The Women Who Helped Chrysostom
The Women Who Helped Chrysostom
Some time ago, I wrote about Olympias, a widow of noble birth who became one of John Chrysostom’s greatest supporters. But she was not alone. She lived in a community of women near the Great Church in Constantinople – in fact, only a wall separated their home from the bishop’s residence. Each of these women is worth of our attention.
We know some of them by name. Three sisters, Palladia, Elisanthia, and Martyria, were related to Olympias and, like her, were appointed deaconesses. When, after Chrysostom’s exile and death, Olympias was exiled, she left Marina in charge of the community. Later, Elisanthia took her place.
A noblewoman from Bithinia, Nicarete, joined the community after her husband died and after suffering an unjust confiscation of many of her goods. She devoted the rest of her property to help the poor. She is also remembered for healing many who would not be healed by conventional medicine. Apparently, she refused Chrysostom’s offer to appoint her as a deaconess.
When Chrysostom received the verdict that condemned him to exile, he called three of the deaconesses – Olympias, Pentadia, and Procla - as well as another woman, Salvina, to the baptistery, asked for their prayers, and instructed them to respect his successor, as long as he was properly elected and not seeking power. The women’s weeping at the news was so loud that Chrysostom asked a presbyter to escort them to their home, to avoid attacting the attention of the people outside.
Like Olympias, Salvina was both a widow and a noblewoman. Her father was Count Gildo, a Moorish governor of Africa. As was common at that time, Emperor Theodosius took Salvinia as hostage and married her to one of his relatives, Nebridius, to ensure Gildo’s loyalty. This measure didn’t work. In 397, Gildo rebelled against Rome and was killed one year later. After Nebridius died, Jerome wrote a long letter of instruction to Salvina (although he didn’t know her) reminding her of the Apostle Paul’s instructions to young widows.
We know even more about Pentadia, thanks to three letters that have survived from Chrysostom’s correspondence with her. She had been married to a Roman general named Flavius Timasius, who had been unjustly accused of treason by Eutropius, a power-thirsty officer who arranged for someone to give a false witness. Timasius was exiled in 396 to the Lybian desert, where he died. In the meantime, Eutropius turned against Pentadia, taking many of her properties and causing her to seek refuge in the Great Church.
After Chrysostom’s departure, Pentadia sent him a report of the events that followed. Although, as it is usually the case, we only have his answer to her, his long letter includes enough details to describe her situation.
Like Olympias, Pentadia had been harassed, arrested, dragged through the streets of the city, and imprisoned. At her trial, after the testimony of some false witnesses, some of her male associates were tortured in front of her to convince her to agree with the charge of arson that had been leveled against her. She continued to refuse. Eventually, like Olympias, she was freed.
Chrysostom’s letters to Pentadia show the great respect he had toward her. When she expressed her desire to leave Constantinople and join him in Cuscus, Armenia, where he was now in exile, he urged her to reconsider, since her presence in Constantinople was vital to the church. Besides, he was concerned about her health, which would be tried during long travels. Pentadia respected his wishes. In contrast, John’s aunt Sabiniana, also a respected deaconess, followed him in exile (with his surprise, given her old age).
A mention in a letter to Olympias of an important intervention by Pentadia in a matter of church discipline leads us to believe she had as many responsibilities as Olympias, although Chrysostom’s correspondence with Olympias has been better preserved.
Apart these Constantinopolitan women, there were many others throughout the empire who supported Chrysostom, as some of his letters attest. We find a Severina, a Romula, a Euthalia, an Onesicratia, an Adolia, a Carteria, a Chalcidia, and a Bassiana, as well as an unnamed woman, wife of Arabius, who procured an expensive medication to Chrysostom for his stomach problems.
The only reason we know about these women is because of some letters by Chrysostom which have been preserved. This is the case with other theologians, such as Jerome and Gregory I. But there are certainly many other women who have made invaluable contributions to the church, although they may never be remembered in this life.