Photo: nyblago.org St. Olympias was born into a prominent family of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Her father was a senator, her mother, the daughter of a prefect of the praetorium. In her youth, she was engaged to the prefect of the capital. Holy Hierarch St. Gregory the Theologian (389), who was invited to the wedding, begged forgiveness for not being able to attend the family celebration, and addressed a “paternal counsel,” which he himself called a “kind gift,” to the young bride. Holy Hierarch St. Gregory advised, “Honor first God, and then your spouse—the eye of your life, director of your intentions. Love him alone, bring joy to his heart alone; moreover, the more tenderly he nurtures love for you, [the more] preserve an unbreakable dedication with bonds of unanimity. Do not allow yourself such license as love for a husband calls, but only that which is proper…. When the husband is irritated, make concessions to him, and when he is tired, help him with tender words and good counsel... No matter how annoyed you might be, never reproach your spouse over suffering a loss, for he is himself the best acquisition for you… Consider all of your husband’s joys and sorrows to be yours in common. Let your concerns be in common as well, for the house grows larger as a result. Be extremely wise, but not extremely clever...” St. Olympias was married for only 20 months. Becoming a widow, she resolutely refused to enter into a second marriage, taking heed neither of persuasions nor threats made by Emperor Theodosius the Great, who wanted to have her married to a relative, a young aristocrat. Her refusal angered the Emperor, who ordered the prefect of the capital to sequester her entire estate – to limit her use of her resources until the age of thirty. St. Olympias calmly accepted that illegal action. Moreover, she wrote to the Emperor, “Sovereign! You have shown me mercy worthy not only of a sovereign but also of a bishop; I have been liberated from the many concerns of caring for an estate. To grant me greater joy, deign to order that it all be distributed to the churches and the poor. I have long feared propensities toward vanity, which so easily come forth when giving away possessions. It may well be that transitory good things might have been able to estrange my heart from true good things, those which are spiritual and eternal.” Theodosius realized his error, and ordered that Olympias’ estate be returned to her. From then on, she generously performed acts of charity to benefit monasteries, churches, those incarcerated in prisons, those in exile, prisoners of war, and all those in need. Bishop Palladios wrote about this as “her spiritual, true friend,” as an eyewitness: “She gave away her extremely great wealth, and simply helped everyone, without distinction. Neither cities, nor villages, nor deserts, nor islands, nor distant lands were bereft of this marvelous maiden’s generosity... [who] distributed her alms throughout Creation.”
Archbishop Nectarios of Constantinople (St. John Chrysostom’s predecessor) raised St. Olympias to the rank of Deaconess… The duties of a deaconess encompassed caring for suffering, unfortunate women, teaching them the Law of God, and assisting during the performance of the Holy Mysteries over them… St. Olympias set a good example in all those areas.
As soon as Holy Hierarch St. John Chrysostom was elevated to the episcopal throne of Constantinople, St. Olympias became his closest spiritual friend. Therefore, as soon as the storm of misfortunes broke upon the Holy Hierarch, his enemies rose up against her as well, slanderously accusing her of various transgressions. Although it was patently obvious that the accusations were false (e.g. she was accused of setting fire to the Church of the Holy Wisdom—an accusation against someone who had built a number of churches with her own resources) she was dragged through the courts, causing her no little suffering, making her fall ill. Both she and Holy Hierarch St. John Chrysostom were banished from Constantinople. She died in exile in the year 410, soon after the death of her great spiritual director, St. John (407)... The Holy Hierarch of Constantinople both lamented and rhapsodized, “What words would suffice, what stories would have to be told, to recount what you suffered from your childhood to the present: what you suffered at the hands of the people of your household, friends, enemies, relatives and non-relatives alike, public officials and private individuals, and members of the clergy? After all, one could turn the account of any one of those sufferings into an entire history…. In fact, they never stopped inflicting various types of physical ills upon you; pains far worse than myriad ways of inflicting death; countless insults, invectives, and slanders never ceased to be visited upon you.”
Olympias’ holy life was a source of comfort and joy for many and a model for emulation by those seeking after eternal good things. Holy Hierarch Palladios, Bishop of Helenopolis wrote about her, “A life without vanity, a frank appearance, true good morals, a face showing its true colors without embellishment, an exhausted body, a modest intellect, alien to haughty argument, a tranquil heart, unflagging vigilance, love beyond measure, immense, unbounded charitable kindness, poor clothing, incalculable abstinence, purpose, striving toward God, eternal hopes, inexpressible works of kindness and charity. Such were her adornments.”
Parish Life, August 2020
Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Washington, DC