As we all know from the Gospel, the law of God can be neatly summed up in the following two commandments: "Love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself," for "inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren," said the Lord, ye have done it unto Me" (Matt. 25:40).
In fulfilling this golden rule of Christian life, the women of the early Church were no less eager or zealous than the men. They took care of the poor and the sick, ministered to prisoners, aided the persecuted. Their modesty and good deeds contrasted sharply with the fancy clothes, parties and other amusements on which pagan women spent themselves. Among single women who elected to remain unmarried and widows without children--those not occupied with family responsibilities-were those chosen to be deaconesses, In addition to their charitable activities and under the guidance of bishops and priests, their special task was to prepare for baptism those women who were newly converted to the Christian faith, instructing them in the laws of the Church and in how to lead a Christian life.
In the fourth century there lived in Constantinople a deaconess of righteous life by the name of Olympiada. Hers was one of the most illustrious families of the capital. While still a young girl she was betrothed by her parents to a noble youth. But before the time came for them to give their marriage vows the fiance died. Olympiada decided to remain single and to devote her whole life and her sizeable inheritance to serving God and her neighbor.
Although still young and attractive, Olympiada was not drawn to the pleasures and luxuries of a worldly life. She disciplined herself to fast strictly, to wear plain--even poor--clothing; at the same time she was generous to the poor and sick, she financed the building of churches, supported hospitals, bought people out of slavery, and sent aid even to other countries.
A relative of Theodosius the Great who ruled the Eastern Empire at that time desired to marry Olympiada and asked the Emperor's support in the matter. But even the Emperor himself could not persuade Olympiada to agree to the proposal. Frustrated by her refusal, the suitor accused her before the Emperor of squandering her inheritance; the result was that her wealth was entrusted to an executor until Olympiada should reach the age of thirty. In his efforts to force Olympiada's consent, the executor exceeded the imperial decree; not only did he deprive Olympiada of the right to distribute her funds as she pleased but he restrained her personal freedom.
For a long time Olympiada bore with patience these vexations, regarding them as a trial sent by God to test her character. She did not complain about the personal grief she suffered, but she felt sorry for those poor people who were deprived of her help. Finally, she wrote a letter to the Emperor: "You granted me a favor, your honor, in freeing me from the burden of managing my estate; but may I request that you order the one to whom it has been entrusted to give it to the poor; you will thereby save me from vainglory."
Having read the letter, the Emperor decreed that Olympiada's inheritance be returned to her, and she recommenced her charitable activities. Her benevolence earned her great respect from all quarters. Patriarch Nectarius made her a deaconess, a responsibility she joyfully fulfilled.
Among Olympiada's close friends were the great hierarchs St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste and Epiphaniusof Cyprus. She was especially devoted to St. John Chrysostom on whose account she even suffered persecution.
Like so many, Olympiada was grieved by St. John's sentence of exile. In parting St. John called her and the other deaconesses and entreated them not to abandon their labors and to submit to the bishop assigned to replace him.
The night following St. John's departure there was a great fire in the cathedral which spread through the city. Enemies of the exiled hierarch blamed his followers for the conflagration, and Olympiada was among those brought to trial. Her good deeds spoke for her innocence, but she was nevertheless made to pay a stiff penalty. She continued to be harassed even after moving away from Constantinople, and she found herself exiled to Nicomedia. St. John, from his own place of exile in Nicea, consoled Olympiada with his active correspondence; he encouraged her to maintain a courageous spirit, not to give in to excessive grief, and to bear patiently her temporal misfortunes.
"Only one thing is really terrible, "he wrote, "and that is sin .... No matter how severe any misfortune might be, remember that none is everlasting; these exist only in relation to our mortal bodies; they do not affect the strong in spirit."
In another letter St. John commended Olympiada for bearing her trials peacefully, as a true Christian. He rejoiced that through her actions and her behavior she gave an inspiring example to both men and women, teaching them to prepare themselves with all courage for battle against the invisible foes.
"It's amazing," he continued. "You don't make speeches in the middle of the city; you simply sit in your little house; you sit in bed, sick; and nevertheless you marriage to give your visitors courage; you anoint them for warfare. The sea is so rough; the waves rise so high; everywhere there is danger of unseen rocks, abysses, fierce sea monsters. But you stand on the deck of your ship as if it were a clear day with a favorable wind. Unfurling the sails of patience, you glide along smoothy, peacefully. The harsh storm of contemporary events has no power to capsize you with its waves; even their spray does not reach you."
Olympiada reposed in Nicomedia. Her incorrupt relics were later transferred to
Constantinople and placed in the convent which the saint herself had founded.
(Translated from the collected Lives of Saints by A. Bakhmeteva; Moscow, 1872; slightly abridged)
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