities
of life. Thus, she left a reputation for goodness throughout
her whole life which is ever to be remembered. Having called from slavery to freedom her
myriad household servants, she proclaimed them to be of equal honor as her own nobility.” And so, after the blessed John Chrysostom
took up residence in Constantinople in the year 398, it is no surprise that Olympia found
a spiritual friend, mentor, guide, and confidante in the great ascetic, preacher, and pastor
from Antioch, who was 13 years her senior. Among the many admirable qualities that Olympia
exhibited, St. John was most impressed by the strength of her resolve to never remarry,
which reminded him of his very own mother Anthousa, who chose the same path after losing
her husband. Olympia tended to the physical needs of her
beloved spiritual father during his time in Constantinople, and became his constant servant
and spiritual companion. But jealousy and human rivalries would soon
disrupt the sweet wine of friendship that was shared between them. John was uncanonically deposed at the Synod
of the Oak, which had been called and orchestrated by two of his bitterest antagonists, Bishop
Theophilus of Alexandria and Empress Eudoxia. The saintly pastor and teacher was sent into
exile following the meeting of bishops, but was recalled only after a few days due to
the Empresses’ fear of having punished such a powerful spiritual leader. He faced gruelling persecutions and pressure
from his opponents and many of the clergymen in the Great City who resented his personal
austerity and fiery preaching to reject the pleasures of this world and flee to Christ
for comfort and meaning. The matter came to a head when the Empress
Eudoxia ordered a silver statue of herself to be erected directly across from the Great
Church of Hagia Sophia. Shortly thereafter, on a feastday of St. John
the Baptist, Archbishop John proclaimed fearlessly “Again Herodias dances, again she calls
for the head of John,” pointing poetically towards the austentatious act of the Empress. This opposition paved the way for the Empress’
final expression of hatred towards the unpretentious preacher — his next and final exile in June
404 A.D. Many of the so-called ‘Johnites’ fiercely
protested this injustice, among whom was the devout deaconess and follower of St. John,
Olympia. Twice put on trial, Olympia exonerated herself
by proclaiming: “My past life ought to avert all suspicion of me, for I have devoted my
large inheritance to the restoration of the temples of God.” Despite her inner fortitude and desire to
follow Christ, Olympia was tempted by despair and despondency, which became the subject
of many of the letters that her beloved spiritual father wrote her from exile. In light of the persecution of St. John Chrysostom’s
supporters, Olympia fled Constantinople in 405 and settled in Nicomedia, dedicating herself
to charitable works, leaving her sisterhood to the care of her spiritual daughter, Marina. Two years later, the Golden Mouth died on
a forced march towards more remote exile in Asia Minor on September 14, 407. As if to bind herself to her beloved spiritual
mentor and confidante in a final act of solidarity, Olympia died only a year later in Nicomedia
on July 24. A great patristic scholar remarked that, of
the numerous correspondences that St. John carried out while in exile, “The longest
and most cordial are the seventeen communications which he wrote to the widow and deaconess
Olympias.” Born for adversity, and living in fellowship
with saints, Olympia is truly an icon of patient endurance, faithfulness, and loving loyalty. St. Olympia, servant of the Church and friend
of holiness, please pray to God for us.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 13 comments

  1. Blessed be God and All of His Angel's and All of His Saint's Amen.
    Thank you for this beautiful video. God Bless you and may He continue to guide and instruct you in making many more blessed videos for us sinners☦

    Reply
  2. Glory to the Universal Creator.
    Thank you for sharing this.
    God bless the down thumbing demoniac.
    ❤️✌️❤️

    Reply
  3. Please, keep making these videos about the lives of the saints!
    I`ve just started reading the Synaxarion, and your videos are a great help to the imagination

    Reply

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