John Chrysostom and Olympias – Finding Comfort in Troubled Times

John Chrysostom and Olympias – Finding Comfort in Troubled Times

            John Chrysostom was a favorite church father in the Protestant Reformation for many reasons: for his departure from the allegorical interpretation of Scriptures that was popular in his day, for his understanding of law and grace, and for his excellent preaching. John Calvin quoted him frequently, and Peter Martyr Vermigli considered him one of the greatest exegetes of the Patristic era. His oratory skills earned him the nickname Chrysostom (“Golden Mouth”).

            He was also one of those rare individuals who could be deeply concerned with the needs of those around them (including poverty and social inequality) while keeping his eyes fixed on heavenly realities. In his treatise On the Priesthood, he exhorted other preachers to do the same, fighting the common desire for fame and praise in order to point others to Christ as he is found in Scriptures.

            As most pastors, he kept a faithful correspondence with many. One of his closest correspondents was the deaconess Olympias, with whom he developed a relationship of mutual admiration and respect. His extant seventeen letters to her are an example of their reciprocal care in trying times.

Chrysostom’s Life

            Chrysostom was born in Antioch around the year 349. He was soon orphaned of his father and raised by a pious mother. He studied law and rhetoric under the renowned Libanius, teacher of other famous students, including Basil of Caesarea. He also studied theology under Diodorus of Tarsus, a strong promoter of a non-allegorical interpretation of the Bible.

            As many young people of his time, Chrysostom was attracted by the rigid lifestyle of early monasticism, but delayed the pursuit of it to take care of his aging mother. After her death in 373, he moved to the desert to live a radical ascetic lifestyle. He continued for six years, seriously damaging his health.

            When he returned to Antioch in 381, the local bishop, Flavian, had to practically nurse him back to health. Later, the bishop asked John to become one of his deacons. In 386, he ordained him priest and allowed him to assist him in preaching. From the start, Chrysostom demonstrated great speaking abilities. He also devoted much of his time to the care of the poor in the city.

            In 397, Emperor Arcadius called Chrysostom to become bishop of Constantinople – a prestigious position due to the importance of the city. He was consecrated by the begrudging Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, who had set his eyes on the same position.

            Besides preaching in the city, John endeavored to bring the gospel into the countryside. Deeply concerned about the sharp disparity between rich and poor, he issued sharp rebukes to those who hoarded riches, especially the clergy. His reproaches didn’t spare the nobility, including the women at court. Empress Eudoxia, Arcadius’s wife, took these reproofs as a personal offense, and goaded Theophilus to act against him.

            A trial against Chrysostom, known as Synod of the Oak, was held in 402 without his presence. The participants trumped up every accusation they could find against him, ending with his condemnation and a summon to him to apologize. When Chrysostom refused to recognized the validity of a synod that was composed exclusively of his enemies, the emperor had him deposed and exiled.

            Soon, however, a powerful earthquake shook the conscience of Eudoxia, who asked that the bishop be reinstated. Chrysostom’s return to the capital was met with great cheers by the crowds, prompting Theophilus to leave in a hurry for fear of retaliations.

            But Chrysostom was not about to soften his message. After opposing Euxodia’s order to erect a silver statue of herself near the city cathedral, he attacked her renewed fury against him by comparing her to Herodias, the biblical ruler who requested the beheading of John the Baptist.

He might have known what was coming, because he added, “Again she seeks to have John’s head on a platter.” This she did. Reuniting with Chrysostom’s enemies, she managed to get him exiled, first on the borders of Armenia, and later to the edge of the Black Sea.

            Chrysostom never made it to his second destination. On 14 September 407 he died of privations and exposure during the forced walk in a blizzard. Euxodia died soon after, and her son, Theodosius the Younger, allowed Chrystostom’s remains to return to Constantinople, where they were greeted by an acclaiming crowd.

Olympias’s Life

Olympias was born in a noble pagan family around 368. Her parents died when she was still young and she was brought up by her uncle Procopius and her governess Theodosia, both devout Christians. Procopius was a friend of Gregory of Nazianzus, who visited the family often and called the child “my Olympias.”

At age 16, Olympias married a young man named Nebridius. But the marriage only lasted two years. When Nebridius died, Olympia chose not to remarry, in spite of much pressure from Emperor Theodosius I to marry a relative of his, a young Spaniard named Elpidius. Irritated by Olympias’s refusal, he ordered her property to be confiscated until she turned 30.

Unmoved, Olympias thanked him for freeing her from any concern about her properties. Apparently, Theodosius cancelled his decree, but only after she had suffered some harassment by the prefect he had put in charge of her goods. Olympias then devoted her riches to the service of the church and the poor, so much that even Chrysostom, the great patron of the needy, told her not to overdo. This advice procured him some more animosity from bishops who were hoping to get some of Olympias’s wealth.

When Chrysostom was exiled from the city in 404, Olympias might have thought this measure was as temporary as his first expulsion. But this time he didn’t return, and his followers, including Olympias, suffered harsh persecution.

Around this time, a fire broke out in the Cathedral Church, burning it to the ground and spreading the adjacent Senate House. Olympias, who had founded an institution for pious women next to the church, was accused of arson. As a result, in 405 she left Constantinople, either voluntarily or by force.

These events cast Olympias into a deep depression that affected her health and caused her to long for death. Chrysostom wrote her several letters from his place of exile. Seventeen of these have survived.

Far from minimizing Olympias’s concerns, Chrysostom tells her that the situation is worse than she thinks. “For what is it which upsets your mind, and why are you sorrowful and dejected?” he asked. “Is it because of the fierce black storm which has overtaken the Church, enveloping all things in darkness as of a night without a moon, and is growing to a head every day, travailing to bring forth disastrous shipwrecks, and increasing the ruin of the world?”[1] Well, the picture is grimmer than that. The sea itself seems to be “upheaved from the very lowest depths,” and sailors and pilots are either dead or in despair, assaulted as they are by roaring billows and relentless sea-monsters. 

So, should Olympias join the chorus of despair? No, says Chrysostom. “When I look at these calamities, I do not abandon the hope of better things, considering as I do who the pilot is in all this — not one who gets the better of the storm by his art, but calms the raging waters by his rod. … For there is only one thing, Olympias, which is really terrible, only one real trial, and that is sin.”[2]

Every other problem and calamity is transitory. If it seems to last long, Chrysostom said, she should remember Paul’s teaching that “affliction works patience,” and that the patience, courage, and even cheerfulness God’s Spirit generates in her soul “are the prizes of affliction, even in this world, before the kingdom of heaven is won.”[3]

[1] John Chrysostom, Letters to Olympias, Trans. by W.R.W. Stephens. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 9. Ed. by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight., “To My Lady,” 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., “To Olympias,” last paragraph.


Simonetta Carr