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St. John Chrysostom and St. Olympias

Posted by Theology of Home on
St. John Chrysostom and St. Olympias

By Denise Trull

So, there is this attention grabbing middle aged woman whom I found tucked away into the pages of my saint book that shed a lovely light on today’s saint, John Chrysostom. I had never known of her existence before yesterday. She surfaced in a little essay called "Saint Who?" Her name: Saint Olympias, the widow. Perhaps you are thinking as I was thinking - sweet, unassuming, quiet, kind to the poor, trying to carry the cross of sadness perhaps.

Well, she was kind to the poor but she had to have some hutzpah because she was the best friend of St. John Chrysostom, the firey preacher, the choleric, bombastic saint of Constantinople whom we celebrate today. The saint who several times called out the Emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia for her, hmm, quite scandalous lifestyle. She, too, was probably a scary choleric and demanded her husband exile St. John more than once from the city. She was quite convincing - because he always did what she asked. There were a lot of wills clashing back and forth in this scenario. Cholerics. I DO love them. They get things done. But hoo boy they scare me, I'll be honest.

But St. Olympia wasn't scared. She truly loved St. John as a friend. And not only him! She counted St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Gregory of Nissa among her friend group as well. St. Gregory of Nissa even dedicated his Commentary on the Song of Songs to her. All three of these men were power houses of prayer, preaching, and intellect. But all three loved her dearly like sons for a mother. It's a lovely thing.

She was a widow, who came from great wealth and gave it all away to the poor. She lived in a convent with some other women and observed an "austere lifestyle". She only wanted to hear St. John preach and to have him near her to give her courage. That he did. And every time he was exiled, Olympia kept his work going in the city. She defended him staunchly to anyone who would detract his name. She probably missed his charisma terribly and his voice and his rock like presence but she carried on his work with the poor and prayed faithfully in her convent for his return. And when the emperor and his less than charming wife discovered her staunch  loyalty to John, they banished her as well. This older, faithful, prayerful woman of the iron will and the loyal love was sent to unspeakable suffering.

St. John did not forget her. As her father and friend he knew that under her bull dog-ish loyalty, she was tender hearted and perhaps frightened out of her wits. He wrote her seventeen beautiful letters before his own death. One line especially made me draw a little nearer to him (even though he be a choleric saint) because it is so tender, so kind, so filled with an understanding of suffering in others. He simply said to Olympias,

"My lady most beloved by God, do not give yourself over to the tyranny of despair. You are loved.”

That saints so put upon and exiled and treated so harshly - saints we think never were afraid in their entire lives -  also could find themselves so near the clutches of despair and were not afraid to own it. That is a deep humility for a choleric. St John confided it to Olympias, who probably died with that letter clutched in her hand, this quiet, brave, tried and true woman who counted firey saints among her friends.

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