November 15, 2009 - Olympias

The deaconess, Olympias (c. 368-408 A.D.), was pre-eminent among the friends of St. John Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantanople from 397 to 407 A.D.).

"In the great capital of the Eastern Empire, where the luxuriance and magnificence of the Orient combined with the keen, quick intellectual life of the Greeks; in the circle of the imperial court, with its intrigues, its fashions, its favoritisms; at a time when outwardly much respect was paid to the forms of religious life, but when the great and vital dogmas of the Church were made the sport of witty sophistical disputations; when those who endeavored to lead an earnest Christian life met with nearly as much to oppose them as in periods of active persecution; such were her [Olympia’s] environments.  They were little favorable to the strength of mind, the fixedness of purpose, the self-denial and Christian devotion that marked this noble deaconess.

"Born in 368 A.D. of a heathen family of rank, owing to her parents’ early death she was educated a Christian.  When she was 17, the Emperor Theodosius desired her to marry one of his kinsmen, but she refused, saying, ‘Had God designed me to lead a married life he would not have taken my husband; I will remain a widow.’ and shortly after she was consecrated a deaconess.  The emperor, angered at her refusal, took from her the use of her large fortune, and put it under the care of guardians until she should be 30 years old, whereupon she only thanked him for relieving her of the heavy responsibility of administering her estate, and begged him to add to his kindness by dividing it between the poor and the Church. year she married Nebridius, the prefect of the city, but after twenty months he died, leaving her at 18 years a widow, rich, beautiful, and free to decide her future.

"Shamed out of his anger, the Emperor soon restored her rights, and when Chrysostom came to Constantinople her lavish and often unwise generosity was felt in every direction, being compared to ‘a stream which flows to the end of the world.’  He reproved her unbounded liberality and advised her to administer alms as a wise steward who must render an account.  This counsel guided her into safer paths.  Finally, when Chrysostom was banished, by his advice she remained in the city, and became a support for his followers and those who had been dependent on him.  She met contemptuous treatment and persecutions, but continued her works of charity, and outlived the man whose mind and heart had so influenced hers by 11 years.  Chrysostom wrote her many letters, of which 17 are extant.  They plainly show the estimate he set upon the diaconate of women, and his endeavor to wisely cherish it."1


[1] Quotation from Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for America by Jane Marie Bancroft.